This Will Be Hard

Novel Avoidance

I’m never sure what to do about productive procrastination. I think this is a real thing, but I use the term to refer to times I am doing real work, just not the work I should be doing. It is a close cousin to knolling, and in like manner, productive procrastination is more a balm to the mind than anything else.

Where am I going with this? Turns out, it is hard to cover a book deliberately and comprehensively. I have a chapter one draft full of good quotes and a decent general form, and I cannot for the life me make it interesting to read. I pictured Book Club turning out something like the series I once did on Fooled by Randomness, but now that I think about it, I never did finish that series.

It’s worse than I thought.

The productivity part of my procrastination took the form of reorganizing the navigation of my site. Then I spun up a new DigitalOcean Droplet so I could have a place for Book Club discussions. This latter task involved a surprising amount of DNS, SMTP, and ssh work, so for a long while, I completely forgot I was utterly failing to accomplish my original goal. *sigh*

I am not giving up on The Practicing Stoic, or on Book Club in general, but I am now aware this will be hard. Why did this surprise me? It’s right there in the project name!

Anyway, come join the Book Club discussion, if you’d like. Or check out my site’s new Book Club navigation. I will eventually—and publicly—figure out how to discuss a book. In the meantime, I’ll certainly procrastinate in many novel, and maybe productive ways. After all, my RSS methodology surely deserves some attention…

Stockdale Stoic

A while back on John Gruber’s Daring Fireball I came across a link to a Jim Collins interview with Admiral James Stockdale. I’ve written about Admiral Stockdale before, but his example set under the direst circumstances imaginable led to an almost overnight improvement in my own character. As a 20-year-old, I was very prone to overreacting to just about everything, but learning about Admiral Stockdale reset the scale I used when measuring my own personal “hardships.” This changed everything, and it changed quickly.

I like Admiral Stockdale’s succinct definition of stoicism:

A Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.”

This is manifestly true, and to my way of thinking, the only thing really in category (A) is my own attitude and response to the world. I now consider each particular hardship as training, and I have often found I can apply this mindset in the moment. When I fail the test real-time, I am still strengthened by applying this mental frame in hindsight.

Before sitting down with the admiral, Jim Collins wondered about how he avoided despair as a Prisoner of War:

Then all of a sudden it dawned on me, “Wait a minute, I’m getting depressed reading [In Love and War], and I know the end of the story. I know he gets out. I know he reunites with his family. I know he becomes a national hero. And I even know that we’re going to have lunch on the beautiful Stanford campus on Monday. How did he not let those oppressive circumstances beat him down? How did he not get depressed?” And I asked him.

He said, “Well, you have to understand, it was never depressing. Because despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail—-get out of this—-but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person. Not only that, Jim, you realize I’m the lucky one.”

I said, “No, I don’t.”

He said, “Yes, because I know the answer to how I would do, and you never will.”

We cannot control the trials we face, but we can turn them into training. When something is hard, it can make us better. When we prepare for this training, our thoughts can more easily fall into healthy patterns. Patterns we should learn ahead of time.

That is my goal for studying The Practicing Stoic. I will prepare and reinforce the mental patterns I need during a trial, and I will practice them when I am inevitably tried.

Homework?

I haven’t written in a few days, because I’ve been convalescing after suffering a back injury at work. I’m still laid low, but I ought to be able get my daily routine back on track tomorrow.

The first iteration of the twbh book club will cover The Practicing Stoic by Ward Farnsworth, which was recommended to me by my friend Erik. I’ve got a stoic bent to my personality, and even though I’ve received some mild push-back on this topic in the past, I am convinced a healthy life is marked by equanimity in the face of hardship. Stoicism is a good way to achieve that end.

There are 13 chapters in The Practicing Stoic, and each one should take about 20 minutes to read. After an introduction tomorrow, I will cover chapter one on Tuesday morning. Let me know if you’re reading along, and I will provide a way for us all to discuss.

/article> article>

Book Club

Fiction has always had an important place in my life, and recently, it’s been the better part of what I am reading. I don’t make rules for what I read (with the exception of not allowing myself much time on social media), but I always try to have at least one “learning” book going alongside whatever I am reading purely for fun.

