Monthly Archives: January 2009

What I’ve Been Reading

1. Free Flight: Inventing the Future of Travel by James Fallows.

A nice introduction to amateur aviation if you know nothing about it. The second half of the book (published 2001) is about the air taxi movement which by now is out of date. You can get the latest on air taxis from Fallows’ blog.

2. Hearth and the Cosmos: A Cosmopolite’s Viewpoint by Yi-Fu Tuan.

Tuan discusses the tension between the “hearth” (family and local ties) and the “cosmos” (cities and external urban life). The tension exists because “hearth, though nurturing, can be too confining; cosmos, though liberating, can be bewildering and threatening.” He writes, “The elite can have both world and home; they can be cosmopolitan and yet return to the hearth for nurturance and renewal.”

I sympathize when Tuan says, “The more Americans participate in…globalism, the more they learn for locality, tradition, and roots — for the hearths and ethnos that they can directly experience and understand, for the small milieu that yields emotional satisfaction.”

He’s eloquent when describing the shift from hearth to cosmos: “Each step is a move beyond confinement within a particular color patch in the mosaic to the mosaic as a whole that is the United States. Each step is not necessarily the abandonment of a particular cultural heritage, thought it does mean the loss of unreflective acceptance, or a certain innocence, that can be so assuring. As we take these steps, we come closer to recognizing that all cultures are flawed binders as well as the source of unique illuminations, that they deserve affection rather than idolatry, that they are our first home rather than our last.”

These are interesting ideas — I’ve blogged a lot about identity and cosmopolitanism over the years — but on the whole I was disappointed by this book and would recommend passing, though I do recommend Tuan’s mildly-famous Dear Colleague letters.

3. The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt.

A clever approach: cull the famous books of wisdom from all the major faiths and philosophers and report on what you learn. Anyone who’s read bits and pieces of the classics, or sampled from modern positive psychology texts, will in this book find much you already know. Still there are some worthwhile themes and nuggets:

  • Over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reactions to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things.

 

  • Twin studies generally show that 50 percent to 80 percent of all the variance among people in their average levels of happiness can be explained by differences in their genes rather than in their life experiences.

 

 

  • We engage in massive self-delusion. From the person who cuts you off on the highway all the way to the Nazis who ran the concentration camps, most people think they are good people and that their actions are motivated by good reasons.

 

 

  • For many traits, such as leadership, there are so many ways to define it that one is free to pick the criterion that will most flatter oneself.

 

 

  • Pleasure comes more from making progress toward goals than from achieving them. Shakespeare captured it perfectly: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.”

 

 

  • Noise, especially noise that is variable or intermittent, interferes with concentration and increases stress. It’s worth striving to remove sources of noise in your life.

 

 

  • Pleasure feels good in the moment, but sensual memories fade quickly, and the person is no wiser or stronger afterwards.

 

 

  • Optimists are for the most part people who won the cortical lottery: They have a high happiness setpoint, they habitually look on the bright side, and they easily find silver linings. Life has a way of making the rich get richer and the happy get happier.

 

 

  • Letting off steam makes people angrier, not calmer.

 

 

  • Wisdom is based on “tacit knowledge.” It’s “knowing how” rather than “knowing that.” Wise people are able to balance three responses to situations: adaptation (changing the self to fit the environment), shaping (changing the environment), and selection (choosing to move to a new environment).

 

 

  • It is worth striving to get the right relationships between yourself and others, between yourself and your work, and between yourself and something larger than yourself. If you get these relationships right, a sense of purpose and meaning will emerge.

 

Quote of the Day: Wisdom Cannot Be Taught

"We do not receive wisdom, we must discover it for ourselves, after a journey through the wilderness which no one else can make for us, which no one can spare us, for our wisdom is the point of view from which we come at last to regard the world."

