The Hero of Heroes: Marduk vs. Tiamat & The Significance of Speech

“A problem well put is half-solved.”

John Dewey (1859 – 1952)

An Invisible World

In my last post, I bring up the idea of analyzing hero myths for commonalities in order to find traits that would bring us success in any pursuit we choose.

What a mouthful.

I specifically brought up The Osiris Myth and how that story illustrates the power of attention. This post is going to focus on another powerful aspect of the hero of heroes, speech.

Similar to attention, speech is highly overlooked.

In Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, renowned Israeli historian, Yuval Noah Harari, provides a beautiful timeline of history. It starts from matter and energy appearing marking the dawn of physics and takes us all the way to the present and into a potential future. In this timeline, we see different human species appear and either evolve or die out. Obviously, we know how this story ends. Us, the homo sapiens, end up dominating the planet.

But why? What makes homo sapiens the dominant human species?

Harari argues that is it our unique ability to communicate through complex language. Homo sapiens were the only human species that were capable of communicating on a massive scale. That gives us a huge advantage over the other species. That combined with our unprecedented cognitive abilities makes us the most powerful creatures on earth.

Everything we do on this planet is created by us and our ability to communicate through complex language. Yuval talks about this idea of human beings living in two worlds simultaneously; the real tangible world and the “imaginary” world of conversation. I like to think of this “imaginary” world as the world of conversation, speech, or logos rather than “imaginary.” Referring to this world as imaginary carries implications that it’s not real. If anything, the world of conversation is more real than the tangible world.

From my experience and observations, unless overridden by conscious free will, the human being primarily lives in the world of conversation. We experience our lives as a narrative, a conversation, but we also create things external to us in that conversational world.

Let me explain using businesses as an example.

Businesses in society are not physical entities, but a conversation we are having with one another.

In Sapiens, Harari brings up Google to illustrate this point. If we were to destroy the Google headquarters, would Google disappear? No, it wouldn’t because we could rebuild it.

If we replaced all the people who worked for Google with a whole new batch of people, would Google disappear? No, not really. It might be a different company, but it could still very well be Google as we know it.

This little thought experiment is fun because it highlights the fallacies in thinking that we live in a purely physical and tangible world. Google exists in the world of conversation and because of that, we could destroy the things that represent Google in the real world, and Google could still exist.

I argue that the conversations that we’re apart of matters much more than where we are in the physical world. I’ve seen happy people in terrible places and I’ve seen miserable people in beautiful places. What determines their happiness or misery is the conversation they’re in.

People live in conversations.

Businesses are conversations. Relationships are conversations. Jobs are conversations.

Sometimes we add tangible symbols to keep the conversation boundaries clear in the physical world. We see this in things like wedding rings or uniforms. Nothing changes physically when someone gets married, but we all understand that there’s still a huge transformation that takes place. When someone changes from fiance to wife or husband, there’s a transformation in the conversation & the way we act changes along with that conversation. We symbolize that change in the physical world with wedding rings, marriage certificates, and other things.

When my girlfriend and I first started dating, nothing changed physically, but we started changing how we behaved because things have changed in the world of conversation.

The same thing happened when I became an EMT. Nothing changed physically, except maybe a few neural pathways. I was physically the same person, but the conversation I participated in was different.

We create the world with our language. Change the conversation, change the world.

I know this idea seems a little extreme, but it seems like the Mesopotamians understood this as well.

Speech

Tiamat and Marduk

This story depicts how the Mesopotamians believed the world came to be and the origins of the first men. It’s one of the oldest stories known to man and it is filled to the brim with powerful and timeless lessons. I’ll be interjecting with some analysis in italics throughout the story.

It begins with Tiamat, the goddess of saltwater, and Apsu, the god of freshwater coming together in the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to create the world, Mesopotamia.

Tiamat is more than just the goddess of saltwater, she is also the mother of everything and the goddess of Chaos. Together, Tiamat and Apsu populated Mesopotamia with young gods.

Chaos & Order. The Anima & Animus. Tiamat & Apsu

Tiamat is the archetypical representation of the anima. She is the chaos from which life springs and Apsu is the penetrative decisive force necessary to keep them alive. In some ways, Apsu is the archetypical old wise king, the positive masculine, and the animus.

