Smart Imposter Syndrome

I have a friend. Let’s call her A.

A is an exceptional person; a philosophy graduate and young PhD candidate, a Fulbright scholar, a small business owner and a gifted writer and thinker. She read Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philisophicus, for fun.

Objectively speaking, most would agree that A makes a strong case for being considered intelligent. It’s a trait-claim backed both by anecdote and evidence of achievement, with the only subjectivity being in the degree

But, whenever she enters a room full of people, especially smart people, she feels like an intellectual imposter. Some sort of fraud about to be found out at any moment. So she tends to observe much more than she speaks, and in many cases may even experience a repressive duality, seen by others as only being a half-version of herself, compounding the complex further through measured responses significantly less detailed than her thinking.

A has a subtype of what is commonly known as Imposter Syndrome. Specific to smarts, but also tied loosely to her own version of success.

On Louie CK. Louie grew up in a working class family, moving from Washington to Mexico City, to eventually settle down in suburban Boston when he was 7. His father left a few years later and he and his three older sisters were raised by his mother, Mary, who was a computer software engineer. He’s now considered one of the most popular and respected comedians in history, but for several years after gaining notoriety he suffered what he refers to as “poor person anxiety”; the more money he earned, the more he felt like he was going to screw up and lose it all, or worse, that it wasn’t even real to begin with.

Naturally, the first time he had more than $100,000 in the bank, he was petrified. So much so that he withdrew the entire sum in cash and piled it up in his apartment, in small denominations, just so he could believe that it belonged to him. He needed to see it in physical form to accept that it wasn’t an abstract fantasy, as had been the case for all previous thoughts he’d had about wealth. It lasted a year. Louie is now worth about 15 million dollars, and he uses an ATM card.

I have another friend. Let’s call him B.

B is an exceptional person; a legal academic with degrees in philosophy and law, who scored top marks at Australia’s leading law school and received a scholarship to study at Oxford. Throughout high school he consistently aced his classes, especially mathematics, music and creative writing, and he wrote regionally award-winning stage plays based around philosophical speculations and logical paradoxes. He’s always had a reputation for being smart and academic and humble, and yet, he rarely talks about intelligence (he thinks it’s weird I find geniuses so interesting).

B, like A, also makes a strong case for being considered intelligent. B is aware of this, just as A is in her own case, and yet B doesn’t feel any self-doubt (or conversely, any arrogance), in any sense, irrespective of the setting. He just feels, as it can only be described, normal.

On Terence Tao. Tao has a reputation as the most talented living mathematician in the world. He was able to multiply 4 digit numbers by 4 digit numbers in his head when he was just four years old, he has a Fields Medal (the math equivalent of a Noble prize), a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant, and he’s known by fellow mathematicians as the ‘Mozart of Math’. Basically, he’s a Good Will Hunting-level genius. The curious thing about Tao, though, is that when colleagues discuss his abilities and achievements in interviews, they almost always give equal attention to his personality, and most notably, how much humility he has. In spite of how supremely intelligent he his, he seems totally unimposing. Students find him endlessly helpful and humble and friendly, and if physical demeanour and body language are anything to add, he seems like one of the nicest people you could possibly meet.

On being a human. From what I can tell, there seems to be two primary operating systems available in our heads: the system of self, governed by the superego, and the system of purpose, governed by logic and intention. Things are more complex than that, obviously, but for the sake of understanding something like Imposter Syndrome, broad definitions can be useful.

Function-wise the two systems differ as much as an Xbox and a Macbook; two entirely separate outlooks, operated alternately, by the same user. The user, in this case, representing our consciousness of the present moment: an attention spread outward from the middle of our mind, that becomes awareness.

The difference is due to their differing priorities. In the system of self, for example, an increased value is placed on questions such as ‘Who am I?’ / ‘How am I perceived by other people?’ / ‘How tasty is this taco going to be?’ And then answers to those questions: ‘I am a smart person’ / ‘Other people see me as smart’ / ‘This taco tastes goddamn amazing.

Operating according to purpose, on the other hand, places attention in a mostly external context, with things being more MO-based: ‘What’s the best way to speak to this person so they feel valued and welcome?’ / ‘How can this thing be done more effectively?’ / ‘A letter to the editor on that climate change piece needs to be written’ / ‘Tacos for everyone, fuck yeah!’.

A purpose-based outlook is still concerned with who we are, only much more objectively. My friend B and Terence Tao (particularly Tao) are good examples of purpose-based thinking. Consider this question: How is it possible that the smartest mathematician on the planet lacks any intimidation or sense of entitlement, and in fact emboldens the confidence of the people he speaks to? There can only be two possibilities: 1) He’s projecting false modesty, controlling an impulse for the sake of having a good social perception; 2) He genuinely doesn’t think about being smart. Looking into Tao’s development and upbringing, it’s quite clearly the latter.

So, how is it possible to have a trait as profound as unparalleled intelligence, and not think about it?

The answer, I think, is in the verb difference between what we know to be true and what we are thinking to be true. Imagine your mind as a house with a storage space: A piece of knowledge is like a constructed ornament; once the materials of an idea form into the completed structure, a personally-known and evidence-based truth, it can be placed in your mind’s storage, ready for viewing or dissemination whenever necessary (if Tao were asked about his intelligence in an interview, for example).

The distinction between the experience of friend A and someone like Terence Tao, is that Tao places an awareness of himself in a compartment he places no priority or focus on; A, on the other hand, navigates her house while still carrying her smartness ornament with her.

In terms of the house analogy, Imposter Syndrome is the inherent and precarious fragility of an ornament being carried—a rejection of the idea means it can be easily dropped and broken. It has nothing to do with an absence of truth.

This is extremely common. Imposter Syndrome usually applies to success, but can equally target someone’s sense of attractiveness, their religious beliefs, even a feeling of likability. Smartness is a much envied and defining trait to have, so it’s no surprise that people with talented intellects find themselves more aware of their intelligence than others; consider the kind of feedback they receive from a young age and how that plays into their sense of self-worth as they mature. Unless constructively counterbalanced or locked into a focus-zone from an experience (such as that related to love or trauma), the maturing mind can’t help but think about the traits it knows about itself, especially those that become structural to its sense of self-value.

Thinking of ourselves as smart leaves us particularly open to vulnerability, especially for introverts. Consider these two forms of self-focus: ‘I am smart’ versus ‘I am muscular’. A conviction of physical muscularity finds supporting evidence in the mirror; it’s easy to match the belief with reality. Perhaps even more importantly, though, is that it provides a clear sense of a person’s relative stance in the population. A bodybuilder knows exactly how muscular the biggest lifters in the world are, and exactly how much smaller than them he is. He may walk around like a gorilla while wearing a singlet in the middle of winter, but it’s easy for him to be realistic—he’d never consider himself alongside the biggest.

Unlike traits such as physicality and attractiveness, smartness is pragmatically abstract. It sits in a cloud somewhere governing our weather, and in spite of all the tests available, everyone knows that it’s impossible to really measure properly. It’s something inside that other people sometimes notice if it’s visible enough, but to the smart person it becomes salient; felt and examined in every solved problem and witty one-liner and analytical deduction being made. It follows that the smarter someone is, the greater the regularity of internal validation they receive, the more compounded the condition becomes.

Smart Imposter Syndrome can also be justified. It’s entirely possible—and common—for people to have inflated views of their own intelligence. If we hold a false belief of ourselves that isn’t reflected externally, the balance of the conviction hinges mostly on our own assumption; an idea rather than a reality. Any conviction that balances on internal thinking alone, no matter how convincing it is, is a tenuous one. The superego then overcompensates by ramping up awareness and exaggerating any example that it finds.

The smart introvert, therefore, has a very unique challenge on their hands. Not only are they naturally inhibited from demonstrating enough of their intelligence to gain a confident perspective of themselves, but they are also smart enough to intuit relative truths without much real world application. They know they’re smart, they just have a hard time being confident about it. It’s the reason intelligent people with Imposter Syndrome tend to feel increasingly normal as they mature—real-world evidence accumulates through their living experience.

Someone genuinely smart can also overestimate themselves though. Similar to the flat-out delusional, you have to put yourself out there. The less we say out loud, the more we rely on information learnt within an unchallenged context, the smarter we will appear to ourselves.

How to fix it. The quickest way to feel more comfortable with externalising smart thinking publicly, is to change your operating system. Studying cognitive control and meditation and emotional intelligence, and learning how to shift an awareness away from personal traits to purely pragmatic activities. Being confident the ornament has been built and placing it safely in storage. Out of sight, out of mind, as it were.

It’s self-hypnosis. Engaging your higher mind to examine your thoughts, and being vigilant to any thinking centred around your intelligence. Becoming attuned to even the slightest glance at how smart you are and immediately looking in a different direction; keeping in mind that noticing how smart you are is actually counter-productive. Think about it: if you notice how well you’re writing something or analysing a situation, your mental resources are divided; your focus fractioned to 80% on the task at hand, 20% on ‘What a genius I am!’ And the potential for reaching a zone of super focus—the kind where you can smash out 1,200 essay words in an hour—all but eradicated.

Smartness may be enviable but it’s an incredibly stigmatic thing to talk about, and lacking self-confidence can be a legitimate problem for many people. Society is built by effective individuals working together, and by its nature the smartness trait enables a person to determine how effective in society they can potentially be. This creates pressure, then disappointment. They set an extremely high standard for themselves that they’re unlikely to meet without the benefit of experience. So they become tentative, never fully opening up, only expressing enough to sustain a half-baked belief in themselves.

Salient as smartness may be in the mind, there’s one thing that truly overwhelms any attention to it: a curiosity in something bigger than yourself, and the passion that comes from its inquiry. Back in 2007, Terence Tao posted an answer to a question on his blog, titled: Does one have to be a genius to do maths?

His response:

The answer is an emphatic NO. In order to make good and useful contributions to mathematics, one does need to work hard, learn one’s field well, learn other fields and tools, ask questions, talk to other mathematicians, and think about the “big picture”. And yes, a reasonable amount of intelligence, patience, and maturity is also required. But one does not need some sort of magic “genius gene” that spontaneously generates ex nihilo deep insights, unexpected solutions to problems, or other supernatural abilities.

