Fighting with Monsters and Staring into the Abyss

‘He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee” Nietzsche

I’m not sure what Nietzsche meant by this quote, and while interesting to find out, is not the point of this post. I remember feeling a quiet stillness when reading it for the first time, and since then, it’s always been in the back of my mind. It’s a rare piece of language that I can read many times over, and still feel puzzled and intrigued by it.

First, let’s break it down. The quote has two parts. The first relates to fighting with monsters, while the second relates to staring into the abyss. Both the first and second contain a reflexive, mirror-like consequence.  I would interpret both as basically meaning the same thing, with the second part emphasizing the first part.

What are Monsters?

I think one of the reasons I find the Nietzsche quote really interesting is because it is true on multiple levels. It is as true for the trivial as it is for the serious. We generally have the tendency to manifest into malicious creatures when presented with a certain set of circumstances. We could call our perception of the set of circumstances the “Monster”.

One set of circumstances could be work, another could be a game, a bad habit, a relationship, or social life. A set of circumstances are external realities that exist independently of us. Our perception of these external realities influences our behaviors.

As you dig deeper, you may be able to uncover the details of each circumstance. The subjective resolution of the image of the Monster varies in size depending on what particular set of circumstances most strongly attracts you. If I have a minor tendency to play a game on my phone every now and then, it’s a minor monster. My perception of this particular circumstance is not very powerful. However, If I am binge drinking all day every day, my perception of drinking is a Major Monster.

So how does the Monster come to exist? This would depend on the interplay between our subjective perception and the external reality. Here are some features of the external reality that would give rise to the Monster.

Here are some characteristics of activities that have the potential to create a Monster.

  1. Attractive Force: Pulls you in
  2. Dangerous: Potential for Future Harm.
  3. Ambiguous: You don’t know what the future carries.
  4. Hunger: Like an organism, the activity lives or dies depending on whether you feed it.
  5. Magnitude: How powerful the activity is. An activity that has the previous 4 features but lacks any real power to affect you can only lead to a Minor Monster.

Seeking the Thrill

Most people have at least tried to seek out thrilling, adrenaline-inducing experiences to some degree. Some have tried and burnt their fingers and never tried again, while others have jumped in head first and experienced it indefinitely, and finally, some people have tried to flirt with these monsters harmlessly at first, but ultimately lost the battle.

There are many possible interpretations for why we almost universally look for Monsters in our lives. Maybe we are evolutionarily wired to look for harmful creatures and try to destroy them. It may be that our tendency to seek out thrilling experiences is only an echo of our ancestors past that manifests in us as deep, subconscious urges.

There are other explanations of course, but the reason why I would tend to go this direction is that we certainly don’t consciously choose to chase Monsters. In other words, if one was being rational, they would never subject themselves to unnecessarily harmful activities. Some people get addicted to jumping off of airplanes or breaking high-speed records on the highway. There is no rational justification for these activities as the risk/reward ratio doesn’t make any sense.

But we tend to do them anyway, because, on a very deep level, we are likely used to associating thrill with triumph. When we successfully hunted or killed dangerous animals in the past, we achieved sustenance, security, and love and admiration from the tribe. If we perceived the act of hunting animals as the only way to survive, our perception of hunting animals developed into a Monster. We became killing machines and eventually directed out power inwards towards fellow human beings.

It might be the case that only after we encountered and slaughtered animals, and developed our fighting power and capacity for harm that we embodied our ideas of the animals we were so fearful of. These same animals killed and threatened our kin and pushed us to seek out ways to become powerful. We manufactured better tools with sharp edges that mimicked the teeth and claws of our enemies. We figured out, on some level, what the requirements for successful killing are, and we accentuated them. These requirements may have been a certain degree of aggression, sharp edges, or speed. We not only imitated animals, we created an exaggerated mirror that we could use to decimate animals, not only through physical tools but through psychological conditioning. We might have turned into an amplified, ruthless version of what threatened our survival.

Perhaps people today have a deep yearning for that feeling and when they can’t find it anywhere, they create it by giving birth to a new Monster.

To recap, life circumstances, in themselves, cannot be Monsters. They are merely life circumstances, and different observers would experience the same set of circumstances differently. The Monster itself depends on the observer or the mind. The real Monster is not just a set of circumstances, it is our perception of that set of circumstances. We perceived the tiger as an imminent threat. That perception itself led us to become more powerful, violent as a response. When we “fight with monsters”, we are only really fighting with our own perceptions of reality.