There are also representations of Tiamat and Apsu drawn as serpents wrapped around each other and look eerily similar to DNA. How the Mesopotamians knew that is way beyond me.

As time goes on, the young gods become troublesome and begin to act recklessly. One night, the young gods disturb Apsu while he’s sleeping. In his frustration, Apsu tells Tiamat that they need to destroy the younger gods because they weren’t acting properly. Tiamat disagrees with Apsu and urges to protect the young gods, but it was too late. Ea, (a god of knowledge, mischief, and sweet water) discovered Apsu’s plan to destroy the young gods and sends him into an eternal sleep, death.

Naturally, the younger generations start acting in ways that the judgemental farther (animus archetype) does not approve of. Apsu doesn’t believe his creations are bringing order to the chaos, judges them accordingly, and wants to destroy them as a result. Not surprising considering that the animus archetype either protects or destroys. Of course, like any good mother, Tiamat strives to protect her children (a hallmark anima trait) but in the end, the young gods end up destroying Apsu, the order of the old.

Younger generations are constantly looking to understand the world around them and older generations are constantly working to give them answers. The issue arises when the younger generation doesn’t see the value in the old ways. Perhaps the old ways of doing things are outdated and need to be changed. Perhaps the new ways of doing things aren’t the best and the young people who practice these methods are doomed to repeat mistakes of the past. Either way, there is a mismatch between the young and old and it almost always results in the young destroying the old ways.

So what happens when we destroy what our predecessors have given us?

Chaos reigns.

Tiamat hears of Apsu’s death and is furious. She creates an army of monsters to destroy the young gods in retribution for the death of Apsu. She places Qingu, one of the few gods she trusts, as head of the army and gives him the Tablet of Destinies to wear as a breastplate. The Tablet of Destinies was the story of the world and what was written on the tablet is what happened. Because of this, the tablet gave Qingu immense power.

Tiamat’s rage echos themes of flood myths that can be found all over the world. In most cultures, you can find a myth of a great flood wiping out the world. In this story, Tiamat doesn’t necessarily drown the world but she is the goddess of chaos and saltwater and her will is to destroy the world because it has become too corrupt.

The young gods are terrified of Tiamat’s wrath and know that they cannot defeat her despite their powers, so they elect a champion, Marduk, to fight on their behalf. Marduk had eyes all around his head and could speak magic words. He was the only god who was brave and strong enough to take on this battle. He made a deal with the younger gods and told them that if he defeated Tiamat, then they must make him king of the gods and give him the Tablet of Destinies.

Marduk, the hero of the gods, the only opportunity to overcome chaos, harnesses the power of attention and speech.

I think this idea is so powerful. The only way we can have a fighting chance to triumph over chaos is through our attention and speech.

Also, the younger gods are also willing to give him the Tablet of Destinies if he can defeat chaos. How cool? The hero that uses their powers of attention and speech to overcome chaos, will determine what happens in the world. The will of the hero can surpass the will of the gods, so to speak. The hero will no longer be under the influence of the gods and can create the world in his image.

So Marduk went to war. He armed himself with a net and a sword. The battle was long and difficult. The more Marduk would attack Tiamat the stronger she became. She grew more monstrous with every swing of his sword. Tiamat takes the form of a dragon and begins destroying everything around her, but Marduk doesn’t quit. Eventually, he catches Tiamat in his net and chops her into pieces.

Marduk vs. Tiamat

From her body, Marduk creates the sky and the earth. From her blood, he creates the first man tasked to be servants of the gods with the responsibility to maintain order and keep chaos at bay.

The Fall of Tiamat

So Marduk, the hero, confronts chaos with his net and his sword. This is particularly interesting because this is similar to how we psychologically grasp the unknown. When we are confronted with something that we don’t know, we try to grab for a general understanding (the net), then learn the details in pieces (the sword). I like to use this idea to study better, creating a general knowledge frame to understand something then learning the details after makes learning really complicated concepts much more manageable. I talk about this in my post, Strategies of Better Studying (Part 3).