The popular image of the lone (and possibly slightly mad) genius – who ignores the literature and other conventional wisdom and manages by some inexplicable inspiration (enhanced, perhaps, with a liberal dash of suffering) to come up with a breathtakingly original solution to a problem that confounded all the experts – is a charming and romantic image, but also a wildly inaccurate one, at least in the world of modern mathematics. We do have spectacular, deep and remarkable results and insights in this subject, of course, but they are the hard-won and cumulative achievement of years, decades, or even centuries of steady work and progress of many good and great mathematicians; the advance from one stage of understanding to the next can be highly non-trivial, and sometimes rather unexpected, but still builds upon the foundation of earlier work rather than starting totally anew…

Read the full post here

Tao’s language here is on fire, and a perfect example of a purpose-orientated mindset—he’s engaged with a reality infinitely more fulfilling than the idea of his own prowess. For Tao, and for every other talented yet normal-feeling individual, being smart is just the same as being able to walk, being able to eat, and being able to laugh; all enviable traits if they’re lacking, but when it comes to standard, the reality is, they don’t matter. Outside of effectiveness and attraction, they’re not supposed to; intelligence is just a proxy to thinking. The only thing that matters in the case of thinking, in the context of human value, is what we do with it.

Becoming a Writer

Introduction: The Late Starter

Writers come about through a special kind of existential curiosity, relying less on the education system and more an ability to learn deeply from experience. If you excelled at writing in school it was probably down to your genetics and home environment, not your teacher or the amount of homework you did (but it all helps). The education system is equipped to help average writers become decent writers, which in itself is a bigger step than it sounds. Thinking in slightly more aggressive terms though: What measures would someone need to take to transform themselves into a good writer—the 1 in 20 student skilled enough to write a not-completely-shit, publishable book?

In his writing memoire On Writing, Stephen King explains:

While it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

There are examples of good writers becoming great ones out there (David Foster Wallace miraculously leaped from student fiction in high school to Pynchon-class postmodernism in college), but King’s point is that it’s so rare as to be a futile pursuit. And I daresay, perhaps one made on the back of an attempt of his own. Those who have made it have usually had genius-level intellects. For the rest of us, the merely mortal, I think the focus is better placed on open-ended capability; the capacity to express thought with flow and energy and sophistication on any topic the writer cares about. A complicated fiction or an essay on macro economics. If a person has plenty to write about and can captivate the reader in doing so, they are providing the same basic utility as that of any published author.

And what is a writer’s utility, exactly?

She engages minds, breathing life into the thoughts of an audience with crafted and communicated thinking. A favourite quote of mine from On Writing, “Writing is refined thinking. If your masters thesis is no more organised than a high school essay titled ‘Why Shania Twain Turns Me On,’ you’re in big trouble.”

Writers artfully harness the common lexicon to galvanise the human being hidden deep within the reader. They energise the sloth of the unchecked mind, and allow the reader to navigate their own world with a wider and deeper appreciation of themselves and everything that happens around them. Writers provide an escape that can serve to elucidate that which their readers are escaping from. They have true and lasting, human value.

The task of ‘becoming a writer’ is a much bolder proposition than becoming a better one. It assumes that a meaningful writing standard can be developed from a low base and with a late start (as long as there’s a degree of untapped or unpolished talent within the person). The road of any major personal growth is picketed with disciplined practice and influence and sacrifice, and just the same as it is with any pursuit, the process of becoming a writer can be made systematic and purposefully orientated—so long as there’s a burning and resilient passion at the centre.

On music. An often unmentioned benefit of having a musical background, especially one rooted in classical or jazz, is that a person gains a clear vision of how they can radically improve their ability at anything they choose to. Within weeks of focused practice a piano player can feel their fingers start to glide across keys with greater speed and precision, improvements they can clearly see without detecting any change to the directive being sent from their mind. Just that the keyboard seems gradually bigger, their fingers a little slower—it all seems clearer, somehow. Everyone experiences this with any skill picked-up in life, but with a technical/creative pursuit like music, the attention to improvement is tiered and detailed and ongoing in faculties of the creative, emotional and technical. You’re always trying to get better, and for the most part, you are. The body then takes on a transient form that can be manipulated in any direction for the better. You realise you can get seriously awesome at anything if you try hard enough.

The neurology behind skill improvement has been popularised by the psychiatrist Dr. Norman Doidge in his bestseller The Brain That Changes Itself, a memoire on a new cognitive science called neuroplasticity that depicts dozens of neuroplastic (brain-changing) improvement anecdotes highlighting its broad potential. For example, rewiring the brain to successfully counter stroke-paralysis, or the effect of pornography on real life sex drive (it isn’t good), or the guy who became so fast with arithmetic he’s literally called ‘The Human Calculator’ (he can process basic calculator functions faster than students can do them on an actual calculator).

Neuroplasticity is the process of rewiring neural pathways from the brain that facilitate habitual behavioural responses to stimulations of any kind, that gradually become embedded through repetition with an actual physical change in the brain (albeit a very very small one). Neural pathways and connecting synapses underlie every habit that we learn, and can change shape over time. But it’s hard work. The brain matures as it gets older, causing it to lose some of its pliability, and lasting changes can become more challenging to make. They’re by no means impossible, but over time they can require greater perseverance and dedication than if a person had started younger.

A late-blooming writer who has successfully transformed from merely functional to confidently capable finds themselves buoyed by a big advantage. Perhaps the full potential of their talent will never be reached, but an attention to the incremental internal changes around writing development (that is to say, the development of their thinking), endows them with a unique kind of introspection. They see the potential pliability of the mind as they hadn’t seen it previously. They are able to make themselves smarter.

The first advice given on writing is pretty much always the same (reworded here for emphasis, slightly):

Read Like a Fucking Demon

We all know this one. The greatest ally any writer has is their reading, the more prolific and broadly sourced the better. But if a person isn’t benefited with a conditioned reading habit from childhood, it can be extremely challenging to build one as an adult.

The journalist Malcolm Gladwell makes the case in his book Outliers that it takes about 10,000 hours to master anything and to feel like it really ‘fits’, which coupled with Doidge’s accounts of neuroplasticity seems like a logical scope to be working with for reading (and in turn, writing, but we’ll get to that), especially with regard to late-starters. 10,000 hours equates to roughly 4 hours of reading a day, for 7 years!

That may sound excessive, but the goal is to feel more ‘habitually drawn’ to the activity of reading than to activities like TV watching, frivolous time-wasting and social media: consider  how engrained those tendencies become over time, the tendency to distract yourself from boredom in increasingly normal-feeling ways. These tendencies develop organically as we age and can feel like core parts of our person. They are not. We develop habits to simplify the structure of our conscious behaviour—things are easier when they’re automatic, when there’s little effort to an action. Through herculean effort and sustained focus a person can choose their habits manually, learning the feeling and repeating the associated behaviour until they fuse and the repetition happens without a conscious thought.

But is becoming a writer-level reader just about reading more? To modify a quote I read recently: “The average reader may read War and Peace and go away able to write a thousand word summary on an adventure story, but a skilled reader will read Tom Sawyer and extrapolate enough to write War and Peace.”

It’s possible to draw an infinite amount of information out of a text: Information the author never intended to be there; information informing language-use; information about the author themselves; information about matters totally unrelated to the story. Everything in our experience can be deconstructed, philosophically speaking, to an atomic level of understanding, and language is one facet where this deconstruction can serve as a key skill.

For example, take a look at this very simple sentence from Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea:

He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy.

Pretty simple on the surface: A man is holding a fishing line and suddenly hooks something large. But what mode of thought would Hemingway have been in to describe it as he did? There is something distinctly lyrical and romantic to the imagery and within the craft of the language itself; think about the juxtaposition of ‘happy feeling the gentle pulling’ — how smoothly corrugating does it read and sound? And then the contrast to ‘hard and unbelievably heavy’, a weighted word combination that drops the lyrical arc to end the sentence!

But let’s go further. What is there to the sound of that combination of words? Why does that particular group ordered such a way leave an impression of ‘lyrical and romantic’; and what, exactly, makes up that impression?

“He was happy feeling” harnesses a slightly alliterative effect, the two ‘Hh’ sounds bridged by the verb ‘was’. A less sophisticated approach might be: “He felt happy pulling the line”. But knowing the line was also gently tugging back it either becomes complicated by needing additional groups, or falls short in its portrayal by not including the term. Hemingway uses passive sounding verbs that emphasise the musicality of the nouns and adjectives; contrast ‘was’ to ‘felt’, ‘felt’ to ‘feeling’ – the ‘t’ sound stops the lyrical energy flow somehow, whereas the ‘ing’ of ‘feeling’ propels it.

But that still feels a bit confused, and incomplete—I’m still missing something. Let’s look at it again:

“He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy.”

From a slightly higher perspective, concept-wise, it appears the romantic impression noticed at the outset could be formed through a confluence of word-sound, emotional tone and specific emotional meaning, with the sentence divided into three parts:

He was happy feeling the gentle pulling and then he felt something hard and unbelievably heavy.

(Click here to view formatting if you’re reading on the WordPress reader)

The green literally reads ‘happily and gently’, the orange forms an emotionally-neutral, uncertainty-framed bridge, the red reads, appropriately, as a shock to the body, and can be broken down furtherHARD and unbelievably heavy.

And I think that’s the magic. I feel as happy as the fisherman does when he feels the gentle pulling, and I’m as reactive when I feel that gentleness change. The masterstroke of the sentence, however, is that I feel the impact of the bite, and the total emotional change of the situation within a moment.

That seems to make sense. I wasn’t thinking about it that deeply in the beginning, but it fits the feeling-response and explains the impression it gave on a first reading. Which is interesting, don’t you think? Could it be possible that a part of our subconscious response to art is to the meta-fusion of different senses? Here Hemingway has combined the music of language with the emotion it underlies, to make the overall reading experience inexplicably pleasurable. Consciously or unconsciously executed, the apparent effortlessness with which these things are achieved represents an extraordinary mastery of the craft.

It makes sense that a sophisticated targeting of multiple senses through art would invite a high novelty value (in this case, sound with emotion), something supported by the fact it denotes a high degree of human talent. As a species, apex talents guide our culture and become accordingly known as ‘talents of great influence’—am I subconsciously appreciating and encouraging a literary accomplishment like Hemingway’s by feeling it as ‘pleasurable’, then subdividing and articulating it as ‘lyrical and romantic’? And if so, has this response-system evolved as a mechanism to drive our culture forward, one little encouragement of an art-form at a time? And does the same sense fusion-to-romanticism-effect equally apply to other types of emotional impressions and other forms of art?

It’s not necessary to go to this extreme (a couple of paragraphs would have been enough to demonstrate the point), but that was just one sentence. Imagine how far you could go with Joyce’s Ulysses or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. And all of this is still deceptively narrow: What about the linguistics of Noam Chomsky, or the language/logic-centric philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein?