The challenge, as ever, is time, so I want to put some external pressure on myself. To that end, I am initiating the first ever twbh Book Club. If you have a book you love, or one you’ve been meaning to tackle, @ mention potatowire on either Twitter or Micro.blog or email me at potatowire·com. If I don’t get any suggestions by Friday, I’ll select something from my antilibrary. I’ll do some sort of poll if I get a lot of suggestions.

I will divide the selected book into pieces and devise a schedule based on a reasonable daily reading amount. Each I’ll post the big takeaways, and if I have any reason to anticipate audience participation, I’ll add the ability to comment here. I will also interleave Q&A as full posts in this case.

Like everything I do, I am undertaking this as an experiment, but I think it will be fun. I hope you’ll join me.

/article> article>

Unreliable

Should I give in to my low motivation?

Is it time to rest? Can I white-knuckle it one more day?

Am I choosing to bend so I don’t break? Am I letting myself off the hook?

My motivation is already low. I can’t trust the answer.

I am the prosecutor and defense attorney. I am the judge and jury.

I am the unreliable narrator.

/article> article>

Better is Better

One of the better decisions I made when starting this project was beginning with minimal styling, and a manual publishing flow. I had a lot of quarantine time at home when I fist contemplated writing again, and I thought I could probably get the site perfect first and then write. That time evaporated shortly thereafter, however, and without a minimum viable site, I’d have in reality never published word one.

Starting before I feel truly ready is a pattern I’ve developed too late in life. If I were to analyze myself, I think it is because I am what Gretchen Rubin calls a “Questioner.” She created four personality bins that describe how people deal with obligations. In my case as a questioner, I stick with something only if it makes sense to me. Otherwise I “question” things to death and blow off anything that doesn’t survive this scrutiny. This means I have to have something completely figured out before I begin a new habit. Stated simply: I take forever to start and quit way too often.

Of course, I realized this maddeningly late in life, and knowing this about myself now means I can structure new habits I want to build in a more iterative way. I do trial periods, with distinct decision points for modification or quitting. I can’t really explain why this works. Weren’t my previous failed attempts already trial periods, with distinct decision points for modification or quitting? Isn’t that what all new routines look like? Yes, but apparently defining things this way means I will modify far more often than I will quit. Like a lot in life, it works without making a ton of sense.

One other decision making tool I’ve recently employed to good effect is to to be freer doing what is easily unwound. The root of the word decision is “to cut,” because when you do one thing, you cut off all the other choices. That is true, in that there is a cut-line between did and didn’t, but in most situations, the didn’ts do not go away. You can easily return to the original question later, armed with better data. This is iterating, in a computer science-y sort of way.

Maybe I can provide a practical example. Technically, you can unwind the decision to buy a car, but it takes a lot of time and effort, and you usually lose money in the process. Other purchases are likewise irreversible in practice, but the scale makes all the difference. Trying out a new notebook, for instance, means you are out a few (or tens of) dollars, but that’s usually okay. What does all this mean? I should take months to decide to whether or not to buy a new car (and mostly answer no!), but I should just click “buy now” on the notebook page in Amazon.

What I am doing here is rationing mental effort, which like time, is more precious to me than money. When something is less mentally taxing (because I don’t consider the decision final), I am more likely to try it. The more I try, the more that works. The more works, the better I get.

Better is better.

/article> article>

No One Knows

Unsurprisingly, Tyler Cowen is a voice of reason in these trying times. He recently posted a good summary of our current situation:

If we keep the economy closed at current levels, it will continue to decay, and at some point turn into irreversible, non-linear damage. No one knows when, or how to model the course of that process. That decay also will eat into our future public health capacities, and perhaps boost hunger and poverty around the world.

If we keep people locked up at current levels, fewer of them will be exposed to the virus, and in the meantime we can develop better treatments, and also improve test and trace capabilities. No one knows how quickly those improvements will come, or how to model the course of that process, or how much net good they will do.

The relative pace of those two processes should determine our best course of action. No one knows the relative pace of either of those two processes. Yet commentators pretend to be increasingly knowledgeable, moralizing based on the pretense of knowledge they do not have.

These two forces, economic decline and risk to life, are in tension, and no one knows how to balance them. No one knows. No one can know.

Anyone arguing confidentially on either side of this argument should be written-off as untrustworthy. Or maybe they are just afraid. I think most people taking sure sides either see an opportunity to advance a previous agenda, or are more viscerally afraid of one outcome over the other.

