Mental Cross-Training

I love to learn. I consume information ravenously. My normal mode of operation is to go on six-week deep dives into specific subjects, one or two subjects at a time, and then move on to another deep dive shortly after I complete the current one.

My general approach is to first survey the landscape and get a general sense of the subject’s natural outline. I try to identify the best sources to represent the two largest viewpoints on the subject, along with some quirky “third way” point of view. I tend to think of these as McDonalds, Burger King and Wendy’s. Or Windows, MacOS and Unix. You can pick for yourself which is which; I’m not interested in a holy war at this point in time. Another way of thinking of it is in brand terms. In most markets, there is a dominant brand (like a Coke) that far far outsells any other brand, and tends to present itself on its own terms. Then there is almost always a single “top competitor” number two brand (like a Pepsi), that is easily identified by the fact that their advertising tends to focus on comparisons with the number one brand. These two brands usually dominate more than fifty percent of the market, or at least more than fifty percent of the “mind share” of the market. Then there is often a clear number three (like a Dr. Pepper) that tends in its advertising to present itself as “other”, “quirky”, and for people not interested in the traditional competition between one and two. Anyway, I often find that in fields of knowledge, you can find a similar division among theories/opinions/schools of thought/etc. And I like to simplify while still getting a balanced picture. Thus my approach.

In addition to trying to identify the major schools of thought on a subject, I also will look for some sort of natural taxonomy to describe the major categories of the subject. This divides the subject study into a matrix, if you will, with subcategories on one axis and schools of opinion on the other. From there, I go to town.

Now, it’s not actually as formal and deliberate as all that. Rather, the above is merely a description of what I observe myself doing when I study how I study. I actually do it in a much more organic fashion, feeling my way around, working from the outside in, until I learn whatever it is I can learn before I get distracted by some new pursuit.

And I do this from subject to subject, bouncing around, all the time. Sometimes one subject will lead naturally into another, like cooking into baking into food science. Or like the history of jazz music to playing jazz piano to music theory. But sometimes the jumps are completely incongruous, like game theory to Russian history to number sequences. And sometimes I get stuck on something longer than six weeks. Sometimes a lot longer. I also occasionally return to previously visited subjects. But one way or another, I am always doing this.

But I’m not doing it with any specific purpose in mind. For me, it’s mostly about entertainment. It’s just something I find joy in. I am just a very curious person, I suppose.

That said, it would be incorrect to assume that this habit serves no purpose. I may not intend a purpose, but I have found plenty of purpose, after the fact, in my various random explorations of knowledge.

For instance, my deep dive into serious chess (which lasted a lot longer than six weeks, and which I still return to now and then) taught me ways of ordering my thinking process when analyzing the position on the board before selecting a strategy for the next phase of a game. I have found that that same thinking process is easily repurposed when faced with some structured, non-chess problem. Likewise, understanding Joseph Campbell’s concept of the “Hero’s Journey” has provided me insight when trying to figure out how to structure a sermon. And getting into the science of baking using ratios has given me new insight into different ways of organizing any given process-oriented field of study.

I call this “mental cross-training”. When an athlete cross-trains, they participate in a second sport or athletic activity besides their “official” sport, in order to improve the health and performance of particular muscles, general endurance, or other traits important to their “main” activity. Mental cross-training is the same for me. Except I very rarely have any idea what benefit I will get from any particular subject when I first start. But I almost always find an application after I have finished.

I suppose this is one way of understanding what colleges mean by a “well-rounded” education. I know, what they are mostly saying is that there are no major gaps in their curriculum. But you can also pursue the idea of “well-roundedness” in terms of trying to expose yourself to as many different ideas as possible, because the cross-pollination of those ideas in your fermenting mind will produce wholly new things that cannot be planned for but that will most surely enrich your life.

I credit my father to a great degree for teaching me this. He regularly advocated “keeping your options open” when it came to education. He encouraged people to explore as many different things and to be exposed to as many different ideas as possible, so as to have access to as many different tools, paths, options, as possible when contemplating your future. And from what I could tell, that’s how he lived his life. That’s how he stumbled into a job interview he wasn’t supposed to be in, that nevertheless led to a life-long career in a company that he loved and that treated him well. That’s how he met Malcolm X somewhat randomly one afternoon while at college. And I can look back and see that’s how he often found new ways of thinking that he could then take to his consulting clients in order to help them find unique solutions to age-old problems.

And I guess it was only just today that I realized this about him. Thanks, Dad!

 

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Don’t Call It a Reboot

I’ve decided that I’ve been neglecting my passion for the written word far too long. I’ve experimented with video and audio, but in the end my personal expertise and also my passion are just not in all of the details needed to produce great recorded media. I’m not saying I won’t continue to experiment with recording, lighting, editing, etc, etc, etc, and trying to produce additional audio and video content. But my native land is the written word. And it’s something I do have a passion for.

By “passion”, I mean it’s something I happily and willingly spend my time doing without thinking about it. If I examine how I naturally spend my time when not constrained by outside obligations, then I can see I have a passion for the following:

  • Writing;
  • Public speaking;
  • Complex thinking;
  • Reading;
  • Listening to Music;
  • Playing games.

