We describe things with the word "comfort" when they lull us into complacence. This is not always bad, but it's not always good.
The comfort of your own space, for instance? Awesome. Your surroundings are familiar. You know the smells, where to sit, where you can be productive, how the coffee pot works. You're probably not on your toes (unless you have a Kato in your life). You can kick off your shoes and fall into whatever it is you're doing.
Comfort food? Maybe on occasion, but think about it: When you eat a big plateful of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, you're ready for a nap. Conquering the world will have to wait.
Art, for me, is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, I'll dance around to a pop song, but the art I come back to over and over really challenges me. After 40 hours in the car last week, I listened to a lot of music, and I was reminded that James O'Brien's work has always challenged me. From his song "Paint":
Like God, this will demand a conversion
Strip you bare, make it say what it is you're scared of
Like God, this will certainly divide you
What you think, what you feel, what you love
So you sit and sip your coffee
You consider the blackness of your cup
You said, "Paint? I thought you were a singer.
Now all this talk of canvas and God?"
I don't know why I picked that one. It could have been anything. Don't want the music (or can't find it at this point)? Try his book on being an independent writer.
I figured, if it's the challenging stuff I come back to, I'm probably not alone. So I was surprised I got exactly one response to a tweet asking who challenges you. I mean, I'm not Superman (or Tim Ferriss), but I have enough people following my Twitter feed that I should have had more than one response.
Here is Derek Hess's work. He's got a clothing line, too. His stuff is, indeed, challenging. Great stuff.
But why did I only get one response to two askings? Are most people simply not willing to be challenged? Why not? It makes you more complete, moves you forward. I promise.
I'm going to leave you with two things. First, I know I've said it before, but read The Flinch. It's essentially the opposite of Malcolm Gladwell's classic Blink. Instead of being about the stuff that makes you make a sudden judgment, it's about breaking the snap "don't" reaction. It's free, and it's about a 2-hour commitment. Plus a little sweeping and a shower.
Also, I'm leaving you with Tom Waits's "Potter's Field." It's a bargain from the edge of a maniac's dream.
In retrospect, these ads have always been around for a long time. But over the past year, I guess I've been exposed to a lot more broadcast advertising than I have in a long time. Working from home until 3 a.m., I usually leave the TV on as background noise. And I've been listening to sports talk radio in the background while I go about my day, though I think I'll be going back to Public Radio Remix.
If you just dropped in from outer space and learned from some of the ads I've started noticing, you'd find that we humans by rule:
• Have awful teeth
• Can't sleep
• Do most of their dating on the phone
• Have lots of extra skin around their necks
• Smell awful
• Have too much body hair
OK, I get that I might someday need a new car, and might benefit from learning what is on the current television station at what time. I can even live with ads trying to sell me mediocre beer, crappy snacks and sandwiches they can't even make look good on camera, because at some point I'm probably going to want to eat and have a beer. I can't fault someone for trying to get my business.
But no wonder we're so fucking unhappy. Look at all the shit the TV says is wrong with us!
If you're truly unhappy, turn off the television, turn off the radio, and look in the mirror. Talk to your reflection, find out what's really wrong.
It may be you hate your job. It may be you're in your relationship for the wrong reason. It may be you have the wrong people around you. It may be you don't eat well, don't get enough exercise, and in general don't get enough dopamine (read: happy neurons) rushing through your system.
Whiter teeth, laser hair removal and new deodorant are not going to help you.
If you're unhappy, you probably have some changes to make, but you're not going to get happy from these made up problems. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with you. Just turn off the TV and get on with your life.
Important: This post is for people who are frustrated with where they are in life and want to make changes to turn that around. If you are medically depressed or suicidal, this post is not for you. Here is a list of suicide hotlines by state and here is a list of American Psychiatric Association offices by state. You'll still need to take the step, but one of those is a better direction for you than this post.
I've read a lot of motivational, self-help stuff. Not as much as some, but certainly enough to know that a lot of them assume that you are able function at the same pace and capacity as a person who is generally happy or that you have already reached that low that causes the epiphany that lets you say, "It starts today."
