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The System is Down

(Via StrongBad / Homestar Runner)
I read a book about five months back by John Gall called Systemantics: The Systems Bible. The book goes through a derived (by the author) set of principles or axioms about systems of all types, why they get created, how/why they don’t work, and much, much more.

When it comes to creating systems, you have to start somewhere — the reason systems get built in the first place — if I recall, Gall calls this the “Primal Scenario.”

It behooves us all to etch it into our brains:

“THINGS (THINGS GENERALLY/ ALL THINGS / THE WHOLE WORKS) ARE INDEED NOT WORKING VERY WELL. IN FACT, THEY NEVER DID In more formal terminology: SYSTEMS IN GENERAL WORK POORLY OR NOT AT ALL

Sometimes obvious things need to be stated, and channeling Elon Musk’s derivation-from-first-principles approach to learning, I think Gall’s point here is all-encompassing. Everything struggles to do the thing it wants to do/is designed to do and only succeeds in part while also failing and spawning problems.

Acceptance that you can’t escape the fundamental truth of the primal scenario: that your best case scenario to solve any given problem in life, your own habits, work, teams, relationships, or whatever will only work imperfectly at best and is very much more likely to both fail and cause new confounding problems.

It’s the Primal Scenario.

And the default state of dynamic existence doesn’t mean you don’t try to solve the problems or fix the existing flaws through building new systems, it just means that you will struggle and toil at doing so, expecting otherwise is naive, often reckless, and sometimes even dangerous.

Often prosaic, Gall’s governing laws were just what I was looking for to make sense of various organizational problems I was experiencing in my dayjob. I’ll spare you the details (though I’m sure close friends have heard me speak to them ad nauseum). Suffice to say that the day to day happenings in any large company are highly governed by the laws of systems.

I can’t recommend at least reading all the axioms once. That said here are a few favorites (Gall often wrote in ALL CAPS — these are direct quotes form the book):

  • NEW SYSTEMS MEAN NEW PROBLEMS When a system is set up to accomplish some goal, a new entity has come into being—the system itself. No matter what the “goal” of the system, it immediately begins to exhibit systems-behavior, that is, to act according to the general laws that govern the operation of all systems. Now the system itself has to be dealt with. Whereas before there was only the Problem—such as warfare between nations, or garbage collection—there is now an additional universe of problems associated with the functioning or merely the presence of the new system.
  • Systems are like babies: once you get one, you have it. They don’t go away. On the contrary, they display the most remarkable persistence. They not only persist; they grow. And as they grow, they encroach.
  • THE UNIVERSE IS NOT LIKE A MACHINE except in certain trivial ways. Rather: THE UNIVERSE IS LIKE A VERY LARGE SYSTEM.
  • THE SYSTEM ALWAYS KICKS BACK (Justin: the idea is that the system will fight change)
  • THE REAL WORLD IS WHAT IS REPORTED TO THE SYSTEM —or, in the world of Diplomacy: IF IT ISN’T OFFICIAL, IT HASN’T HAPPENED (Justin: anyone in a large organization with managed metrics will see this as meaning the only truth is that which is reported by the system; alternatively, “IF THE SYSTEM SAYS IT HAPPENED, IT HAPPENED”
  • SYSTEMS ATTRACT SYSTEMS-PEOPLE (Justin: you know, like middle management types! Michael Scott anyone?)
  • IF A SYSTEM IS WORKING, LEAVE IT ALONE. DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING 
  • LARGE COMPLEX SYSTEMS ARE BEYOND HUMAN CAPACITY TO EVALUATE 
  • IF SOMETHING ISN’T WORKING, DON’T KEEP DOING IT. DO SOMETHING ELSE INSTEAD (Justin: Fun fact: John Gall was a lifelong pediatrician [seriously, how bizarre, right?] and he led seminars on hacking parenting. This is one of his core ideas — that if some parenting strategy to elicit behaviors out of your kids isn’t working, try something else!)
  • Systems are seductive. They promise to do a hard job faster, better, and more easily than you could do it by yourself. But if you set up a System, you are likely to find your time and effort now being consumed in the care and feeding of the System itself. New Problems are created by its very presence.[a.] Once set up, it won’t Go Away; it Grows and Encroaches.[b.] It begins to do Strange and Wonderful Things[c.] and Breaks Down in Ways You Never Thought Possible.[d.] It Kicks Back, Gets In The Way and Opposes Its Own Proper Function.[e.] Your own perspective becomes distorted by being In The System.[f.] You become anxious and Push On It To Make It Work.[g.] Eventually you come to believe that the misbegotten product it so grudgingly delivers is What You Really Wanted all the time[h.] . At that point, Encroachment has become complete. You have become absorbed. You are now a Systems-person.
  • The System must not be built too tight nor wound up too tightly or it will (1) seize up (2) peter out, or (3) fly apart: LOOSE SYSTEMS LAST LONGER AND FUNCTION BETTER (Justin: My current org, which is matrixed, is more of a tight/rigid system; this one hits close to home)
  • (A) YOU CAN’T CHANGE JUST ONE THING —and at the other extreme: (B) YOU CAN’T CHANGE EVERYTHING

Gall talks a bit about complex systems — that they rarely work and that designed complex systems will never work. He observes that if you find a working complex system, it evolved from simple systems that work. Personal experience seems to validate Gall’s observation both in that I’ve lived (am living in) through pretty complex systems that were top-down designed that work very poorly; while the ones built from the ground up that evolved organically work the best (while still having problems).