I do other things. I have other interests and pursuits. I have things that I have consciously dedicated myself to. But the above list is the essence of what I would spend the majority of my time doing if I were to just let go and allow myself to live completely unregulated by duty, conscience, obligation or self-compulsion. The lower half of the list, as you can see, is fairly recreational, as most normal people would see things. The upper part of the list, though, are things I know a lot of people just aren’t that interested in, and generally expect to be paid for doing. But I would do them for free. I do do them, all the time, regardless of whether there’s any profit in them. For me, they are also recreational, in that doing them rebuilds my inner self, giving me energy rather than draining me.

So anyway, I want to get back to writing in some more formal ways. Those of you that have been hit regularly with my facebook posts, tweets, and long, highly theoretical email missives on various topics may now be saying, “But Mac, you already write a ton. (Please stop?)” And yeah, that’s true. But it all feels so very fragmented, talking to different people and different groups at different times. I feel like I want to get back to talking to everyone at once and no one in particular at the same time. There’s a special kind of satisfaction for me in that sort of “broadcast” style of communication, despite everything I’ve ever said about the decline of one-to-many and the rising supremacy of many-to-many communication. In practice “many-to-many” often really looks more like “some-to-some”, and I love a crowd. And the ability to just develop my thoughts in long form.

Anyway, so I’m doing two things about this, for now:

  1. I am going to resume fiction writing, using this year’s NaNoWriMo to kick-start me again.
  2. I am going to (well, I just did) resume blogging.

I’m really looking forward to getting back on this track of my life. I hope some of you out there get some benefit from my recreational works of passion as well.

What are your passions? What would you think about, talk about, learn about, practice and do if your time were totally your own and you had no material needs to attend to?

And what are you doing about that?

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Just Curious?

What questions are hardest for you to face? Why? Practice some loving curiosity so you can better understand other people. And yourself.

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Evil?

I don’t know exactly what’s wrong with me. But I find I am drawn to questions around the darker side of humankind more than to those that highlight the better side of the human condition. In seminary, I wrote a dissertation on the nature and operation of falsity—how it interacts with good, with evil, and with truth, when it matters and when it doesn’t, and what, exactly, defines it. It turned out to be a rather-too-broad topic, but I’m glad I did the study I did.

I was initially drawn to it after reading the following:

Truths which are not genuine, and also falsities, may be consociated with genuine truths; but falsities which contain good, and not falsities in which is evil. Falsities which contain good are received by the Lord as truths. The good which has its quality from falsity is accepted by the Lord, if there is ignorance, and therein is innocence and a good end. (The New Jerusalem and Its Heavenly Doctrine, n. 171)

What an amazing idea! And let me say that it was one I personally needed to wrestle with on many levels, and in fact had wrestled with most of my life. You see, I love to be right. I mean I really love it. Being right was very important to me as a child. I was blessed with a brain that is good at fast processing, and a certain kind of recall, and so early on I found myself to be quite talented at finding the small logical and factual flaws in other peoples’ statements. I’m surprised none of my siblings killed me before I reached adulthood.

But what if being right wasn’t the most important thing? What if being flat-out wrong, even about important, deep theological matters, was no big deal to God? Well, why would it be? Is the Lord so limited that he can’t work with our intellectual flaws? I mean, if he can work with our sin, why can’t he work with what really amounts to not much more than our mental errors?

So when I read that, I knew that was a topic I wanted to dig into. Also, in that same book, I came across a sort of taxonomy of types of falsities, and that really appealed to my particular style of categorical thinking.

But there was another motivation for asking how, what and why, with regard to spiritual falsehood: the question of evil. In part, understanding how falsity works in human minds unlocks part of the answer to the question, “Why is there evil?” I have often said, by way of example, that Adolf Hitler didn’t just get out of bed one day and say to himself, “I think I’ll be evil now.” Everyone, no matter how sane or crazy, no matter how big or small, has a (to them) perfectly reasonable justification for everything they do. Whatever anyone chooses to do, by definition, on one level, is to them the very definition of “good”. Even when at the same time the same person also labels it as “evil”, there must be some level on which it is good to the person, or they (we) wouldn’t do it.

And for me, the question, “Why do seemingly good people sometimes do seemingly evil things?” is one I can’t stop poking at. It’s one of my three persistant “why”s. (The other two are variants on the standard “Why do bad things happen to good people?”)

So anyway, the question of evil has been one that has been on my mind for many years. But the more life I experience, and the more pain I witness through my pastoral care for others who are experiencing some amazingly hard things, the more important this question becomes to me on a personal level.

I’ve been meaning for years to write a book–a popular book, not just an academic treatment–on the subject of evil. Just that word, “evil”, is filled with all sorts of complicated baggage accumulated over the ages, and to a certain degree I think we have turned it into something other than what it really is. If the word is too covered in cultural barnacles for it to work for you, instead consider the question, “Why do seemingly good people hurt one another?” And it’s more personal variant: “Why do I hurt people?”

There. That’s the big one. Not everyone’s ready to go there, I know. But for those who are, I want to provide something that offers hope, insight, and healing.

And I’d like to enlist your help. This project is going to take a long time, and will require more knowledge, experience and wisdom than I can currently lay claim to. So if you’d like to help, I’m looking for three things: (1) your own insights and experiences related to this topic, (2) an occasional gentle reminder to keep working on the book, and (3) support and motivation when I hit dead ends, discouragement, and setbacks.

I’ll be posting more (and more specifically) on this topic in the future. Watch this space.

 

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Mercy

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