I'm going to assume that you're just in a rut; maybe you don't like your job, maybe you've got just enough debt that you'll never get ahead, maybe you're just going through the motions daily. Here are some actionable tips that I think will help change your attitude over time, and will push you in the direction of where you want to be.
I've implemented this stuff and I'm getting happier and stronger, and while I still struggle with some of the shit I had going on before, getting through what I need to get through seems wholly achievable, and I've been much more productive since putting these things into practice.
1. Eat high oxytocin foods. This was James Altucher's suggestion (full post here). I implemented it, and within a couple of weeks, I started back up blogging, we ramped up the wedding planning, I started making beer and I managed to get 75 bags of brush together and about 3,000 pounds of construction garbage piled so we could rent a roll-off. I still have a 9-hour work day and sleep a full night – I didn't get more time, I just got more energy and a new attitude. Altucher's breakfast suggestion is eggs + banana + pepper (it doesn't matter what kind of pepper – black pepper, bell pepper, hot pepper, whatever). Since I'm a big exerciser, I add some stuff; my normal breakfast is a pepper, apple and either onion or potato cut up in a 4-egg omelet, plus a banana on the side. Every day. I feel like Superman most days.
2. Drink more water. Start when you first wake up – you would be really thirsty if you went eight hours during the day without any water, and you just slept for eight hours without a sip. I drink about 4 liters (128 oz) a day (I also work nights and from home, so maybe that's going to be a lot for you, but I bet you can drink more than you do now). When we're dehydrated, our brains don't function as well as they could. And if you reach for something sugary or caffeinated instead of water, you're actually making it worse. Go ahead and have a cup of coffee, but drink water alongside it, and get hydrated in the morning before you start on the coffee.
3. Get some fresh air. You don't need a lot. I submit that 60 seconds of being outside and just breathing at the sky a couple of times a day is going to vastly improve your energy and attitude. Even on a cold or rainy day. There's still air out there. (Disclaimer, because we're stupid and litigious: If it's actually dangerous out there – hurricane, tornado, active shooter, stay the hell inside, moron.)
4. Get a little exercise. And I mean a little. You need to be a little more active than what you do at work. If you sit at a desk all day, a 20-minute walk will do you good. If you have to have a one-on-one meeting that doesn't require sitting at a computer, make it a walking meeting. Drop and do 10 pushups a couple of times a day. You'll actually become more popular in the office for that, as opposed to being the office weirdo. If you walk seven miles a day on a retail floor, a 20-minute walk isn't going to do it; you'll need to do something to get your heart rate up. Jog, jumping jacks, squats in place, that sort of thing. Again, you only need a few minutes. If you want something a little more difficult to start with, do a 30-day #100plus100plus1 challenge.
5. Create something. It could be a recipe, a painting, a spear. Whatever. Use your hands, and make it require some time. It could suck. It doesn't matter. You took some materials, put time in, and made those materials something else. Accept the success of completion.
6. Take care of something. When your dog has to pee, you have the option of either getting your ass off the couch and getting outside with the dog, or getting your ass off the couch to try to get pee stains (and smell) out of your rug. Which is more appealing to you? If something else is relying on you, you can't spend all your time being a selfish, miserable prick.
We've become quite the "right-now" society. We want everything, and we want it right now. Some things we want so right now we'll wait in long lines for them instead of just giving it a couple of days. All you people who updated to iOS7 right when it was released and spent two hours stalled in queue? I waited two days and updated in 10 minutes while I made breakfast. You got frustrated, I got to read my Flipboard while chowing on my giant plate of food.
We eat fast food, we prefer gas grills because we don't have to wait for the coals to get hot, and we'd rather microwave a cup of water with a tea bag in it for two minutes than take eight minutes to boil water and five minutes to steep loose tea, even if the second tastes so much better. We generate piles of garbage by using our one-cup coffee makers with K-Cups instead of waiting for pots of coffee to brew (come on, you don't drink four cups a day? yeah you do).
Home brewed scotch ale, maybe a couple of days early, but, well, yum.