I could go on, but I wanted to share this here for a long time. If you’ve read this book or read on via the link above, let me know what you think!

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall

Originally posted this review on Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run on birthdayshoes.com:

Christopher McDougall Born to Run
Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run

I challenge anyone to read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen and not be inspired—to run, to be healthy, to be, well just, better.

Born to Run is about McDougall’s investigative adventure into the world of running, ultramarathons, the shoe industry, and the Tarahumara Indians, a seclusive group of “superathletes” known for their running endurance and speed. The tale begins with a question, “How come my foot hurts?” and ends with a race between a few elite ultrarunners and the Tarahumara Indians in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. In between are a number of answers, questions, and challenges.

It was difficult to put Born to Run down. The book is simultaneously thrilling and informative. It not only recaptures the excitement of past distance running races (like the 1995 Leadville 100), but it also tells the backstories of BtR‘s protagonists — Ann Trason, Ken Chlouber, Caballo Blanco (or “Micah True”), “Barefoot Ted” McDonald, Scott Jurek, Jenn “Mookie” Shelton and Billy “Bonehead” Barnett. Even still, the book serves as an indictment of the running shoe industry, specifically Nike, while also laying out a compelling case that human beings evolved to be runners—chasing prey down, out-enduring them via the persistence hunt. At under 300 pages Born to Run, like the runners and races it describes, covers a lot of ground quickly.

Perhaps one of the most inspirational paragraphs from Born to Run contains the book’s title:

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else. And like everything else we love—everything we sentimentally call our “passions” and “desires”—it’s really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We’re all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.

Born to Run is one of those rare books that captures within its pages an authentic human experience and conveys that experience directly to the reader. It’s a book in which you are awed by superhuman athletes while still seeing their core humanity. And therein is one of McDougall’s primary takeaways: every human being was born to run, the design being coded within our DNA.

Since this book review is for the Vibram fivefingers fan community, I’d be remiss not to note that BtR gives a hearty mention regarding VFFs, specifically via Barefoot Ted, who apparently inspired Vibram USA’s CEO, Tony Post, to go for a run in his fivefingers. I’m guessing this was back in early 2006. “El Mono” (Barefoot Ted) also made use of his fivefingers at various times during his trek to race with the Tarahumara. And as previously noted on this site, Christopher McDougall seems to enjoy his fivefingers for running these days, too.

Conclusion: BtR is a fantastic read, and I whole-heartedly recommend it. More than anything, I expect this book to spawn the next generation of runners, and I’m optimistic that it will take barefooting (or pseudo-barefooting/minimalist footwear) mainstream. Born to Run is yet another step in a more general movement towards acquiring a higher understanding of what it means and requires to be human.

Thank you to Christopher McDougall for telling this tale: it needed to be told!

If you’d like to snag Born to Run, just click this link to pick it up from Amazon.com.

Exuberant Animal by Frank Forencich


Exuberant Animal by Frank Forencich

I read Exuberant Animal by Frank Forencich whilst vacationing in Jamaica and am just now (Actual date, not finish date per this review is July 9, 2009!) getting to review it. I’m going to have to limit my review to a few quotes that I enjoyed from the book, the first of which is one that actually describes the structure of the book:

Being bushy by nature, this book will not give you a linear, step-by-step formula for health and fitness success. IT won’t provide you with a prescription or a checklist. It won’t reveal a secret antidote for aging or a breakthrough discovery for instant weight loss. Instead, this bushy material will open your mind to new possibilities, relationships and ideas that you can adapt to suite your own purposes. Most importantly, the ideas in this book will help you develop a sense of depth and sustainability in your life of physical movement. You’ll begin to realize that the world of the body is far more than one of sets, reps and calories. It is immensely rich and endlessly fascinating-an ideal life-long study.

About two paragraphs up from this one was the following great sentence:

“Specializations have their place, but they inevitably lead to fragmentation.”

I couldn’t agree more. And Exuberant Animal takes you on a “bushy,” generalist route through the mind and body. Each chapter essentially stands alone, so the book reads a bit like a series of articles. It’s a great primer for anyone interested in getting back to the core of being human — a core that is fundamentally animalistic, and, well, exuberant!

Another quote I liked from a chapter titled “Learning learning:”

“I hear you,” agreed the philosopher. “The specialists have run amok. They do one thing really well, but they can never get to the other side of the oscillation. Fragmented disciplines, isolated studies. One trick-ponies. No one goes meta anymore. Conservatives are tightening the screws at every level. Multi-disciplinary studies are out of fashion and so no one can see the big picture. When you’re a specialist, taking the big view just isn’t part of your job description. and if you can’t see the big picture, you’re not going to adopt a rhythm. More likely, you’ll live and teach in a rut.”

And finally a quote from a chapter titled “Stop Drawing Horses:”

Find out your awkwardness. Figure out what you’re good at and then—Just Do the Opposite. Go towards your awkwardness, go towards your fear, go towards your instability, your errors and your ignorance.

All “bushy” quotes, no?

There’s a lot more in this book, and I’m giving this review short shrift simply because if I don’t get it out there, I’ll never get it up. If you’re at all interested in getting in touch with your humanity, I recommend picking up Exuberant Animal, a book about a holistic, mind-body life philosophy.