When Marduk when to war with Tiamat she grew stronger with every attempt to contain her and eventually began destroying everything around her. When we confront chaos, it will get ugly and things will be destroyed, but persistence will be the only way victory. Finding the balance to know which is tolerable destruction and which is irreparable damage is difficult, but solace can be found knowing that things will get ugly.

Notice how in the end humans are created from Tiamat (life; the anima) and the thing that harnesses attention and speech. I think this shows that the Mesopotamians noticed that a part of us, human beings, had powers like Marduk but was placed in bodies created from Tiamat.

I’ve also heard versions where the people were created from the blood of Qingu. I think that’s an interesting take on the story and also carries wisdom, but I’m not going to dive too deep into that here.

Not only were we created from the same thing that created everything else, but we were also tasked to serve the gods and mediate between chaos and order. This gave the Mesopotamians an understanding of why we felt controlled by things beyond us at times. Like jealousy or lust. The Mesopotamian gods represent a lot of what modern people would call emotional states. Carl Jung said when we stopped believing in the gods, we put them inside of us.

It is also our job to be like Marduk and maintain the balance between chaos and order. If we do, we get to be like Marduk. Access to the Tablet of Destinies and be king of the gods. This is an idea I think the Mesopotamians really captured well: the hero who maintains a proper balance between chaos and order will determine what happens in the world and will not unwillingly fall to the influence of their emotions or primal instincts.


Similar to Marduk, human beings speak magic words. We use our speech to craft the world around us and it’s truly magical how it happens. What we say has a very real impact on the world as we know it. From the story, we know that the hero who harnesses speech and attention and willingly confronts chaos gets to determine what happens. This is a powerful lesson, but that leaves us with an important question:

What does it mean to harness speech?

I don’t have a clear cut answer, but I think it’s something like understanding that there is immense power in what we say but to take it further and to use that power to confront potential and bring about our will.

Harnessing speech requires a focusing of attention on our language.

How we phrase things is how we understand them.

Harnessing speech involves practicing multiple iterations of phrasing ideas while refining the meaning more accurately each time.

Harnessing speech involves practicing specificity.

From my experience, whenever I’ve experienced frustration or irritation, it comes from a lack of specificity or too much generality. For example, when I was first working on my YouTube channel I was frequently frustrated because there were so many little decisions to make. I had no idea where to start and the whole thing seemed like a terrible idea.

But then I started writing down the issues down one by one. What’s the font for my brand? What is my logo? What are the structures to the beats? What are my upload days? What genre of music am I making?

Slowly, the task became less and less frustrating.

I had to focus and articulate the chaos into something small and actionable.

Once I started doing that, there was another layer of specificity. What font size should I use? What are my brand colors? What are the titles of the videos I’m uploading? What time am I uploading?

I felt like Marduk throughout the whole process — slowly cutting the chaos into smaller and smaller pieces using my speech. The way we overcome chaos is through using our language to break up the overwhelming monster into manageable pieces.

So this poses the question: if the Meopotampians meant this, then why didn’t they just say it?

Again, not a perfect answer but I think it’s because language development is a long and difficult process. The Mesopotamians saw this lesson. They knew it to be true. But they could not say it outright because we, as a human race, did not have enough iterations to be able to clearly spell out that message. We can today because we’ve had thousands of years to be able to retell the story, refining the message with every rep.

This also mirrors the battle between Marduk and Tiamat. The battle was long, but after a while, Marduk was able to capture the Tiamat (chaos, the unknown) and chop it up. The Meopotampians captured this idea, so to speak, but we have been able to chop it up and understand it on a deeper and clearer level.

Over time, messages from the great myths become clearer and clearer, provided that the ones confronting the unknown are harnessing their powers of attention and speech in a responsible and constructive way.

I’ve seen this to be true in writing too. The age-old phrase that I’m learning to accept captures it perfectly — writing is rewriting. I used to think that writers just wrote down whatever they wanted to write the first time through, but I’m starting to see that there are significant differences between the first iteration of something and the 10th or 20th.

I try to embrace the idea and use it to write my blog. I usually write something that barely makes any sense at first, then I try to make it clearer with each rewrite.

This blog post literally started as “Mesopotamian God Story – the being that confronts chaos is the thing that chooses the destiny – articulation – logos – speech.” As you can see, I’ve fleshed it out a bit more.