I spent a large chunk of time this summer taking care of brush in the yard. And by "taking care of brush," I mean I filled 80 lawn bags with wood. Some of it I had to take a hand saw to. I've also, with a couple hours' help on some of the items I couldn't move myself, put together about a ton and a half of construction garbage that we'll get rid of after we rip up the carpet.
Could it have been done more quickly? Sure. But I committed myself to the process of getting it done. It didn't need to be done now, and it wasn't a skill job that I didn't know how to do, I just mustered the patience to let it take some time.
And then it came down to beer.
People have been drinking beer since someone in Egypt left a pot of grain out in the rain and went to go visit his in-laws. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.) I enjoy beer. I've toured breweries, so I have a basic understanding of the process. I like to cook, I have some patience, and I was curious, so I started homebrewing.
This glass is from my first batch, a scotch ale. I started drinking it a little early, but there are plenty of bottles still gathering some carbonation. You can see that, even in a thick-walled water glass, it still has a little head on it with some lacing (that's when the head sticks to the glass). It looks like beer and behaves like beer. It also smells like beer and tastes like beer.
It's not amazing, but it's better than a lot of what's out there commercially.
I went in with low expectations (there's a lot of process involved and it was my first batch), but I figured if it came out awful, I could walk it back and see what I can do better, and all I lost was some time and five gallons of liquid I'd dump in the bushes and let the neighborhood fauna eat the solids. I didn't see as much fermenting as I expected, and there was a small leak in the bottling bucket that I had to contain. But it's a drinkable beer, and I'm happy with it.
I will certainly change up some of the process with my next batch, and there are some minor equipment adjustments I've made (bigger boil pot, for instance and a new bottling bucket), but really, all it takes is some patience. Once it's in the fermenting bucket, it takes a week or so. It may take a day or two or three in the bottling bucket. It should sit in bottle for a couple of weeks getting carbonated.
It's a long time to wait for something I could grab at the gas station, but I control the taste and get the satisfaction of knowing I did it myself. I'm sure somehow that makes it taste a little better.
Henry David Thoreau [WikiMedia Commons]
If it were awful, I'd know, because I'm also kind of a critic and my own worst enemy.
I've never been able to sit down and read Walden (kind of like watching "Last of the Mohicans," I just fall asleep every time I get started), but I listened to an audio version of it while I was working on the brush and the construction waste. It was therapeutic because I think Thoreau just got to the point where he didn't understand process anymore, and to keep his own work moving along, he had to go be self-sufficient for a little while.
I get that from the way he wrote of his neighbor, the man who worked hard and so had to eat a high-protein, high-fat diet to maintain his energy, and had to keep working hard to earn the wages to maintain that diet. A couple of hours on the pond, and Thoreau said he had enough fish for a few days, and he could grow most of the rest of what he needed, or buy it cheaply in bulk and store it.
Whatever his motivation, it's clear that Thoreau got satisfaction from doing stuff himself, and it motivated him to keep going. The bit about him building the chimney? That's appreciation of process, even from his hunt for materials that had previously served in a fireplace.
Did he know any of his undertakings would work? No, but when something went wrong, he tried again and again until he got it right. Nobody wants a roof to cave in or a chimney to collapse in the middle of a New England winter.
My challenge to you: Try something that requires at least a 48-hour process. You don't have to work for those 48 hours straight, you just have to handle some maintenance along the way. Cook something that takes a couple of days. Make a walking stick from a branch (including finishing it and attaching a loop or a top-piece). Make your next glass of wine yourself.
Some of the things I find most interesting in people are:
What they've tried
What they've failed at
What they've learned
What they enjoy
In the most interesting people I know, item four stems directly from the first three. And each of those stems directly from the one before it. Try something, make a mistake, learn, then weed out the stuff you enjoy.
The most interesting people I know seem to have the following two traits in common:
• Willingness to fail (or injure themselves, I guess, as a type of failure)
That's really it. You don't need anything else.
So why is it that so many people are so fucking dull?
It's because the majority of their knowledge comes from people more interesting than they are. It comes from listening to people's stories. From PBS. From The Discovery Channel.