Frank Forencich has been at the forefront of the movement for humans to get in touch with their nature, and if you just want to plug in to what’s up to, be sure to check out his website:

http://www.exuberantanimal.com/

Constructive Living by David Reynolds


Constructive Living by David Reynolds

I picked up a used copy (the book is out of print) of Constructive Living by David Reynolds after reading a comment from James Hogan on Patri Friedman’s livejournal.

The book bills itself on the cover: “Outgrow shyness, depression, fear, stress, grief, chronic pain. Achieve the goal of Constructive Living—to do everything well.

At around 100 pages in length, the book is a quick read that essentially admonishes you to act your way into a better life. In keeping with my fascination/recent obsession with doing over thinking as well as Glasser’s Control Theory and Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, CL was right up my alley.

Part of CL is about paying attention to your life. To some extent, it seems a bit like a “living in the moment” sort of mantra; however, I think the idea is much more poignant/specific than that. If I could sum up CL in one sentence, I’d clumsily suggest that constructive living is “Acknowledging your feelings and then taking control of what you are doing.”

It’s in the doing that you can outgrow your feelings. There’s a maxim somewhere in the book that has managed to stick in my brain:

“Doing wags the tail of feelings.”

To elaborate somewhat on this quote, we can’t control our feelings. And since I can’t control what I’m feeling, I also can’t control the feelings of those I care about. What I can do is control my behavior. I can do something—anything. By doing, I can change my situation, which will almost always ultimately change my feelings.

We are only what we do. So doing is not just about taking control, it’s also a rejection of wishing, wanting, can’ting, or any other type of behavior that is non-constructive. I can dream about wanting to be successful all day — those dreams may be fun to imagine, but they do nothing to advance my state.

Here’s a memorable quote from the book that somewhat deals with the idea of dreaming and doing:

The first step in changing reality is to recognize it as it is now. There is no need to wish it were otherwise. It simply is. Pleasant or not, it is. Then comes behavior that acts on the present reality. Behavior can change what is. We may have visions of what will be. We cannot (and need not) prevent these dreams. But the visions won’t change the future. Action—in the present—changes the future. A trip of ten thousand miles starts out with one step, not with a fantasy about travel.

Indeed!

Constructive Living includes a number of exercises at the end of the book that work to refocus your life on doing. Not surprisingly, one of the exercises is exercising. Exercising is a fundamental way to act in a positive way and can work to change your feelings. Incidentally, he also suggests preparing your own meals. It’s interesting (to me) that over the past couple years, amidst a number of things I could not control, two things I’ve returned to over and over again have been cooking and exercise, which are really two core things that make you feel like a competent and capable human being.

CL has a distinct buddhist undertone. Another maxim in the book is that “self-centeredness is suffering,” which is less about being selfish and more about focusing your attention outward instead of dwelling on your own feelings. CL is actually based on Morita Therapy, a treatment that emerged out of Japan.

For such a short book, CL is worth re-reading. Even in its simplicity it has a great deal to digest, and I’m pretty sure I missed a few things.

Coincidentally, Penelope Trunk blogged on How to have more Self-Discipline the other day, and I’d recommend her post for a complimentary expression of Constructive Living (though I have no reason to believe that Penelope Trunk has read this book, there is a lot of great overlap in her post, which is also much better written than this scribbled out book review!).

Twitter Power by Joel Comm

Twitter Power by Joel Comm

Finally adding a very small review about Twitter Power by Joel Comm. It was disappointing. In short, Twitter Power provides an overview of what twitter does as well as giving some general pointers on how to use twitter. It’s the tweeting basics, in other words.

The reason this book fails is because it is unlikely in the extreme that someone who knows nothing about twitter will by this book before taking a stab at twittering and learning either by trial and error or any number of free online resources how to do the sorts of things Joel Comm writes about in his book. And if you were like me and bought the book prior to it’s reviews, you might have thought “Hey this Joel Comm guy has a ton of followers and his book is callled ‘Twitter Power’, which strongly evokes the notion of a power-user. Let’s see what tips/tricks the big boys know!” That’s what I did anyway. And when I just now (writing this review some two months after reading the book! Today is June 26!) went to Amazon, despite the book receiving over four stars with 70+ reviews, what’s the second highest review of Twitter Power but this gem, which I whole-heartedly agree with:

I was disappointed with Twitter Power, especially after reading the many reviews that claimed this book would reveal many techniques for both beginners and pros alike. For anyone that has been using Twitter for more than a couple weeks, this book is really 101. It seems to be geared towards people that have never heard of Twitter or are just getting started. If that’s the case, this book will help you get your feet wet, but it doesn’t shed light on anything you can’t pick up on your own simply by using Twitter for a few days.

Twitter is real time with instant response in most cases, and you’ll find out what works for you and what doesn’t almost immediately. You can also pay attention to the power players and note their approach. The book just points you to the top users on Twitter anyways. Save your money and do a little homework.

Another problem with this book, which I should have anticipated having previously read Joel Comm’s The Adsense Code, was that books about the internet’s latest stuff, even when bought extremely close to their completion, have a decidedly out of date quality to them by the time they are read. In the case of The Adsense Code, I even took some of the information to bat regarding certain Google policies only to be rebuffed by a friend who informed me that their policy had changed. Oof!