Another place I’ve seen this idea is in Napoleon Hill’s fantastic book, Outwitting the Devil. It’s on my Must-Read Book List. In his book, he talks about the importance of definitive purpose and how it is what separates the drifters from the non-drifters. The act of defining purpose is a form of harnessing speech. Defining purpose requires us to use language to carve out exactly what we want from the unknown. Creating or defining purpose is a great way to get people to consciously grab hold and actively participate in the world of conversation, especially if they don’t have the vocabulary to do so.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that our brains have systems for dealing with environments that they don’t understand, I talk a little about this in my post The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 1). These systems in our brains are primarily associated with negative emotion. We experience negative emotion when we find ourselves in places that we don’t know how to navigate (chaotic environments). When we’re in predictable environments, we experience positive emotion. Like the humans created in the story, we must manage the balance between chaos and order. We get access to positive emotion from confronting the chaos and turning it into order through harnessing speech and focused articulation.

This is something that I try to actively practice, especially in highly stressful or overwhelming times. Believe it or not, one great way to practice this is to create checklists. Whenever I feel like a challenge is too much to overcome, I emulate Marduk and chop the great dragon into little actionable tasks. This simplifies the situation, instead of trying to control for all the variables, my task becomes one easy thing — cross things off the list.

I recommend checking out The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. It’s a beautifully written piece on the hidden (an extremely underrated) powers of checklists. It’s really cool to see how using checklists can completely eradicate mistakes and move projects along faster. He also goes over what makes checklists effective and what makes them more trouble than their worth. Using checklists to practice harnessing speech is so powerful. Just keep in mind that more accurate articulation comes from multiple reps, the first checklists you make aren’t going to be very good.

When it comes to being an effective student, determining what you need to get accomplished or what you need to learn is a fantastic way to practice harnessing speech.

What we say creates who we are. We see this in jobs and our relationships with people. I try to make this known with my students — the only reason they see me as a tutor is that we agree that in the world of conversation, I am a tutor. There is nothing that’s physically different between me and them (except a few neural pathways). I find that this helps them feel like they could learn the material too, despite their failures in the past. It also humanizes me and makes me more relatable. When I’m tutoring I find that things run smoother if my student sees me as similar to them rather than some “math guy” who knows the answer all the time.

Our language plays such a huge role in the world we participate in. I don’t like to write about what people ought to do, but we should treat our powers of speech with respect and use it to build a better place for everyone.

“Life punishes the vague wish and rewards the specific ask.”

Tim Ferriss (1977 – )

Strategies for Better Studying (Part 2)

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Harrington Emerson (1854 – 1931)

Part 1 can be found here. This month I’m building an archive of study strategies that can be chopped for parts to build your own personal efficient and effective study system. I recommend checking out my post on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition to get your principles down before going through the buffet of methods.

The Leitner System

I mentioned this strategy in my post on Active Recall and Spaced Repetition. The Leitner system is designed for reviewing flashcards or other types of active recall questions. I love this system because it integrates the principles of active recall and spaced repetition so it is efficient and effective!

The system is pretty simple. The student starts with all the flashcards in Box 1. If the student answers the question correctly when the question moves to the next box. Each box is reviewed in different time intervals. Box 1 is reviewed every day, Box 2 is reviewed every other day, Box 3 is reviewed every week, so on and so forth.

As usual, I like to modify established techniques so they can better fit my needs. With the Leitner System, I changed my review intervals based on when my exams came up. So rather than studying Box 3 every week, I would study Box 3 every 3 days if my exam date was close. Modifying the Leitner System requires careful planning in advanced and won’t work for short term deadlines. The key to this method is the spaced repetition and that is a function of time. I recommend using a study calendar to keep track of which box is reviewed on which day.

Here’s a visual example of one way to execute the Leitner System, when the questions are answered incorrectly they are sent back to Box 1.

Here’s a modification, it’s less effective but more forgiving, when the questions are answered incorrectly they are sent back to the previous box.

The app Anki is a fantastic study app that automates the Leitner system and it’s what I use whenever I study my flashcards. I recommend it for any student who’s trying to maximize their efficiency with as little effort as possible.