Like anything—literally, anything—rabbit-holes of understanding open up in exactly any place you decide to look hard enough. It’s most visible in math and science—who would have fathomed quantum theory 200 years ago—but it’s just as possible in language and philosophy.

On sources. The more broadly-influenced a writer, the better. A narrow line of influence risks coming through in anyone’s writing, making it difficult to find a distinctive and original voice. Reading should be unlimited: Classic literature, Russian literature, teen-fiction, fantasy and sci-fi, generation X minimalism, complex postmodernism, song lyrics, poetry, film reviews, magazine articles, top-level essays, blogs, art critiques, philosophical speculation, opinion pieces, biographies, cultural commentaries, even scientific non-fiction.

Some of the most evocative language comes from postmodernism and modern poetry (Thomas Pynchon, Mary Carr) and at least to my eye, those are the two areas most ripe for language study. Postmodernists like Pynchon, Gaddis, DeLillo and Wallace are widely regarded as geniuses of language, to mean they have so much intellectual surplus beyond a basic story that their novels become overwhelmed: Stories within stories; word-plays within word-plays; extreme changes in style; parallels to the Joycean; homages to the Dickensian; an endless supply of erudite examinations on anything from quantum mechanics to 9/11 to tennis court heating systems. They have a demanding relationship with the reader that if submitted to completely, is a force for writing development unto itself. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest is equal parts entertainment, philosophy and mental exercise: A book that actively sets out to make the reader smarter, and for the compatible mind, often succeeds.

Thoughtfully consuming a variety of language on a daily and prolonged basis is the foundation of any original-sounding, professional-level writer. I think the minimum should be at least a few hours a day, especially for the first few years of progress. Unless reading feels like a deep-seated and habitual thing and there’s a strong ‘literary groove’, the main ingredient to becoming a writer is to read more, but with a close attention. Reading extreme quantities of language, thinking like a writer. The more obsessively and autistically the better. All day every day, if possible. The more the brain is exposed to the cognitive state of absorbed reading, the more programmed it becomes to the flow of language itself. Seamlessly fusing thoughts to words and syntax with increasingly controllable precision—the reason why writing feels easier after a few hours of reading.

Become a Writer-Monk

An aspiring writer is a religious person. They have churches and god-authors and bible-guides and a small but emphatic community of readers and co-writers around them magnifying their resolve. They believe in something deeper than a past-life driven by desires on the surface, and will happily let go of regularity for the sake of their craft.

The goal is tunnel vision. The feeling of being locked into a zone of focus impervious to outside distractions; the total crystallisation of one’s temporal-bandwidth.

Writers are observers sitting in the margins and corners of things, examining and figuring out how everything fits together. Being a writer-monk doesn’t mean being locked in a room 24/7, though, it means living a life through the lens of someone interested in writing it all down. Rooms and places and people all take on a new, heightened apparentness: How to describe this setting I’m in right now, the pattern on that fabric? A good writer has a special mindfulness of the moment. They belong to a silent society of curious explorers, drawing deeply from experiences usually taken for granted.

Think of Seinfeld co-creator Larry David, one of the most influential comedic writers in television history. Think Curb Your Enthusiasm. His whole preoccupation is with the comedy of the banal; situations most people wouldn’t remotely consider having any entertainment value. Haircuts, restaurant visits, microscopic mishaps of communication; the shared but unspoken drama of the ordinary. Think about the level of mindfulness David must hold in common situations, like having someone pushing in line at a bank. He has to be aware of his own emotions while also placing the experience in a social context: Is my reaction sympathetic to the collective feeling of the population? Is it common and unspoken enough to be dramatically relevant? Is it even funny? 

A serious late starting writer needs to take things even further though. They may need to become an actual monk, for a time. Such a measure may seem insane, but this is the level of dedication I think is needed for anyone serious:

  • Unplug completely from smartphones and the internet, limiting access to emails, studying, language resources and writing projects. No facebook, not even a page limited to the 25 people you’re actually friends with. No social media at all. Communication between humans is perfectly possible without the facilitation of a decade-young invention. Things don’t need to be limited to the phone, either: Writing a handwritten letter to someone can have an endearing novelty and infinitely greater value than clicking the like button of a status update. Especially for friends and family living away from us. Communication can be used as a way to sustain your developing use of language; many of the greats have actually been known for their letter-writing (the most curious example being James Joyce)
  • Quit your day job. Perhaps the hardest sacrifice of all, let alone if you have a family to support or a mortgage to maintain. We become deeply accustomed to standards and comforts made available by a decent income. But they have to go. It’s a  Million Dollar Baby transformation being made, the rebirth of a whole self into a new, more complete and considered whole. A manifest bending of the brain away from the corrupt habits of frenetic distraction to the purer habits of reading and writing thoughtfully; being more sincere about yourself from the ground-up. To achieve these things in adulthood presents a challenge big enough to require significant life sacrifice. And besides, living a modest and frugal existence can be all kinds of awesome. A single bedroom cottage, with no internet access, outside a small but vegetation-rich country town. A casual job at a local cafe to pay the rent. Most appreciate the idealism of a scene like that, few would ever be able to tolerate it longer than a weekend. Fewer still would forego a 6 figure salary for it. But a writer becomes immersed in the world, gaining the sensibility of a community too archaic and non-clickable for a modern generation to pay close attention to. This is just one example. Another: Don DeLillo moved alone into a tiny Manhattan apartment and ate like a bird for several years, never seen by anyone save for a small group of people. From that vantage point he absorbed the culture of the entire city, and by extension, the whole of America, which he eventually shared with staggering effect. He became a writer there.
  • Build self control. A writer benefits greatly from being a self-managing lifestyle coach; someone able to master themselves and lessen the acuity of impulse, to sustain an engagement with a sense of purpose at all times. A mindfulness meditator, a regular bushwalker or cyclist or nature photographer: A writer has to figure out what mindfulness practices they need to engage with to be in absolute control of themselves. The most direct tool available to us in this regard, by far, is the technique of mindfulness meditation. The more of it the better, but just 20 minutes each morning and evening is enough to feel significantly more centred and emotionally balanced. Meditation demands its own post, but with respect to self-managed writer development, I think it should be a must for many people. This article goes through some of its many evidence-based benefits.

Systematise Skill Progression

While it may be true that gifted writers learn language skills organically and with relative ease, the notion of high-class writing being a magically meandering endeavour, I think, is a fallacious one. Within the broader requirements of intelligence and creativity exists countless developable skills, technical skills that if mastered can serve to provide untold freedom of expression. Take a look at this now-famous passage from Gary Provost’s 100 Ways to Improve Your Writing (which I haven’t read yet myself, but based on this example, definitely will soon):

This sentence has five words. Here are five more words. Five-word sentences are fine. But several together become monotonous. Listen to what is happening. The writing is getting boring. The sound of it drones. It’s like a stuck record. The ear demands some variety. Now listen. I vary the sentence length, and I create music. Music. The writing sings. It has a pleasant rhythm, a lilt, a harmony. I use short sentences. And I use sentences of medium length. And sometimes, when I am certain the reader is rested, I will engage him with a sentence of considerable length, a sentence that burns with energy and builds with all the impetus of a crescendo, the roll of the drums, the crash of the cymbals–sounds that say listen to this, it is important.

Aside from being a brilliant lesson in sentence rhythm the passage demonstrates how writing analysis can itself hold literary merit; the beauty of the language is totally self-contained and unaffected by the meaning.

Objectifying and analysing the craft is simply understanding it better. The equivalent of a violinist practicing technical two-octave scales as a basis to performing otherwise-impossible pieces of music, or learning Galamian and Sibelius to play Paganini. It’s the ‘hard slog’ of growing an ability at anything. There’s no magic lost.

These types of exercises seem to work well:

English study. Write a daily list of every word that isn’t fully understood from the previous days readings. Study their meaning and root epistemology and tangential tidbits, and apply to an imagined sentence at least once for each possible meaning. This embeds it within a context while providing an understanding strong enough to be orally explained. Burn through an entire grammar curriculum, study everything about the mechanical framework of language. Learn every rule and guideline available to be learnt.

Language painting. A pen as a brush, a notepad as a canvas, grammar and syntax as an outline, the lexicon is a colour palette. Consider yourself a painter with a literary medium, and behave exactly as a practicing painter would. Go to different locations of any kind, sit within them, and describe the scene on paper. Transport an audience to that exact moment in time and space. The weather, the nuance, the people. Build a telepathic time machine through word-smithery.

Reverse adaptation. Listen to recordings of natural conversations between people and write them down as a dialogue. Watch a short clip of a movie and describe it on paper, with the focus being to provide exactly the same tone of emotion. Describe the perspective according to the angle of the camera. Try describing broken speech, accented speech, colloquial speech; dialogue in a novel is by no means natural, but the exercise develops an ability to mimic through description, making it easier to imagine characters of significant difference to yourself.

An essay a day. Set a daily SAT essay-component; pick a topic you haven’t considered before and write a structured essay within 25 minutes. On anything: Literature, film, art, politics, culture, philosophy, economics or science. Writing under pressure activates parts of the brain devoted to stress-management and decision making, which conflict directly with creativity. If you can develop an ability to think clearly in these situations it can reduce fragmentation in the thinking process, with thinking from A to B happening in a more linear, ‘straight line’. Writers are notorious for being perfectionists and the tendency to double-back risks worsening without a counterweight. A regular exercise like this one is essential.

Go to university. While a creative writing course may be unequipped to build a writer from the ground up, an aspiring writer can benefit greatly from the shared learning environment. Professors are generally authors themselves, and the sense of community nicely houses any anxieties around focus. Courses help develop critical thinking and provide an excellent forum for critical feedback, which would otherwise be exclusive to biased friends and family.

Build a routine, but do so knowing it will never be complete. A routine conducive to creativity is much more structural than schedule—it’s a measure to navigate, not control. Rather than organising a day around specific time-slots, set a goal to complete an activity thoroughly before moving onto the next. This maximises the amount of retention and means you’ll feel more satisfied than had you switched prematurely. Something like this, for example:

Tuesday

  1. Read the news
  2. Vocabulary: Study 10 new words
  3. Grammar: Study postpositive adjectives
  4. Syntax practice
  5. Read 1 culture essay
  6. Read 1 short story
  7. Write for four hours
  8. Research history of Samurai Swords
  9. Write a journal entry
  10. Keep reading Moby Dick

Go through intense loss, love, lust, heartbreak, failure, debt, depression, anxiety,  addiction, psychosis and torturous mind-altering suffering, and get over it.

