Being Cast Away

The Tom Hanks movie ‘Cast Away’ has always lingered there somewhere in my subconscious. There’s something about that idea that has always appealed to me. It’s kind of like a symbolic representation of a dream I have. Being cast away into a land of the unknown, with everything deconstructed, no safety, comfort, or security. The only thing that exists is potential and the only needs that exist are the primordial ones.

There’s a kind of purity to that image, and it’s impossible to find in the real world. Everything is cluttered, there’s nothing but messy, organized, accidental, and purposeful manifestations of years of societal tinkering. The environments are well defined, the routes are all outlined, there is nothing but order, too much order. But the destination is unknown, it’s a by-product of something far too complex to understand. And you’re only a node, a cog, a link, a rope.

In the empty Island, there’s nothing but nature. But it’s nature still undefined, still pure. And you have the opportunity to manufacture a new reality, out of FedEx boxes, out of remains of the old society that you deem useful.

Isn’t that the archetypical hero journey? To find the lost objects, and bring them back into use, for a more meaningful purpose. A pair of ice skates could result in a few hours of pleasure, or it could result in the difference between survival and death.

You want nothing but the essentials on the island. Food, water, and a friend to talk to, and maybe a creative avenue. That’s it. Well, that could be hell, or it could be transformational beyond belief. It could lead to undiscovered skills such as fish hunting, swimming, building. What would happen to people if they were pushed beyond their comfortable self-imposed limitations?

Could it be that stripping oneself of all the clutter around him lead to superpowers unrealized? Maybe. It’s worth finding out.

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It Ain’t What You Don’t Know

A classic Mark Twain quote that I love, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so” contains in it a transcendent kind of truth.

The world we live in is a place of chaos and uncertainty regulated by our mental models of it. Our mental models are the real space we occupy. Two people can live in the exact same geographical location but are separated apart by endless oceans when it comes to how they perceive the world.

To be able to function properly, we need to update our mental models regularly, accommodating the changes around us. It’s this flexibility that allows us to be useful human beings to our societies.

However, while it’s easy enough to make small changes to our mental model when it comes to adjusting minute details in work or in our personal life, it’s infinitely more difficult to do so when it comes to our grand models.

Our grand models tell us about how the world is, and more importantly, how we ought to behave in the world. When something disrupts our grand model, all the other pieces seem to fall apart. Naturally, we’ll try our best to keep our grand models intact., even if it comes at the expense of our most valuable asset, time.

For this reason, it’s unwise to engage in argumentation with people about their grand models. I used to be oblivious to the implications of my arguments with people in the past, I used to see them as no more than opportunities to engage in an intellectual exercise, a game of wits, and nothing more. Afterall, how could anyone of us be so sure that our grand models are true?

But the story is deeper than that.

When we commit to a plan that will guide our behaviour for any length of time, such as a job or a relationship, we must do everything we can to maintain a certain level of coherence. Otherwise, life will stop moving forward, and we become perpetually stuck in a state of analysis paralysis.

However, it’s all too important to make sure to be aware of exactly what we’re getting ourselves into. The details, such as short-term pleasure and reward can only keep us going for so long before we start questioning the very roots of our commitment.

Why are we doing this job? Why are we in this relationship? What are the things that we need to believe to keep us involved and engaged and attentive?

And so, as a rule, the longer people are engaged in a certain way of life, the more difficult it is for them to track back, to rethink the very foundations they are resting upon.

It’s not just people who are old and set in their ways that are susceptible to find it difficult to rethink their foundations, it can start happening at a very young age. What it comes down really, is responsibility.

The more people depend on you, the less you’re inclined to update your grand model, and the more likely it is that you’ll justify your thinking with sunk costs. The thought process might go like this “I can’t just decide to re-evaluate how I think the world is, or how I should be acting towards others, that’ll just paralyze me, I’m in way too deep. Too many people depend on me, everything is on the line, my happiness, my future, my self-respect. Besides, I’ve already spent so much time doing this, how can I just get up and quit? What the hell am I going to do?”

The trouble, of course, with that kind of thinking is that it fails to achieve the exact objective it tries so desperately to protect, practicality. The longer you continue to live in discordance with how you truly are, or how you truly see the world. The longer you try to deceive yourself, the more difficult it will be to achieve any practical benefit at all

Your life turns into a hellish game where you become your own malevolent, crude dictator, forcing yourself to ignore everything you’ve learned, in service of a fake ideal that you no longer want.

Life becomes absurd, and in the words of Orwell in 1984, the grand mental models of your life mutate into something similar to the haunting slogans “War is Peace; Freedom is Slavery; Ignorance is Strength;”

Manuevering Through Chaos

Chaos has always been something that interested me, The thing with chaos is that everyone experiences it to different degrees, and everyone responds to it in different ways. My concept of chaos is, of course, relative. I used to think that organization was the remedy of chaos. That if you put things in order, you would free up enough focus for more pertinent things. I believed that being less chaotic meant being more laser focused.