Do the “Deep Work”

Whenever I get stuck on a project it’s usually because I’m avoiding doing the deep work. In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, he explains the differences between deep work and shallow work, why deep work is more effective, and ways to implement deep work with more ease.

Deep work as defined by Newport is “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” I like to think of it as the challenging aspect to our assignment or project and that challenge is what specifically deters us.

Most of us opt for shallow work instead, which Newport defines as “Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.” Things like emails, meetings, text messages and other mundane tasks fall in this category. Many people love to fill their schedules with shallow work because it feels good to accomplish so much, especially if the work is easy! The issue is that no real value comes of shallow work. Only performing shallow work is a promising way to live life like The Last Man. So this leaves us with the question –

How do we know what our deep work is?

“In sterquiliniis invenitur” (you will find it in a cesspool)

Latin Dictum

Jordan Peterson talks about many myths and stories and how they relate to the human unconscious, which is a telltale sign that he was influenced by Carl Jung. In those stories, and in “real” life too, the characters learn the most when they voluntarily come in contact with their own fears. This is the basis of most psychoanalytic theory. People make tremendous progress when they voluntarily confront that which disgusts or terrifies them. This is precisely how to determine what deep work needs to be done. Deep work lies in what frightens or disgusts us! It’s no wonder we have a proclivity to avoid it and prioritize shallow work.

“In filth it will be found.”

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)
What we truly want is least where we want to look.

This idea was also hinted at in the story of The Holy Grail. The Holy Grail is a sacred cup in many different pieces of literature. It was thought to provide riches, boundless happiness, eternal youth, and a bunch of other things that people would do anything for. Well in the story, the people searching for the Holy Grail are told that it is in a forest and in order to find it each adventurer must enter the part of the forest darkest to him. Sounds like voluntarily subjecting oneself to the disgusting and horrible. Sounds like deep work needs to be done.

This lesson can go beyond study skills. Searching for the deep work in any dimension of our lives can open doors to opportunities that can lead to a life better than we could imagine, and that’s not an exaggeration.

Once the deep work is identified, we have to be able to actually do it. Since deep work is inherently difficult and pushes us to our cognitive limit we have to dedicate as much cognitive resource as possible. One of the best ways to do this is to get into Flow State. It’s easiest to think about flow as being in “The Zone.” We know we’re in flow when we are completely immersed in the activity. Our focus is energizing, we enjoy the work, and we’re completely in the present moment. When you’re in flow, you’ll know. Pay attention to when your in flow state and be mindful of the things that made it possible.

The best ways to get into flow are to work on one thing at a time, minimize distractions, and work for extended periods of time. Whenever I’m in flow I do my best work be it music, tutoring, or writing. Flow is the key to getting deep work accomplished.

I rejected this idea a lot in college, but whenever I did the deep work I found that my test anxiety would go away. Identify what you really don’t want to do, develop a strategy to get that done, and enjoy the rewards of being the Hero that defeats the dragon and gets the treasure.

Note Distractions

So what happens if you’ve identified the dragon, set up a nice workplace with minimal distractions, told all your loved ones that you need time to work, and have all the things you need to get work done but your mind just won’t focus because you keep thinking of all the things you “should” be doing instead?

Whenever I found myself constantly distracting myself with other responsibilities, I write down what it is on a list and save it for later. So let’s say I have to write a blog post about study strategies, but I keep thinking about how I need to clean my bathroom, walk the dogs, and email my clients. I’ll write clean bathroom, walk the dogs, email clients on a list that I’ll attend to once my deep work session is completed. This way I don’t have to worry about forgetting to do it and I can maintain the work momentum I’ve already created.

In my notes app, I have a non-time sensitive to-do list and this is where I put most of the stuff that takes up unnecessary cognitive load. If you get distracted while work, just jot it down and get to it later. Focus on what’s in front of you now. Cal Newport has a bunch of other strategies to make deep work less of a hydra and more of a dragon and I recommend checking it out!