If your story starts, "I once saw this show about a guy who...," I'd rather be talking to the guy who, not you.
Sorry not sorry.
So, my dog. He sleeps a lot. Typically I'm asleep six to eight hours, so I'll guess he's asleep for four to six of those. During my nine-hour work shift, he's asleep about six hours. During the other seven to nine hours of the day, if I'm home, he's asleep at least five. We're looking at 15 hours or more of sleep a day.
It must be exhausting being a dog.
Then again, I can see that it is. Dude checks out everything. Everything. He smells my pants as I put them on – no, really, I'll be sliding my right leg in and his nose is pressed up against my left knee – if a leaf blows across the yard, he investigates. He checks out the tree and the mailbox post on our front lawn at the beginning and end of a walk.
Each ingredient we pull from the refrigerator; every hammer, screwdriver or wrench we pull from the toolbox; every human who comes to the door, Rufus's nose is there, figuring out what it is and where it's been.
In fact, right now, he's sniffing at a closed door because he has to know what's on the other side.
He's curious about everything, and he investigates until he's satisfied.
You, on the other hand, just sit on the couch until you're satisfied you know enough about some other guy's trip to the Mojave to be interesting enough at dinner tomorrow to earn another invitation.
Here are some ideas for becoming a more interesting person. Report back if you try any.
1. Learn about something you use every day. Figure out how it works, why it does what it does, what its history is, when people started using it, and how you could make your own. Own that shit. Coffee, pencils, toilets, flowers, I don't care what it is. Get the first-hand knowledge, do your own research and experimenting.
2. Learn about something you have no interest in. It's going to come in handy someday. Electrical wiring, gravity, picture frames. Enjoy the process of learning. But do number one first – that you'll do for the joy of learning about the thing, this one you'll do for the joy of learning itself.
3. Make something. A website, a sculpture, dinner, a shirt. Do it from scratch. Learn the steps, put it together. If it's ugly, broken or disgusting, great. You still made it, and you learned something in the process. If it's amazing, pick something else. Keep making stuff until you fail. Every time you succeed, you put one more thing in your arsenal that you can do. Every time you fail, you put one more thing to improve at on your list.
That should be plenty for you to do for a while. Send me pictures.
From left: Richard Feynman, Mike Brown and Albert Einstein. Photos from WikiMedia Commons.
It's been an interesting year for me. Mostly because I'm learning stuff again. Not going to school, doing stuff in a structured way. I don't particularly have the patience for that anymore. I have what I feel I need in the way of credentials. With a little better preparation, I could have been in that position 12 years ago, but hey, live and learn, right? As long as we learn from it, I guess.
As you may have noticed from that list over on the right, I've read a lot this year, and it's not all fluff. [Some of it is, for sure, but one needs entertainment and humor, too, right?]
I tend to notice details, and I'm a reasonably curious human being. While you're noticing the pile of garbage on the ground, I'm seeing a piece of string in the pile and wanting to know what it's attached to. And while you want to know why this pile of garbage is on the ground, I want to know how it's useful to me.
That's where I'm a bit different, I guess. It's not a judgment; that's just how I'm wired. And I know that some of you don't care why the pile of garbage is on the ground, you just want it cleaned up.
One of the great things about the universe we live in is that much of it has already been discovered and people have been writing manuals on it for millennia. Sure, we discover new things and learn that the old manuals have something fundamentally wrong with them – that doesn't make them any less interesting, and we could certainly learn something from the progression of thought (it will help our own thought progress as well).
And when you do, you don't have to start from scratch. Sure, get the basic foundations, but then you don't have to discover something for everybody else. Someone's most likely already done that, and you can learn for you. Yeah, be selfish about it.
Reading Einstein's Relativity was not really eye-opening. We kind of understand the theory, even when we're little kids. I'm sitting in a coffee shop while I'm writing this, and cars are driving by. They are moving relative to me and to my chair. My chair and I are moving relative to the cars. I am not moving relative to my chair. Einstein showed us how to measure that and figured out what it meant as things got smaller and smaller and faster and faster. That's interesting to me, though, again, not eye-opening.