We need to be more comfortable with uncertainty, because it is so hard to know anything. In the absence of certain knowledge, maybe start with who you want to be.

/article> article>

Some twbh History and a Book Recommendation

Right before I declared failure on the first iteration of This Will Be Hard, I started a series designed to encapsulate the tools I use when I’m consciously trying to think better. This concept is more commonly called Mental Models, which I think was originally coined by Charlie Munger. I hoped by writing a series on what I have learned I could cement it better in my head, and at the same time, maybe I could help one of you.

This was good motivation until I heard Shane Parrish interview Gabriel Weinberg (the DuckDuckGo founder). They were discussing his book about mental models, which I thought sounded pretty good. I ordered it and started reading a little bit every morning. And it was great.

It was so good that I realized that this book largely accomplished what I’d hoped to do on This Will Be Hard, and while I was energized by the book, in general, I was demotivated to write. Strangely, this didn’t bother me. I seem to want to write when my mind is unsettled or I want to learn. I was happy on both counts, and therefore, I no longer felt compelled to write. For a while, at least.

I’d like to encourage everyone to read Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann. If money is tight—because of pandemic or life reasons—send an email to me at potatowire·com, and I’ll buy it for you. If I don’t have you convinced yet, try the podcast I alluded to earlier.

One last recommendation, buy the paper book, not the ebook. It is much easier to internalize the lessons of a book like this when you have the physical article. I think this is due to the place association a real book offers, which can’t be replicated by a Kindle or iDevice. Plus, it’s a lot easier to flip back and forth, and this material rewards that behavior.

/article> article>

The Thief

I spent the morning failing to write. I went through a lot of old notes and built-out some new drafts, but once I was in the exploring mode, I lost the writing mode. I know this is what happens, but knowing isn’t doing.

It was interesting reviewing my old notes, however. I mostly wondered why past-me bothered, and some snippets were completely inexplicable (what am I supposed to do with “airlocks”?!?), but the gestalt of them brought me back in time.

In all my past gtd failures, I failed most often in building the weekly review habit. I captured, and I did not review. I mostly did not do. My mind was never like water. I was still okay, but I should have been better.

This morning’s experience has me wondering if I should have tailored the weekly review more to my unique disfunction. Instead of executing a perfect routine, I built no routine. I waited until I could do it right, instead of doing anything, regularly. The perfect is the enemy of the good and all that.

Maybe today was my first weekly review?

The quote below started out as a random addition to a non-post, but it now fits in quite nicely.

"Procrastination is the thief of compound interest”

Venkatesh Rao

/article> article>

Today and Tomorrow

Many nights, I am dissatisfied when I reflect back upon my day. Some days, I lack motivation and don’t do much. Some days, I do a lot, but none of it is worth keeping. Some days, my work is unfairly judged. Some days, it is unnoticed altogether.

In Fooled by Randomness, Nassim Taleb looks at our ability to evaluate life. One of the tools he advocates is considering alternative histories:

One can illustrate the strange concept of alternative histories as follows. Imagine an eccentric (and bored) tycoon offering you $10 million to play Russian roulette, i.e., to put a revolver containing one bullet in the six available chambers to your head and pull the trigger. Each realization would count as one history, for a total of six possible histories of equal probabilities. Five out of these six histories would lead to enrichment; one would lead to a statistic, that is, an obituary with an embarrassing (but certainly original) cause of death. The problem is that only one of the histories is observed in reality; and the winner of $10 million would elicit the admiration and praise of some fatuous journalist (the very same ones who unconditionally admire the Forbes 500 billionaires).

…[I]n time, if the roulette-betting fool keeps playing the game, the bad histories will tend to catch up with him. Thus, if a twenty-five-year-old played Russian roulette, say, once a year, there would be a very slim possibility of his surviving until his fiftieth birthday—-but, if there are enough players, say thousands of twenty-five-year-old players, we can expect to see a handful of (extremely rich) survivors (and a very large cemetery).

Are the handful of extremely rich survivors any wiser than the thousands in the ground? Certainly not.

Are we looking at a grave or the cemetary when considering day’s work? Are we even looking at the right thing?

Once upon a time, Alice sought help from the Cheshire Cat at a crossroads:

…‘Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’

‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,’ said the Cat.

‘I don’t much care where—’ said Alice.

‘Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,’ said the Cat.