Avoid Pseudo Productive Habits

Pseudo productivity, or false progress, can do us and our endeavours a serious harm. We spend out limited attention and energy on something that leads us down the wrong path. Not only do we have to work harder to get back on track, but we won’t get as far as we would have if we stuck with truly productive methods. There are many pseudo productive habits that lead us astray. Rereading chapters, rewriting notes, listening to lectures in your sleep, and (like I mentioned in my Active Recall post) highlighting. Underlining also works to your disadvantage just as much.

When we highlight or underline phrases, we have to reread the highlights (instant double workload) and read for context (instant triple workload). Not to mention risking over highlighting, which just makes everything way more confusing when you go back to study the material later. Beware of staring at answer keys for long periods of time or making trivial aesthetic adjustments to your assignments as well. We all want to have nice notes, so they’re easy to look back on later, but if it takes us hours to clean them up, this process is doing more harm than good.

We love to do things that make us feel like we’re making progress. After all, happiness comes from us observing ourselves move towards a goal. The issue is that we may we heading in the wrong direction without knowing. A good marker for spotting pseudo productive habits is through an 80/20 pareto analysis of your productive habits. When I do this, I write down all of the “productive things” I do often and apply occam’s razor – entities should not be multiplied without necessity. I cut out all of the actions that do not absolutely need to be done. I stick to the 20 percent of actions that yield me 80% of my results.

Trim the fat. Be honest with yourself. Clearly define your goals. Pay attention to your progress.

Treat Studying as a Function of Topics

Mathanese

“I spent 6 hours in the library!” “I stayed up all night studying” “I need more time to study!”

All quotes from people who see studying as a function of time. Studying for longer periods of time DOES NOT yield better grades. It’s all about the quality of the time spent while studying. See studying as a function of topics, not time. Measure progress by which concepts you covered rather than how much time you spent learning it.

The projects and exams that people study for are testing how well you understand the material, not how long you’ve studied it. As long as you understand what you need to know, what difference does studying it for 10 minutes rather than 3 hours make?

Using Active Recall and Spaced Repetition, the time we spend studying can be much more effective. It’s possible to learn something quickly, remember the first time you touched a hot stove? Aim to learn things quickly and thoroughly, do not aim to spend more time. Our time is limited and precious. It is the only resource that cannot be replenished, why waste it on low yield studying?

The Brain vs. The Mind (Part 2)

“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

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.

Mental Faculties

Thought

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!

Thinking, Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman
Memory

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.

Memory Tree (2019)

Retrieval

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

Recall refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory with little or no cues.

Recognition

Recognition refers to our ability to retrieve information from our long term memory because of specific cues.

Imagination

“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.

Identity

“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.”

James Clear

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.

The Self

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:

  1. Making & accomplishing small attainable goals
  2. Recognizing those small accomplishments as significant and the preferred method of progress, as opposed to working hard for one large accomplishment
  3. 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.

Cognitive Load

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
  • Collaborate
  • 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.

Top-down Processing

Our ability to perceive something and apply what we already know and expect to perceive details that match with our conclusions.

Bottom-up Processing

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.

The Power of Failure

“There are two kinds of failure. The first comes from never trying out your ideas because you are afraid, or because you are waiting for the perfect time. This kind of failure you can never learn from, and such timidity will destroy you. The second kind comes from a bold and venturesome spirit. If you fail in this way, the hit that you take to your reputation is greatly outweighed by what you learn. Repeated failure will toughen your spirit and show you with absolute clarity how things must be done.”

Robert Greene (1959 – )

Failing is one of my favorite things to do. My students always think I’m crazy for believing this. I haven’t always had a great relationship with failure and still to this day there are times when I wish she was never around, but failure is our most honest teacher and a natural part of learning.

Somewhere along the way, humans decided that failing is bad and wrong. We teach our youth to avoid failure at all costs, that failure is the antithesis of success, or failure makes you feel terrible and that is why we should avoid it!

All of that is hot garbage.

Failure is honest. Failure is accurate. Failure teaches us lessons that we are less likely to forget. Failure is power.

When my students attempt active recall questions, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomena – when they miss things they are less likely to miss a similar type of question later. I’ve even found this true for myself too. When I was studying for the MCAT, I would do practice questions with multiple parts. I had an easier time remembering the parts I got wrong and the parts I initially got right, I ended up getting wrong later! It’s almost like I needed to fail to remember.