With twitter, just look at this graph of twitter’s traffic from alexa.com.

Twitter Power came out on February 17, 2009. In other words, assuming Joel more-or-less finished this book a good month or so before it went to publish, the “twitterverse” about which he wrote is no longer the twitterverse we have today. Sure, much of it has stayed the same, but much of it has also changed.

My conclusion: the model of reading-books-about-the-Internet is broken.

Finally, and I’m sure Joel Comm is a super guy, but I follow @joelcomm on twitter in hopes of gleaning knowledge about how a pro tweets and even that disappoints. For some great examples of twitter-users worth following, check out @mikemueller or the fantastic @gregormacdonald.

But don’t waste your time on Twitter Power.

The New Dad’s Survival Guide by Scott Mactavish

The New Dad’s Survival Guide by Scott Mactavish

Prompted by impending fatherhood, I picked up Scott Mactavish’s The New Dad’s Survival Guide from Amazon. At only around 130 pages, Survival Guide is a tiny book relative to the growing library of pregnancy and baby books that we are rapidly accumulating these days (What to Expect When You’re Expecting, anyone?). Survival Guide is a brief overview of what to expect out of pregnancy and early child-rearing, all laced with humor and presented in a readily digestible format for us idiot fathers-to-be. The self-deprecation is only slightly tongue-in-cheek, as I feel clueless on a daily basis.

The Guide is helpful in some regards as it is such a smattering of content, even though told in brief, that it will certainly teach you something you hadn’t already heard. This is a plus.

It’s also a fun book in that it’s light-hearted, and us new dad’s need that kind of joviality given the seriousness of pregnancy (Que the thunderclap).

One thing I didn’t care for so much about the book is that it’s so basic, with large print and plenty of clip-art pictures (Not kidding), that sometimes it just seems like “what am I reading here.” But I shouldn’t have expected too much: the subtext of the cover is “Man-to-man advice for the first-time fathers / Secrets Revealed / Codes Broken / Babies Tamed.” However, given that I bought this book online, I wasn’t able to see these bits beforehand nor did I take the time to virtually flip through the pages. Had I done either, I’m not sure I would have picked it up.

But if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have received such “Critical Survival Tips” as:

CRITICAL SURVIVAL TIP

Attend childbirth education classes with the FPP. Doing so will prevent a major freak-out when a human pops out of your FPP’s private parts, as well as preparing you for your role as a birthing coach.

Or:

CRITICAL SURVIVAL TIP

Get accustomed to the breast pump prior to the birth. Examine it, even take it apart, because when it’s hooked up to your FPP and milk is shooting out like a dairy, you may lapse into shock or laugh so hard that a little pee comes out.

So all in all, it was a fun read and somewhat informative; indeed, some of the specific advice could be quite useful (like preparing for the trip to the hospital).

Afterward: If anyone has any must-read books for men on new-fatherhood, please let me know!

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

Finished reading Stumbling on Happiness (SoH) by Daniel Gilbert last night, which weighs at about 240 pages and is an easy and informative discussion of the human mind, how we perceive the past and future, and our own ineptitude at understanding what makes us happy. It’s explicitly not a self-help book or a guide to finding happiness. SoH is more an expose on how our minds work to deal with reality, remember the past, and predict the future.

In short, we’re not very good at doing any of the above and Gilbert does a pretty excellent job at explaining why.

While reading SoH, I marked various pages that I found particularly insightful. I’m sharing those bits and pieces below, as transcribed from the book.

Note: This “review” is a bit long because I’m recording some of the core concepts of SoH for future reference (If I don’t do this, I’ll probably forget them!).

On the importance of control with regard to human well-being (Chapter 1, Prospection and Control):

Knowledge is power, and the most important reason why our brains insist on simulating the futrue even when we’d rather be here now, enjoying a goldfish moment, is that our brains want to control the experiences we are about to have.

[Regarding why we want control,] There are two answers to this question, one of which is surprisingly right and the other of which is surprisingly wrong.

The surprisingly right answer is that people find it gratifying to exercise control—not just for the futures it buys them, but for the exercise itself. Being effective … is one of the fundamental needs with which human brains seem to be naturally endowed …

… Research suggests that if [we] lose [our] ability to control things at any point between [our] entrance [into the world] and exit, [we] become unhappy, helpless, hopeless, and depressed. …

Our desire to control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable.

We want—and we should want—to control the direction of our [lives] because some futures are better than others … This idea is so obvious that it barely seems worth mentioning, but I’m going to mention it anyway. Indeed, I am going to spend the rest of this book mentioning it because it will probably take more than a few mentions to convince you that what looks like an obvious idea is, in fact, the surprisingly wrong answer to our question. We insist on steering our [lives] because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of tour steering is in vain … because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.

In other words, the futures we expect to have given we do X or Y are never the same way as we expect them to be when we imagine them now.

On our brains doing the “filling-in” trick and imagining thing we could not know (Chapter 4, Onward). This reminds me of jumping to conclusions or the logical fallacy of the “hasty generalization,” though both fail to capture what our minds are doing, which is using a great deal of spackling to fill in holes.