It doesn’t matter which road we take when we don’t know where we are going. It doesn’t matter what we do when we don’t know who we are.

Back to my nightly reflections…Did today’s work align with who I am?

Yes? Good. There’s always tomorrow.

No? Good. There’s always tomorrow.

/article> article>

Every Time

One of life’s great mysteries is why children who go to bed later than normal wake up earlier than normal.

Every. Time.

/article> article>

The Sovereign Individual

I’m going to begin reading the The Sovereign Individual again today, because I think work and the workplace will undergo a similar upheaval post-pandemic.

In many ways this book was prescient, and it remained relevant for far longer than it should have, given how much the internet changed in the transition from Geocities to Twitter and Facebook. I will be reading with an eye towards parallels, while seeking to avoid the Lincoln/Kennedy-secretary problem (my term for reading too much into a situation).

/article> article>

Mistakes Were Made

Human error is one of the natural consequences of publishing this site by hand, while I learn enough node.js to build a blog engine. Most of these mistakes will be temporary, and many will affect readers differently.

Yesterday, I did my normal publishing routine correctly, right up until I edited my RSS’s .xml file. At that point, I left in place the prior day’s <description> content, which provides the full post content in an RSS reader. Anyone who checked their feedreader yesterday saw the wrong content with the correct title.

Maybe some of you clicked through and saw the correct post on the site. Maybe a some of you noticed the error and shook your head at my carelessness. Maybe no one checked the feed yesterday. At this point, I have no idea. The feed is correct now, but part of the “fun” of RSS is that individual readers may still show the old content. *sigh*

This whole thing is a good reminder for me to worry most about continuing to write, because I think it is good for me. If I sweat mistakes here and there, or worry about external markers of success like reader-count, I will quickly lose my motivation. That’s what ended all my prior projects.

Instead, I will daily try to get better. I will occasionally publish a post that’s pretty good. Sometimes folks will even read it. Periodically, I will make mistakes. When I catch them, I will make myself be okay with that, and I will probably ask for forgiveness here.

Management regrets the error.

/article> article>

My Antilibrary

There are books spread all around my house, and while most are in one room, I can’t properly call it a library. I own books about many subjects, and I’ve lost interest in some of the topics. I have also returned to subjects I thought I didn’t care about anymore.

I have read many of my books, but probably not most, and the unread quantity fills me with joy. Nassim Taleb explains this emotion quite nicely in The Black Swan:

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and nondull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others—a very small minority—who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

We tend to treat our knowledge as personal property to be protected and defended. It is an ornament that allows us to rise in the pecking order. So this tendency to offend Eco’s library sensibility by focusing on the known is a human bias that extends to our mental operations. People don’t walk around with anti-résumés telling you what they have not studied or experienced (it’s the job of their competitors to do that), but it would be nice if they did. Just as we need to stand library logic on its head, we will work on standing knowledge itself on its head. Note that the Black Swan comes from our misunderstanding of the likelihood of surprises, those unread books, because we take what we know a little too seriously.

I love not knowing much. Not knowing enough. There is so much wonder in learning the next thing. In not even knowing what the next thing’s subject will be.

So many surprises await me on my bookshelves. Many more surprises are still in book warehouses. Even more are still in the authors' minds.

This is what keeps me off social media.

/article> article>

So Good?

One of the books I’ve long found most compelling is So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport. I’ve re-read it twice, and I re-visit sections of it often. The title comes from a Steve Martin quote from a 2007 interview Martin was asked how an aspiring performer could succeed in show business, but today I want to highlight another great idea from that same interview. When describing his strategy for learning the banjo, he said:

[I thought], if I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.

Cal Newport adds:

To me, this is a phenomenal display of patience. Learning clawhammer banjo is hard, and because of this, Martin was willing to look forty years into the future for the payoff—-a recognition of the frustrating months of hard work and mediocre playing ahead. In his memoir, Martin expounds on this idea when he discusses the importance of “diligence” for his success in the entertainment business. What’s interesting is that Martin redefines the word so that it’s less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about your willingness to ignore other pursuits that pop up along the way to distract you.

It’s this last part that seems most important, but it’s also the hardest part for me. I am interested in just about everything. My stance has continually been, if a subject sounds boring, it’s only because I haven’t looked into it enough. Following my own advice, I have spent countless hours researching an conceivable thing I might want learn.