    – Marcel Proust

A State of Tolerable Vapidity Overlaid with Entertainment

A wonderfully evocative character description:

In a sense, Harper (dressed in “Gap casuals”) stands for the hip, knowing, self-conscious, weary, ironied-out, so-like-over-it-and-two-steps-ahead-of-it West, whose empty, hedonistic way of living once plagued Rose. As a restaurateur, he “did nothing extraordinary, ran the business, watched TV, read the newspaper, surfed the Web, bought a new coat every now and then, dated women — black, brown, white — consumed pornography, smoked, met friends for dinner, dreamed, honed anecdotes, got minor ailments.” He experienced, in other words, “a state of tolerable vapidity overlaid with entertainment.”

It's from the always-worth-reading Lee Siegel, in this book review.

Larry King’s Son Wants to Be Black

With guests Tavis Smiley and Bob Woodward discussing the historic nature of an Obama presidency, Larry King revealed the other day that his 8 year-old son "wants to be black" because "black is in."

Since when did white kids not want to be black? Since when have white males not wallowed in lonely, lonely identity crises?!

Bottom Line: Black is the new black.

The Art of Self-Overhearing: Metacognition and Decision Making

In response to my last post A Morning of Self-Consciousness, a reader pointed me to Jonah Lehrer's excellent blog on neuroscience. There, he links to an article about Obama's self-awareness that he wrote for the Boston Globe which includes this relevant paragraph:

The crucial skill [to making good decisions], scientists are now saying, is the ability to think about your own thinking, or metacognition, as it is known. Unless people vigilantly reflect on how they are making an important decision, they won't be able to properly use their instincts, or know when their gut should be ignored. Indeed, according to this emerging new vision of decision-making, the best predictor of good judgment isn't intuition or experience or intelligence. Rather, it's the willingness to engage in introspection, to cultivate what Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, calls "the art of self-overhearing."

In another post, Lehrer elaborates on metacognition:

The game only has one rule, and it's a simple one: Don't think about white bears. You can think about anything else, but you can't think about that. Ready? Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and banish the animals from your head.

You just lost the game. Everyone loses the game. As Dostoevsky first observed, in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: "Try to avoid thinking of a white bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." In fact, whenever we try to not think about something, be it white bears or a broken heart, that something gets trapped in the mind, stuck in the recursive loop of self-consciousness. The brain backfires; our attempt at repression turns into an odd fixation.

This human frailty has profound consequences. Dan Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, refers to the failure as an "ironic" mental process. Whenever we establish a mental goal⎯such as trying to not think about white bears⎯the goal is accompanied by an inevitable follow-up thought, as the brain checks to see if we're making progress. The end result, of course, is that we obsess over the one thing we're trying to avoid. Wegner argues that this ironic twitch is responsible for all sorts of afflictions, from anxiety disorder (we get anxious whenever we think about not getting anxious) to insomnia, which can occur when the drowsy brain checks to see if we've fallen asleep (and so we wake up). The mind is a disobedient machine.

Although these perverse thoughts can be irritating⎯⎯wouldn't it be nice to be able to fall asleep at will, like a cat?⎯they also reveal an essential feature of the human mind, which is that it doesn't just think: it constantly thinks about how it thinks. We're insufferably self-aware, like some post-modern novel, so that the brain can't go for more than a few seconds before it starts calling attention to itself, reflecting on its own contents, thoughts and feelings. This even applies to thoughts we're trying to avoid, which is why those white bears are so inescapable.

The technical term for this is metacognition, and it's a rather surreal skill. Imagine that M.C. Escher drawing of a hand drawing a hand, or a video camera making a movie of itself: The cortex is the same way, as it constantly transforms the subject at the center of consciousness⎯you⎯into yet another object contemplated by consciousness. Of course, like all things meta, the process can quickly spiral out of control. When a mind thinks about metacognition, it's thinking about how it thinks about how it thinks. And so on.

A Morning of Self-Consciousness…

Here’s a quick diary-esque blog post. Experimenting with the style.

When I wake up at 10:15 AM, as I did today, the first thing that pops into my head is whether or not I am a “morning person” and whether, by waking up late, I had missed out on hours that might have been enhanced by a more naturally alert cognitive state.

