Place and path

“Life management” is almost as exciting a word, to me, as “calculus”. When I think of it, of my life and what is required to manage it, a part of me wants to rebel. To let everything go and just do as I please, for whatever whimsical reason, in as fun a fashion as possible. Another part of me remains Stoic, determined to be a good little manager and make something of my time here. And still another part of me asks the question, “Does life management have to be hard?” Answer: it depends.

For example, if I were to reduce “life management” to its most simplistic form, I would say it is concerned mostly with the idea of destination and course, and the modification of the two. It is constantly asking the questions, “Am I going to the right place?” and “Am I taking the right path to get there?” It is a never-ending consideration of place and path, of destination and current course—until we arrive at death, of course.

That’s the most basic life management strategy. The most complex is painstaking and rigorous and adopted mostly by those with a tinge of mania. Thus, it is not for me and I don’t really know what it entails—apart from a lot of brain sweat and moderately high blood pressure.

See, like most things in life, when I comes to life management I lean towards the lightweight and the simple: every year or so, I seriously evaluate where I’ve been, where I am, and where I’m heading. The rest of the time? I make rapid adjustments, conduct tiny experiments, and try to always ask interesting and/or difficult questions of myself, others and the world.

Something unreal

The Lord of the Rings. The Malazan Book of the Fallen. The Discworld. These are just a few of the stories and worlds which have left me awestruck. But what is it that they all have in common? The answer came to me whilst reading Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories. Tolkien said in the essay, “…for there is no true end to any fairy-tale”. Reworked, the best stories never end.

At any point in time, I can re-enter Hogwarts. Today or tomorrow or in a year I can visit Darujhistan. Whenever I need it, the Galactic Empire is there for me. The best stories never end because they exist outside of the time-space continuum. As Chuck Tingle likes to say, they occupy a different timeline. It feels like they continue on while the covers of the book are closed and we’re not reading.

To me, that is the true power of creativity, of art, of imagination and of storytelling—to make something unreal, real.

SINs

The traditional view of human hierarchies and status is, as Jeff Kaufman puts it, “zero sum”. Someone has to be at the top, someone has to be in the middle and someone has to be at the bottom, and the only way to move up or down is to trade places. So, to climb up, I must pull down. If I’m at the top, you can’t be.

This is a relatively antiquated view, and the conclusion from Jeff Kaufman post, “Parallel Status Hierarchies”, presents an alternative to it:

“In general, feeling higher status is pretty good for you: it makes you healthier, happier, and you live longer. So the ability of subcultures to produce new status opportunities out of nowhere seems really valuable, and something we should try to have more of.”

Network technology and the resulting interconnectedness of today’s world makes hierarchy and status non-zero sum. We can, instead of climbing up and pulling down, create a new hierarchy and gain status there. Much easier.

However, in doing so we’re missing an opportunity. Possibly the virtue of the infrastructure of the Internet and the information that it allows to be propagated is that it flattens hierarchies. In the future it may abolish them—we could become a network of interdependent nodes instead of an order of masters, half-slaves and full-slaves in different domains. But for now, by democratising the tools of discovery, production and distribution we are levelling the playing field. We are giving everyone, not so much equality of opportunity, but equality of status.

Or, in Meme Speak:

Tired: zero sum status hierarchies.
Wired: non-zero sum status hierarchies.
Woke: status-independent networks.

A trail of carcasses

If I had to respond to the question, “What is unexpectedly interesting?”, a good candidate for an answer would be, “The history of mail.” A quick dive into the unfathomable depths of Wikipedia, beginning at “mail” will take you to “cursus publicus”—the Roman, state-run courier and transport service—pigeon post, uniform penny post, “Örtöö”—a supply point employed by Genghis Khan and his descendants—and other delightful destinations.

In fact, in many stories with a fantasy or historical element, the use of relay points to transmit a message (or a person) is prominent. A generic example: a member of the peasantry uncovers a plot to assassinate the King. But said member of the peasantry is more than a day away from the Capital. So he steals a horse and gallops through the night, avoiding sleep and switching mounts at various waypoints once he has exhausted the mount’s energy. At daybreak, he thunders through the city gates and directly to the palace, leaping over the guards that try to prevent his entrance. He finds the doors to the throne room barred, so he rears his stallion which kicks the doors open. They fly off the hinges and, still on horseback, he rides into the room, rises in the saddle and with one hand launches a knife at the assassin seated beside the King. It strikes the betrayer in the heart. At this point another messenger arrives, telling the king of the treachery just in time for His Highness to watch the last droplets of life drain away from his would-be betrayer.

This system of messengers and relay points is significant because it is an uncanny metaphor for how we live our lives. We begin at Point A. We select the mount that seems best and we ride it, as hard and as fast as we can. When it is exhausted and it has carried us as far as it is able, we abandon it and select another, which takes us further. We do this until we reach our Point B, our preferred destination, or until we die—whichever comes first.

Taking an abstracted view of this process, it is possible to say that our past is a trail of carcasses, of activities and avenues that have been exhausted and-or abandoned.

The balance of time

The battle between timeliness and timelessness takes many casualties. Those creatives who emphasise timeliness are ephemeral artists, issuing hot takes in rapid cycles of inspiration and release. But all their remarkable speed cannot hope to match the velocity of the present. That which they make is soon forgotten or outdated. Their work is dead as soon as it issues forth from the creative womb. But those who pay no mind to the current climate—be it social, political, cultural—also birth stillborns. Because their work is isolated from, rather than immersed in, what is currently happening, it too fails to strike hearts. Timelessness, in this sense, is a synonym for irrelevance.