As a result of this mindset, I know a lot about a lot, but I am not an expert in anything besides (maybe) flying fighter jets, which I did for 20 years in the Navy. That dedicated focus on one area of expertise literally paid off, and it’s a skill that continues to provide for my family, but I want to go deep on something else now that I’ve retired from the Navy.

I’m taking my time figuring out this next thing, because I need to make sure I am committed enough to block out all distractions. There’s no need to hurry. I’m not expecting payoff for another forty years.

/article> article>

Iteration

Too often I try to start an endeavor with a grand, all-inclusive plan. I do this even though virtually every decision I face is reversible, to a large extent. In other words, There is no need for a grand plan. I can instead iterate around some simple goal, and see what works. I can experiment.

/article> article>

No Magic

Sometimes I am excited to begin work on a new task, and sometimes I dread it. This dread can have many sources, but it usually signals the anticipation of hard work.

Sometimes I dread a job because I know I don’t like the work, and sometimes I dread the job because I don’t know how to do the work. I might not want to dig a hole in the backyard, because I don’t like shovelling. I might not want to write, because the muse is elusive and sometimes the words won’t come.

The solution for either problem is simple, but it is also hard. Whenever something needs to be done, I pick a time for the task, and I make one ironclad rule for that time. I can either do the hard work, or I can do nothing. I have a choice, but my options are limited.

I don’t have to write, but my hands must be on the keyboard. I can’t do “research” by opening Feedbin. I can’t tinker with the site’s css or work on the blog engine. I don’t have to write, but I can do nothing but write.

I get anxious staring at that lonely cursor on a blank screen when I think I’ll fail to write anything good. When I need to find magic. That anxiety fades when I know from the outset that it’s okay to sit at the computer with the words not coming. I succeed either way.

No magic required.

/article> article>

Kindling

When I know what I want to write, I can’t focus well enough to read. When I maintain my reading focus, the transition to writing mode takes more time than I have in a morning. I need to cultivate an idea time in the afternoon to prepare kindling for the next morning.

/article> article>

Routine

One of my challenges during the last few days is how to write again. I did keep a paper journal for quite a while, but that writing could stay unfinished and unpolished, since no one will ever read it.

When I kicked this project off, I had time to write late in the day, but it quickly became evident (by two days in row of bad work) that late-day creative energy was too rare for me to rely on. So, instead I started writing in the morning, after my hard reading was complete.

This seemed like it would work well, until I noticed (as in my wife told me) that I was a bit of a jerk to my family throughout the rest of the day. Writing and finalizing the posts first-thing was the only common thread in two days of bad behavior, and I think maintaining my focus while my family vied for it was too great a strain. I chose poorly in letting the writing win-out.

Needing a new plan, yesterday I decided I would write until the first kiddo wandered out of bed, finishing my post whenever I could, later in the day. This was much better, as evidenced by my improved attitude and behavior, even though yesterday’s post was a hard one to write and publish.

I think this will be good, and I know I can edit and think well(ish) throughout the entire day. My ability to write, from scratch at least, seems to be the perishable good.

I am a big fan of routine, and I seem to be unable to stick with something I can’t fit into a normal day. If I need a special day to do a special task, I might as well schedule failure. If something is important, it deserves a place in my everyday. I think writing is important.

/article> article>

He is Risen Indeed

I have spent many years concerned with how the mind works and with logic and reason. I like to think this was a character of my thought before I ever heard the word, “metacognition,” but that may be wishful thinking. One way I sharply differ from many with similar interests is that I believe in God. To state it plainly, I truly believe in the historical life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

“Historical” is the operative word in that statement of faith, because I believe there is something supernatural here. I think there can be things that go beyond the laws of nature. Mine is not a modern faith in Jesus as a good teacher, without all that business of being God incarnate. No, what I believe challenges plain reason. I don’t believe without reason, however.

I think all worldviews hinge on some bit of faith. For instance, science depends on the underlying belief that the universe will make sense. That reality is figure-out-able. There is no reason it has to be this way though. Careful observation and scientific testing strengthens this case, and logic indicates–but does not require–that this will remain so. Believing reality will remain understandable is required for science to work, and that is a reasonable faith.