Your mistake was not in imagining things you could not know—that is, after all, what imagination is for. Rather, your mistake was in unthinkingly treating what you imagined as though it were an accurate representation of the facts. …

Without the filling-in trick you would have sketchy memories, an empty imagination, and a small black hole following you wherever you went … We see things that aren’t really there and we remember things that didn’t really happen, and while these may sound like symptoms of mercury poisoning, they are actually critical ingredients in the recipe for a seamlessly smooth and blessedly normal reality. … Even though we are aware … of the filling-in trick, we can’t help but expect the future to unfold with the details we imagine.

And on how the brain leaves things out (Chapter 5, Absence in the Present), Gilbert cites Francis Bacon:

Nearly four centuries ago, the philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon wrote about the ways in which the mind errs, and he considered the failure to consider absences among the most serious:

By far the greatest impediment and aberration of the human understanding arises from [the fact that] . . . those things which strike the sense outweigh things which, although they may be more important, do not strike it directly. Hence, contemplation usually ceases with seeing, so much so that little or no attention is paid to things invisible.

I’ll circle back to this later, but this is strikingly similar to our abilities to justify action over inaction, which Gilbert addresses later in the book.

Gilbert further illustrates how our brains leave out important details in discussing siamese twins and blind people who are unquestionably happy. Those of us without such disabilities have a hard time appreciating how individuals stricken with a dehabilitating problem could be just as, if not more happy than us. That is because our brains leave out important details. Regarding blind people, Gilbert writes (Chapter 5, Absence in the Future):

[W]hen sighted people imagine being blind, they seem to forget that blindness is not a full-time job. Blind people can’t see, but they do most of the things that sighted people do—they go on picnics, pay their taxes, listen to music, get stuck in traffic—and thus they are just as happy as ighted people are. They can’t do everything sighted people can do, sighted people can’t do everything that they can do, and thus blind and sighted lives are not identical. But whatever a blind person’s life is like, it is about much more than blindness. And yet, when sighted people imagine being blind, they fail to imagine all other things that such a life might be about, hence they mispredict how satisfying such a life can be.

Later in Chapter 5 Gilbert makes the astute analogy between how when we see off in the distance of space, our brains understand that we are unable to make out many details of the far-off objects, like the hairs on buffalo far off in the horizon; however, when we see off in the distance of time (either remembering the past or imagining the future), we fail to appreciate the many details our temporal perception may leave out (On the Event Horizon):

But when we remember or imagine a temporally distant event, our brains seem to overlook the fact that the details vanish with temporal distance, and they conclude instead that the distant events actually are as smooth and vague as we are imagining and remembering them.

One interesting part of the book describes how we use our brain hardware to imagine. This means that when we imagine a song or a picture in our heads, we trigger the parts of the brain that deal with visual or audio stimuli. This works reasonably well, but it is difficult for our brains to multi-task the hardware, which means that when we are feeling a certain way, that feeling impacts our imagining of something else – like the past or future. Gilbert writes (Chapter 6, Onward):

Each of us is trapped in a place, a time, and a circumstance, and our attempts to use our minds to transcend those boundaries are, more often than not, ineffective. … We think we are thinking outside the box only because we can’t see how big the box really is. Imagination cannot easily transencd the boundaries of the present, and one reason for this is that it must borrow machinery that is owned by perception. The fact that these two processes must run on the same platform means that we are sometimes confused about which one is running. We assume that what we feel as we imagine the future is what we’ll feel when we get there, but in fact, what we feel as we imagine the future is often a response to what’s happening in the present. The time-share arrangement between perception and imagination is one of the causes of presentism …

Gilbert goes on to discuss the balance our minds strike between the real and the illusory, and that this balance is achieved by the competing forces of what motivates us (the illusory) and what keeps us grounded (the real). He writes in Chapter 8, Cooking with Facts:

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

Rather than thinking people as hopelessly Panglossian, then, we might think of them as having a psychological immune system that defends the mind against unhappiness in much the same way that the physical immune system defends the body against illness.

The idea of our minds as having an immune system over otherwise cold-hard depressing truths is particularly apt. How often are we able to find the silver-lining on the darkest, most depressing of clouds? Indeed, this is almost certainly an evolved trait that forces us to press onward despite real, painful realities.

Two of the best ideas that Gilbert illustrates in SoH demonstrate the implications of having a psychological immune system. For one, the present of this mental immune system incites us to prefer action over inaction (Chapter 9, Looking Forward to Looking Backward):

But studies also show that nine out of ten people are wrong. Indeed, in the long run, people of every age and in every walk of life seem to regret not having done things much more than they regret things they did

But why do people regret inactions more than actions? One reason is that the psychological immune system has a more difficult time manufacturing positive and credible views of inactions than of actions. … The irony is all too clear: Because we do not realize that our psychological immune systems can rationalize an excess of courage more easily than an excess of cowardice,we hedge our bets when we should blunder forward.

The second point is that despite how we seem to believe we want as much choice and freedom as possible, our psychological immune system is so effective at its job that we are often better off without choice because the restrictions imposed by unchangeable decisions elicit compensatory justification by our minds, which enables us to make peace and appreciate our somewhat restricted positions (The Inescapability Trigger):

The costs and benefits of freedom are clear—but alas, they are not equally clear: We have no trouble anticipating the advantages that freedom may provide, but we seem blind to the joys it can undermine.

