Narrative framing

Narrative is capable of inspiring insight that rationality alone is not. For example, in my project tracker I list the name of the project, assign it a rating ( – – , – , +/- , + or ++ ), and state either the next action or the primary thing I need to focus on. The entry for my short-form writing currently looks like this:

> Short-Form Writing ( + ): Noodle more – be prepared and unafraid to think wrong and wonder aloud.

I’m sure you’ll agree that there’s not much narrative there. It’s relatively on-the-nose. Contrast this with a recent experiment by Venkatesh Rao:

eigen projects

As an outsider, which projects can you more easily grasp the essence of? Mine, which are described with a harsh utility, or Venkat’s, which come complete with cultural references and a narrative framework to aid comprehension? The latter, I bet.

Recently, I described the simplest of life-management strategies—the regular statement, assessment and adaptation of place and path, of where you are and where you’re heading. Again, a strategy relatively devoid of narrative. But yesterday, as I was playing around with how to visually represent my projects, processes and priority, I stumbled upon a narrative frame for this life management strategy—a puzzle.

What are the elements of a puzzle? First, there is the picture you’re trying to create. Second, there is the pieces of the jigsaw that combine to make said image. And third, there is the act of searching for and slotting together the individual pieces to make that final image. Sound like life management? Imagine the desired outcome, determine the pieces required to make it a reality, then go about slotting them together.

Life, in this sense, really is a puzzle.


The illegible space

A goblet squat is a movement that takes place in the frontal plane. If you are stood in front of a person doing a squat, you won’t detect much movement. View them from the side, however, and you’ll see the hips come back, the knees drive forward and the angle of the torso change as they descend, and all this will reverse on the ascent.

A cossack squat is a movement that takes place in the lateral plane. Stood facing them you will see much movement—the step to one side, the movement of the torso towards the outstretched leg and back. Here’s what this actually looks like:

goblet squat.gif
A goblet squat.
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A cossack squat.

What about a roundhouse kick? It is a movement that is multi-planar. There’s action on both the frontal and lateral plane. So would we be right in assuming that someone who is proficient at a goblet squat and a cossack squat would be proficient at a roundhouse kick? Of course not. Aside from the skill and practice required to master a kick, there’s the matter of the transitions between the planes.

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A roundhouse kick.

I’ll simplify. Search up some “yoga flows”. You’ll find multi-minute sequences that chain together different yoga poses. Why are a lot of these particularly difficult to accomplish? It’s not the positions themselves—someone with good hip flexibility can hold the “Warrior Pose” and the “Pigeon Pose”. It’s the transitions. See, it’s one thing to access different planes of movement. It’s another to traverse the illegible space between them.

Pop this into a hierarchy. The lowest level of movement capacity is signalled by proficiency in a single plane. The medium level of movement capacity is signalled by proficiency in multiple planes. But the highest level of movement capacity is signalled by access to all planes of movement and the ability, not only to shift effortlessly between them, but to exist in the dimensions between them. Watch videos of people like Ido Portal moving and you’ll see movements and positions which would severely stress the bodies of most of us.

Enough about movement. This hierarchy of single-multi-transitional applies to intellectual activity too. From bottom to top: a person who has a deep understanding of one domain of knowledge, a person who has a deep understanding of multiple domains, and a person who has a deep understanding of multiple domains and can hang in the bizarre space between them.

The latter is a basic description of the people whose work I find most interesting and useful, and it is also a description of the sort of thinking I am striving for.

Thinking well with others

We now have a tiny puppy and one of the things we’ve been told many times is that “socialisation is important”. We have to do our best to introduce our little friend to as many other little friends and as many other big friends—humans—as possible. We’ve done that and the effect is obvious: a friendly, playful canine.

The importance of socialisation is there for humans too. The biggest drawback of homeschooling, for example, has nothing to do with curriculum. It’s the little moments of social interaction that the child misses out on. It’s the walk between classes. It’s the ten minutes sat waiting for a teacher to arrive. It’s the impromptu decision to go to someone’s house for tea. But I think the importance of socialisation for humans goes further than that.

Puppy socialisation and the minute, improvised social interactions that occur between children at school are all about learning to play well together. Just as important is learning to think together.

I didn’t go to university. At college, I was absent on every plane except the physical. And as I’m discovering now, because of this I don’t know how to think with others. When someone tries their best and does their utmost in higher education, they usually end up in debates. They usually end up discussing and exploring ideas. They learn to listen to other’s thoughts and form their own. The further up the education chain you go, the more this becomes apparent. Those slaving away for PhDs have to complete a doctoral thesis—such a thing is conceived, drafted, improved and approved by a carnival of individuals.