Writing is one of the few vocations linked to issues of anxiety and depression, and for good reason. Overcoming and outmanoeuvring serious psychological ailments involves a mind-bending degree of introspection, leading a person to understand the psyche in ways they never would have otherwise. This can then become an outward trait, leading to higher abilities of discernment—how to get inside other people’s heads, and how to make them feel a certain feeling; perfect traits for a writer! It’s a major emotional intelligence with a deep awareness of thought-mechanics and the fragmentation of the mind.

A person doesn’t need to suffer to become a good writer, but those that do tend to have a more interesting perspective. Conflict builds character like few other things can. If a person overcomes an intense psychological issue they gain a heightened sensibility, seeing that those unaffected exist in a much safer, singular dimension of existence—the reason people hardwired to schedules tend to be less creative, and the reason most of us find it so difficult to see perspectives other than our own. Substance abuse can do a lot for perspective, but it does so selfishly. It’s a massage to an ego subunit, more useful for satire and surrealism than understanding the human condition or the way the universe works, things that require empathy and existential selflessness. Intense drug addiction withdrawal, however, sits in a category reserved to a special kind of education.

This point should be especially noted by anyone who has experienced any of those things. Going through a prolonged period of hell can become of real value to other people, allowing you to help others avoid the same experience and to better appreciate their own. It builds a compassionate and realistic value system on life. Not entirely necessary, but beneficial beyond measure.

If you’re an aspiring fiction writer looking for a wide audience, however, enduring some kind of ordeal may be essential. Engaging fiction is built on conflict, and the best fiction comes from first-hand experience. The reason being, readers are searching for depth of believability; the sense they are reading something real enough to suspend their disbelief, with details and inferences to match. It might be easy to imagine the operations of a crew onboard a Navy vessel, but describing it to a level that would captivate a reader is another matter entirely.

If the most an aspiring writer has ever been through in life is heartbreak they’ll most likely write an okay Nicholas Sparks novel; if they’ve only ever lived for themselves, they’ll probably write something as meaningful as Eat Prey Love.

Write to Save Your Life

Reading in greater amounts may improve thought-to-language fusion, but writing practice scaffolds growing style-complexities and builds the mental structure necessary to try more complicated description. It’s ultimately the one activity a writer needs to do the most. And, like reading, it isn’t just a matter of quantity. It’s about improving a cognitive ability.

On thinking. The relationship between writing and thinking is perceptively similar to the relationship between mathematics and logic: They arise from a similar place, and one is symbolic of the other. But the alignment is far from perfect. Linguist and professor of cognitive science at Harvard, Steven Pinker, explains:

When the serial killer Ted Bundy wins a stay of execution and the headline reads “Bundy Beats Date with Chair,” we do a double-take because our mind assigns two meanings to the string of words. If one string of words in English can correspond to two meanings in the mind, meanings in the mind cannot be strings of words in English.

Language evolves through incremental changes guided by economics, trend and culture, and as Pinker demonstrates, it diverges from raw thinking enough to cause some major confusion. Everyone has an internal dialogue of far greater complexity than indicated by their speech, and things go even deeper beneath the surface. Ever felt unable to describe a feeling, when, internally, you implicitly knew exactly what it was?  Or have you ever had the experience of hearing someone articulate a private thought with eloquence, and immediately related to them like they had uncovered a secret you’d never told anyone?

Someone good with language, whether written or verbal, is simply someone with a better ability to match the right word and syntax to a felt meaning. What a person actually writes about is more a choice influenced by personality and intelligence and creativity. The difference between being good at writing and being a good writer, basically.

Developing vocabulary and grammar improves the link between externally received word-sounds and an internally felt meaning: Finding a perfect glass slipper for the ten thousand feet in your brain, then teaching them all how to dance. It helps free a focus on craft and emotion and provides a platform for greater complexities to emerge.

Words may not be an exact representation of thought but they hold an important key to unlocking it. As vocabulary grows and embeds within a spoken lexicon, specific meanings in the mind are given more cognitive attention: If you’re able to express a feeling precisely, awareness of that feeling begins to grow. Without a precise description an expression becomes lost within an umbrella term (think ‘nostalgic‘ versus ‘sad‘) and potentially becomes cognitively repressed—a blunting of your ability to match words to thoughts.

At the other end of the spectrum, a writer increases their ability to think about things clearly. And it’s not just about choosing the right word: Grammar confidence allows the emergence of spontaneous-sounding syntax. Thoughts aren’t represented by words alone; they’re represented by groups of words together, with further representation again coming in the form of arrangement and style. This, I believe, is what reading advocates mean when they say, “Reading makes you smarter”.

Expanding language ability enables the mind to consider concepts it would otherwise struggle with. Which makes sense, when you think about it: Matching the correct word-group to thoughts of a complex nature allows you to express those thoughts with other people, enabling an external engagement with meaning that would otherwise be left within a personal context. A greater comprehension develops through challenge and discussion, leading to the potential creation of an entirely new thought process. Which, prolonged enough, can bring about a real and lasting neuroplastic change.

The internal experience is one of increased clarity. With more verbal tools at your disposal, figuring out how things work becomes a lot easier. Some people are strictly mathematical in this regard, but for most of us an increase in language precision leads to an increase in thinking potential. But it requires actually working with those tools. Pushing through barricade after barricade of intellectual laziness; learning something new from every relevant detail in your experience and being creative with your understanding. Imagination isn’t just a tool for making shit up; it’s more functional in adulthood as a tool for empathy, understanding, interpretation and any kind of improvement.

On intelligence. Ever picked up a friend’s thesis or a complicated textbook, and thought it made absolutely zero sense? Terms that were foreign, concepts that seemed too abstract and complicated and totally unrelatable, like you were looking at some kind of alien language written with English letters? Imagine you had studied for a few days and understood the exact meaning of each and every obscurity, right down to the Latin. What would become immediately obvious, is that your ability to understand the text is really held back by your lack of understanding of the base concepts being considered—like not knowing what existentialism is before picking up a text on ‘qualia‘—that are actually well within your intellectual grasp, it’s just you haven’t learnt them yet. There’s undoubtedly a hierarchy of complexity available to us above that scenario, such as there is in the realm of pure mathematics, but the point is that the initial impression of intimidation is no more than an illusion born from a false wall of perceived difficulty. It’s possible to become smarter about anything you’re interested in. The influential art-teacher and second-coming-of-Christ candidate Bob Ross once said:

“Talent is a pursued interest. Anything that you’re willing to practice, you can do.”

Building a greater language ability not only develops writing, it platforms a pursuit into anything intellectual, important or interesting, allowing an understanding of things without the limitation of stifled expression.

It may be necessary to alternate between reading and writing until a decent momentum has been established; if my experience is anything to go by, plenty of brick walls face anyone at the beginning. Writer’s block is often a matter of over-thinking, and reading redirects focus to a broader and looser grip, making it possible to glide on language more easily. Reading intermittently throughout the day helps maintain a zone of writing focus.

That being said, having a warrior-mindset around blockages is also important. If you react to a mental block with frustration and impulsively quit without challenging it, it develops a habit pattern of escapism, making you far more likely to procrastinate in future. It’s about disciplining the unbridled Lipizzaner in your head: Pushing through boundaries of frustration over and over and over until your mind sustains itself without any effort. It’s important to find a balance between the two.

On variety. Evidence has been circulating in the past few months supporting a new approach to learning, where it is noted that frequently alternating methods maximises stimulation in the brain, leading to significantly greater levels of embedment from practice. Mix things up, in other words. Writing gives us plenty of options to work with: Poetry, film reviews, essays, first person fiction, third person fiction, etc. And more than just trying different formats, actually thinking differently as each style of writing is attempted. If changing styles seems difficult, it can be helpful to read examples from other people beforehand.

So how much should a writer practice, or work on their writing each day? Keeping in mind the challenge of the change, I think at least 2,000 words a day; however long it takes. When working on a novel, Jonathan Franzen sets a daily goal of 1,000, and he’s usually done by lunchtime. But consider Franzen’s background: A highly introverted child who read for several hours a day—for over a decade—before he wrote anything, who then practiced and practiced for several more decades before becoming the Oprah-feuding success he is today. And he’s exceptionally gifted; it would be insane to aim for his level of quality. But, it’s more than reasonable to think that if you work twice as hard and keep an unfamiliar patience, you’ll at least become capable enough to lose yourself in your writing, feeling a freedom to describe and examine experience in ways you didn’t realise was possible. A genuine and sustained engagement with the craft that leads to success, without success being a goal.

Which is important. Becoming a writer is about becoming a writer. It’s not about emulating the idea of becoming one, or gaining fame, or getting an ego-kick from something novelty-seeking. It’s a hard slog punctuated by intense psychological challenge; a journey vast enough to distort any hope in the destination. A conviction must be made right down to the bone marrow; a complete immersion into a world of words while pushing a boulder up a never-ending mountain—just like your life depends on it.

Closing

An interesting point-of-view, some imagination, some passion for language is all it takes. The challenges and obstacles involved quickly become secondary; passion, when it’s deep and genuine, is like a tsunami over any road block in our way. Think Zootopia.

But the real question is, do you have any potential?

The reality, as far as I can tell, is that it really doesn’t matter. Taking the measures mentioned here would mean an entire lifestyle change; for you to even consider them you would have to be either batshit crazy or have a pretty good gut-feeling about yourself. And let’s say it’s the latter: Perhaps you were singled out as a writer in primary school but never kept it up? Perhaps you have written a movie review here and there and found it surprisingly fun and natural? Perhaps you were a reader once, and know you still are, only you have an Internet habit that’s overridden it? Maybe you feel like you’re sitting on an inactive, eruptive volcano?

Once the creative mind is given free rein you might be amazed what happens. But one question that should be answered, I think, is whether you can feel stories within you. Maybe you’re more of a journalistic writer or an essayist, or better suited to creative non-fiction. There’s no way of knowing until you try, and do so for way longer than seems reasonable.

Fiction readership might be on the decline, but I’ve never been surer about anything than I am about the potential of reading. It may become increasingly marginalised but the fact it holds such a unique and universal utility in our lives—a tool for thoughtful and creative thinking—means it will always have its champions, and a place. And not to mention, there’s still a reservoir of untapped potential in combining art-media: evocative literature-quality prose have a spot in the social media sphere, but it might take a while for the novelty of the medium to settle enough for less sensationalism to take place. The same as it is for most authentic pursuits.