The fact that this is my initial thought leads me to wonder what it means that productivity-maximizing drives the day’s first neuron-firing on a blue beautiful day. Why can’t I just wake up, breathe, eat breakfast, and be passive? Which then leads me to wonder why I must take every thought to the meta level (ie, question the validity of the thought after thinking the thought) and whether one day it will be possible possible to somehow squash the little voice in my head that does play-by-play commentary on each thought as it develops. Like right now the voice is asking whether the prior couple sentences and this entire mini-exercise in raw stream-of-consciousness blogging are just amateurishly self-indulgent. Whether people might laugh at the perhaps implied assertion that the little voice who does play-by-play is unique or noteworthy. Might find it sweetly naive that I seem to see this internal peanut gallery commentator as on or off whereas wiser ones know the trick is controlling the volume and timing of self-consciousness? Fine, so how do you control the volume and timing? How do you really control what and when thoughts enter and leave your mind? (If only the mind could be partitioned into compartments like the Titanic was…) One more level up: on the premise that informs the last few sentences: the importance of what “others” think about you / me / our ideas. Don’t we all struggle to achieve the optimal point on the I’m-independent-screw-what-others-think versus I-am-a-slave-to-your-opinion spectrum? I laugh at those who claim to be wholly intrinsically motivated and who claim to lie unmoved in the face of external judgments / perceptions.

So it’s 10:15 AM and I have not yet figured out whether I’m a morning person. A gap in self-knowledge. A calamity of epic proportions! The diminishing returns of hyper self-awareness. Neuroticism? OCD-ish? The pleasures and perils of playing host to an in-the-head performance whose actors will perform, audience or not. (I.e., Boredom = impossible, regardless of external environment.)

I take a shower because I need to and because that’s where “living in the moment” seems to come pretty easily. Why else do so many good ideas pop to mind when standing under hot water?

And in the shower I am naked and alone.

Probe Alternative Causal Explanations

How can you contribute value to someone who knows more than you about the topic at hand, someone who’s the “insider” when you’re the “outsider”? Though there are a million life examples, this is notably a challenge all board directors face when interacting with their CEO who’s closer to the details.

Ask good questions.

But asking good questions is very hard. So here’s one type of question that almost always helpfully provokes: a probe on alternative causal explanations.

The CEO says: “We didn’t close the deal because our competitor undercut us on price.”

Question: “Are you sure it was price and not a poor sales presentation or the product lacking necessary functionality?”

The best advice (or should I say, the kind of advice most listened to / followed) is often given in a form of a question, and the best questions often make the person re-consider assumptions.

Bottom Line: People — especially entrepreneurs — can be quick to jump to clear cut causal explanations for events. An easy way to be helpful when asking questions is to probe on alternative explanations for why something happened.

Bodyweight Exercises and Perfect Pushups

Growing up, exercise equaled sports. I played tennis, baseball, basketball, football, ping-pong, roller-hockey, home-run derby, and others. I eventually realized that if I wanted to get good I had to focus on one and I chose basketball. I started playing year-round, participated on elite traveling teams, dragged my ass out of bed at early hours to do agility and plyometric exercises, and worked near-daily on improving all aspects of my game. Playing basketball I learned a tremendous amount about teamwork, giving and receiving feedback, the importance and limits of hard work, channeling competitive instincts toward a firm goal, and mental focus. After my senior year season of high school I felt burnt out and stopped playing for a couple years.

With the built-in structure and commitment of basketball gone, I had to think about physical fitness in a context other than team sports. It’s not uncommon for athletes to stop exercising altogether when the whip of a coach is absent, but I had no problem jumping into a new self-designed program that would keep me in shape. I went to the gym every day and pursued various cardio and weight exercises. Here’s my post on diversity in your workout routine. Here’s my post on pushups and crunches.