I’ve read somewhere (I’ve spent days trying to find the source but alas, I failed) that people are 7 times more sensitive to negative stimuli than positive stimuli. Which makes sense because we tend to remember our critiques more than our praises. But that had me thinking-

Why are we more sensitive to negativity than positivity?

I believe it’s an evolutionary process. We are walking through unknown territory and we experience something negative, we learn quickly to adapt and survive. Whereas, if we experience something positive, the stakes aren’t as high so we don’t learn as fast.

Failure feelings like a threat. Like a real threat. To our brains, failing our self administered tasks is like having our hand touch a hot stove. We learn quickly not to do that thing anymore.

“Failure had better be an option, because whether or not you consider it an option, it’s going to happen! If you go through life with the philosophy that “failure is not an option,” then you’ll never have any good opportunities to learn.”

Jeff Olson (1958 – )

When we fail at something, the probability that we will fail in the same way is pretty small. So in a sense, everytime we fail we get better. We learn what not to do, which is a lot more useful than we like to acknowledge.

What excellent feat has occurred without failure? When we watch professionals play sports or politicians give speeches, we don’t see the hours of failure that have happened in the background. Just because we see the shiny finished product, doesn’t mean that they were always that way. In fact, if you ask them, I’m sure every single successful person will tell you that they have failed more times than they succeeded.

The Unveiling

“Mistakes and failures are precisely your means of education. They tell you about your own inadequacies. It is hard to find out such things from people, as they are often political with their praise and criticisms. Your failures also permit you to see the flaws of your ideas, which are only revealed in the execution of them.”

Robert Greene (1959 – )

I believe desirable progress is based off two things:

  1. Identifying what needs to improve.
  2. Acquiring the skills or knowledge required to improve.

Failing reveals to us exactly what needs to get better. The rest is education and deliberate practice. Failing is half the battle. Whenever we’re learning something new, we fail in all sorts of ways, but how we fail is an insight into how we succeed. It’s like trying to complete a maze; it’s not very likely that we are going to get to the exit without hitting a dead end. Once we hit the dead end, we try a different route, and if we hit another dead end we try another route until we reach the exit. We cannot discover what to do without discovering what not to do.

“Would you like me to give you the formula for success? It’s quite simple, really. Double your rate of failure.… You’re thinking of failure as the enemy of success. But it isn’t at all. You can be discouraged by failure—or you can learn from it. So go ahead and make mistakes. Make all you can. Because, remember that’s where you’ll find success. On the other side of failure.”

Thomas Watson (1874 – 1956)

In order to accept failure gracefully and learn as much as we can, we must detach our identities from our successes or failures. When we fail, we are not failures, we simply did not take the actions necessary for the desired outcome to manifest. By the same token, when we succeed, we are not successes, we simply took the actions necessary for the desired outcomes to come into being. Failure and success is simply the difference between executing necessary actions and not executing necessary actions.

Our failures are stepping stones to mastery and temporary defeats.

“Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”

Napoleon Hill (1883 – 1970)

Defeat is not realized until we stop getting up. We decide when we are defeated, no one else does. Whenever I’ve failed in the past, I can always find an exact moment when I admitted defeat. There is always a singular moment in time when I decide that I had enough of whatever challenge is in front of me. When I admit defeat, I stop learning because I stop finding my inadequacies. Failure is what shines the light on what needs to be improved.

Circumambulation

“I began to understand that the goal of psychic development is the self. There is no linear evolution; there is only a circumambulation of the self. Uniform development exists, at most, at the beginning; later, everything points toward the centre. This insight gave me stability, and gradually my inner peace returned.”

Carl Jung (1875 – 1961)

Circumambulation – the act of moving around an idol – in this case the idol is our maximally developed selves, also known as the Jungian conception of the self. The Self is different for each person, which makes sense to me because no one has the same genetic make up. It’s almost like The Self is a metaphysical representation of our biological dispositions.

I find the idea of circumambulation to be pivotal in understanding the power of failure. Circumambulation of the self is the idea that all of the smaller skills we develop ourselves in is actually apart of a bigger, centrifugal development. Each of these skills is obtained by traveling, so to speak, to all of the far corners of our minds. The Self is our maximally developed selves potentialized in the future and circumambulation is our journey of manifesting this self into actuality.