Novels may be shelved alongside cassette tapes and vinyl in the end (or they may not, who knows), but the value of writing is amophorous to format. We are as bound to language as we are to water, and in spite of a deviating reading interest in our culture, we will always need the voice of good writers. Now more than ever.


Short Rant On Weak Ego

Practically every human quality exists due to some sort of evolutionary benefit. Most of the feelings we experience have a utility in maintaining the family unit (love, jealousy) or in ensuring our survival (fear, aggression). The same logic extends to the core property of our personalities, applying to our sense of self, our id and our ego.

‘Superego’ refers to the moral umbrella at the core of our person: A set of moral standards that govern the functionality the ego, or the me part of our personality.

Ego has obvious importance to our survival. Without a sense of self we wouldn’t be the most personable bunch to be around, that’s for sure. And all of this is fine by me; no-one is ranting at anyone for simply being human. I just feel the need for an unfiltered vent, and my blog seems like a good place.

So anyway, fuck the ego. Specifically the weak one.

It is blind to itself and blaring to everything else, an acrid acne totally invisible to the host. A megaphone broadcasting ‘Accept me!’ from mental mantels with fuck-all foundation. The first-world-problem meme’d pretender preaching unfairness to an indifferent screen. The duck-faced diamante diva with a suburban portfolio. The normalisation of the exaggerated. The pervasion of the normal. The abjection of anything even remotely authentic. The facebook flag-bearing hipsters; the white knights; the social media saviours selling their disfigured shadows of a half-baked kindness. And especially the pretentious and the pedestaled, the pontificating bloggers with their self-important little rants like this one.

If the luxuries available to the working class today existed a hundred years ago, what would the public perception of them have been? Or to put it differently: If today’s working class were given the option to swap their lifestyle with the wealthy 19th century aristocracy, would they want to? The answer, of course, would be a resounding no. Most of the developed world sleeps and dresses with far superior comfort to the Kings of the past: Our beds are better, our homes are warmer, and our diets are as diverse as the world itself. And that’s not even touching on the entertainment and vehicles and modern gadgetry we have available to us. So why isn’t everyone acting with the contentment of royalty?

It happens, I think, because the nature of the ego is such that it constantly maps a sense of potential possession over everything it comes into contact with. Once something is experienced, a level of desirability is established, as is the case for a child trying chocolate for the first time. Children aren’t born crying over chocolate they aren’t eating; it’s a conditioned response to something sensory that their ego has stamped a value and potential ownership on. Before the chocolate first touched their tongue it was something that didn’t exist, afterwards it was something they did not have. It’s exactly the same for every upgrade you’ve ever gotten that you didn’t need, and why some people spend $5000 on a table when literally 5 pieces of cheap wood would serve the same practical function.

At the centre of all of this lunacy, is the ego.

I don’t hate the ego entirely—it’s the core part of being a person after all—but lately I can’t help but see it everywhere like the plague. And not just in terms of prolificness; it has the same apparentness as an illness, albeit a mostly benign one. A well-harnessed and solid ego is such a rare thing these days (or I just have a warped perception at the moment). Maybe this is just me making another in-road into reducing my own. Who knows, but I think things are a lot better for people without any need of their reflection.

 

On Don DeLillo

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It took Don DeLillo about four years to write his first novel (Americana, 1971). And after finding his rhythm, only six more years to complete another seven, ending what would be the most productive decade of his career to date. He had quit a job in advertising in his late 20s and moved into a tiny apartment next to the busy exit of a Manhattan subway line, where he overlooked swarming crowds of workers coming in and out of the city. Isolated from society save for visits to a nearby library and the drop-ins of a few friends (and eventually, his wife), he learnt to write there, starting the book two years later. But on moving in he had no idea whether he had any real talent or not.

The author had developed a love for reading in his late teens after a casual job had started providing lengthy periods of downtime. He had read extensively in his youth but hadn’t developed a habit, and gradually found himself shifting interests. In his late 20s and early 30s he experienced a ‘golden age of reading’ and embarked on the works of literary figureheads like James Joyce and Dostoyevsky; the opening chapters of Ulysses being the trigger for his passion of word-smithery. When first reading the book, DeLillo was surprised to find himself mesmerised not by Joyce’s pyrotechnics or grandiose design, but rather the beauty with which each sentence was constructed. He simply hadn’t considered the potential of language before.

DeLillo has since written a total 15 novels—2 being Pulitzer finalists—and has won several prestigious literary accolades, including the American National Book Award. His books are dark, layered and cerebral, with a writing process involving intensely realised characterisation that leads into monolithic coverages of American culture. His observations are breathtaking. In this art-documentary the BBC produced in 1983, he talks about way-of-life changes happening with the breakdown of authority; events like the assassination of JFK that shifted an entire public consciousness into an atmosphere of fearful randomosity. Reviewing the assassination footage, DeLillo makes a sub-observation:

‘Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I think the footage comes close to uncovering some secret about the nature of film itself. Film carries something, some mind stream, some myth that may be common to us all. It’s as though the experience of film has aquired a kind of independent existence in our consciousness. It’s that deeply embedded: Have to get it on film!

I haven’t read any of DeLillo’s books yet (this has been written after seeing several readings, interviews and documentaries), but no doubt I’ll be sending him fan mail by the end of the year. He isn’t just a master author: He’s a potent reminder of the power of making a conviction about yourself. It just so happens he was lucky enough to have a talent capable of launching him to the culture’s apex after figuring it out (he’s considered as important a writer as Thomas Pynchon).

Few to none of us have Don DeLillo’s supreme intelligence or aptitude, but I think everyone benefits from his example. His life wasn’t working out and he dropped everything to pursue a transformation he had no certainty in. It wasn’t until he had worked on a novel for a full 2 years that he realised he was a real writer.

I made a conscious decision last year to leave corporate environments to pursue writing and psychology, and being 31 it’s pretty awesome to see this kind of precedent. I’m positive with the right discipline and perseverance that anyone can become at least a good a prose writer as someone like Dan Brown: success is usually down to perspective and creativity, and I think there’s a huge chunk of us with a creative spark who don’t realise it. I don’t know for sure if I’m one of them yet (and know as objective fact I’ll never write with the virtuosity of DeLillo), but I think I’m at least close enough to try. And in a way, we all should. It’s probably too important not to.

Exploring Genius – Terence Tao

Each Exploring Genius article profiles an accomplished and recognised genius, details parts of their life and career, how they’ve influenced society, and what they’re like as people. The previous entry was on Stanley Kubrick.

Genius appears in all fields of human accomplishment so these articles are naturally varied in style, length and approach. Terence Tao works in pioneering-level pure mathematics and I’m about as proficient with mathematics as a salamander, so this entry is coming from a particularly laymen (nay, idiot’s) point of view. It provides a generalised overview of Tao’s life, briefly covers the origins and significance of mathematics for context (which is actually pretty damn interesting), gives rough insight into the significance of his work, explores his giftedness growing up and how it was developed, and ends with an overview of his personality—which is exceptionally kind and humble—and how it all fits together.

Introduction

The term ‘genius’ is more related to accomplishment than ability, and can be equally applied to painting as it can be to theoretical physics. It has very little to do with IQ (though some take having an IQ above 140 to also qualify a person as a genius). There may be a correlation with IQ scores in many cases, but an IQ score is only indicative of isolated aptitudes (such as memory and logical reasoning). Genius-level accomplishment comes from the interplay between cognitive control and creativity; it’s raw intelligence multiplied by open-minded imagination and wonder. Certain fields display a stronger correlation than others, and from what I can tell it appears strongest in mathematics and physics. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is notoriously used as an example of the irrelevancy of IQ testing, with a tested score of only 125 and a clearly genius-level intellect, but closer inspection reveals that to be a likely product of the specific test he took, which was heavily language-focused. IQ tests are largely irrelevant, by Feynman isn’t the best example.

The kind of thinking required for mathematics and physics is pure logical reasoning and abstraction, with processing speed, braveness (yep, braveness) and imagination being key bonuses. Terence Tao has a tested IQ score of over 220, and by many accounts demonstrates those attributes better than any mathematician alive today. He’s known as the “Mozart of math” and in the classical sense of the term, he may well be the smartest guy on the planet.

What is Mathematics?

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For a better appreciation of Tao it helps to understand the broader significance of his field, so without deviating too much, here’s a basic rundown:

We don’t exactly know when it ended, but there was a time in human history when we had no concept of counting. We intuitively understood the concepts of ‘more’ and ‘less’—generalised quantity—but couldn’t differentiate anything in abstract terms. Seeing two antelope and recognising them as more than one antelope was one thing, recognising their quantity as an abstract concept equally applicable to fingers and days on a calendar—the concept of the number 2—was a quantum leap in human thought. The first person to achieve this may well be the most important genius in our ancestry. But we have no idea who it was, or how it came about. Anthropologists theorise that counting started as the tallying of single units, seen as vertical lines drawn on a wall, and that symbols were eventually incorporated to represent larger groups of tallies. In ancient Sumerian culture for example, a small clay cone was used to denote ‘1’, a clay sphere ’10’ and a large clay cone was ’60’. Many different systems of symbols were used across the world before the establishment of 0 – 9, which came out of India after 300BC.

The formation of symbols to represent groups of single units created a new dynamic between each symbol, and with each new dynamic came further symbol sub-systems (like algebra) with their own unique interplay, so that complexity grew exponentially from a mathematical big bang—an outward explosion of theory from the use of the first single unit.

The philosopher Bertrand Russell makes the case in The Principles of Mathematics (1903; not to be confused with his Principia Mathematica released in 1928) that mathematics and logic are the same thing (or at least, come from the same place), which becomes easier to comprehend when we consider that numbers are only representative—different systems (such as roman numerals and binary) yield different kinds of patterns, puzzles and insights, but all are bound by logic to the parameters of the system they belong to. Whether or not logic and mathematics are considered the same is a matter of definition, but thinking of logic as being fundamental to math at least helps us understand its nature from a deeper perspective and ponder the question: what exactly is mathematics? Is it something we’ve discovered, or is it something we’ve created?

I think it makes sense to view logic as a core property of the universe, intrinsic to the way everything exists and functions, and that mathematical theory is a form of logical structuring—an interaction of human concepts with the order of the universe. I have nil expertise and may be way off, but it seems like the 0-9 number system could potentially be replaced by something much more complex; it’s just that it works broadly for our population and is complex enough to describe reality to the level we’re capable of being curious.