Where I part company with so many scientists is the requirement that there be only a naturalistic explanation for everything. This may be, but I can’t see how it must be. Any observation that defies a natural explanation is either because it indicates the functioning of a more fundamental natural law, or because there has been some supernatural force acting on reality. I make room for the supernatural, even as I don’t assume it.

This is my reasoned position now, but I grew into it. I started with faith as a child, but when I entered school, I learned more of the common objectives to a belief in God. This got me interested in Christian Apologetics, from the Greek word “Apologia,” which means defense. These discussions in defense of belief were useful as I worked out my own faith.

One of my favorite voices in those days was Chuck Colson, who was formerly Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man.” Earlier this week, I heard a few episodes of the Breakpoint podcast, which continued after Chuck Colson’s death. My favorite was a re-broadcast of some past Easter messages, and one of them was a discussion of the first bit of apologetics I remember finding truly compelling when I was a teenager.

It is reliably agreed, by Christian and secular scholars alike, that the tomb of Jesus was empty three days after the crucifixion. Scholars likewise agree that the “Swoon Theory,” and other similar explanations for how Jesus did not actually die on the cross, are improbable. Therefore, the most likely natural explanation for the empty tomb would be some sort of conspiracy that removed and hid the body of Christ. If there was a conspiracy, the beneficiaries of such a conspiracy would have be its likely perpetrators. Namely, Jesus’s disciples.

Recorded in the Gospels, and to their discredit, the disciples abandoned Jesus in fear, when he was taken prisoner by the authorities. Like nearly all their contemporaries, the disciples believed in a mighty and predominately political or warrior messiah that would restore the Jewish people to worldly prominence. When, instead, their supposed Messiah went meekly into confinement, all that was put asunder.

Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried. Three days later, the tomb was empty, and He later appeared to them alive. If we grant the former point, we don’t have the same reason to grant the latter, except for the disciples subsequent behavior. These formerly fearful men began to boldly proclaim their Faith under harsh persecution by the Jewish and Roman authorities. All but one were martyred for their Faith.

Very occasionally, people will choose to die for truth, but it defies reason that the 11 people most in position to know the truth would instead knowingly die for a lie.

Embedded here is Chuck Colson’s discussion of this idea, with his additional perspective of having participated in the conspiracy to coverup the Watergate break-in.

This doesn’t prove anything, of course, but I hope it shows there can be reason in faith. I cannot separate my mind from my heart, and I don’t want to. I don’t need to.

I would like to close with my favorite church tradition. Saying “alleluia” (praise the Lord) in the church’s liturgy is put away during Lent, until the Easter service when it returns in the Paschal Greeting. It is a wonderful celebration.

“Alleluia. Christ is Risen!”

“The Lord is Risen Indeed”

/article> p>Alleluia.

article>

Constraints

As I alluded to yesterday, I do my hardest, most important work in the mornings. It’s in the morning that I realize how much I want to learn and how little time I have.

Beyond time constraints, my other challenge is mental energy. I simply don’t have the ability to maintain a continued, highly-focused study of challenging material, even on those rare occasions I do have the time. That is, after all, why I work on the hardest stuff first thing in the morning.

So how do I manage mental energy when I can read and study? I go with what sounds interesting. Interest level has proved to be a reliable stand-in for my energy level. If I am worn down by frustrations at work or by obstinate (and now ever-present) children, I may only want to listen to an audiobook novel or a sports podcast. If the more intellectual material on my list looks appealing, then I know I have the energy for something more substantial. I apply the same general test when I sit down to read.

It’s the list of inputs that does the heavy lifting here. I have a vast range of interests represented, but the list is finite. I look at my bookshelves or open my podcast player, but I don’t let myself open Twitter or Instagram. I don’t open YouTube or Reddit. What’s wrong with Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, and YouTube? Nothing, really. There is plenty of wheat among the chaff, but the supply is infinite. The internet is full of novelty, and this lets me forget I want to learn and how little time I have.

There’s no moral judgement here, it is the rule I make in the morning, before I am tempted by the potential of every scroll. My other inputs have endpoints. A book has a last page and a podcast has a final minute. That makes me decide what to do next. An infinite stream doesn’t provide decision points.

Each day opens full of potential, and rare is the day we call perfect. That’s okay, I don’t expect a perfect day. I’m happy with a good day, and a few constraints make that easy.

/article> article>

The Big Rock

I am not a morning person, but I wake up at 5 o’clock every day.