For exercise I think about two things: cardio and strength training. For cardio I do 10-15 mins on the bike (I read light fiction or magazines) and then 20-25 mins on the treadmill (I listen to music and try to just chill out). My strength training is more experimental. Since I’m no longer playing basketball there’s no external need to build muscle mass, so my motivation / interest fluctuates. On its own, increased strength just feels good, lifting weights uniquely relieves stress, and there are aesthetic / attractiveness benefits, too. Due to my frame and biology, I can put on significant upper body muscle mass within a few months if I keep a routine. But it can be a hassle screwing around with the machines.

A few months ago I started up a more vigorous strength training effort. However, instead of going into familiar free weights and machines, I focused exclusively on pushups, crunches, and pull-ups: bodyweight exercises. Because of my weight, these types of exercises have always been hard — ie the more you weigh, the more weight you’re pushing up. My question was: Can I actually get bigger this way or will I just maintain current strength?

My goal was to do 100 pushups a day, every day, and as many crunches and pull-ups as I could do. Within a few weeks I was doing three sets of pushups (35, 35, 30) in 10-15 mins and within a couple months I could do 50-60 pushups consecutively no problem. (There’s a whole movement around doing 100 pushups consecutively.) I felt / observed significant gains in upper body muscle mass. Most important I had no problem doing them daily because anytime I had some time to kill and a floor I could drop down and get it done. Much harder to invent excuses not to do it!

For Christmas my brother got me Perfect Pushup — two circular disks with handles that you put on the floor and they twist as you go down and push up. It stresses slightly different muscles and supposedly is better for your elbows. At the least using them keeps the basic pushup interesting. Again — avoid boredom by introducing variety into your workout.

Nutrition-wise, my basic operating principle is as it’s always been: “Eat as much food as I can.” I’m always hungry. I try to pre-eat before restaurant meals, I try to go to restaurants with known small eaters so I can finish whatever they don’t eat, and I snack / eat Clif bars throughout the day. So quantity hasn’t changed but quality has. Specifically, I have tried to eat more cottage cheese and nuts (solid sources of protein) and move my PB&J’s to wheat instead of white bread (if you eat PB&J every day like me this makes a difference).

So, after three months of a pushup-centric workout routine combined with a little more focus on my intake, I feel as fit as ever. The numbers bear it out. When I stopped playing ball my weight crept up to 220, even 225 pounds, which at 6′ 4″ I could manage but it still felt a little heavy. Now I’m down to 215 lbs which feels more comfortable. My physique is more cut. This involved no weight machines! Granted, bodyweight exercises will only take you so far — to re-introduce variety and push above my weight, I’m for the moment moving back to machines and free weights — but for the casual fitness person I strongly recommend keeping it simple and doing push-ups, crunches, and pull-ups.

Bottom Line: I highly recommend bodyweight exercises if you want a simple, easy, anywhere way to increase overall strength.

How Friendships Evolve Over Time and the Quest for Platonic Intimacy

I've been thinking about friendship, how friendships evolve as people grow older, and platonic intimacy. Here's my developing theory, would love your feedback.

Most friendships start as either "personal" or "professional" and are substantially "emotional" or "intellectual."

Types of Friendships and Their Animating Forces

Personal — Personal friends tend to be childhood friends, school friends, family connections, neighbors, or a friend with whom you have little in common career-wise.

Professional — Professional friends you meet at your company, at a networking function, or elsewhere in your industry. A professional friend knows specifically what you do 9-5 and knows various key facts about your life and career.

Then there are two main animating forces:

Emotional — An emotional undercurrent involves…emotions! Feelings. Relationships. Someone you'd call on a weekend when you're extra happy or extra sad. Heart. Emotional connection usually requires significant amounts of time spent with the person.

Intellectual — Ideas are the order of the day. Philosophy. Analytic disagreements. Industry banter. Current affairs books. Brain. Frequency of contact with the person has little bearing on quality of intellectual dialogue.

Usually personal / emotional pair and professional / intellectual pair.

How These Dimensions Play Out As You Grow Up

Growing up, you have only personal, emotional friends. A 10 year-old isn't debating marketing strategy with a colleague from work. But over time, as you enter the workforce and mature, you develop specific intellectual interests (or not). You become intellectually curious. You take on professional interests and goals. For a broadly fulfilling friendship, you need more than pranks or playing sports together. You need to be able to have a stimulating conversation.