So is mathematics just a way to describe reality? The physicist Max Tegmark makes the case in his book Our Mathematical Universe that mathematics not only describes reality, but that reality itself is mathematical in nature:

“The idea that everything is, in some sense, mathematical goes back at least to the Pythagoreans of ancient Greece and has spawned centuries of discussion among physicists and philosophers. In the 17th century, Galileo famously stated that our universe is a “grand book” written in the language of mathematics. More recently, the Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner argued in the 1960s that “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences” demanded an explanation.

We humans have gradually discovered many additional recurring shapes and patterns in nature, involving not only motion and gravity, but also electricity, magnetism, light, heat, chemistry, radioactivity and subatomic particles. These patterns are summarized by what we call our laws of physics. Just like the shape of an ellipse, all these laws can be described using mathematical equations.

Equations aren’t the only hints of mathematics that are built into nature: There are also numbers. As opposed to human creations like the page numbers in this book, I’m now talking about numbers that are basic properties of our physical reality.

For example, how many pencils can you arrange so that they’re all perpendicular (at 90 degrees) to each other? The answer is 3, by placing them along the three edges emanating from a corner of your room. Where did that number 3 come sailing in from? We call this number the dimensionality of our space, but why are there three dimensions rather than four or two or 42?”

The example Tegmark gives is a good illustration of the symbolic nature of numbers, showing there to be a fundamental truth of the universe beneath their representation, but whether or not reality is mathematical in nature is mostly redundant to the field; it’s just helpful when trying to understand why it’s all so important, and therefore, the importance of the work being done by someone like Terence Tao. There may be conjecture around the philosophical nature of mathematics but there’s little debate over the benefit. Without it, our cultural and technological evolution wouldn’t have progressed beyond the spear—every scientific and technological advancement involves mathematics to some degree.

The paradigm shift available through understanding mathematics at a deeper level is also about mathematicians. Where once they appeared as number technicians, it now seems talented mathematicians are actually more tuned-in to the universe than anyone else (especially those making that kind of claim). Like a child who develops language early and is therefore at an advantage with interpersonal relationships, the gifted mathematician has an aptitude with the language of the universe, becoming the core force behind the progression of our species within it.

If Tao really is the world’s most gifted mathematician, he’s more than just a guy who solves hard problems: he’s more fluent with universal language than anyone else alive.

The Child Prodigy 

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Terence Tao was born in Adelaide, South Australia in 1975 to Billy and Grace, both Chinese natives who had emigrated to Australia in 1972. They’d met a few years previously at Hong Kong university; Billy there to complete a doctorate in paediatrics while Grace became an honours-roll mathematics and physics graduate. They had three sons within a few years of arriving: Terence (known to his friends as Terry), Nigel and Trevor—their westernised names chosen to reflect the culture of the couple’s new home country. All three brothers would eventually become standout intellectuals, with Nigel scoring a 180 IQ and winning bronze at two international mathematics olympiads, and Trevor becoming a national chess champion at age 14 while winning numerous prizes for his classical music compositions; broad achievements made all the more impressive by the fact he has autism.

Tao’s precocity became evident before the age of two, when his parents noticed him arranging an older child’s letter blocks alphabetically; a skill he’d learnt through watching Sesame Street. Things didn’t slow down: when he was 4 he was able to multiply two-digit numbers by two-digit numbers in his head. It was soon decided that regular schooling wouldn’t be suitable, and so he was placed into accelerated learning, which was eventually monitored by the Davidson Institute (Australia’s centre for the development of gifted children). The institute’s Miraca Gross writes:

“A few months after Terry’s second birthday, the Taos found him using a portable typewriter which stood in Dr. Tao’s office; he had copied a whole page of a children’s book laboriously with one finger! At this stage his parents decided that, although they did not want to ‘push’ their brilliant son, it would be foolish to hold him back. They began to borrow and buy books for him and, indeed, found it hard to keep pace with the boy. They encouraged Terry to read and explore but were careful not to introduce him to highly abstract subjects, believing, rather, that their task was to help him develop basic literacy and numerical skills so that he could learn from books by himself and thus develop at his own rate. “Looking back,” says Dr. Tao, “we are sure that it was this capacity for individual learning which helped Terry to progress so fast without ever becoming bogged down by the inability to find a suitable tutor at a crucial time.” By the age of 3, Terry was displaying the reading, writing and mathematical ability of a 6-year-old.”

Research has shown the likelihood of a child prodigy transitioning into an adult genius to be extremely rare. Genius-level intellect isn’t just about talent; it’s about creativity, inventiveness and open-minded intrigue. Tiger mothers forcing a discipline on a child may eventually produce a fantastically able technician in line with the best of a field, but geniuses are generally made through self-interested goals; at the core of true genius is one defining characteristic: self-propelled passion.

Billy and Grace Tao are exceptional parents. Instead of marshalling their son’s progression forcibly, it was Tao’s own interest and maturity that informed each incremental step in his education. His father explains:

“Firstly we realised that no matter how advanced a child’s intellectual development, he is not ready for formal schooling until he has reached a certain level of maturity, and it is folly to try to expose him to this type of education before he has reached that stage. This experience has made us monitor Terry’s educational progress very carefully. Certainly, he has been radically accelerated, but we have been careful to ensure, at each stage, that he is both ready and eager to move on, and that we are not exposing him to social experiences which could be harmful.

Secondly, we have become aware that it is not enough for a school to have a fine reputation and even a principal who is perceptive and supportive of gifted education. The teacher who actually works with the gifted student must be a very flexible type of person who can facilitate and guide the gifted child’s development and who will herself model creative thinking and the love of intellectual activity.

Also, and possibly most importantly, we learned that education cannot be the responsibility of the school alone. Probably for most children, but certain for the highly gifted, the educational program should be designed by the teachers and parents working together, sharing their knowledge of the child’s intellectual growth, his social and emotional development, his relationships with family and friends, his particular needs and interests… that is, all the aspects of his cognitive and affective development. This did not happen during Terry’s first school experience but I am convinced that the subsequent success of his academic program from the age of 5 onwards has been largely due to the quality of the relationships my wife and I have had with his teachers and mentors.”

Contrasting this approach to other accelerated prodigies, the Taos seem to have viewed their son as his own person rather than as an extension of themselves. They cultivated an environment of deep caring and unconditional support around the interests of their children, allowing the spark of internal genius to ignite without the repressive force of projected self-expectation. The Davidson Institute’s Marica Gross continues:

“In November of 1983, at the age of 8 years 3 months, Terry informally took the South Australian Matriculation (university entrance) examination in Mathematics 1 and 2 and passed with scores of 90% and 85%, respectively. In February the following year, on the advice of both his primary and secondary teachers, who felt he was emotionally, as well as academically ready, the Taos agreed that he should begin to attend high school full time. He was based in Grade 8 so that he could be with friends with whom he had undertaken some Grade 7 work the year before, and at this level he took English, French, general studies, art, and physical education. Continuing his integration pattern, however, he also studied Grade 12 physics, Grade 11 chemistry, and Grade 10 geography. He also began studying first-year university mathematics, initially by himself and then, after a few months, with help from a professor of mathematics at the nearby Flinders University of South Australia. In September that year he began to attend tutorials in first-year physics at the university, and 2 months later he passed university entrance physics with a score in the upper 90s. In the same month, finding that he had some time on his hands after the matriculation and internal exams, he started Latin at high school.”

Though Tao’s education was governed by his parents and teachers, the trajectory was entirely driven by himself and was aided dramatically by an attention to his emotional and social maturity. In many respects he was actually held back. He was moved into high school at aged 10, but as noted above, he’d nearly aced university entrance exams two years previously (in Australia high school goes up to grade 12). He spent two thirds of his time with grade 11 and 12 students and the remainder attending 1st and 2nd year university maths and physics classes. This was all down to his parents, who felt strongly about not doing anything simply for appearances sake, and only taking steps when it was in their son’s best interests:

“There is no need for him to rush ahead now. If he were to enter full-time now, just for the sake of being the youngest child to graduate, or indeed for the sake of doing anything ‘first,’ that would simply be a stunt. Much more important is the opportunity to consolidate his education, to build a broader base.

If Terry entered university now he would certainly be able to handle the work but he would have little time to indulge in original exploration. Attending part-time, as he is now, he can progress at a more leisurely rate and more emphasis can be placed on creativity, original thinking, and broader knowledge. Later, when he does enter full time, he will have much more time for research or anything else he finds interesting. He may be a few years older when he graduates but he will be much better prepared for the more rigorous graduate and post-doctoral work.”

Sitting among students nearly twice his age, the young Terry Tao became known for his humble and friendly nature, and by all accounts, was universally liked by teachers, mentors and peers alike. This may be his nature, but being as precocious as he was, his personality was undoubtedly benefited by the unwillingness of his parents to treat him any differently to his brothers (and other children of a similar age in ‘regular’ families). Modesty was a virtue in the Tao household; show-boating and arrogance made as much sense as a clown at a librarian convention. He didn’t care about winning prizes or being the best at anything; he just really loved doing maths, and received the perfect balance of encouragement and structure to reach his full potential without ever feeling superior. He knew he was different, but had no value placed on that difference: everyone else was viewed as a human equal. When the 10 year-old Tao was offered a prize for scoring the highest mark ever on the American SAT for a child of his age, he chose a chocolate bar, and when it was handed to him, broke it in half and shared it with his father!

Professional Career

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Tao’s work has achieved everything from progressing prime number and infinity theory to advancing MRI scanning technology—rapidly improving the detection rate of tumours and spinal injuries across the globe. Professor of mathematics at Princeton University Charles Fefferman said in an interview:

“Such is Tao’s reputation that mathematicians now compete to interest him in their problems, and he is becoming a kind of Mr Fix-it for frustrated researchers. If you’re stuck on a problem, then one way out is to interest Terence Tao”

The influence of mathematical advancement on society is almost entirely indirect: it usually functions as a basis to the advancement of other sciences, especially physics, so drawing a clear line between Tao and the broader value of his work quickly becomes convoluted by additional theory and speculation. Not to mention, explaining pure mathematics in laymen’s terms is extremely difficult. The concepts being used are comprised of other concepts that themselves require their own multi-conceptual explanations, all of which are already well beyond the learning level of the average person (myself included). What I do understand though, is that mathematics at an advanced level can be a truly beautiful and creative phenomenon, and for many, an emotional one as well.

It’s been said that most people don’t enjoy math because the schooling curriculum gives a vastly incomplete picture of the subject, analogous to an art class only teaching how to paint a single-coloured wall and never showing a Picasso or Rembrandt. For most of us it’s easy to recognise artistic and social talents as we have our own abilities as a point of reference, allowing us to perceive a distance between our own output and that of the great masters. In the case of mathematics it’s usually a case of viewing some kind of alien language. For example, here’s what Tao has been working on most recently:

“I’ve been meaning to return to fluids for some time now, in order to build upon my construction two years ago of a solution to an averaged Navier-Stokes equation that exhibited finite time blowup.