Whether it’s drinking too much, or smoking too much, or killing too much, or eating too much, or gaming too much, or spending too much time on social media, or being abusive to others, we are experiencing nothing but internal battles. We are only really fighting with ourselves, and depending on what we are fighting for and depending on who we are, we either give rise to Major Monsters or Minor Monsters.

It’s a battle because the counter position always exists. Imagine being addicted to day trading, one part of you wants to get out, while the other wants to stay in. The part of you that wants to stay in no matter what the circumstances gives rise to the Monster. The day trader used the graphs and charts as tools, gets angry and motivates himself like a warrior and perceives the stock market as a fierce tiger. To the day trader, he isn’t the Monster, he’s only trying to take down the Monster to gain the admiration of the herd.

But in reality, the Monster is in his head. A part of him feeds it, while another part destroys that perception, and depending on who wins that battle, the day trader either finds a safe exit or develops his perceptions into a Major Monsters and loses.

 

 

 

 

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The Lonely Race to Nowhere

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One of the most alarming and unsettling trademarks of today’s society seems to be the universal urge to be involved in some kind of race. People race to get an education, to make money, to get into relationships, to get a job, and to find happiness. Oftentimes, they end up with an education they never even wanted, money that made them more miserable, relationships that they never really wanted to get into, and jobs they hate doing. Most tragically of all, they almost never achieve happiness.

I think the main problem with this ‘racing’ approach, is how easily it tends to get mischaracterized with efficiency. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with efficiency as long as it is geared towards the right objectives and goals, but when it isn’t, there’s nothing more dangerous and damaging. Efficiency, like many other things in life, can effectively blind us. It can make us believe that our purpose is to get to a location, a vision, and downplays the importance of reflecting on why we should want to go to this location in the first place.

In general, the main culprits seem to stem from social pressures including family and friends, as well as media based ideals that advertise quick success, and immediate happiness. Many of the most popular shows on TV idealize those who achieved their dreams when they were young, and try to encourage you to do the same. I can’t think of any that promote introspection and careful thought. But regardless of what these external factors may be, the fact that we can choose to ignore them means that we ought to.

This cultural promotion, I think, gives birth to insecurity, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy and failure. For every success story, of course, there are a countless number of failures, and what happens when we only see success stories being advertised to us on a regular basis is the illusion that most people succeed.

Of course, this isn’t to say that one shouldn’t strive for success, that is the opposite of what I’m saying. I’m making the point, that to be successful, it’s essential to understand the reasons for why you are doing what you’re doing before you design the most efficient ways of doing them.

I think people can only be more successful if they truly believe in what they’re trying to accomplish. A lot of us seem to be driven to go somewhere, trying to get there as fast as we can, and what I find bizarre in these cases is that, oftentimes, the destination has nothing to do with what we really want. Many have gambled away their finances and health, their psychological well being, happiness, and compromised their relationships with family and friends to try to get to where they want to be, which paradoxically, are all of the things that they have gambled away.

Many people look for shortcuts because they believe that if they can do it faster than everyone else, then they’ll be the last ones laughing, that the joke will be on everyone else. The reality is quite different.  Trying to find such shortcuts ends up consuming most of your life.

Asking ‘why’ instead of ‘how’, being unrealistically optimistic about the things we really love instead of the things we think we should love, prioritizing the things that matter to us now instead of the things that we think will matter to us in the future, doubting everything instead of believing everything, listening to ourselves more than listening to others, are some of paradigm shift that I think need to happen.

Another problem is society’s condemnation of indecisiveness. I find that to be one of the most puzzling features of our time. Indecisiveness, of course, can be harmful if it was about things that don’t really matter. What to pick on a menu, what to get from the supermarket, which movie to watch, and what color socks to wear. These things are harmful because they take up too much time, and they won’t yield an amount of value that would make the time you spent deciding on them worthwhile.

But when it comes to deciding what you want to be in life, what you want to get out of it, and who you want to be with, and why, then surely, if there was ever a good reason to waste time, it’s to reflect on and ponder these questions as much as we feel is appropriate.

Battling Distractions and Creating Time

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I feel that one of the biggest challenges that we’re facing today is dealing with distractions. Every day, we are exposed to a plethora of information, most of which about things we don’t care about, some of which we do care about, but are not interested in learning about for the time being. Productivity and ability to focus are the victims of this recent phenomenon.

I say recent, because only a couple of decades ago, people weren’t exposed to a fraction of the amount of information we are. We almost create distractions every minute by opening new tabs, accessing several pages at once, until suddenly, we let ourselves become overwhelmed. Work becomes increasingly more challenging because you’ve created an entirely new world of tasks every time you click on a link, run a program, or open a new tab.

