Further Thoughts for Students

For now, I'm lucky enough to get to share my thoughts with students every semester. That being said, there's a lot of stuff that I think is really helpful that I can't justify sharing in my course, as it's not so much about "business" or "communication". So, I reckoned I'd gather up that kind of thing here. Mostly, it's stuff I wish I had known when I was younger, so it ought to be very helpful to young folks. On the other hand, I wasn't all that young when I learned a lot of this, so you might still find something helpful here even if you're not so young.

Given that this is the internet, and that I teach at a university, I feel like I have to say clearly that these are my own views, and not those of my employer. I've posted them here to help maintain some of that distance. If you see anything here that upsets you, I'd like to hear from you so we can talk it over, especially if you're one of my students.

Your Head

Let's start with some things that I have found very helpful in learning how to think.

Learn and Use Mental Models

My good friend Jonathan introduced me to "mental models", which are perhaps best explained by the blog Farnam Street, but here's the short version: different fields have their own ways of thinking about the world, and many of these ways can be applied outside of their home field. Naming these ways of thinking as more-or-less contained "models" makes it easier to remember and apply them in a variety of situations. The other reason it's helpful to think of them as separate "models" is that it reminds you that they are just that: useful abstractions that help you understand the world, not the raw, objective truth.

Learn How to Read a Book

Anyone who wants to read books for more than fun needs to read How to Read a Book by Adler and Van Doren. If you haven't read it, your education has a serious gap. They break down reading into four levels: 1) Elementary, 2) Inspectional, 3) Analytical, 4) Syntopic. 1) Elementary reading is what you learned in grade school: marks on a page form meaningful words - that's all most folks know how to do. 2) Inspectional reading could be called "intelligent skimming" - you shoot to get the most out of a book in a fixed amount of time. 3) Analytical reading is where things get interesting. This is when you want to get the most out of a book, period. You take all the time you need to grok it in fullness. 4) Syntopic reading is when you want to understand a concept or field of study and so you read a lot of works by different authors and make sense of them all together. Even if you don't follow the exact scheme of this book or the techniques it outlines, I think it is very useful to have an idea of different levels of reading depending on what you're trying to do, and to apply them intentionally.

Use Divergence and Convergence

I was introduced to this pair of concepts by my former boss Tony, who learned them by working with Dr. Min Basadur and becoming certified in his creative problem solving approach (which is currently called "Simplexity"). In creative thinking, you have two processes which are both necessary, but are better done separately: "diverging" and "converging". Diverging is where you try to generate as many options as possible. Convergence is when you evaluate the options generated and try to pick the best ones based on whatever criteria is relevant. These two ways of thinking use very different mental processes, and they interfere with each other. This approach applies in a surprisingly broad number of fields: in writing, you want to write a crappy first draft and edit, if you're figuring out where to go to dinner with your friends, throw out any options you can think of without worrying about if any of them are 'good', and only then pick something from that list. So, any time you're trying to solve a problem, first come up with as many options as you can, pause, and then look at those options and ask which ones work. Repeat as needed.

Seek Out Old, Weird Things

Don't waste your time trying to fit in. Not because fitting in isn't important - it is. But that shit will take care of itself. Even the weirdest, most against-the-grain bastard you can think of is still a product of his time and culture. So, unless you are already a hermit living deep in the woods, cultivate an interest in the obscure, the far off, and the long ago. Even though there are certain charms to eccentricity in and of itself, that's not what I'm pushing here. In a big, highly-linked world, your best hope for being valuable is to bring a combination of talents and knowledge to the table that no one else has, not by doing what everyone around you is doing. The two best heuristics I know of for making this happen are to go after what is weird and what is old. When you start poking around weird/old things, you're going to run into a lot of mularkey, but this is actually a feature, not a bug - you get to practice evaluating sources and how they fit in with what else you know. If everything you encounter fits into a neat, coherent system without this work, you are missing or distorting large chunks of reality, because reality is messy. What do I mean by "weird"? Anything that would get a snooty look at a cocktail party is a good start - cryptids, UFOs, alternate versions of history, magic, conspiracies, and so forth. Am I saying you should believe all of this stuff? Of course not. The idea is to expose yourself to ways of thinking that are very different from what you'll usually encounter - sometimes, when used carefully, some of those ways of thinking are useful. And that leaves "old", this one is simpler - if it was written before you were born, chances are pretty good that it contains some ways of looking at the world that seem pretty alien to you, which again, is the point of the exercise.