It’s kind of like this – we develop a bunch of smaller skills, and at first this feels like a linear progression, but as we go through life we start to see the skills pointing towards an ideal.

Circumambulation of The Self – Christopher S. Mukiibi (2019)

Learning about circumambulation freed me up in so many different ways because I was worried that I had too many different interests and developing myself in too many different things will prevent me from manifesting my Jungian Self. The best example of this was when I was repressing my love for music because I felt like it didn’t fit with the skills I needed for medicine. Now that I see it is the culmination of all of these skills that will bring about my best self, I feel free to pursue all of my interests wholeheartedly.

Jordan Peterson beautifully outlines the circumambulation of the self and how it relates to failure in the video below.

Jordan Peterson always says the fool is the precursor to the hero and I believe that makes a lot of sense because the one who is willing to make mistakes ends up learning the most, and learning is what’s necessary to save everyone from the malevolent forces of chaos. We see it all the time in movies. The main character is usually seriously flawed but grows over time and that’s where the richness of the story lies. Ash is the worst Pokemon training of all time, but that’s what gives the story room to breathe. The same case is true with us – we are flawed beings, but our admission of our flaws and the strive to improve these imperfections is what embodies our life with meaning.

Robert Greene also references circumambulation in his book, Mastery, but not explicitly. Robert talks about all children having inclinations. These inclinations are strong unexplainable interests that a child develops early on in life. As they get older, they tend to ignore these inclinations and pretend like they aren’t important. Greene suggests adults to do deep reflection to revivify that lost child within them and lean into their inclinations for that is where people will find the skills necessary to be their best. I believe the skills we need to manifest the Jungian Self are found in developing our inclinations.

When we try something new, we are usually very bad at it, but over time we get better. At first it may seem like these things are disconnected by as long as we are developing our inclinations (as defined by Greene) then we will see that all of our development aims towards a central ideal.

Course Correction

“Knock me down nine times but I get up ten, bitch.”

Cardi B (1992 – )

As mentioned earlier, we are only defeated once we stay down but sometimes our failures may throw us off course. Sometimes when we’re knocked down, it takes some time to reorient ourselves again. When we fail, we have to take stock of where we are in relation to our goals. We can’t simply get back up and start moving again. We want to get back up, get back on the right path, then start moving again. We have to consider course correction when we fail. We did not succeed for a reason and it’s important to figure out why and how we move forward without experiencing that specific failure again.

The power of course correction is really laid out in the Apollo mission to the moon-

“On its way to landing astronauts safely on the surface of the moon, the miracle of modern engineering that was an Apollo rocket was actually on course only 2 to 3 percent of the time. Which means that for at least 97 percent of the time it took to get from the Earth to the moon, it was off course. In a journey of nearly a quarter of a million miles, the vehicle was actually on track for only 7,500 miles. Or to put it another way, for every half-hour the ship was in flight, it was on course for less than one minute. And it reached the moon—safely—and returned to tell the tale.”

Jeff Olson (1958 – )

Most of the time the rocket was off course, but that didn’t matter because they still made it to their destination with continuous course correction. It doesn’t matter how often we fail, as long as we are constantly trying to get back on track. The astronauts on the Apollo rocket didn’t think “Oh no we’re off course now! It’s too late! It’s all screwed up! I can’t believe we let this get off course! Let’s just quit!” They simply acknowledged the failure and readjusted their actions accordingly and by doing that enough, they ended up on the moon!

We can see the same thing happen with sports too! Kobe Bryant had a terrible first season of basketball. When he first started, Kobe was horrendous but after he failed he took a step back and figured out exactly what he needed to work on to get his game better. He course corrected and developed The Mamba Mentality, which I think is one of the most powerful perspectives to take on.

Failure doesn’t have to be something that we desperately try to avoid. It teaches us what we need to improve and offers us opportunity to grow. Coupled with ideas like the Circumambulation of the Self and Course Correction, failure can be seen as an exciting phenomena of life. Many of my students think I’m insane for loving failure, but am I really?