Four Questions and Two Propositions for a Healthier Mind

A quick video I threw together at work this morning:

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Je Suis Parisien

Student officers display a US giant national flag on the Trocadero square with the Eiffel tower in the background during a solemn tribute to the victims of the 9/11 attacks on September 11, 2011 in Paris. Several commemorations are held in France today to mark the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks which killed almost 3,000 people in NYC and Washington and plunged the US into an era of war. AFP PHOTO / FRED DUFOUR (Photo credit should read FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images)

Stay strong, friends.

Caught in Writing Before It Fades

I write what will turn out to be my final email, to my mother. In it I describe how I would often bring people together in my home to play jazz and the blues together, stealing riffs from a pair of old books. When I am done, I realize that I hope she and my sisters will some day share this with my young son.

It is then that I understand that the flight I am about to take is the one that had crashed with no survivors. Don’t ask why we’re re-flying it. All I know is that I am meant to be on that flight, so I feel honor-bound to get back on it. I hug my mother, then walk to my destiny.

The plane is small. I open the hatch to the cabin and see the rest of the passengers, strapped in, waiting. There is a pile of cash on the floor near the one remaining empty seat. My mind is racing, trying to figure out how I will explain my continued existence after the plane goes down without me on it. I can think of no ruse, and am emotionally preparing to fly to my death. I look at the money, scoop most of it up, and walk back up the small white concourse away from the plane, looking to donate the handful of bills to some good cause so that it does not burn up, wasted, when we inevitably crash.

Walking back from the desk where I left the money, I am still torn about whether to go through with it and get on the plane that I had been meant to die on, or somehow escape my fate. For some reason the death seems noble.

I choose not to die.

I find myself elsewhere. Possibly the other passengers are there, too–or at least some of them. It is a clinic of some kind, in a technologically advanced near future. In this future, going through procedures to genetically modify oneself is the norm. I’m not that interested in changing, despite the slightly manipulative voice being beamed into the room I’m passing through, suggesting that the only way any citizen of the future can ever catch the eye of a gorgeous genetically modified movie star is by also being genetically modified to be perfect.

I get to the front desk. Everyone’s clothing is odd: hand-me downs and burlap sacks, everything with neck holes rough cut into them regardless of how they’d been originally tailored. Someone who works there and who is guiding me hands me a pair of sheers, and one to the woman who came in next to me so we can cut the collars off of our own shirts and then cut a notch down the front from the neck, like some medieval tunic. It occurs to me that this way they can launder everyone’s clothes and then not worry about who gets which shirt the next time.

As I struggle through cutting the fabric of my shirt with the dull scissors, do I want to contribute a nickel? I drop a nickel into the plastic container being shaken in front of me. Something about being “nickeled and dimed” runs through my head, but leaps out of reach before I can fully resolve it. I continue to cut. This place seems oddly money-oriented, for what it is. Whatever it is.

Eventually I have my makeshift pullover tunic made. I struggle to pull it over my head; maybe the hole isn’t cut right? The alarm going off confuses me: so strange to be simultaneously getting dressed while also struggling with whether to even wake up.

I wake up, still wondering how I will escape, and how I will explain to my loved ones and to the authorities that I was unable to go through with my planned, appropriate, noble death.

(And no, I did not make up a word of this.)

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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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