Learn and Recognize the Three Economies

I encountered this model in John Michael Greer's The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered, which itself draws heavily on the work of E.F. Schumacher. The book was helpful for a variety of reasons, but the best bit was a mental model (see above). Greer breaks down "the economy" into three separate economies that work very differently: the Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Economies. I'll start in the middle with the most familiar: the Secondary Economy is the economy of goods and services. I cut up meat to sell to the baker and use the proceeds to buy the products of the candlestick maker. Economics as a field is very good at analyzing the Secondary Economy, but tends not to think much about the Primary Economy, which is everything the natural world does to allow human economic activity to happen at all. When a farmer buys seed and a tractor and works his tuchus off cultivating and harvesting his crops, that's all Secondary Economy work. The fact that plants evolved little starch pods called grain, that the microbes in the soil allow plants to grow in it, that bees pollinate the plants, and that the sun shines down free energy for photosynthesis is all the Primary Economy. Lastly, we have the Tertiary Economy, which is the economy of financial instruments like money, loans, and stocks. Theoretically, everything in the Tertiary Economy is a representation of something in the Primary or Secondary Economy: I have a piece of paper called a "Title" that says I own a chunk of land, but the bank has a piece of paper saying they get the land if I don't pay back the loan they gave me to buy the title, and so on. So long as the Tertiary Economy remains pretty lightly linked with the Primary and Secondary economies, it's incredibly useful - using money to settle transactions and measure wealth has lots of benefits, and other financial instruments help to start bigger, more complex businesses that can be valuable to everybody. Unfortunately, the Tertiary Economy has a tendency to become unmoored from underlying economic reality and to eat up more and more of the total share of economic activity in the form of speculative bubbles. The more emphasis on the Tertiary Economy, the more bubbles like this happen. Our current economy is something like 75% in the Tertiary by notional dollar value, which is definitely something to think about.

Your Heart

Next, some touchier-feelier stuff about what matters in life.

Work Out Your Relationship to Meaning

This is the bit of this post I had the hardest time writing. It's big, weighty, and feelings run very strong around it. So I'll just try to dive in. At one time or another, all of us grapple with questions like "what's the point of all this?" or "how do I know what to really care about?" Some of us find answers that work for us in the teachings of a religion or a philosophy. Others of us look to what science and reason can tell us. And some of us try to bring our eyes down to the here and now and focus on what's right in front of us and set aside such big, maybe unanswerable questions. Perhaps the most common response is to distract ourselves from the questions so that we don't have to think about them. Television, booze, sex, jobs, gadgets, jewelry - whatever our own vice might be, we find something that lets us ignore those questions for a while. This is a bad long-term strategy, for at some point, something will happen that will show you the distractions for what they are - empty, meaningless, a waste of your precious time and attention. Sometimes this can hit like a ton of bricks: maybe someone you love dies, or maybe the relationship you've built your life around ends, or you find out you've only got a few months to live. If you wait for these heavy moments to think seriously about meaning, you're gonna have a bad time. Instead, start now. I won't tell you what traditions to explore, and I certainly won't tell you what conclusions to come to. This kind of thing is irreducibly personal, and what works for me is unlikely to work for you. If you're at a loss on where to start, there's an online book called Meaningness that I think does a pretty good job of outlining many of the reasons this is a thorny problem, approaches that have historically been tried and some of the problems with them, and so forth. You could also do worse than to read some ancient philosophy. If there's a religious tradition that's familiar or appeals to you, you might see what it has to offer. Wherever you start, don't expect this to be a quick project, something you sort out over the summer and never think about again. Wrestling with meaning is a life-long challenge, but one that can make everything else far more worthwhile.