I did, however, enjoy some of Einstein's humor. At the beginning of the book, he was us measuring the distance to a cloud by building a rod from the ground to the cloud and then measuring the rod (I'm guessing other translations probably have us taking standard-size rods and counting how many of them we stack to get to the cloud). Later, he has someone suspended in a chest floating through space. This is totally "3 Stooges" physics, and you know it's Shemp going up in that chest, but Curly putting the finishing touches on the rod before the thing topples over.
In case you missed it a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Richard Feynman, who was so curious about the way things worked that when he felt his research stagnating, he went out and watched students play on the quad. A Frisbee got him working again (this was one of the guys who helped invent the atomic bomb – something he did not because he wanted to vanquish the enemy, but more because it was a physics problem he wanted to solve).
The other guy in that photo montage up at the top of this post is Mike Brown. He had Pluto declassified as a planet. He didn't set out to ruin Pluto. Rather, he set out to find another planet and instead found something that was bigger than Pluto but clearly not a planet. And he did this because he was curious about space. He had been since he walked out his door as a child and looked up.
You don't know everything. Go out there and learn about something you're interested in. Enjoy marketing? Learn about some of the psychology behind it, rather than just about what works. Enjoy coffee? Find out what roasting style you like best, and why. Enjoy beer or wine? Take the time to make your own, see what the process is like. Make sure you make some bad stuff, too – you want to know what you did wrong, as well.
A little while ago, we celebrated the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur. This is the Day of Atonement, the holiest day on the Hebrew calendar.
As you likely know, it involves a sundown-to-sundown fast (the Hebrew calendar is lunar, so night then day is a day, not the other way around). [Bear with me here; this isn't really a post about Yom Kippur; it's just a good jumping point.]
When you're doing this for the first few times – typically around the ages of 12, 13, 14 for most of us (coinciding with bar/bat mitzvah), it's a contest. You complain about hunger, about thirst, about watching fruit roll-up cartoons in between synagogue services, and at the end of the fast, you have a bite of food and you run a victory lap, jumping in the air. You've done it. You've conquered the fast. You are a champion.
But as you grow up, it becomes something else. When you're 15, 16, 17, a weathered veteran in your mind, it's just something you do. You have your family around you as support. And your parents would never let you go to a college without at least some Jewish population – as a Jewish teen, you still need the support around you. So you have other people fasting.
And then you get into your 20s, go off on your own, and suddenly you decide whether you are going to fast. Sometimes you just do it automatically. Sometimes it depends on your relationships, your support system, your community.
What it comes down to is active participation. (See, I told you I'd get somewhere.)
If there's no one to force you into something, or to encourage you, or even to support you, every choice you make is one of active participation, or active exclusion. You decide to fast. You decide to go to Recess instead of Starbucks. You decide to eat a banana instead of Chicken McNuggets.
Or you actively decide to not volunteer at the Food Bank, not go to your cousin's wedding, not vote.
Here is my challenge to you this week: notice all of your choices.
You might not perceive of something as a choice, but every decision you make – whether you lock the bathroom door, whether you open the refrigerator with your left or right hand, which parking space you pick and whether your socks match – you have to go through a process to make. Many of these things you do automatically in the normal course of your life, but just for one day, take the time to notice all of the choices you make. Learn how to be more conscious about them. Ask why, even on the seemingly insignificant ones.
You may find something else about yourself that you weren't expecting.
Richard Feynman was a problem-solver. He got to be a problem solver by tinkering, and he tinkered because he was curious. Moreover, his parents encouraged his curiosity.
In that video up there (it's well worth 50 minutes of your time, by the way), he discusses learning about inertia. He noticed the funny way a ball rolled around in a wagon, and he asked his father about it. His father told him to watch again, that the ball actually behaved differently from how he thought, and then he explained why.
His father taught him the value of learning, as opposed to knowing.
With this, as Feynman relates in his memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he was running around his neighborhood repairing radios when he was a young boy. He found them interesting, he played with them, and when someone had a broken radio he would pace around their living room trying thinking about how to fix it, and then he'd fix it.
People were astonished.