One of the biggest deficiencies with my previous result is the fact that the averaged Navier-Stokes equation does not enjoy any good equation for the vorticity {\omega = \nabla \times u}, in contrast to the true Navier-Stokes equations which, when written in vorticity-stream formulation, become

\displaystyle \partial_t \omega + (u \cdot \nabla) \omega = (\omega \cdot \nabla) u + \nu \Delta \omega

\displaystyle u = (-\Delta)^{-1} (\nabla \times \omega).

(Throughout this post we will be working in three spatial dimensions {{\bf R}^3}.) So one of my main near-term goals in this area is to exhibit an equation resembling Navier-Stokes as much as possible which enjoys a vorticity equation, and for which there is finite time blowup.

Heuristically, this task should be easier for the Euler equations (i.e. the zero viscosity case {\nu=0} of Navier-Stokes) than the viscous Navier-Stokes equation, as one expects the viscosity to only make it easier for the solution to stay regular. Indeed, morally speaking, the assertion that finite time blowup solutions of Navier-Stokes exist should be roughly equivalent to the assertion that finite time blowup solutions of Euler exist which are “Type I” in the sense that all Navier-Stokes-critical and Navier-Stokes-subcritical norms of this solution go to infinity…”

I don’t know about you, but I almost need a lay-down after reading that.

It’s my goal over the next 12 months to both increase my own base understanding of mathematics and to source mathematicians capable of providing effective metaphors to better illustrate the work they’re doing for the rest of us. I’ll post more specifically on the subject then, and will potentially revisit this section to give it some greater context.

Closing

It’s no accident that Tao became passionate about mathematics, and it’s not just a matter of encouragement. His parents instilled him with a positive and compassionate outlook and supported him, but it was ultimately the conscious absence of his parents that helped him the most. The common sense fact is, if someone is good at anything, they’re much more inclined towards it over other activities, especially without there being any pressure around their achievements. The brain naturally releases higher dopamine levels when the mind perceives self-accomplishment easily relative to a common standard, which in Tao’s case, came very early when he was teaching children twice his age how to count before turning 3. His aptitude then went on to connect his developing interest to higher-concept (more elegant and interesting) mathematics much sooner than most professionals in the field, thereby giving him an enormous hook. The message for parents here is a clear one: for a child’s potential to be reached, their talent needs guidance without any pressure and expectation.

The choices and direction of Tao’s parents were paramount to his development. They worked tirelessly in the background to create new and nurturing environments for him to grow in, and in terms of his personal experience, they were largely invisible. They recognised the importance of balance in the growth of modest self-confidence, a concept equally important to all avenues of his life—whether it be at school, at home or among friends.

Most importantly, Tao’s parents understood his genius. His father sums it up:

“I have seen too many situations where the parents did the wrong thing. A brilliant mind is not just a cluster of neurons crunching numbers but a deep pool of creativity, originality, experience and imagination. This is the difference between genius and people who are just bright. The genius will look at things, try things, do things, totally unexpectedly. It’s higher-order thinking. Genius is beyond talent. It’s something very original, very hard to fathom.”

Terence Tao is more than a mathematical genius; he’s a role model for human conduct, a rare example of supreme talent and supreme humility existing in side-by-side unison. We may not be able to learn much directly from his work, or even understand the first thing about it, but I think most of us can learn from his outlook on the world: no matter who you are or how good at something you are, be humble, let your work speak for itself, and be a good and genuine person without motive.

If you haven’t seen him before, here’s a brief interview he had on the Colbert Report a couple of years ago. Note his demeanour and the speed of his brain compared to his speech. He’s one of a kind.

If you’re interested in learning more about the ‘Navier-Stokes’ equation or checking out more of his work, Tao runs his own WordPress blog here.

My First Car

Milestones and growth-steps are significant in a person’s life. From first birthdays to removing our bike’s training wheels, to our first kiss: our passage of time is punctuated by first-time events. We retain very little of our moment-to-moment experience in life, but first-time things tend to be raised like bookmarks in the files of our memory bank.

Few any more so than our first vehicle. It signifies a major step towards adulthood, granting someone their first major life responsibility: commanding a huge chunk of metal and circuitry that weighs as much as a couple dozen people, that can move with enough force and velocity to destroy anything in its path, as well as anyone driving it. They kill more than 1.3 million people a year and at least 30 have died since I started this post. Yet when we get our first car and take it for our first solo spin, the sense of mastering this responsibility and the freedom that comes with it can be intoxicatingly novel (ergo the multitudes of new licensees driving around for no other reason than to drive around).

I’m no exception to this, and through a bit of chance, a bit of serendipity, I’ve been lucky to find myself reunited with my very first love; the ultimate 4WD beast, the master of off-road all-terrain traversing, the ladies magnet above all other ladies magnets. Behold, the mighty Metro Jet Bandit:

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With an unparalleled traction and power-to-weight ratio, it handles sand and uneven stony surfaces with ease:

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…and looks at home on any surface:

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With a 5 L V8 twin-charged 1,156bhp engine, hitting a jump at speed can turn it into an aeronautic marvel:

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No need for driveway parking anxiety; Metro’s design team ensured the Jet Bandit fits easily within most car parking spaces:

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Metro Jet Bandit: Feel the Thunder

Film Review: ‘Everest’ (2015)

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Directed by Balthasar Kormákur
Starring: Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, Kiera Knightly, Emily Watson

Deep sunset hues and obliquely shaded surfaces and smooth, personal segues between characters with an authentically 90s aesthetic: the opening Airport scene of Everest heralds an uncommon realism for a star-studded disaster film. Shot mostly on location and guided by the meta-talented Balthasar Kormákur, the film serves as an unwitting example of a failure to capitalise on tonal perfection.

From his opening frame Jason Clarke smoothly glides into the skin of Rob Hall, the prolifically game mountaineer who managed 5 ascents to Everest’s 8,848m summit before his 36th birthday, which as the film emphasises, was never seen. As it did in the Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Clarke’s talent for integrity-driven authority forms the film’s central fuselage, and for most of the 121 minute running-time presents so much narrative gravity that even the most dominating members of the ensemble (Brolin, Gyllenhaal) are reduced to orbits. Knowing the outcome of a true-to-life tragedy such as this, the focus on Hall’s character is clear indication of Kormákur’s desire to drive the emotions of his audience. He seems enchanted by the romanticism of the hero—characters so likeable and leader-like and lucid that one can’t help but admire them. Was Rob Hall really that charismatic? Maybe. I’d certainly like to think so. But in this Hollywood incarnation his charisma is being used mechanically for a less-than-honourable objective: to manipulate us into a false sense of narrative security, to the benefit of an emotionally-charged conclusion.

This isn’t an event film; it’s a parable-like melodrama. Consider United 93, Paul Greengrass’s masterly chronicle of the only failed terrorist attack on September 11th, 2001, that killed all 44 people on board United Airlines Flight 93. A new bench-mark for dramatisation, he chose no-name actors and impartial attention to detail as vessels for emotional impact: the tragedy spoke for itself.

The problem with Everest isn’t just in the dichotomy between Clarke’s manipulative on-screen persona and Rob Hall’s actual fate (real-life heroes are exactly the kind of thing that brings people to theatres after all). The problem is that the real events of the 1996 disaster involved many heroes, and Kormákur only focuses on them when it serves to make the audience more emotional. Backed into a corner by Clarke’s dominating screen-presence and the pandering focus on him, Hall’s death causes the film to take a clunky shift in character focus, and ultimately reduces the finale to a fragmented mess.

There’s a lot of good here though. Aerial landscape shots of the mountain are spectacular, and some of the acting—especially Emily Watson and Kiera Knightley’s—is strikingly genuine and realistic. It’s a case of missed opportunity born of Hollywood ego. Rob Hall’s fate and that of his 7 courageous accomplices scream for artful restraint vis a vis Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void. Just like the attacks on September 11, their story speaks for itself.

** 1/2 / *****

The Self-Enamoured Narcissist

Narcissism has taken centre-stage in the past couple of years, appearing in psych articles and newsfeeds more than any other personality problem (with the exception of sociopathy). Investigations into things like “When your boss is a narcissist” and “What’s it like to date a narcissist?” are shared and chronicled as much as anything else remotely medical. Which all makes sense; narcissists can be giant assholes, and we’re naturally curious about the mental mechanics behind asshole behaviour. I’m reading a book at the moment that makes a strong case for differentiating between assholes and narcissists (literally called Assholes: A Theory), but only in the sense that you can be an asshole and not be a narcissist; most narcissists are still assholes.

The thing about narcissism, is that it’s so heavily defined by a lack of empathy and regard for the feelings of others that the other traits within the definition often go unchecked when uncoupled from the rest. There’s obviously a strong correlation between ego and a lack of empathy in most cases, ergo the pervasiveness of NPD, but I think most of us intuit there to be another group separate from the personality disorder: those who are simply up themselves. Vain individuals self-enamoured to the point of it defocusing and inhibiting the very traits and talent they’re enamoured by. We all know one (or dozens), and as teenagers, most of us probably went through a period of it ourselves.

I don’t think this group has had as much attention as it should have. It’s fair enough to assume that a problem benign to the outside world and invisible to the person with it has less broader social imperative, though. It’s not pervasive, just repulsive. It also tends to be non-persistent. By virtue of it’s benign nature, pronounced vanity tends to promote immediate feedback from close friends more than most faux pas do; an important cog in the necessary filtration of bullshit from our personalities. The vanity itself may be irrational or rational in nature (but always rationalised), but it always looks the same: conceited, self-indulged, self-aggrandised. Sometimes arrogant, sometimes disinterested, and at the far end of the spectrum, when it escalates to egomania, always a spectacle.

The pervasion of vanity is mostly internal. Self-indulgence denotes self-focus, in turn denoting a division of focus between self and whatever task is at hand. When the egotistical person does anything, they’re self-consciously aware (or disillusioned) of their own prowess at doing it (especially if there’s any to begin with). The moment said prowess is perceived in motion, the egotistical person becomes conscious to it,  fragmenting their focus and slowing their cognitive momentum to a halt. It becomes self-defeating behaviour, and it can be triggered by everything from genuine accomplishment, to excessive drug use, to false feedback, to trauma.