Somewhat related to Bacon’s observation that we tend to ignore the absences is the reality that unusual experiences stand out in our minds, tricking us into thinking they are the norm, when we are forgetting that the norm is the usual. Said better by Gilbert in Chapter 10, The Least Likely of Times:

The fact that the least likely experience is often the most likely memory can wreak havoc with our ability to predict future experiences.

In SoH Gilbert explains the idea of super-replicators, an idea explaining why certain genes are transmitted successfully, and applies this idea to belief systems. The super-replicator idea is simply that “any ( gene | idea ) that promotes its own “means of transmission” will be represented in increasing proportions in the population over time.” The idea of the super-replicator immediately elicits thoughts of the spreading of religion (and hark remembrances of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash):

If a particular belief has some property that facilitates its own transmission, then that belief tends to be held by an increasing number of minds. … [T]here are several such properties that increase a beleif’s transmissional success, the most obvious of which is accuracy.

I’d substitute usefulness or efficacy for accuracy, but the point is well made. There are ideas, both good and bad, that propagate and self-replicate. Gilbert goes into details on some of these ideas, perhaps the most prominent being the belief that money == happiness. The entire notion of self-replicating ideas is a great meta idea that, though related to how we perceive the world, could probably be expanded and written on in its own book.

At the end of SoH, Daniel Gilbert suggests a solution to help deal with our innately handicapped ability to perceive the future (and know what will make us happy). It’s pretty simple: observe others who are experiencing what you either will experience or want to experience. Watch how they feel because more often than not, the way they feel given a set of circumstances is likely to be how you would feel under the same. Gilbert calls this using surrogates, and it makes a lot of sense in theory though I can imagine it being incredibly difficult to put into practice. This is because we overestimate our own uniqueness in relation to other human beings when. As noted earlier, we are blind to how a blind man could be as happy as we are because we only see their blindness as a unique difference rather than seeing the gross majority of similarities.

All in all, some great insights are elicited in Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness. I have to recommend it!

Staying Together by William Glasser

Staying Together by William Glasser

Continuing with my trend of reading books on reality therapy or control/choice theory by William Glasser, I picked up a used copy of Staying Together. This book is subtitled “A control theory guide to a lasting marriage,” and as you might expect, discusses the application of control theory to relationships, specifically marriage.

Dr. Glasser was married to his first wife for 46 years before she died of cancer in 1992. From my perspective, this is anecdotal evidence that control theory can improve the odds that your marriage will be a lasting one.

Having said that, I did not find Staying Together to be as useful as the more detailed and process-oriented Control Theory or the more thought-provoking Positive Addiction. This isn’t to say that there aren’t applicable ideas in Staying Together — there are; however, I’m not sure there is a lot here that can’t be found in Control Theory.

ST is a quick read at around 130 pages. One of the more illuminating quotes from the book is when Glasser discusses “sexual love” and criticism, the latter of which is one of the bigger “no nos” in control theory. First, here is Glasser describing sexual love:

If we can find someone we love who loves us, and if we are able to combine this love with sex, there is a good chance we will enjoy what many people believe is the ultimate intimate experience: sexual love. Finding this is a lot more difficult than just finding sex because it can be experienced only in relationships where the lovers are very good friends. . . .

Friendship is based on sharing common interests, being able to say what’s on your mind without fear of rejection or criticism, planning and building a life together, and most of all looking forward to being with each other when there is nothing pressing to do. And a good friend supports the interests of a partner even when they are not shared. Someone you can talk with anytime about anything is the ultimate in marital friendship. There are too many married strangers.

Glasser goes on to describe how criticism kills sexual love:

More than anything else, hoping yoru partner will change or actively trying to change him or her desroys sexual love. that your dissatisfaction is justified makes no difference. You can be “right” and still kill your relationship. In practice, what this all adds up to is criticism. The criticism may be silent—a look, an inattention, a failure to do something—or it may be open and outspoken. but whatever it is, if your partner perceives it as criticism, your relationship is in trouble.

There is no such thing as constructive criticism. All criticism is destructive, and when it occurs in a relationship, it quickly kills sexual love. . . .

What I try to teach is how to express dissatisfaction without criticizing.

Glasser suggests framing one’s own dissatisfaction in such a way as to put the onus of change on you, not your partner. He says:

This is not criticism because it is not demanding that the other do anything different. It is saying hekllp me to do something better than what I am doing now. . . .

It also says clearly that all problems are our problems; neither of us is perfect, but let’s try to help each other work things out. IT also says what is so basic to control theory: All each of us can do is control our own behavior; I can’t control you and you can’t control me, and I don’t want to continue to waste time trying.

Not surprisingly, the application of control theory is one of two pivotal points in ST. The other pivotal point is that individuals in successful relationships manage to share a commonality in their outlook on the world. This is evidenced in two ways. First, Glasser distills everything down to five fundamental needs that each vary in strength. These needs are survival, love and belonging, power, freedom, and fun. The strength of these needs dictates our personality. Without going into detail, he suggests figuring out on a scale of 1-5 where you and your partner fall in strength on these five needs. From this personality profile, you should be able to discern the strengths and weaknesses in your relationship. It’s an interesting exercise, but I feel like his five categories aren’t exactly right. They approximate our needs, but for example, the need for power and freedom seem to overlap in my mind.

Personality is too complex to be summed up in a five need system. Regardless, our personalities clearly dictate a lot of our compatibility with mates. To the extent we can recognize where we are incompatible and mitigate these differences rather than trying to change our partners, we can strengthen our relationships.