Now, you probably know Feynman's name because he was part of the Manhattan Project. And he won a Nobel Prize (something he didn't want because of the extra attention, but upon learning that it would be more of a hassle to turn it down, he accepted it). And he taught for a long time. Or you just watch too much "Big Bang Theory."
What strikes me about Feynman is his curiosity, and his willingness to follow that curiosity. Here's a guy who wanted to know how radios worked, so he took them apart and played with the pieces.
Later in life, he wanted to learn how to draw, so he took a class and wound up having a gallery show.
He thought it would be fun to learn the drums, go to Brazil and play at Carnival. So he did.
While he enjoyed teaching, it sometimes led him to get stuck in his own work. One time, he went out on the quad and saw some students throwing around a disk (a Frisbee, though there weren't Frisbees yet). He noticed it wobbled, soared and curved. He went and did some calculations, and it helped in his work on subatomic particles.
There's that tinkerer again.
Another thing that strikes me about Feynman can only really be described as selfishness. If he didn't want the hassle of a committee position, he didn't take it. If he didn't want to go to a party, he didn't go. We only have so much time, why not have fun with it?
And have fun he did: He was a prankster as a college student, leaving tips under full glasses of water turned upside-down, stealing doors from rooms in his fraternity. He writes that he used to do some of his work at a strip club. Nobody bothered him, he didn't bother anybody, and the owner would send over a free soda every night.
Take three action items from Feynman, then.
(1) Leave your house and find something you know nothing about. Leave your house, because if the thing is in your house, you've been ignoring it long enough that it won't sustain your interest for very long. It could be coffee roasting, snowblowers, the physics of how chalk sticks to a board – anything. Now, learn all about it. This will take you some time. If you figured it out in an hour, you didn't get the point.
Now, report on it. If you have a blog, post it there. If you don't, use my comments section. If you think your story's absolutely awesome and you don't have a blog, email me and maybe we'll do a guest post here.
Mine: I've begun home-brewing beer, just this past weekend. I've been a beer fan since – well, since I was 4 and I was already only drinking my dad's brand – and over the past few years I've become a fan of craft brews. So I'm going to start making my own. I sort of expect that the first batch will fail. It's not fermenting as quickly as expected, and while I know a scotch ale is more malty than hoppy and has a low-ish ABV, I think we might be looking at something a little too sweet and flat. The second batch will be better because I'll work with it a little differently. Beyond that, I'll start experimenting with flavors and probably fail a few times. Either way, it's something new – and it's committing to a process (really, it takes at least three weeks before it's drinkable).
(2) Say no to something. Make it something you really don't want to do but that society dictates you should do. Feynman tried to turn down the Nobel prize. When he finally accepted it, he managed to say no to a banquet in his honor. When Woody Allen won an Oscar for "Annie Hall," he was in Manhattan playing his clarinet at a weekly gig. He snuck out the back door, unplugged the phone and read about it in the paper the next day. He said no to sitting around uncomfortably on the other side of the country waiting to see if his name would be called.
Mine: I'm not sure on this one, honestly. I'm in the fortunate situation that I get to choose just about all my interactions. There's the give-and-take of a relationship, but other than that, you pretty much have to come ring my doorbell (and hope I answer) to get me to make an unplanned social interaction.
(3) Go do something at a place it's not the norm to do it. I used to go to bars, sit in a crowded spot and read. Since I was typically reading something interesting, it led me to interesting conversations with interesting people. I met someone who described himself as a freelance lawyer while I was reading Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear at Al's Wine & Whiskey in downtown Syracuse. That was one interesting dude. I wound up giving him the book when I was done.
Another time I was reading the Sunday New York Times at a now-defunct chain coffee shop on the north side (I had friends who worked behind the counter, making the coffee, er, awfully affordable) when someone came up and admonished me from getting all my news from such a liberal source. Until I pulled out a Wall Street Journal. No more political discussions over newspapers for me, thanks.
