Category Internals

Une Noix

Paying Attention

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” – Lao Tzu

Richter

Quite early on, you were described as “inconsistent’, because you were always swapping levels, both in your subject matter and, even more, in your style. You have described yourself as ‘uncertain’. Or is some of it about proving to yourself and to others that you can do anything?

No, it isn’t that. Painting a copy of a photograph is something that can be learned. And there are so many conceivable kinds of artistic statement that I haven’t made – I’m relatively limited – a bit one-sided, in fact. Never anything but oil painting.

Inconsistency is simply a consequence of uncertainty, which I certainly do tend to suffer from – but then I also regard it as inevitable and necessary.

So perhaps uncertainty is the overriding theme?

Maybe. At all events, uncertainty is part of me; it’s a basic premise of my work. After all, we have no objective justification for feeling certain about anything. Certainty is for fools, or liars.

Posttraumatic Growth (6/17-6/18)

“PTG is a cousin to resilience, but more of a thug: meaner, more brutal, more devastating – and more transformative. Rich Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun, psychologists at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, coined the term in 1995, when they noticed they some people did not recover from their traumatic experiences in a typically resilient fashion. Rather than return to their set point, everything about them radically changed: their worldviews, their goals in life, their friendships. […]

“The one thing that overwhelmingly predicts it is the extent to which you say, ‘My core beliefs were shaken,'” Calhoun adds.

“What kind of core beliefs? “The degree to which the world is just,” Tedeschi says, “or that people are benevolent or that the future is something that you can control. Beliefs about, basically, how life works.”

Life Reimagined, The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife, Barbara Bradley Hagerty

End Game Analysis: “Mind the Gap”

This article, and the articles that follow analyze my thoughts on what I am calling my “end game.” You can read more about this concept here.

In my last post, I spoke about two positions within a “relationship spectrum,” one based on complete openness, and the other, extreme isolation. Understanding and managing what lies between can enable one to make better decisions when interacting with different people, all of whom have unique perspectives and ways of operating.

You may be asking: “But what does this have to do with the original end game? Isn’t the end game about critical thinking and advancement?”

I’ve learned that very close and fulfilling relationships can act as a source of fuel towards greater intellectual and creative achievement; their benefits are multifold. In contrast, challenging relationships can interfere with one’s ability to concentrate and ultimately advance.

At their worst, the ending of close relationships can result in severe depression and anxiety, the combination of which can cease all effort for an extended timeframe. Without an appropriate course correction, this decreased activity can begin to permeate into other areas.

This can be a major problem.

I used to believe that the fluid nature of relationships made it naturally resistant to any form of management. I no longer believe this. Relationships involving some type of mental disorder require considerable patience, understanding, and need to be carefully managed. Relationships that do not harbor such disorders also require a certain degree of management, although to a lesser degree.

While self-awareness is invaluable, situational awareness is what really matters here. Thus, the ability to remain mobile is largely dependent upon the relationships one finds him or herself in, and how each relationship should be managed, or ultimately contained (more about this later).

Given the various relationship types, personalities, and situations that blend the two, it is difficult to share specific examples. Books like “How to Deal with Difficult People” provide this type of guidance fairly well in both a lighthearted yet grounded way.

In my next post I’ll talk about an initial set of relationship principles that can enable one to effortlessly “mind the gap” without letting emotions run the show.

 

End Game Analysis: Connectedness

This article, and the articles that follow analyze my thoughts on what I am calling my “end game.” You can read more about this concept here.

In my “end game” narrative, I shared the following topic which is one I find to be omnipresent throughout the spectrum:

“The challenge at this level is balancing one’s ability to produce efficiently and effectively while remaining reasonably connected with others.”

As a refresher, the primary reason for focusing so heavily on “deep work” is a continuous desire to maximize one’s potential. However, there is a second reason which exists at a more subconscious level that requires examination.

While this may not be obvious to some, one’s ability to form and maintain close relationships with others depends heavily on the quality of past relationships. This is true in both professional and personal contexts.

If one’s “success rate” is low, the desire to form new relationships in either context will also be low.

This can pose a problem for two reasons:

Reason #1: Challenging assignments and new ideas typically originate from other people. Not staying connected with others places an artificial restriction on one’s ability to learn about, and engage in new opportunities.

