Do You Realise That Where You Start Is Often Where You End?

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Tuesday, 9.09pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Face your life, its pain, its pleasure, leave no path untaken. – Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book

I came across at TED talk on the pleasure trap by Douglas Lisle and got hooked instantly.

Lisle is funny and he uses drawings to illustrate complex ideas – so what’s there not to like.

The core concept that you should take away from the talk is that we’re driven by feelings.

That is, when we do things they result in feelings – and those feelings often make us decide what to do next.

They’re like signals that tell us how we’re doing – and they’re often wrong.

They give us bad information – you can’t trust them.

Here’s why.

Let’s say you have a pretty healthy diet right now – the right balance of food groups. and not much salt, sugar or fat.

The kind of thing your parents give you while keeping the treats for themselves, or the kind of food you might eat if you lived somewhere the processed food industry hadn’t found yet.

At that point you eat when you’re hungry, the food is tasty and life is pretty good.

And then you get let out and experience what sugar and fat really taste like.

Your pleasure sensors register levels that go sky high.

I remember this feeling when I first went to a developed country and discovered Coca Cola – this amazing drink that tasted so good.

40 pounds later…

The thing with junk food is that it’s great when you first get it – so much better than fruit or salads.

But after a while you get used to it – the junk food gives you about the same amount of pleasure as the healthy food gave you earlier – you revert to a baseline.

Now, if you go from a diet of takeaways and junk back to a healthy diet – everything tastes dull and boring.

Your pleasure sensors register levels way down low.

Even though you’re moving from a bad situation to a good one, your body is telling you that you hate what’s going on – which makes it very hard to stick it out and not go back to the bad food.

But if you do stick it out, then healthy food starts tasting good again.

And you’re back where you were when you started.

What’s interesting is that when you went from good to bad, the feelings you had were good.

And when you went from bad to good, you registered the opposite – your feelings were bad – of deprivation and loss.

In fact, you would have to overcome your feelings to avoid going for the junk in the first place – and overcome them again if you were trying to get off your addiction.

And this is just food we’re talking about.

When it comes to addictions like smoking and drugs – your feelings are so high and so low that making a change is one of the hardest things you can do.

It would be so much better for you if you never started at all…

Because there is no good news here – it’s going to be hard and painful to get through that trough of whatever is the opposite of pleasure.

You will need help and support and friends and a plan for what you’ll do when you slip back.

When, not if.

Now, if you look at this chart what you’ll see is that normal doesn’t change.

You go back to the baseline – to where you started – whatever you’re doing.

This is the voice of your system.

Willpower is not enough – if you really want to make a change you have to change the system that’s resulting in that graph.

The one thing to remember is that if you’re trying to change something – don’t focus on the people.

People and their willpower abilities are not a good or reliable way to engineer change – they’re swayed by their environment and their feelings far too much.

You have to change the things around them first.

With food, you have to change what you have and how you buy.

You can’t eat junk if it’s not in the house.

With work, you have to change where you are and what’s around you.

If you go to the same place to work every day at the same time – it gets easier to get started.

Change the environment and the physical conditions that you operate in and your feelings will find it harder to drag you back to bad action.

And that way you have a fighting chance to end up somewhere different.

Somewhere you want to be.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh

What Sort Of Approach To Teaching Or Thinking Actually Works?

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Sunday, 9.25pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself. Working on a motorcycle, working well, caring, is to become part of a process, to achieve an inner peace of mind. The motorcycle is primarily a mental phenomenon. – Robert M. Pirsig

If you’re read this blog for a while or glanced at the intro you’ll know I’m interested in Systems Thinking.

This is something that many people have opinions on – and don’t really agree on as well – all over the Internet you can find proponents of different schools of thought sniping at each other.

But, what are they saying and why is it so hard to understand?

I saw a social media post recently that tried to use the language of Systems Thinking to describe what’s happening around us right now with the Coronavirus, and it reminded me of an important bit of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

And that’s the utter futility of trying to explain something you understand to someone else.

Let me explain.

I keep trying to take courses on Coursera – thinking that this will help me pick up a skill I lack.

I elect to audit the course, try a few bits and then recoil – utterly and totally bored by what is in front of me.

And that’s because I think the teachers try and break things down into teachable chunks – they create modules and divisions and ways to introduce you to the subject bit by bit.

This is the way of analysis, breaking things down and then dealing with them piece by piece.

Analysis has something to do with understanding through discourse.

Pirsig explains that you start to notice some weird things when you stop trying to use analysis and look at it instead as an object in itself.

And he uses a motorcycle to explain the idea.

For example, if you wanted to analyse a motorcycle you’d break it down into its parts – a running assembly and a power assembly – and then break those down further, into frames, wheels, an engine, the chain and so on.

Isn’t that what people do when they try and teach you anything?

Break language into grammar and nouns and verbs. Break martial arts into stance and footwork and punches?

And the thing that you notice first, the thing that’s loudest and most in your face is just how crashingly boring all this is – just like I found with the Coursera material.

But, says Pirsig, if you get past this you notice a few other things.

All this description only makes sense if you already know what the person is talking about.

If you look at my picture, for example, can you tell if it’s a motorcycle?

Of course you can – because you know what one is – but if you didn’t you might accept the idea that a motorcycle is a bicycle with a human providing the power assembly.

The next thing about analysis is that it gets rid of any human observer.

So, no one tells you how someone came up with this rule that means you now write the way you do because they misspelt something in a play that went on to be famous.

Analysis also forgets to think about making value judgements – is this good or bad, pure or not?

And finally, this analysis happens to have happened this way because someone chose to use this particular way of slicing things up – they used an intellectual scalpel that you just don’t even see.

Now… if you’ve read this far and don’t know what I’m talking about – that’s because you don’t already know and haven’t read Pirsig’s book.

So here is the point to take away.

Let’s say you want to teach someone to write a novel – don’t start by breaking down the process into pieces.

Get them to start writing instead.

Give them a prompt, a topic, ask them to magic a few hundred, a few thousand words out of thin air.

Then start to teach – because they now have something they know – which they can then understand.

I remember back in engineering school getting passing marks in an exam by writing about relays – even though I had no idea what one was and had never seen one.

You can fool people some of the time if you simply recite what you’ve memorised.

You can do courses and learn the structures and look like you’re doing great.

But you can’t fool yourself – and you know inside that you don’t know.

And you will never know until you’ve done the work.

Do the work first – and then try to understand what you’ve done and how you could do it better.

That’s the way to think better, to do better and, eventually, teach better.

Cheers,

Karthik Suresh