So I think around age 18-30 you face a question: Can my personal, emotional friendships develop a meaningful intellectual dimension? If yes, you probably have a life-long friendship that will be deeply rewarding and intimate. If not, you have a relationship worth maintaining but not destined for intimacy.

As you enter your late 20's and 30's, you're meeting people mostly in a professional context with intellectualism as the animating force. Work as a social place is an environment not as naturally conducive as school or a youth sports team to personal, emotional intimacy. More authentic "social" time must be scheduled in advance due to a busy schedule and perhaps a family of your own, which means it happens less often.

Hence the second, harder question asked a few years later and for rest of life: Can my professional, intellectual friendships develop a meaningful emotional dimension?

I think for most it's easier to add intellectual fulfillment to a long-standing emotional/personal friend than it is to add an element of emotional personalness to an intellectual/professional friend. For one, there aren't as many established protocols or traditions that facilitate building emotional closeness in a non-romantic setting. Also, if you're married, you can come to depend on your mate for the emotional closeness that you used to get from friends and thus your skills at cultivating it platonically deteriorate.

Men in particular struggle with this. The five-year old NY Times piece on the awkwardness of a "man date" nailed the issue. You see older men with plenty of intellectual conversations but no friend with whom they can open up / confess / be close.

Intimacy Blurs the Lines. The Best Friendships Are Intimate.

Not all or even most friendships need to fit all of the boxes (personal, professional, emotional, intellectual). But the best friendships — the intimate ones — do, especially both emotional and intellectual boxes.

What do I mean by "intimacy"? Intimacy is a concept not exclusive to romance. I think it's also a potential descriptor of high-wattage interactions, feelings, and trust between two platonic friends. In a romantic relationship intimacy can be conveyed via physical contact — just snuggle up with her/him. In a platonic friendship intimacy must be expressed mostly via words and body language. So it can be hard to pin down in a friendship.

Here's one possible sign of intimacy: When you're with this friend, does your best and most natural self come out? Does being the person you want to be become effortless?

Intimacy in friendships is one of those things that you can get along fine without but miss once you've experienced it. Most people I know who maintain deep, intimate friendships value these relationships more highly than their ever-growing list of weak ties. Peak human experiences seem to happen in conjunction with intimate, soul-nourishing relationships. Friendships of this variety blur the lines and categories altogether.

(thanks to Stephen Dodson for helping spark this theory and Chris Yeh for helping think it through.)

Looking for a Summer Job? Reach Out to a Hero

If you're young and looking for a summer job (or any job) here's one approach: reach out to somebody you really admire and ask if you can be his/her bitch for a few months. Say you'll be happy to do grunt work so long as you get lots of face time with him/her. Say you're a self-starter who won't be a nuisance but rather will find a way to make their life / work easier. Identify a few things that you think you could help them on (anything involving technology / blogs is good, or logistical help, or communications outreach).

Learning on the job comes primarily from the people you get to work with. So pick out a few people who impress you and send them an email and see what they say! Don't worry if their exact line of work isn't on your radar screen; the goal is to work with the most impressive person you can. I guarantee you'll learn more by being a supercharged personal assistant to someone really smart / interesting than you will by doing a generic internship.


Unrelated but since we're talking about careers and young people: Your major in college doesn't matter!

OK, maybe it matters a little for your first job, but still, I can't believe the number of people who say, "As a History major I'm screwed because I now want to go into finance but can't because I didn't major in econ or business" or "No one wants to hire an English major." Bullshit! Employers hire people. Stand out, be remarkable, knock their socks off. Forget about your major. If you went to a liberal arts school it especially doesn't matter, since to "major" in something means to take a very small number more classes in your major topic than in any other topic.

And since I find myself in ranting mode: Economics is no more practical an academic undergrad major than English! Don't major in Econ thinking you're studying the most useful subject for getting a job. Major in what you find interesting.