Reason #2: Spending too much time working, and not enough time interacting, goes against the principle of deep work. Hard work requires intense concentration, and thus time spent in this area is somewhat limited by default (~4 hours per day). Maintaining a balance is considered beneficial.

Over the past decade, I have personally experienced numerous challenging relationships which have tested me in countless ways. With each experience comes a period of recalibration, which is a necessary step towards establishing appropriate boundaries and controls.

I will explore this topic in greater detail in my next post.

The End Game

The following is an email I wrote to a friend speaking in some depth about what I describe as “the end game.” I will expand upon several aspects of this communication in future posts, but I think sharing the original message here is valuable in itself.


The question you posed – “what is the end-game?” – is one that I have considered for many years. Ironically, you are the second to ask this within a 2-month timeframe (a friend of mine, whose personality is somewhat similar) asked me the very same thing.

I think what I enjoy most in life is the ability to think critically.

The inner struggle that I have been in for as long as I can remember is to “get closer to” sources of complex subject-matter. I think that will pursuit will always be a source of discontent in my life, with varying degrees. At some level, I have learned that this underlying discomfort is normal.

To elaborate, I find myself concerned when things get too “easy” from an intellectual or creative standpoint. In the past, this would equate with abandoning the topic for another. Now, I’ve adjusted my approach in that I will try to stay engaged but do so in a different way. That could be something as simple as getting the work done more efficiently or approaching the topic in a completely different manner. But, at some level, and for certain topics, I feel I am simply pushing the same pieces around on the same board. My goal is to find “boards” that allow for expansion; I have found “design” to be one.

This belief was further reinforced by a quote from Garry Kasparov in his book “Deep Thinking:”

“It’s also a better of opportunity cost. If the focus is too heavily on optimizing, nothing new is created and stagnation can result. It can be too easy to concentrate only on making something better when we might be better served by making something new, something different.”

Two years ago, I went to the GPU Technology Conference in San Jose to explore topics that are beyond my (current?) reach. I went to a talk where the speaker was giving a talk about personal performance. The question I raised in the session was essentially:

“How are some people able to rise to such a level where they are giving talks about complex topics, as discussed in this conference, while others are merely spectators?”

Needless to say, not everyone can be a visionary, but it was a question that I have been thinking about for a very long time. The answer he offered was one in a book called “Deep Work” by Cal Newport.

At the heart of deep work is an intense ability to focus, particularly on challenging subject matter. The book goes into a fair amount of detail in terms of overall strategy and the underlying benefits of “deep work.” Over the past several years (even prior to this talk) I have been steadily working to improve my ability to concentrate and deliver work of increasing quality and depth.

To this point, I recently formulated a deep work “spectrum” to help me understand where I fit within this journey. I have included some early notes about this below.

[Author Note: The details of this spectrum will be discussed in a separate post.]

To bring this email to a close, I fundamentally believe that everyone has untapped potential. As an example, if I look back at my personal training (read: exercise) journey over the past decade, I have made material progress. Surprisingly, I am at a point where I am comfortable with where I am in this space. I could go further on this journey (and likely will), but I have reached a point where I feel I don’t have to.

The difference for me in the intellectual/creative space is that I have not reached a similar juncture. In fact, I feel like I am still far away. Fortunately, I fundamentally believe that the principle of “deep work” is a clear path towards reducing this gap. And while I have made material strides over the past several years, I am really only at the starting line in terms of how deep my concentration ability can go. The benefit of this ability is a greater likelihood of producing new and innovative “work” which is very important to me.

(To be sure, there are other many other (psychological) barriers to realizing “greatness” but I am trying to address those separately, although they play a critical role nevertheless.)

Illegitimate Suffering

When I consider the personal losses I’ve experienced over the past decade, and in particular, my most recent experience, I am left to wonder why these experiences have entered my life, and why I find myself increasingly isolated after each one.

Given the majority of these experiences involved some form of mental disorder, this provides some assurance that all is not “random.” Yet, these experiences leave deep scars that will never truly heal.

What’s perhaps more unfortunate is the feedback shared by friends and family. In their desire to move past the visible suffering, they are inadvertently negating the experience all-together:

“Bad things happen to good people.”
“Now you’re free to have someone else enter your life.”
“There is a reason why this happened to you.”

(And any derivation thereof)

These comments, in particular, are reduced versions of their originals; the longer versions, ironically, drive an even greater wedge between giver and receiver. In my personal experience, I’m frequently left confused, conflicted, and angry. I don’t feel heard, and worse, my feelings appear illegitimate.