Second, Glasser discusses a concept on which he goes into considerably greater detail in Control Theory: this is the notion that we have certain “pictures in our head,” which combine to form our “Quality World.” Essentially, these “pictures” are things, experiences, activities that satisfy our ever-changing desires. To the extent that we share common pictures with our significant others, we increase our chance of marital success. Thus, successful marriages tend to have partners who actively share common pictures, compromise when one partner has a strong picture the other doesn’t, and creatively seek out new common pictures to share.

I’d also like to note that Glasser writes at length regarding the importance of fun and creativity in a marriage. No doubt the married couple that laughs and plays together will end up staying together.

Finally, I want to include one more quote from the book as it almost sums up the importance of not controlling your partner in your marriage:

Of all tasks we attempt in life, successfully managing another person or other people is the most difficult. In marriage, it should not be attempted at all—it is a marriage killer.

On a more general note, and this pervades Glasser’s school of thought, control theory is not about controlling others. It is about controlling yourself and how you behave in the world.

So in sum, I ask myself: how can I better act to improve my relationships by changing the only thing I have control over — my behavior.

Below are all William Glasser books that I have read to date:

  • Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
  • Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on acheiving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
  • Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.

Positive Addiction by William Glasser

Positive Addiction by William Glasser

Finally and most important, to find happiness we need others, but an addict needs only himself. Dependent only upon himself and knowing he can pursue his addiction, he does so with a single-minded devotion that is remarkable to behold. But what if there were addictions that, instead of making you weaker, made you stronger?

Breezed through William Glasser’s Positive Addiction. At around 150 pages (the 1976 edition), it is a quick and thought-provoking overview of Glasser’s conclusion that there are activities that enable a person to achieve a transcendent, trance-like, meditative state where the mind can “spin free.” Positive addictions are activities that fairly predictably take a person to this mental state, are addictive in that missing the activity results in various symptoms of withdrawal (anxiety, depression, etc.), and are positive in that they are a creative, in-control time that endows an individual with strength in the form of both mental capacity and increased neurological horsepower. These strength gains carry over into all other aspects of life.

It sounds mystical in nature, but Glasser believes (and I have no reason to suspect otherwise) that the state of mind reached via positive addictions is natural and maybe even primal — a reversion to animalistic mental processes, perhaps).

What is the PA state? My understanding is that when you reach the PA state, your mind drifts, wandering effortlessly from random thought to observation to idea. This “spun out” or “free spinning” state is creative, relaxed, unforced, and difficult to intentionally maintain.

Though Glasser alludes to other possibly PA activities, running dominated his research which involved sending out a survey request in a running magazine. One response to Glasser’s survey helps describe the mental state:

When I am settled into my run I concentrate on running as much as possible but the mind wanders to thoughts of most anything. The state of mind is one of almost total complacency and privacy. Although you are in sight of people, cars, buses, school kids, dogs, etc., I feel a very privateness when I run. People may yell at me or a kid may bug me for a few hundred yards but due to the nature of running (it is hard and physically demanding) you are pretty much left to yourself and no one can invade your runner’s world because they physically are not able.

The above runner’s description may conjure up imagery of the well-known (Today but not when the book was written) phenomenon of a “runner’s high”. A runner’s high is the effect felt as the body releases endorphins to weaken the physical pain caused by high-impact nature of running. Though Glasser does not address this connection in Positive Addiction, given the numerous alternative means to reach the PA state, I am not convinced endorphins are fundamental — they may merely be an ancillary effect of higher-endurance activities. It seems to me based on personal experience that the meditative state achieved through repetitive, non-critical physical activity is separate from endorphin release.

Transcendental meditation is another way to acheive the PA state though Glasser concludes from his research that TM rarely becomes addictive because it tends to only induce the PA state infrequently.

Aside from regularly running, Glasser alludes to other possible methods that may acheive the PA state. His research into PA discovered subjects that appeared to be positively addicted to gardening, juggling, swinging a bat, bathing, creative but non-critical writing, and knitting. The PA state elicits in me the diminished, wandering awareness reached almost immediately prior to falling asleep; could the PA state be akin to dreaming while still awake? It also reminds me of how I (and many people I know) feel during a morning hot shower.

In Positive Addiction Glasser outlines six steps or requirements of a PA activity. If you’re looking for a potential PA, the steps as pulled from the book are:

  1. It is something noncompetitive that you choose to do and you can devote an hour (approximately) a day to it.
  2. It is possible for you to do it easily and it doesn’t take a great deal of mental effort to do it well.
  3. You can do it alone or rarely with others but it does not depend upon others to do it.
  4. You believe that it has some value (physical, mental, or spiritual) for you.
  5. You believe that if you persist at it you will improve, but this is completely subjective—you need to be the only one who measures that improvement.
  6. The activity must have the quality that you can do it without criticizing yourself. If you can’t accept yourself during this time the activity will not be addicting. This is why it is so important that the activity can be done alone.

Glasser’s default recommendation for those interested in reaching PA is to run. He cautions that getting to the point where you can run for an hour for five to six days a week could take up to six months, and even then, it may still take up to two years to get to the point where running is a positive addiction.