Mine: Now that school's back in session and the public playgrounds are free of children during the day, I'll do some playground workouts. [Adult males are generally discouraged from hanging out on playgrounds when they don't have kids; just sayin'.] There are lots of opportunities to climb and do bodyweight exercises, and plenty of opportunity for people walking or driving by to stare. It also gives me the chance to walk with the dog and bring him to the "gym."
In 1970, John Baldessari cremated all the art he created between 1953 and 1966. He keeps the ashes in a bronze, book-shaped urn.
Let's say that another way.
Everything John Baldessari created for thirteen years – the soul, the heart, the love, the tears, the pain (because true art really does hurt a lot of the time) – became ash, at the creator's own hand.
That's a lot of his own history to just drop. Yeah, he's holding onto it, but not in its conceived form. It's dead. He didn't just pile the stuff, pour some gasoline and light a match. He did it in a crematorium. He put it through a death ritual.
And then he turned on a camera and wrote, "I will not make any more boring art," until the film ran out.
Let's begin by noting that this is not a post about evolution vs. creation. It is by no means an assumption that either argument is right or wrong, and, truth be told, I don't find them to be mutually exclusive. I've recently read Charles Darwin's Origin of Species, and I've found a few things I think are worth taking away and applying to our modern world.
1. Generalization vs. Specialization. This is something that Buckminster Fuller writes about in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth. Fuller's take is that generalists are important leaders, and they'd best know where to find specialists. That is, if you know a lot about X, you're a great Xer. But I don't want you running the business I own, because we also need people who are great at U, V, W, Y and Z, and you don't know anything about those. What I want is someone who knows enough about U, V, W, X, Y and Z to recognize someone who is great at each – a generalist.
Darwin refers more to the survival of species. If you're a specialist as a species, that's fine, but you'd better really know what you're doing. If you're all about pollinating one plant and eating one species that would otherwise wipe out that plant, you'd better understand population control. If you eat all of your prey, you're simply going to starve to death. If you're a generalist, you have many more options, but you're a lot more spread out as a species – that's bad for safety. So pick your poison.
2. Use begets strength. We sometimes forget this, from a fitness perspective. We spend a lot of time sitting in our culture and tend to think, "Eh, I don't want to lift anything heavier than I need to, it'll just make me tired and lead to injury." But you're more likely to injure a muscle or joint you don't use regularly. Darwin was able to use this knowledge to determine why some creatures had strong hind legs or longer beaks.
3. Domestication vs. the wild. Your dog (yes, the one cuddling with you on your love seat) was descended from a wolf. We have DNA evidence of that. If you need further proof of it, introduce your dog to some strange dogs of different breeds – they will know how to play together and how to hunt together. But your dog, having a life of general safety, will take chances a wolf would never take, like playing in traffic. Domesticating animals takes many – but not all – of their instincts away. They lose some things in an effort to make them better pets. See also, No. 2.
4. Breeding. This is natural to follow from No. 3. In creating dog breeds, we keep certain traits in and leave others out. We can give them floppier ears, or make them run faster, or give them flatter noses, or make them mean (see this documentary; it's fascinating). Darwin recognized this early on. If you want your pigeons bigger, breed the two biggest pigeons you can find, then mate those pigeons with other big pigeons.
Now take a look at humans, and imagine what, with the culture we maintain, we're breeding into and out of ourselves. We're likely breeding in better resistance to toxins (great for those who enjoy eating Twinkies and drinking Gatorade, at least until they take out the BVO, not so great for the future effectiveness of chemotherapy and radiation treatments). We're breeding in larger gluteal muscles (we sit a lot, and we want some padding back there). We're breeding in greater wrist strength (future generations will likely suffer less carpal tunnel). We're breeding out the ability to function without a screen nearby. [OK, not really, but damn, people, get off Twitter and talk to one another occasionally, he wrote as he constructed in his head the Tweets that would refer to this blog post.]
5. Species as an arbitrary designation. We, as humans, must categorize things. If we see a fir tree, it's a tree, but if we see a computer speaker, it's not a tree. Birch? Tree. Scotch tape? Not a tree. We do categories (trees, phones, paper), and then we have to break the categories down (pine, smartphone, construction paper). We do this for two primary reasons: (a) We need to be able to wrap our heads around our world, and categorizing is a great way to do that; and (b) we need a way to communicate &ndashl if I call something a "notebook" and you call it a "coffee cup," we're never going to be able to agree to which object the other is referring. But, Darwin points out, what we call things is fairly arbitrary.