Meditate Discursively

Lots of folks these days take seriously the idea of taking a bit of time every day to get your mind right, which is great. On the other hand, almost all of them practice forms of "mind-emptying" techniques that seek to still conscious thought, which is a bit less great. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with such techniques in and of themselves, but they have some little talked-about downsides. First off, very many folks find them tough to get started with or keep up. Secondly, even for folks who make a habit of it, many don't get that much out of them. Thirdly, and most seriously, a small number of people have very strong negative psychological reactions (most often if they jump straight into something like a week-long silent retreat with no prior training). Luckily, there's another method of meditation called "Discursive Meditation", which I learned from John Michael Greer. This method has a long history, tremendous benefits, and pretty much perfect safety.

Here's how to do it: sit up straight in a chair, breathe deeply, and spend several minutes thinking about a specific theme of spiritual/philosophical significance. That's it! If you'd like more detail, check out the link above for a series of posts that lay it out step by step. You get all the good of training your attention not to wander, breathing deeply, and paying attention to your posture, while also giving your thinking mind a good workout as well. I've tried a wide variety of meditation techniques, and this one has been by far the most rewarding for me. Your mileage may, of course, vary, but think over giving it a shot. It's easy, safe, and works equally well whatever your spiritual beliefs (or lack thereof) may be.

Express Romantic Interest First, Friendliness Later

Given the expectations and norms of our current culture, this one might be most useful for heterosexual males, but I hope it's helpful to whoever might need it. Many young folks, when they find themselves romantically interested in someone take an approach of "let's get to be friends, and then I'll ask her/him out later". This sounds reasonable, but is actually a terrible plan born of cowardice. Yes, I know, harsh, but that harshness comes from my own bitter experience of trying to follow this plan back in the day. Basically, asking someone out is scary, and we scramble to mitigate that fear any way we can. It seems like asking someone out will be less scary if we know the other person already likes us as a friend. Plausible, but crap. Being friends is not the same as being lovers, they're different relationships with different dynamics and different needs. Of course, there is some overlap, but it's actually easier to go from "we went on a date and there wasn't any chemistry" to "so let's just be friends" than it is to go from "we feel comfortable together as friends" to "so do you want to risk ruining that with awkwardness by going on a date?" So, if there's someone you think you might want to date, ask them out instead of trying to be friends first.

Have Kids If You Want Them

So yes, kids aren't for everyone, and you definitely shouldn't have a kid if you aren't ready or don't really want one, but overall, kids are pretty great. I wanted to state this explicitly, because from the outside, it's easy to see what sucks about having kids: they take your time, they're expensive, they throw fits, they cover you in snot and get you sick, and so on. The thing is, from the outside, it's also harder to see what is great about having kids: watching a human gradually come online, seeing your own facial expressions mirrored back to you, having someone who feels emotions more intensely than you even know how to run up, throw their arms around you, and bury their face in your shoulder. There is absolutely nothing like it.

Learn from the Stoics

There's a lot of great stuff in ancient philosophy, but if I had to pick one thing that's most helpful, it would be the core insight of Stoicism: "you can't control what happens to you, but you can control how you react to it". Simple to state, hard to live. Someone cuts you off in traffic? You didn't make that happen, but you have full control over whether you get mad, how mad you get, and what you do because you're mad. Again, I know, easier said that done. And the Stoics acknowledged that you might not be able to stop that initial flare of anger from appearing, but you are not your emotions. They are something that happen to you, and you can choose to engage with them or distance yourself from them. Sometimes anger is useful, because it motivates you to right wrongs. Other times it just stresses you out for no reason. Learning to get inside your own cognitive processes like this is enormously helpful. Instead of being jerked around by whatever emotion happens to flare up due to circumstances, you can decide to steer your life based on whatever values you find truly important.

Turn Off Notifications, Feeds, and News

Most folks say that time is your most valuable resource, but I'd tweak that to say that attention is your most valuable resource. We've all had hours or days or weeks where we didn't do much and felt vaguely crappy afterwards. We've also all had experiences of intense, focused attention, maybe only for a few minutes, that have stuck with us as peak moments. Time may be the quantitative measure of your finitude in this existence, but attention is the qualitative. Where I'm going with all this high-flying philosophy is that you should be utterly ruthless in guarding your attention from anyone and anything that tries to grab it without your express, willed intent. Ever had a pleasant evening spoiled when you got an text from someone wanting you to deal with some problem for them? Ever been right in the middle of straightening out a complicated argument in your head when an email alert has popped up and you lose that almost-there insight? Ever been at dinner with a date, you're really getting into the conversation, and then they check their phone? Notifications destroy the quality of whatever they interrupt, even if you don't do anything else with them right away. It's even worse when the notifications try to further hijack your attention - taking you to a social media post that is at the top of a rabbit hole you go down for hours or to a news story that freaks you out and ruins your mood for a whole weekend. Notifications are evil. Turn as many of them off as you can possibly get away with. Put your attention where you want it to go, and keep it there for as long as you decide.