Self-experimentation — as I am more or less convinced of the benefits of positive addiction; however, in order to see if its something real and useful for me, I need to conduct some self-experimentation, introspection, and observation. Since I am not a runner (orjogger), I am interested in finding other means to achieve the PA state. I believe that I have reached the PA state at various times while working out. I have noticed symptoms of withdrawal when I miss workouts (See my discussion of Missed Exercise Guilt). Finally, I’ve noticed that working out with others tends to diminish my enjoyment severely even though weight-lifting often requires a workout partner (and I do suspect weight-lifting can be a positive addiction).

If you wish to follow my experimentation with achieving PA via alternatives to running, you should follow along specifically on my workout blog. Right out the gate I suspect that PA can be reached through kettlebell drills such as the kettlebell swing. Additionally, as I somewhat regularly bike (both mountain and road), I will be experimenting with positive addiction there, as well, though I’m nearly positive I have noticed the PA state while biking.

Further reading — This is the second book by William Glasser that I have read. The first was Control Theory. Glasser’s style of therapy has been termed “Choice Theory” or “Reality Therapy.” I have one other book of his that I plan on reading. I have enjoyed Glasser’s writing style and particularly his inquisitive mind and search for useful, testable and easy to apply methods to improve mental health. Working to improve your mind is something healthy individuals do not do enough. This is despite the obvious conclusion that just like it is healthy to strengthen your body via lifting weights and routine physical activity, it is also healthy to take efforts to strengthen the mind. As it is, positive addiction may increase both physical and mental well-being at the same time!

Post-script — If you are a runner, you should check out a site by a friend of mine, Serious Running. It is one of, if not, the best sites for trail running reviews, product reviews, tips, and other insights into running — all imbued with a humorous writing style. SeriousRunning.com is particularly poignant to this review as at least two surveyed applicants mentioned in Positive Addiction specifically used the phrase “serious running.”

Below are all William Glasser books that I have read to date:

  • Control Theory — the most comprehensive and useful of Glasser’s books that I have read, this one covers the basics of control theory (also known as choice theory and reality therapy).
  • Positive Addiction — a more niche focus on acheiving meditation and creative reorganization via pursuit of positive addictions.
  • Staying Together — focuses on applying control theory, the ideas of “pictures in your head” and quality worlds, and matching up basic needs (or accounting for differences in these needs) in relationships.

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Letters from a Stoic by Lucius Seneca

Seneca, like other Stoics, has a doctrine of nature that is remarkably close to that of Emerson or modern American environmentalists. The wise man (sapiens) will never be bored when contemplating the simple things of nature. The natural beauty of the countryside and the healthful action of the waves can have a calming effect . . . He also believed in the simple and strenuous life and the avoidance of luxury and decadence, and there are numerous passages . . . which decry the ostentatious, self indulgent practices of his contemporaries . . . Seneca has no patience for philosophy as a word game or a practice of engaging in hair-splitting arguments for their own sake. He rather sees it as a practice or way of life that all those who seek the good should investigate and adopt.

(From a helpful Amazon review)

Finished Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. I’ve only casually understood the Stoic philosophy prior to reading this book. As the above review notes, Seneca is concerned with making peace with death and living in accordance with nature. Seneca frequently cites the benefits of philosophy, which should be practical and useful. Fortune is something that should be looked on with ambivalence — neither should we get enamored when our luck is good nor depressed when bad. Happiness is a state of mind. I’m not positive, but it seems to me that Seneca originated the idiom to “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst” (See the quoted bit below).

The Letters are a quick read at only around 230 pages. If you are interested in some ancient wisdom from a Roman philosopher, you would likely enjoy this book. Below are some passages I particularly enjoyed from the book.

  • “Look at the amount of punishment that boxers and wrestlers take to the face and the body generally! They will put up none the less with any suffering in their desire for fame, and will undergo it all not merely in the course of fighting but in preparing for their fights as well: their training in itself constitutes suffering. Let us too overcome all things, with our reward consisting not in any wreath or garland, not in trumpet-calls for silence for the ceremonial proclamation of our name, but in moral worth, in strength of spirit, in a peace that is won for ever once in any contest fortune has been utterly defeated.”
  • “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen; but I do know what’s capable of happening . . . I’m ready for everything. If I’m let off in any way, I’m pleased. . . . for just as I know that anything is capable of happening so also do I know that it’s not bound to happen. So I look for the best and am prepared for the opposite.”
  • “Resent a thing by all means if it represents an injustice decreed against yourself personally; but if this same constraint is binding on the lowest and the highest alike, then make your peace again with destiny, the destiny that unravels all ties. There’s no justification for using our graves and all the variety of monuments we see bordering the highways as a measure of our stature. In the ashes all men are leveled. We’re born unequal, we die equal.”
  • “Death you’ll think of as the worst of all bad things, though in fact there’s nothing bad about it at all except the thing which comes before it – the fear of it.”
  • “For those who follow nature everything is easy and straightforward, whereas for those who fight against her life is just like rowing against the stream.”
  • “One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage.”
  • “No man’s good by accident. Virtue has to be learnt. Pleasure is a poor and petty thing. No value should be set on it: it’s something we share with dumb animals – the minutest, most insignificant creatures scutter after it. Glory’s an empty, changeable thing, as fickle as the weather. Poverty’s no evil to anyone unless he kicks against it. Death is not an evil. What is it then? The one law mankind has that is free of all discrimination.”
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