I began this routine last year, after a period of spontaneous introspection. I had come to a place where my free time was plentiful and my accomplishments were few. I noticed who I was evidently becoming, and I decided I didn’t like that guy. I didn’t know how to change, or even who I wanted to be, but I knew something had to give.

Consider a mason jar, one or two big rocks, a pile of small pebbles, and a cup of sand. What’s the best way to fill the jar? Maybe you’ve heard this one before. If you start with the sand, followed by the pebbles, there’s not a lot of room left for the big rocks. If that order is reversed, however, you can fit in a surprising amount of sand and pebbles once the big rocks are set in place.

Every day we have a jar to fill, but we don’t always fill it with care. I didn’t notice that I was beginning each day with sand and pebbles, but as evening approached, I was continually surprised there was no room left for a big rock.

One fateful evening last year, I decided to start off the next day by picking up a big rock. I knew the only part of the day that was guaranteed was early, before the kids woke up. I also knew I would need a couple hours to myself, so I reluctantly set my alarm for 5:00AM and went to bed.

The next morning, my alarm was an abomination, but I did drag myself to the coffee pot and then to my reading chair. And it was glorious. Not all at once, and in no obvious way. Nevertheless, I was changed. I was better.

Now, as I wind down my day and see to my bedtime chores, I am quite often excited for the next morning. Nearly always, the day has concluded without any reason for great optimism, but I know what my big rock is, and I know when I will set it in the jar.

/article> article>

The Wider World

I had to physically go to work today. It certainly was surreal at times, and it is obvious that my slice of Americana is finally taking the pandemic seriously.

I hate to make a common introvert’s joke, but I was made for social distancing. Unfortunately, almost every day for the last two weeks I’ve had at least one long virtual meeting. These wear me out as much as in-person communication does, and in the past this surprised me. Now I just seek quiet time until my battery recharges.

Tonight I discovered that these work conversations (my job is often not 9–5) also make it difficult for me to write, so I am going to have to admit failure again and go watch tv with my wife.

/article> article>

Learning

I tend to learn haphazardly, and I was on that path again today. For obvious reasons, I am not happy with the design of this site, but I made myself hit publish yesterday, because I felt the perfectionism monster waiting for me just around the corner.

Today I got cracking on making things responsive and a little prettier. Some general display:float work got me looking at techniques for a proper hamburger menu, which started me on the path scss, which got me copy-and-pasting more than understanding, which brings me to now.

Without needing a crystal ball, I could foresee a day of cludgy work and no writing. In the end, I’d have learned nothing new and written nothing new. And I’d be sad.

Instead, I did what I hope is the smart thing and started a new git branch for the work I began, and I’ll go backward a few steps in my learning process. I’ll hold on to the current design a little longer and have something to publish instead.

I think this is better.

/article> article>

Here we go again

It seems like I’ve written this posts many times already. I like to write on the web, evidently, but this has been a challenge in recent years. About a year ago, I tried to start out again, but I set too high a purpose. I was trying to do too much.

This time, my only purpose is to have a place to get things out of my head. It will track my interests, which vary widely, and I am not sure how much I will post. I tend to be a very binary person, so I think I will make my myself post everyday. That means the signal-to-noise ratio will be quite high, but that will have to be okay.

I also became bogged down previously by trying to have something like intellectual rigor. I wanted to be sure to include lots of contextual links and an footnote my sources. This made it hard for me to write. This time I will be posting what I think, even when what I think is in a state of flux. I try to be changeable, so this flux is a feature not a bug.

If I commit to posting regularly, sometimes these posts will be more like tweets. Since I’m more of an old-twitter typ of guy, I will be posting these shorter thoughts in the micro.blog world. Hopefully you will soon see those posts in the sidebar, which brings me to the very bones of this here site.

I tried nearly all of the online publishing systems, and I didn’t like something about each of them. Given that, I might as well take complete ownership of my online destiny. I enjoy programming and tinkering around with web technology, so this place will give me an excuse to do some of that. That means this site will change a lot, and it will quite likely be intermittently or permanently ugly and broken. I am okay with that too, because this project is largely for me.

All that being said, this project is really just another iteration of This Will Be Hard, because it still will be hard. The this is just more general and complete, because I will be documenting what becomes of me during this third phase of my life. The first was childhood, the second was my Navy career, and the third will be from now until upside-down question mark.

Here we go.