That’s at the macro level, the level of creative humanity as a collective. What about timeliness-versus-timelessness as an individual creative?

It manifests itself in the act of creation. Consider the difference between necessity and freedom. Timeliness is allied with necessity—I have to release it right now, at this moment, because it is perfect moment. Timelessness is allied with freedom—I can take as long as I need to get it right, because this transcends past, present and future. As a creative, you need both to produce.

We need time pressure. Else we would tinker and refine for eternity. There has to be a deadline, a point at which we say, “Enough”, and move on to something else. Similarly, we need to feel like we have the time to play and experiment, else we can never can go deep enough, can never ask the right questions, can never uncover the surprising answers.

Thus the battle is also a balancing act—our bodies of work and our processes of producing have to incorporate elements of timeliness and timelessness. They have to take great notice of time and space, and also exist outside of them.

The hardest person to fool

A forced smile can alter a mood; a placebo can cure an illness—the link between mind and body is unassailable. It is with this thought that I began to question the importance of the origins of a nutritional fast. I began to think that a fast undertaken at home by choice has a different effect, psychologically and physiologically, than a fast compelled by uncontrollable external circumstances. This musing reminded me of another strategy and the complications associated with it: death ground.

“Death ground”, as far as I’m aware, was a concept explicitly coined by Sun Tzu over two thousand years ago in The Art of War. In the chapter called “Nine Grounds” Master Sun elaborates on the nine types of the ground and what action to take upon them:

– “Ground of dissolution” is where local interests fight amongst themselves.
– “Light ground” is what’s found upon a shallow incursion into another’s territory.
– “Ground of contention” is terrain which it would be advantageous for both you and your opponent to hold.
– “Trafficked ground” is ground where you and others come and go.
– “Intersecting ground” is a gateway, a position that, if held, gives access to a greater land.
– “Heavy ground” is what you occupy when you are deep behind enemy lines.
– “Bad ground” is any route that is difficult to move across—swamps, forests, mountains etc..
– “Surrounded ground” is a bottleneck, where a small force can easily overwhelm a larger one.
– “Dying ground” is that which requires a rapid victory in order to avoid a rapid defeat.

Master Sun advises the following on each of the “nine grounds”:

“So let there be no battle on a ground of dissolution, let there be no stopping on light ground, let there be no attack on a ground of contention, let there be no cutting off of trafficked ground. On intersecting ground form communications, on heavy ground plunder, on bad ground keep going, on surrounded ground make plans, on dying ground fight.”

He elaborates further on the effect dying ground has on an army.

“Put them in a spot where they have no place to go, and they will die before fleeing. If they are to die there, what can they not do? Warriors exert their full strength. When warriors are in great danger, then they have no fear. When there is nowhere to go they are firm, when they are deeply involved they stick to it. If they have no choice, they will fight.”

Fast forward two thousand years and this strategy is common knowledge. See Robert Greene’s 33 Strategies of War:

“You are your own worst enemy. You waste precious time dreaming of the future instead of engaging in the present. Since nothing seems urgent to you, you are only half involved in what you do. The only way to change is through action and outside pressure. Put yourself in situations where you have too much at stake to waste time or resources–if you cannot afford to lose, you won’t. Cut your ties to the past; enter unknown territory where you must depend on your wits and energy to see you through. Place yourself on “death ground,” where your back is against the wall and you have to fight like hell to get out alive.”

The central idea is that necessity can inspire action that will alone cannot. This strategy manifested? This blog is an example. I said I’m going to publish daily, so I do. If an artist announces a deadline to the world, he has to keep to it to preserve his reputation (providing he values it). Someone putting down a large amount of money on a learning experience is incentivised to take as much as he can from the experience—if he doesn’t, he’s wasted his resources. Taking on a project that is well beyond the current scope of your skill leaves you with two options: fail, or become good enough to do it.

So. First, the link between the mind and the body. Second, death ground (or, the power of necessity). A third piece? The famous Richard Feynman quote: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.”

See, what I’ve found is that, sometimes, you are the hardest person to fool. Especially when it comes to the imposition of necessity. Succinctly put, you can’t fake death ground. I know because I’ve tried. I’ve given myself deadlines, tried to manufacture urgency, and if there’s even a hint that the stakes aren’t as high as I tell myself, I take my foot off the gas. Which is why, when it comes to fasts, I don’t think it’s enough to do them willingly in a comfortable environment. If recapturing the essence of wildness is the aim, then a fast must be brought about by nothing less than necessity. The non-normalness of such a strategy must be matched with the non-normalness of the environment or situation it is undertaken in.

The human being, as a collective, is remarkably intelligent. It knows more than the fact it is being denied nutrition—it knows why. For maximum effect, for realistic effect, we have to go a step down the evolutionary chain—a reincorporation not just of fasts, but of the conditions that compelled them in the first place.

Quantity first

When it comes to the creation of any new habit—marginal or meaningful—the process is the same: quantity, then quality.

When it comes to movement, what you do at the gym matters less, in the beginning, than the fact that you get there consistently. In the early stages of meditation practice, the aim is not to achieve enlightenment, reach nirvana or become an emotional Jedi. The aim is to sit down for twenty minutes, morning and evening, day after day, for months. Want to read more? As Naval Ravikant recently put it: “Read what you love until you love to read.” I myself can attest to the truth of this—I grew up reading the books that my father read. Mostly thrillers. In the process I learnt to love reading, and now that it’s cemented as a core practice in my life I can read about a wide array of topics and focus on finding value in what I consume.

Making a practice consistent is a prerequisite to making a practice effective.

Quantity, then quality.