Ultimately, these comments reflect a lack of courage to lament.

Taking the necessary time for deep introspection, counseling, or other forward-moving actions is a necessary, albeit eventual, component of grief. All too often, I have found that people omit these valuable exercises with the intent of “getting on with life.” And, unsurprisingly, they wish others to do the same.

Ironically, persons with ADHD are unfortunately programmed for this type of behavior. By its very nature, they are able to quickly “forgive and forget” which only worsens the pain on the inflicted (partner) and, unfortunately, leaves them in an increasingly vulnerable position over time. Not everyone heals as quickly.

Those who have not experienced mental illness first-hand are unable to comprehend the severity of the disorder. All too often, relationships involving partners with BPD, NPD, or ADHD, exhibit behaviors that are clearly visible within the relationship arena, but are invisible in normal, daily “life” interactions. The result of this disconnect should be obvious.

Through no choice of my own, there is the benefit in transforming what would otherwise be a positive and supportive relationship to an academic exercise.

The “illegitimate” dimension of suffering is initially manifested through the seemingly detached guidance just shared. It’s only when this suffering extends into inaction, and potentially subsequent unhealthy relationships, that it becomes self-inflicted.

And this is what requires my greatest level of attention.

 

Attention IV – Habits and the Objective

In February 2013, I decided to begin working with a personal trainer.

From 2007 up until this time, I had been steading improving and expanding my training regimen having completed my first marathon and my fourth triathlon. I made this decision to push myself to the next level of fitness, and I needed formal guidance to get there.

Over the next three years, I learned an incredible amount about strength training and was able to significantly improve my overall condition through consistent and dedicated effort. In early 2016, I was awarded “Most Improved.”

Then, in early 2017, I learned that my trainer was relocating. Coincidentally, it was around this time where the purpose of our working relationship was beginning to lose its meaning. After all, we had gone through similar routines for an extended timeframe, and I didn’t require any further instruction or guidance in its current form. I was also operating within a fairly consistent routine.

Fortunately, via this foundation, I was able to maintain, and even expand upon, our original routine and continue to do so today.

While I set out to take my fitness to “the next level,” I never really defined what “the next level” really looked like. I just knew instinctively that I was operating well beneath my potential.

I am thankful to have had the financial means and opportunity to work with an experienced athlete for so long, and while his expertise contributed a great deal to my success, I discovered that the sheer habit of meeting with him represented half the effort.

Ironically, when coming up with the idea for this post, I came across an article by Marcia Reynolds entitled “Stop Making New Goals, Create Habits Instead.”

When I stop to consider this experience, and aspects of the book “Why Greatness Cannot Be Planned: The Myth of the Objective” by Kenneth Stanley, I’ve learned you don’t need a specific “objective” to get started, but you do need to plan and repeat small shifts in behavior to experience positive, and lasting change, regardless of what the “change” entails.

Attention III – Tactics to Strategy

While the previously shared tactics helped improve my raw productivity score, the approach wasn’t airtight.

For example, the use of Evernote helped me distinguish writing from communicating, but was I using Evernote too heavily now? Was the reduction in email traffic somehow giving the perception that I was disengaged? Am I focusing too much on productivity?

As with any shift in approach, there are pros and cons. Focusing too heavily on productivity did pose the potential that I would become further disconnected from the day-to-day reality of the agency. And perhaps I was spending too much time writing, and not spending enough time in other essential creative and technical pursuits.

These were indeed liabilities, but they didn’t reflect my primary concerns. The shift from communicating to writing (read: transactional emails to critical thinking) was a primary tactic. Tactics typically build from a core strategy, and I was absent one.

What does a productivity strategy really mean? Am I interested in further improving my productivity, or is there something else?

One answer came in the form of a best-selling book entitled Rapt – Attention and the Focused Life by Winfred Gallagher.

The book addresses the topic of attention, and how “your life – who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love – is the sum of what you focus on.

My focus on productivity is to do more with less. Given the diverse subjects that interest me, and the work required to learn and “realize” the material, transforming what would otherwise be “routine” work into a continuous stream of “high density” engagements is a critical and necessary shift.

If I can refine my focus even further, both in terms of subject-matter and the actual practice, I believe I can accomplish far more than what I’ve accomplished to date and in areas that would have otherwise been left unturned.