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July 2013

Post image for Other people see your problems more clearly than you do

I’ve been writing down my thoughts my whole life, although they were never very organized until recently. Often I’d write down an epiphany I had, in the middle of my science notebook or in the margins of a handout, unsure if I would still find it profound later.

I was always afraid of people finding these thoughts, I guess because then they’d know whether I was smart or just thought I was smart. So I’d put them in quotes, and attribute them to a fake name, circa a fake date. If anyone found it at least it would look like it wasn’t my thought. If an entry struck me as especially profound I might attribute it to a real person who was known for being smart. Oscar Wilde or the Dalai Lama.

This secretiveness was a persistent theme all the way through childhood and into my twenties. It gave me a sense of control over how others saw me. I was embarrassed to want certain things. I was embarrassed for other people’s desires for certain things, like whenever I’d see old men checking out young women, or overweight people ordering coffee with four sugars and four creams. I felt like people’s wants should be extremely private because they reveal so much, and so I didn’t want to let other people in on mine. I didn’t want other people to know what was motivating me at any particular moment.

My parents were always very helpful people to have in the house, and they were sensitive to my sensitivities, even though I had a hard time being candid with them about my intentions and motivations. If I was dealing with something tough they’d always be willing to sit down at the dinner table with me and help think up solutions. But I hated hearing their advice, because they thought of my problem very logically and I knew they were right. The answers to my problems were always simpler than I wanted them to be.

More than any other aspect of life, I found the job-hunting process demeaning and embarrassing. The prospect of pavement-pounding alone always overwhelmed me, and so I sought the wisdom of my parents. Job hunting had always made me feel like a beggar. I hated asking people with jobs to give me a job. My Dad’s suggested approach was rational — decide how many businesses to apply at every day, then go do that every day until you have a job. It’s simple and it will inevitably put an end to your problem.

The thought of actually doing this terrified me though, as it almost guaranteed the occasional moment of stark embarrassment that I would do anything to avoid. So my approach always involved sidling around the most challenging part, and trying to land a job with emails and job websites. This isn’t very effective and made the problem last months instead of weeks, creating many times more pain than necessary, even though the whole reason I was doing it that way was because I wanted to avoid pain.

This is a theme I keep noticing in life. My problems are always simpler in the eyes of others, just like other people’s problems seem simpler to me than they make them out to be. If a friend came to me today with a dilemma and he didn’t know what to do, I’d have no problem telling him “What I’d do.”

Strangely, it’s almost always obvious what others should do, and less obvious what we should do ourselves. I’ve become increasingly aware of this phenomenon, both on the giving end and receiving end of advice.

The question is, who’s mistaken? Is it that others are always oversimplifying your problems, or is it that you’re always overcomplicating them?

I think there is, almost always, at least a bit of both going on. But I know that in my case, I’m normally the one with the more distorted view of my problem and I’d bet most people are that way too. It’s easier to be rational about other people’s problems than your own, because you’re much less emotionally invested in other people’s problems, so you can stay more rational about it.  Read More

Post image for How to change your mind

Just before diving into East of Eden, Lily absorbed a novel of almost the opposite kind — short, contemporary, overstated — unclassic in every way. She really liked it and wanted me to read it.

Unlike most people, I put down most books I start. There are a million books to read, and I don’t know why people force themselves to finish books they are no longer enjoying. Lily knows I do this with a hair trigger, and she wanted to make sure I gave this novel a fair effort, giving it time to grow on me before I passed judgment on its jokey tone.

“You have to wear a certain hat when you read it,” she said. “Your board-game-playing geek hat.”

I did, and when I began I could see why she said that. It’s called Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Every character is a caricature. The prose was a little too up-to-date for my normal tastes: repeated references to tweeting and industrious ex-Googlers — one character is reading the Steve Jobs biography that was released shortly after his death. Copyright 2012.

I made sure I was wearing a somewhat silly hat for the first thirty pages or so, and I’m too hooked on the story to put it down now. But I did need to make a conscious effort to get into a not-so-serious headspace when I began, or I might have jumped to something else.

The metaphor of putting on a particular hat to approach a particular endeavor is as old as any. They typically correspond to archetypes or professions — you can put on your stoic laborer’s hat before tackling some yardwork, your monk’s hat as you sit down to meditate, or your scholar’s hat before sitting down to study for an exam. But there’s no definite category of qualities that can be represented in a “hat.”

While eating salad on Lily’s balcony one evening last week, we talked about how she’d used different hats — the proverbial type — as a way of deciding what tone of thought to bring to a particular situation, with the idea of becoming more conscious of where her head is right now. When she’s feeling down, for example, she deliberately puts on her mopey, self-pity hat, and suddenly the whole episode seems more ridiculous than serious. Hats help us see where we’re coming from, or where we ought to be coming from.  Read More

Post image for The sun is setting at all times

During the summer I try to steer my day so that when the sun sets, I’m outside, in a place where there’s nothing blocking the view. Sunsets are always worthwhile.

They’re also always fleeting. During any given rapt sunset experience, there’s always a moment when you realize that its brilliance has peaked and it’s beginning to disappear. Sometimes I arrive at the bridge or at the end of a Westbound street only to realize right away that I’ve missed that peak.

When that happens, at least I can be vicariously happy for the sunset-watchers some distance west of me, whose sunset is just beginning to get brilliant. That fact is a wonderful gift to human beings — the sun is always setting.

Thousands of miles past them, at the same moment, early risers on certain Pacific islands are about to see it rise. The sun is always setting and always rising, always high overhead and always nowhere to be seen. Objectively, this is as true as anything else we know. It is always setting, right now.

We have to acknowledge that truth is relative to the observer. If there were nobody observing the sunset there would be no sunset.

I daydream often about the wild sunsets that must be happening in a gazillion different skies out there in space, from the surfaces of foreign planets. There are trillions of stars, with differening colors and intensities, and each can be seen from different surfaces at different distances, through different atmospheres, over unthinkably exotic landscapes.

But there’s probably nobody there to see most of them, and so they are only really happening in my imagination. A sunset, after all, is an experience. So you need an experiencer, in the right place, for it to exist. You could still say that there are billions of potentially experienceable sunsets out there, but they’re not real until someone is standing there on that strange world, watching a blazing blue and green double sunset slowly dissolving over some mountains.

Science is by far the most helpful institution we have for making sense of our experiences, and for predicting what we might experience next. The way they do it is this: a bunch of different people observe the same phenomena from different angles at different times, and they talk about it and come up with a concept about what those phenomena are when no particular person is looking at them at all. They add all these conclusions together and put it in books, which purport to describe how things really are, regardless of what you may experience them to be personally.  Read More

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