Spend Some Time Outside

This one really is this simple: every day if you can, but at least once a week, go spend some time sitting or walking outdoors. If you can get somewhere with plants and animals, go there. If not, consider moving somewhere less hellish, but in the meantime, sun or moon and sky will do just fine. Most of us spend most of our lives in large boxes looking at smaller, brighter boxes, focusing on an abstract world of words, images, and thoughts. As such, we have very little connection to the actual, physical world that keeps us alive. So, go outside. This shouldn't be some doleful chore (though, on some days in the summer in Texas, it can feel that way). Go feel the warm sun on your face, watch squirrels get frisky, check out good-looking guys or gals. Fifteen or twenty minutes is great if you can get it, but even just a handful of minutes can do wonders.

Your Hands

Lastly, some practical stuff about what to do with and for your body.

Don't "Follow Your Passion"

This is the core idea in Cal Newport's So Good They Can't Ignore You. "Follow your passion" was a rallying cry for Baby Boomers who had followed the overly-conservative career advice of parents who lived through the Great Depression, and it was useful for getting folks used to the idea that maybe you shouldn't be miserable at your job if you can help it. Unfortunately, it was going too far to suggest that everyone has some deep, inborn passion that they just need to discover and their whole life will fall into place. Sure, some folks have these life-defining passions, but most of them figure that out pretty young. You ever met someone who can't help but draw, no matter what? That guy's got a passion, he doesn't need the advice to find it. Most of us don't have that. Instead, most of us become passionate about whatever we get good at. So, Newport recommends you find some skills that are both rare and valuable and then get good at them. Rare so that you're not a dime a dozen, and valuable so that other people will actually pay for it. Some examples: crafting ships in bottles is rare, but not so valuable. Being a decent, but not great, computer programmer is fairly valuable, but not that rare. So, if you want a challenging, meaningful career, find something hard to get good at that's in demand, and then get good at that. Once you do, you'll have more control over what you do, who you work for, and what you achieve.

Learn a Craft

Learn how to make something with your hands - scarves, bread, motorcycle engines, whatever grabs you. If you don't know what you might like making, try a wide variety of crafts (remember Divergence and Convergence?). Pay attention to what seems interesting even when you're not good at it (for me, that's woodcarving). Then take some classes, watch some videos, find a club, or whatever works - learn the skills you need and then make the time to do it. Getting really good might take a lot of work, but you can get to "just fine" in many things with very little practice: for example, I bet you could go from "bread comes from a shelf in the store" to baking tasty loaves in 2 or 3 tries, tops. The goal here is not to become an artisan and quit your job to do glassblowing full time (though, if you can make that work, more power to you). The point is to concentrate deeply and engage with something outside of yourself in the real world. You'll find there's a big difference between imagining what it takes to turn water, flour, and yeast into dough versus feeling a sticky substance and smooshing it around until it feels right. Not only is it helpful to ground yourself like this, it is hugely enjoyable! If you've never "lost yourself" in something you cared about, then you are truly missing out. Of the most meaningful things in my life, almost all of them involved this kind of focused attention.

Make the Right Thing Easier

I learned this from the book The House that Cleans Itself by Mindy Starns Clark. If you have tried something multiple times with the best of intentions, but for some reason it won't stick, "I'll do it again, but this time I'll just try harder" is most likely a losing strategy. Instead, find a way to make it easier to do the right thing. For example, mail used to pile up on the credenza by the door. So, my wife and I put a two-drawer inbox on the credenza and a recycling bin next to it. Now, it's easy to sort what's mine or hers, and any junk mail goes right in the recycling. Apparently, it was too hard to walk the 15 feet to the main recycling bin, but it's not too hard to drop it within arm's reach. Go figure. Seriously, sometimes the tweaks that make something doable will be downright embarrassing. You can apply this concept in lots of areas of your life: set up automatic savings, don't have junk food in the house, put your alarm where you have to get out of bed to turn it off, have charging cables everywhere you might need to charge your phone, and so forth. There are some things where the answer is training your willpower, but more often than you might think, you can find a way to make it easier to win.