That may not be so true. While being more organized does allow for efficiency, there seems to be another dimension that organization cannot solve. Imagine a large circle, compose of an inner solid circle and an outer circle. The inner circle is the first stage of chaos. Combatting it involves having a schedule, understanding what to prioritize and when, and implementing a system that ensures consistency. And don’t get me wrong, that will get you very far. But the outer layer is peripheral chaos.

Peripheral chaos relates to direction. This is the more serious, yet subtle kind of chaos. You are unlikely to suffer from it in the short run as projects will be completed and stakeholders satisfied. However, the general direction you are taking yourself is unclear. Knowing what to aim for is the logical next step. Of course, what you aim for evolves with time. What you aim for today is not the same as what you are going to aim for tomorrow.

You can then, easily make the argument that it is futile to take your aims very seriously. If you were certain they were going to change, then it would be a waste of time to orient your life in a way that seeks to accommodate an ever-changing destination. For one thing, I do not think this is a powerful argument, and I will explain why I think that is the case. However, I do think it is an objection that ought to be taken very seriously and examined further.

The reason why it’s a bad argument is that the alternative is definite chaos. Going back to the inner circle, if you chose to stop planning because plans generally had the proclivity to change, then you’d never accomplish anything. It’s a minimum pre-requisite to achieving what you seek out to achieve. But consider that the most effective plans are those that are able to accommodate change. In other words, flexible daily plans that allow for a little bit of chaos but still end up accomplishing most of what you had planned to do is superior to both having unflexible plans or no plans at all.

The outer circle then should be tackled in the same way. I disagree with having a definite, definable long-term goal. If you can be that granular with what you want, you wouldn’t know what to do once you’ve achieved it. Your long-term goal, as a matter of fact, should be anything but concrete. Instead, it should be as concrete as possible, but no more. It should be more about lifestyles rather than material things, it should be about your physical health rather than that of numbers on a screen, it should be about a state of mind, rather than a state of power.

You do not have full control of your psychological health or even your physical health. And most people have very little control over the way they live day to day. Those are real challenges, and clearly, the most worthwhile, because absent any of them,  the importance of any other superficial accomplishment would pale in comparison. And yet, most of the focus we have are geared towards achieving things that are farther out of our control, and that, even if we achieve them, will not satisfy our deepest urges.

This, of course, runs counter to the “success” literature that advises people to set fixed goals. I believe this is akin to having fixed daily schedules. It is routinely violated, and incompatible with everyday life.

Similarly, to find the right balance in maneuvering through chaos, I think we should consult ourselves over an extended period of time. If you were asked to articulate your long-term vision today, it would be different from what you wanted 6 months ago, and certainly different from what you will want 6 months from now.

There are obvious reasons of course why that is the case. Your location will drastically have an effect, so will the people you interact with on a daily basis, what you expose yourself to, and how you live. Any change to any of these would expectedly change your general outlook on life.

To constantly beg the question across time, and attempt to coherently articulate it, is critical. You will recognize with time, what the constants are. You will recognize what the variables are. The outer layer of the circle of chaos will become a little more transparent. Beneath it, truths will begin to emerge. Not all truths, of course, because there is a lot more chaos than there are truths. And there is definitely more chaos than there is your personal energy to combat the chaos itself.

But some kind of truth, even if low in resolution, will contribute to learning about higher resolution truths. The only danger to this project emerges when you start to question the notion of truth itself.

 

Decision Points – That Extra Push

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Decision points are smartly engineered scenarios that force you to stop and think about what you’re doing. I learned the term from Behavioral Economics and really think it’s fascinating, and extremely helpful. The idea, put simply, is that your mind basically has two systems. The first is responsible for your intuition and instinct. It’s automatic and fast, and operates by using heuristics. Your behavior is molded and improved upon through practice. When you play sports, dance, or drive a car well enough, it takes over and is responsible for the extraordinary calculations that you’re able to make in a very short amount of time.

The second system, as described by the brilliant Psychologist Kahneman in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, is the deliberate system. It’s what’s responsible for conscious thought, and is characterized as being slow and careful. It would be responsible for doing things like studying for an exam, or making a to-do list.

Decision points then interrupt your system 1, and force your system 2 into action. Why would you want that happen? Consider this example. You’re sitting at home one day, watching your favorite TV series, and munching on your favorite snack, let’s say it’s a giant bag of Doritos. While watching the show, the process of eating becomes automatic as in you aren’t consciously aware of every chip that you’re eating. Because your System 1 is in charge, you don’t have to worry about the chips and can focus your attention instead on whether or not Walter White is finally going to get what’s coming for him.