I find that this has been very difficult for me, personally, to overcome. There are several thoughts going on in my head simultaneously and my thoughts become blurred, I become less effective, and eventually fail at sticking to the script. Of course, the barrage of information and options are not the only things that distract you. It’s often that people you know may do that too. And the worst thing about being distracted by people is that you never expect it.

When you create several pages of information and tasks, the process is gradual, and while you do slowly start to realize that you’re being distracted from your main objective, the realization comes more pleasantly. It’s synonymous to ripping off a bandage slowly. When people distract you on the other hand, you’re caught off guard. You were doing something and suddenly you’re denied from proceeding with it.

Interestingly, it almost never matters if you’re being effective or ineffective, these distractions tend to bother you just the same. There are, of course, other things that can distract you from the task at hand. Appointments, running toilets, thunder, sickness, foul odors, animals, construction work, honking, games and many more. But I think most centrally, people you know and the internet make up the bulk of that distraction time, at least for me.

If you aren’t one of the many gifted people of the world who are able to supernaturally multitask 24 things at once, then perhaps reading my suggestions could help.

I’ve identified a couple of simple ways of dealing with them that have helped me tremendously.

Dealing with people:

I’ve always found it interesting how if you tell someone that you have a meeting, or class, or event, they’ll understand that they shouldn’t contact you because perhaps interrupting you in these cases would render them no benefit since you are unlikely to be able to respond.

I figured, that if that can be true of those particular situations, then why can’t it be true for a part of your leisure time that you’re spending on working, studying, or reading? I can recall several instances where doing something in my leisure time is profoundly more important to me than a lecture, meeting, or event. The idea that I should restrict distractions to things I care less about because they’re more formal in a social context never made too much sense to me.

My solution then is that I would schedule a particular time of day, every day, where I’m automatically unavailable, as if I have a meeting. Say, 1 hour. And I let people who contact me the most to know about it. For one hour a day, your phone goes on airplane mode, and the added benefit is that you know you need to make this hour count. Otherwise, the entire exercise is futile.

I like this idea because the restricted time frame, and the fact that you’re actively deterring interruption creates, in a sense – a motivating factor that forces you to focus more, and at the same time getting rid of those irritating distractions.

Dealing with information:

As for information, my solution was also simple. I used to be in the habit of opening several tabs at once, like the friend I mentioned earlier on, not to that extent of course, otherwise, I wouldn’t have felt surprised. What I do find to be extremely helpful is to structure my internet surfing time with a somewhat of a loose schedule. I say loose, because some element of randomness is necessary. Things will occur to me in the next ten minutes that haven’t yet, and creating a schedule too precise could be redundant. But a loose schedule would enable you to divide your time into different categories, tackling one or two at a time instead of 10 or 15. Thus allowing you to tackle each task effectively within the limits of your brain’s working memory.

I personally hate distractions as you might have already figured out by now, and if someone has some useful or interesting suggestions on how to get rid of them, I’d love to hear them.

Curiosity

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“The first and simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind, is curiosity.” Edmund Burke

Curiosity for me is an overwhelming sensation. It’s a sudden burst of energy, an old acquaintance, a dear friend. If it leaves me, so will my purpose in life.

When people describe their attitudes towards learning with adjectives such as “insatiable” and “voracious”, it’s hard for me not grin in agreement. It’s a universal feeling, and I think that’s what makes it so powerful. My concern is how sometimes we let more unimportant matters in life get in the way of it. There are so many distractions, so much mindless, addictive, superficial entertainment that numbs our minds and silences our curiosity.

To read about a subject you’re passionate about not only takes passion and curiosity, it takes patience and time. Some have taken advantage of our natural tendency to be attracted to images and highly engaging quick entertainment that substitutes for introspection and learning. I don’t say this as a criticism of culture, or the times, but as a criticism of myself and those like me. I used to be more curious when I was younger, but let my curiosity become subdued by immediate entertainment, choosing to boost my endorphin levels instead of searching for insight.

Thankfully, I have taken steps to eliminate this kind of cheap, unrewarding entertainment out of my life. I have seen people take drastic steps such as going without internet for a prolonged period of time, or putting their phone away. This, to me, is no solution at all. It only makes the problem even worse. Imagine an alcoholic trying to kick the habit by promising himself to stop drinking for a week, then going back to it. I think the better way is to eliminate dependency, not to take a vacation from it.