6. Observation. We tend to be very wary these days of anything we can't measure. And it's hurting the progress of our knowledge. Darwin noticed things, because he looked at them. Story: I broke my nose playing baseball as a kid. The ER doctor came in and said, "Your X-rays are negative," and sent me home. Two days later, we went to another doctor, who walked in looking at another set of X-rays. "Your X-rays are negative," he said, and then looked up. "But I can tell by looking at you it's broken." Sure, your Klout score may be an 88, but that doesn't mean you're not an asshole. I have to look at what you're doing on social media to make that determination for myself.
Lesson: Stop relying on measurements; they don't tell you the whole story.
7. Community. For Darwin, this was an ecosystem, a group of animals and plants that needed each other to survive. For us, it's a reminder that we do need communities, interconnected systems that help us to live, and, more importantly, to thrive.
8. Nature and nurture. I mentioned in the introductory paragraph that I don't think evolution and creation are mutually exclusive; it's not a case of nature versus nurture. Both can occur, and my interpretation of his work is that Darwin believed that some aspects of species were a product of genetics, while others came from their surroundings. A dog will, innately, try to get into the trash (it smells food), but you can train it not to. The former is nature, the latter is nurture.
9. Isolation can be beneficial. If a species is getting wiped out in the wild, sequestering a few of its number in zoos or on wildlife reserves greatly increases its chance at survival. We deal with a lot of overwhelm – too much noise, too many screens, too much stuff – sometimes isolating ourselves is best for our individual survival.
10. Adopt new habits. Remember our specialists from No. 1? Sometimes they need to adopt new habits if they're going to survive. So, too, must we adopt new habits to thrive as the world changes around us. How many of us who learned BASIC in the 1980s, writing 150 lines of code to get a ball to move across a screen, thought we'd be able to give a telephone a couple of voice commands and send a video of our kids around the world in a few seconds? The world has a tendency to make vast changes around us, and if we want to grow with the world, we need to change our habits.
11. It's OK to be wrong. Darwin admitted that not only did he not know if a lot of the stuff he wrote about in Origin of Species was correct, he didn't even know if some of it was testable. We don't do nearly enough speculating these days, mostly because we're afraid to be wrong. Being wrong just takes a possibility of the table, but at least you're looking for something new.
What did I miss while reading Darwin? Anything you want to share?
Like what you see? Buy me a cup of coffee. Or a nice dinner. Or a new car. You decide what the information and energy are worth.
Here is a list of books I've read this year. As I write about them, I'll link them to the post.
• Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
• Damned, Chuck Palahniuk
• High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
• Republic, Plato
• The Holy or the Broken, Alan Light
• A Day in the Life of a Minimalist, Joshua Fields Millburn
• Triburbia, Karl Taro Greenfield
• Electric Barracuda, Tim Dorsey
• The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells
• Naked, David Sedaris
• What in God's Name, Simon Rich
• When Elves Attack, Tim Dorsey
• Skagboys, Irvine Welsh
• The Prisoner of Heaven, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
• A Walk in the Snark, Rachel Thompson
• Night, Elie Wiesel
• It's Not About the Tights, Chris Brogan
• How I Killed Pluto and Why it Had it Coming, Mike Brown
• Relativity, Albert Einstein
• Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, Richard Feynman
• CTRL ALT Delete, Mitch Joel
• Born Standing Up, Steve Martin
• Possible Side Effects, Augusten Burroughs
• Choose Yourself!, James Altucher
• Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, David Sedaris
• Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet
• Walden, Henry David Thoreau
• Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau
• A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking
• I Was Told There'd Be Cake, Sloane Crosley
• Ignorance, Stuart Firestein
• Dubliners, James Joyce
• Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, R. Buckminster Fuller
• Confessions of a Sociopath, M.E. Thomas
• Growth Hacker Marketing, Ryan Holiday