What usually happens in this scenario, and many other similar scenarios, is you would tend to overeat according to your own standards. What I mean by that, is if I asked you beforehand whether or not you think you should eat a whole bag of Doritos, you’d probably say no. These are you own standards, and automatic processes do a good job of disrupting it.

You would surpass the point of eating until you are full because your thoughts aren’t focused on how hungry you are, or aren’t. It’s not surprising that a lot of dietary advice out there would suggest you eat without watching television. It keeps you more aware of how much you’re eating, and that’s good. But I think there’s a better solution, and I also think you’ll agree with me.

Eating while watching TV is a pleasure in life, and it should never be substituted for anything. This is where decision points come in. The first thing you would need to do is instead of grabbing the entire bag of chips, pour a bit of it into a bowl. Alternatively, eat a smaller bag. The reason this helps is that studies have shown that we are less likely to eat 5 bags of something, than eat 1, even if the 1 bag has the exact same quantity as the 5 bags combined.

This, I think, is truly amazing. What’s happening here is that every time you finish from 1 bag, you’re forcing yourself to make a decision point, “Should I open the next bag or have I had enough?” The reason I think this is so insightful is because it can be applied to so many different areas of life that have to do with discipline and control. Here are some from the top of my mind.

Say you’re trying to cut down on drinking, you can apply the same principle. To force yourself into a decision point, think about making your cups smaller. Maybe you’re a heavy smoker, and you want to cut down on smoking? Use more boxes with less cigarettes in each box, or smoke smaller cigarettes. Say you were watching too much TV and needed to force yourself to focus more? Set an alarm that would go off at the end of each episode. What all of these situations do is that they force your System 2 into an action. And as it turns out, that brief moment of intervention can go a long way to helping you stay disciplined.

Telling ourselves we need to something is easy, but forcing ourselves to do it is usually not. Oftentimes, we find ourselves really motivated at the start but see that motivation wane off as time progresses and routines kick in. It’s easy to stay focused and disciplined in the short run, but the challenge is to to maintain it, otherwise, there’s no point in trying in the first place.

I think decision points are a very powerful tool, if used correctly, and cleverly to be that extra push that you need to stay focused, motivated, and disciplined.

Achievement

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“For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.” Van Goethe

There are a very small number of people throughout history who have truly achieved great things from a global and historical perspective. What I mean by that is that there are very small number of people who have gone down in history as reformers and difference makers,  A testament to that fact is that by the end of this post, you will have probably recognized the authors of the quotes that you will see. This means that the same names have reappeared and will continue to reappear throughout your life.

This kind of timeless achievement, in my opinion, is very context based. The people who’s names are inscribed in history books, and who’s teachings and legacies are religiously celebrated and tirelessly echoed by school teachers, professors, parents, and students are remarkable and exceptional people. But the significance of the things they have done depends heavily on the historical and cultural context that they found themselves in.

What they all seem to have in common, however, was self belief. You don’t become a president of a great nation without really believing in your capacity to undertake immense responsibilities with a minimal amount of fear and doubt. In a sense, it seems rather conceited or even delusional to believe in yourself unflinchingly, and genuinely feel that you are entitled and fit to reach posts of such high rankings. It’s a little insane. I say this because it is really impossible to reasonably reach a conclusion that you are qualified to rule a country of hundreds of millions of people, and be able to make decisions that would, for better or worse, have lasting effects on their lives and on the state of the country that you are in.

This, of course, only applies to politicians, but surely, a certain level of conceit must have existed within the greatest entrepreneurs of our time like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. They must have believed that they were capable of reaching heights that the vast majority of people wouldn’t even dream of reaching. I think on some level, if you do want to achieve this level of fame and status, you need to allow your ego to inflate infinitely.

On the other hand, there are figures who are rarely talked about in mainstream media, but who have truly accomplished remarkable things in their lifetimes and have dramatically changed the lives of people around them. Social entrepreneurs, humanitarians, nurses, and doctors. It’s unfortunate that history does not remember those people with the same reverence that they do world leaders, generals, dictators, and psychopaths. But perhaps those who work towards the benefit of mankind without caring about gaining fame, money, and post mortem statues would have wanted nothing more than silent acknowledgement, and perhaps a selfless philosophy that can opposes and contradicts the wicked nature of man, and one that that can be emulated and repeated.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Harry Truman

Philanthropy, while the worthiest of all causes, will never be able to capture the ambitions of the majority of people. Self interested fame, wealth, and power will always be the prime motivators for human action. They always have been.

However, maybe achievement can be characterized more internally and personally. Maybe we can all become achievers, and even overachievers in our own small domains, by being dedicated, perseverant, and diligent. Or maybe, we can learn to become more delusional, and achieve greatness. Whatever we choose to do, we better do it the best way we can.

“If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.” Napoleon Hill