In other words, I believe taking permanent steps are the things that stick in the long run, because well, they’re permanent. I used to spend a lot of time playing games on my smartphone so I decided to remove all games off of my phone. In my previous post, I talked about decision points. This is one in particular that has had a dramatic affect on me. If I wanted to play a game, it would require me to search for one, and then download it. The fact that I need to take steps to play the game makes it easier for me to not want to.

The other reason I don’t believe in putting your smartphone away or going offline is because I think we’re truly lucky to be living in this era of information. It isn’t stressed enough how much access to knowledge we have. It’s unprecedented, amazingly easy and really quite remarkable. We have the ability to find information on absolutely anything in seconds. Not long ago, this was considered science fiction. To turn away from this technology is ludicrous, especially when we are more than capable of benefiting immensely from it.

The problem with distractions isn’t only that they waste time, but they kill curiosity. The amount of energy we have to learn and think is finite, and distractions are effective at draining out that energy. They are effectively wasting your time and energy. Certainly, some games have been shown to improve mental sharpness as well as shows and movies, I am not referring to those games that require you to actively use your mind. I’m specifically referring to games and shows, and game shows that don’t.

The beauty of curiosity for me, is that it exists in everyone and yet is the same in no one. a part of being human is to  have many inherent flaws that do well to hurt our growth and potential. Even some of the traits that we consider in high esteem can be damaging to our well-being. If you love too much, you can be blinded. If you trust too much, you can be misled. If you are too kind, you might be taken advantage of, if you are too brave, you may hurt yourself. Curiosity is one of the rare things that cannot be harmful when used in excess.

If you’re anything like me, and the infamous phrase, “Curiosity killed the cat” was wandering through your mind, it would interest you to read this interesting post that attempts to track down the origin of the phrase. Apparently, It was originally “Care killed the cat”, a line in a Shakespearean comedy before it was recently  changed. http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/curiosity-killed-the-cat.html

    “Curiosity is the lust of the mind.” Thomas Hobbes

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.

Writing Things Down

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For a lot of people, this won’t come as news to them, but for many others, it will be life-changing. I remember a time not too long ago when I was the least organized person I knew. I was constantly missing deadlines, forgetting to do activities I promised I’d do, and unable to stick to any plans I made. My life was pretty chaotic. Strangely enough, I wasn’t really miserable. I still managed to somehow get by. My lack of organization didn’t kill me, but it severely crippled me.

The worst thing was I never really thought there was a problem to begin with. Sure, people closest to me would sometimes hint that I should be a little more organized every now and then but my laid back attitude was the perfect weapon to resist those criticisms. I listened idly as their words glided by, and despite the fact that there were many areas of my life were taking a hit, they still weren’t enough to wake me up.

Interestingly, the day I did wake up didn’t come as a result of a dramatic event that happened in my life that forced me to rethink how I was living. It was actually out of pure boredom and curiosity that I decided to Google search ways to become more organized.

It was then that I was exposed to a great book by David Allen called “Getting Things Done Fast”. I read some reviews and really liked what I was hearing, so to speak. I decided to go pick up a copy the very same day. The amazing thing about the book was that what was being preached was so simple yet so profound. I took away a lot from the book, but the main thing that really stuck with me and is a major part of how I live my life today was simply to write things down.

I found my medium which was my smartphone. And I tried really hard to make it a habit to write things down. Any idea I had, anything I needed to do or buy, any person I needed to see, and any events I needed to attend, I wrote it all down. Yes, to those of you who have been doing this their whole lives, I finally learned that keeping a diary was actually very useful.

The general idea was simple. Your working memory can only process so much information, and every day, you are bombarded by tons of different things to remember and retain. And each of those things had different levels of importance, and deadlines. You simply could not keep track of everything efficiently, and if you tried, you’d end up feeling mentally exhausted and supremely inefficient. This was such a revelation to me, and I remember being really excited when writing things down actually started yielding results. I felt I had so much more energy and time.

The reason why I never picked up the habit sooner was because as a young teen, I thought that wasn’t a cool way to live. That being so organized was something you just do when you’re a grown up, and never think about when you’re younger. And that conviction was so strong that it stayed with me, for years, well into my adult life. Old habits truly do die hard, and this was one of the hardest habits I’ve had to kick.

After I got into the habit of writing things down, I found myself becoming much more organized. In fact, I became somewhat obsessed with the idea. I tried to find to research what the best apps out there were, and I still do till this day. I learned to prioritize more, to understand what things really are important, and what things just aren’t. It was a moment in my life when I learned to grow up and I’m thankful that it came at a time when I was in a safe learning environment, and not out in the real world.

So if you don’t already, write things down. It works.

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