Fake It Till You Make It

This advice has become much more widespread of late, but allow me to reiterate: you will not be good at something when you start. You get good at it by doing it. Humans are imitative animals, so if you want to be good at something, act as much like someone who is good at it as you can, and then keep at it. Eventually, the act will become the reality (likely far before you believe it). Don't put anybody at risk, of course, but it is almost always much safer to risk failing than you're afraid it is.

Drink Water

If you're anything like me, you might have grown up drinking too much other liquid (like Dr. Pepper) and not enough water. Luckily, the Army beat this out of me, so I now take hydration very seriously. If you don't drink much water, you will be shocked at how much better you feel if you get enough. Here's how to do it: buy a 1 quart bottle that you will find convenient to carry around pretty much everywhere. Set a goal of drinking 2 of these a day (more if you do something that makes you sweat much). Set specific times/events by which to empty the bottle - for example "I'll drink one by lunch time and the next one by the end of the work day". If you find yourself getting light-headed, add a tiny pinch of salt to one or both bottles. If you are thirsty, add a 3rd or 4th bottle. If you drink any alcohol, consider going for that 3rd or 4th bottle just in case, and make sure you get some salt either in food or added to your water. Seriously, if you haven't been getting enough water, you have no idea how much it helps: headaches, tiredness, muscle growth, weight loss - all better with water.

Stretch

Most of us far more time sitting than our bodies are built for (see the point about How to Stand/Sit), which leaves us stiff. So get some stretching in your life. You can experiment, but here are a few good options to try out: Sun Salutations, the Five Rites, Daily Dozen , Gymnastic Strength Training Daily Limber. Whatever you pick, pay special attention to your back, since that's where a lot of the bad effects of sitting show up, but it's all linked up, so find a whole body routine. If you have a more intensive stretching practice, like Yoga or Gymnastic training or the like, then that's awesome, but even if you are otherwise a couch potato, do yourself a favor and spend a few minutes stretching every day.

Stand (and Sit) Well

Okay, this one is best done by demonstration, but it's important enough that I didn't want to leave it out here. As folks who spend far too much time sitting, we are all bad at standing, which paradoxically also makes us bad at sitting. We stand and sit in ways that damage our skeletons and circulatory systems, so it'd be great to fix that. If you want to go real deep, check out Deskbound: Standing Up to a Sitting World by Dr. Kelly Starrett, which is where I got this checklist for proper standing:

  1. Feet: Plant your feet, toes straight forward (not out to the side or pointed inward) about hip-width apart.
  2. Knees: Very slightly tense your muscles as if trying to turn your toes outward while keeping your heels planted, but don't let your toes actually move. You should feel this as a slight tension in your knees, which this movement stabilizes.
  3. Hips: Tense your butt cheeks to do a humping motion with your hips, moving your tail bone down and forward. For a less crude metaphor, imagine that your hips are a cup and that you don't want to pour any liquid out the front. This stabilizes your hips.
  4. Lower Back: Gently tense your abs, about 1/3 of full tension, pulling them back toward your spine
  5. Upper Back: Rotate your arms in your shoulder sockets. To do this, with your hands at your sides, rotate them until your thumbs face forward.
  6. Head: Move your head a bit forward and backward and feel for the spot where it's sitting right on top of the stable pillar you just made from the ground up.

Congratulations, you are now standing the way your body was designed for! Keeping your body in this position every waking hour is a bit much, but I use this process as a handy check-in to "reset" when I notice myself slouching.

To sit, just do steps 4-6, but you'll notice it's much harder. Your legs, and especially your hips, are doing a lot of the work of maintaining good posture when you stand, and when you sit, you basically don't have them to help.

Author: Jeff Russell

Created: 2022-01-13 Thu 13:34