For someone vain to be more congenial and socially egalitarian, I think the change needs to be at the atomic level. It isn’t enough to simply mask feelings of self-enamouration; to feign modesty when you really think you’re king shit: these feelings have to be eradicated to the core. They’re nothing more than weedy vines wrapped around a person’s personality, that choke the organic growth of abilities through experience.

Inflated ego is all about unnecessary advocacy, whether to ourselves or to the outside world. It’s often correlated with a low self-esteem (in pretty much the exact same way ‘small dog barking syndrome’ exists) but it can be seen in people of all varied levels of mental and emotional stability. Correlations in the data exist, but point is, vanity’s up in our grill constantly, from all kinds of different people.

To transition from an unhealthy level of egotism to a regular sense and response around merit isn’t difficult in theory—it’s simply not thinking some things after all—but like any meaningful personal growth, the practical application can be pretty cumbersome at first. It primarily requires one thing: plain old curiosity. That’s the hook; the force propelling our interest and attention towards stuff existing outside of ourselves. Self-awareness of having a problem is also paramount, but it’s penultimate in importance to curiosity: without feeling curious about the world and other people, there’s little left for a pure and undivided attention to be drawn to. Thoughts can compound and potentially lead our minds into mild-psychosis. We need to find something else in the universe more interesting than ourselves.

Key to marshalling this kind of change within a person is a developed sense of moment-to-moment mindfulness. To pull out a weedy thinking pattern, being objective and observant, and non-reactive about our emotions, is the first step; the point when a second thought starts appearing in succession that makes an observation about the first. “Looks like I’m getting irrational and anxious, better slow down…” etc.  We’ve all had them; being mindful is just having them all of the time. It’s an entire cognitive faculty unto itself, but unlike most others, has an extremely high uptake for growth and development. Meditation—the right kind—is tailored to building mindfulness with the precision of a heat-seeking missile, and with the effectiveness of training a muscle group at the gym. It’s literally a work-out for the mind, and functions as a crucial tool in the journey from vanity to humility.

At the Inception level of egotistical thinking—where the idea that we’re a special person exists—change is also key. Being genuinely curious involves subtracting the human value scale and beginning to see other people as equal vessels of experience to our own, by not even considering them as equal or otherwise to begin with. And besides, I’m pretty sure there’s no philosophical argument for being special that doesn’t, in some way,  imply that all people are special. Calling anything special immediately implies a spectrum of qualification, and no matter how mild the ‘specialness’ of a person is, they will always be, in some way, special relative to the rest of the population. It’s such an insanely subjective word, the very lack of special in a person could in itself be special enough to make them special.

I think ‘special’ applies better to acts of character than character itself. We’re a fundamentally communal species, that functions on the back of our performance as people. Who we are makes no difference: it’s what we do that matters (which you’ve probably read and heard enough times for it to be physically imprinted on your hippocampus). There’s no point getting wasted all day thinking we can do something; a hundred million other people won’t have any hesitation in surpassing our tangible achievements when we falter. Thinking we’re special not only has zero value, but it also stifles our thirst for betterment by making us excessively satisfied—enamoured—with our present selves, rendering us partly impotent to the allure of achieving goals and supporting other people.

Vipassana meditation teaches us to let go of ego entirely. It translates to, “to see things as they really are”; it’s pure mindfulness meditation, Buddhist-influenced but secular, that focuses the attention on unregulated breathing and isolated body sensations irrespective of sensations elsewhere on the body, even hardcore physical pain. It trains balance in the mind by giving it the tools to avoid the natural impulse to reaction, by teaching it to observe thoughts and emotions rather than jump at them. When committed to and practiced with discipline, it makes a person selfless, clearer-minded, more centred and balanced, relaxed, compassionate, focused and purpose-driven. It’s easily the best practical remedy for problems of vanity, and even if these things tend to get better on their own over time (in most cases), taking control of it and becoming the person we want to be—someone, at least, who doesn’t have their head up their ass—through nothing more than our own grit and determination, makes the change infinitely more likely to remain.

Today’s blog was written by a guy who’s booked in for another 10 day Vipassana course, starting in a couple of weeks.

Facebook: Blurring Friendship Lines?

Facebook cops a lot of flack in the blogosphere. It’s an easy target, heavily influencing social interactions while giving users the opportunity for optimal self-representation among their peer group. Things rarely sound so Orwellian. It’s been vaguely linked to issues of envy, obsessiveness, narcissism, social angst, insomnia and addiction, and yet with 1.5 billion users and little evidence of a broad problem, the pandemic seems to be a fairly benign one.

There has been an undoubtable cultural shift around socialising in the past 10 years, something discernible to anyone living through the 90s and 00s, but I don’t buy the idea Facebook’s the only party to blame (or thank). It could be just as related to smartphones and the internet/media cross-pollination and the advent of Psy; cultural change is as certain as winter and as multi-faceted as a mosaic. There’s too much happening in the world to pin change down to any one thing.

The phrase “change is inevitable” is perhaps one of the most over-used platitudes on the planet (hence my shameless rewording of it above), but the vast majority of us don’t pay it more than a passing thought. When it actually happens, many of us lose our shit—most of all when it pertains to human behaviour.

The change around friend associations is an interesting one. Unlike the broader shift towards the instantaneous and constantly connected, which can be tied to public WiFi as much as Snapchat, it’s a specific symptom of Facebook. You know the drill: you can connect with anyone you want, then categorise them into friends, close friends, restricted, or acquaintances. Helps to keep things private and as close-to-life as possible while still maintaining some form of friendly connection. But is this level of Facebook sophistication always mutual? Can Facebook make passing associations seem more meaningful than they are?

I’ve worked in call-centre environments with hundreds of people (literally) who I’ve come to know by name, and many of them have become FB friendly. For a large part I wouldn’t even call them acquaintances—they’re nice folk who I worked around for a while. I may have barely interacted with them aside from working matters, or barely at all. Yet there’s this ongoing sense of them being there. Being a vague part of whatever aspect of my life I’m inclined to share.

Is this a problem? Generally, no; unless you’re a cantankerous people-hating hermit, networking with more and more individuals in a controlled manner has the potential to open up opportunity and experience in ways we’ve never had before. In those terms, I think it’s excellent. On the other hand though, it has the potential to create degrees of false intimacy.

There was a story on the radio the other day about a girl (let’s call her Lucy) who met another girl (Jane) through some mutual friends at a party, who then swapped last names to do the FB thing. They hit it off pretty well in person (as pals, cool your jets) but only interacted for a few hours. Typical situation these days. Within a week, Lucy started to share memes and articles on Jane’s wall, routinely, every several days. It wasn’t reciprocated beyond the polite acknowledgement of the ‘like’ button, and Jane began feeling uneasy. She didn’t know Lucy at all beyond having the first friendly conversation, and yet here Lucy was assuming a connection strong enough to be an ongoing presence in Jane’s consciousness.

Lucy’s behaviour may seem a product of a kooky personality, but to me she’s just representative of a shift in social etiquette (albeit a very earnest one). When Facebook is both the primary social domain and the most passive and easy form of multi-media sharing available, of course there’s a greater propensity for interaction without much foundation. It’s nearly half a generation old already, and as it becomes more intrinsic to our society—more normal to us—over time, the barriers of casual intimacy may become radically different to what they have been in the past.

I’d like to think that irrespective of human invention, human drivers remain relatively unchanged. Invention isn’t a deviation from humanity after all; it’s just an exponent and enhancement of it. All Facebook’s really doing, as far as I can tell, is changing the social throttle. It’s a tool, and as with all tools, there will be tools that abuse it.

Today’s unfocused blog was written by guest contributor, Mark Zuckerberg.

Idealising & Procrastination (Quora)

Quora question asked by Anonymous: Why don’t I make the right thing, even if I know what to do in order to become the person I want to be?

“I know I have to study and work hard in order to be a successful person. Still, I procrastinate. Another example: I’m reading a beautiful book, Wittgenstein’s Lectures. It’s one of the most fascinating books I’ve read this year. Still I keep on playing video games. How can I overcome this self-destructing process?”

I think this is a fairly common, certainly something I’ve experienced at times in my own life, so thought I’d post my response here as well:

Mental stimulation of any kind has a relationship with the reward system in the brain—where dopamine and other pleasure-associated chemicals are produced. The reward system exists to reinforce healthy and productive human behaviour by (basically) creating a pleasurable association with it. This association is built in part by the perceived reward of the behaviour in the mind, and in part by the chemical interaction in the brain.

Having an inbuilt reinforcement system is crucial because it structures human behaviour around social requirements, tying people to whatever role they’re suited to by literally making it feel better than doing something else. Only thing is, the reward system wasn’t evolved for modern society; it was evolved to suit the environment of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, which were a helluva lot more manual in nature than our own. Healthy and rewarding behaviour in a small tribe would be much easier to perceive than it is today—nutrition, ritual, shelter and security were clearly defined requirements with simple roles needed to maintain them.

Compared to our ancestors, modern society is covered by a thick layer of luxury, entertainment, technology, systems and automation. There’s a negative correlation between advances in technology and human requirement, and human requirement is directly tied to our sense of social value—something key when it comes to making conscious choices about what we do with ourselves. You may enjoy doing a particular task, but chances are, there’s very little social imperative that you complete it. Many gifted people (and narcissists) feel they have talent they are responsible for developing and disseminating into the world, but most of us, deep down, know our value is self-propelled. Which is fine by the way; it means we have infinitely greater choice with our lives than ever before.

The lessening human requirement means an increased need for human distraction, which has been increasingly provided by things like  entertainment, socialising and personal indulgence. These are all pleasure-riddled arenas that directly target the reward system, causing strong positive associations with activities that were really just intended to fill our existential void. In your situation I believe this may be playing a foundational role; atop this is plain-old idealism.

Rewarding behaviour doesn’t just exist in the physical world; mental simulation can be equally as strong, especially if we haven’t bonded with productive external activities thanks to having an Xbox. We can be as entertained and lazy as we like but the vast majority of us will still have positive and socially beneficial interests, so no matter how immobile we become, our minds still need to satisfy urges to accomplish meaningful goals. The reward system is finite—it can only go so far—so if there’s already been a huge allocation given to marijuana or World of Warcraft, you’re much more likely to relegate the ambition to an idealistic fantasy, simulating the journey of development and success in your head. This then becomes a habit pattern itself, which is where I believe you may find yourself based on your circumstance.

I’ve been there too, and it’s theoretically very easy to overcome. Mindfulness, discipline, support and routine are all crucial to becoming more behaviourally aligned with your ambitions, and these are all very developable.

Best of luck :-)