As someone who wishes to ply their trade using the rather abstract medium that is the written word, my lack of socialisation is a problem in need of remedy. It may seem like a molehill, but only if you subscribe to the trope of the lone and solitary genius. I don’t—the more I learn, and the more I understand about how people learn, the more I’m beginning to see that it is relationships that colour the breadth and depth of our thoughts. Specifically, when we think together, insights and ideas that were previously out of reach become available to us. Which is why there’s been an uptick in my public and private correspondence—I’m socialising, learning to think with others.


The following is a passage which speaks for itself. I cannot add nor take from it without weakening it. The idea that it encapsulates is something that strikes me as important, and I figured you may perceive it in the same way. It is from Stephen Erikson’s Toll the Hounds and I hope you find it enlightening in some way.

“My finest student? A young man, physically perfect. To look upon him was to see a duellist by any known measure. His discipline was a source of awe; his form was elegance personified. He could snuff a dozen candles in successive lunges, each lunge identical to the one preceding it. He could spear a buzzing fly. Within two years I could do nothing more for him for he had passed my own skill.
I was, alas, not there to witness his first duel, but it was described to me in detail. For all his talent, his perfection of form, for all his precision, his muscle memory, he revealed one and only one flaw.
He was incapable of fighting a real person. A foe of middling skill can be profoundly dangerous, in that clumsiness can surprise, ill preparation can confound brilliant skills of defence. The very unpredictability of a real opponent in a life and death struggle served my finest student with a final lesson.
It is said that the duel lasted a dozen heartbeats. From that day forward, my philosophy of instruction changed. Form is all very well, repetition ever essential, but actual blood-touch practice must begin within the first week of instruction. To be a duellist, one must duel. The hardest thing to teach is how to survive.”

Free time and activity

In Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb describes one of the best pieces of advice he ever received. It was:

“… the recommendation by a very successful (and happy) older entrepreneur, Yossi Vardi, to have no assistant. The mere presence of an assistant suspends your natural filtering—and its absence forces you to do only things you enjoy, and progressively steer your life that way. … This is a via negativa approach: you want maximal free time, not maximal activity, and you can assess your own “success” according to such a metric. Otherwise, you end up assisting your assistants, or being forced to “explain” how to do things, which requires more mental effort than doing the thing itself. In fact, beyond my writing and research life, this has proved to be great financial advice as I am freer, more nimble, and have a very high benchmark for doing something, while my peers have their days filled with unnecessary “meetings” and unnecessary correspondence.”

Reading that was like being hit in the temple with a hammer (I imagine). Maximal free time, not maximal activity.

Much of my efforts in previous years have been devoted towards optimising for activity. Figuring out how best to schedule around my life and my own physical and psychological tendencies; how to manipulate my moods; how to best structure my environment; how to select the right opportunities; how to do little and large things more effectively, as well as more efficiently; how to manage relationships; how to look after myself. In every aspect, the desired consequence of doing something better was that it would allow me to do something else. To do more. For example, the pursuit of consistent editorial work—instead of a day job—was undertaken with the aim of freeing up time to write more. I wanted to trade one less desirable thing for another, keeping an activity in the process.

But maybe that was and is wrong? I began to wonder about the difference between optimising for free time and for activity, and the more I began to wonder, the more I began to lean towards free time as an ideal endgame. By removing all obligations I am free to take on only obligations that I choose to bear. By having to do nothing, I am free to do anything I want.

However, free time is not free. It has to be purchased with something. So, after adopting “maximal free time” as a horizon—alongside Venkatesh Rao’s concept of aliveness and Naval Ravikant’s concept of permissionless leverage—I began to speculate on what it is that buys maximal free time. Inevitably, I came back to the primary concept mentioned in Society C—value. Specifically:

Maximal free time requires the creation and maintenance of automated, low-touch systems that generate a lot of value for a few people or a little value for a lot of people. In both cases, the system must contain a mechanism for capturing a slice of the value created.

This is far from a new concept. Fully or part automated processes have been a part of sales and marketing ever since the internet came into the popular consciousness. And the creation of systems that generate freedom for the creator was the central innovation in The Four Hour Work Week and of the lifestyle design movement. But the evolution I wish to suggest is that the emphasis in the automated systems created is the magnitude of value created for others, instead of the magnitude of value captured by the originator.

Further, if what one pursues is free time, then one of the simplest strategies to get there quicker is to scale everything down. The person who lives small has to overcome fewer obstacles to free time than the person who lives large. Free time is more readily available to the person that “needs” only £1000 per month than the person who “needs” £10,000 to be satisfied.

To summarise: aiming for maximal free time makes more sense (to me) than aiming for maximal activity. And to get it, the first step is to scale down needs and demands, and the second is to build systems that create immense value for others and allow you to capture a teeny slice of said value for yourself.

Like Bob Ross

When I’m feeling down, like I want to do exactly nothing with absolutely no-one, I have a few go-to moves. The first is to embark upon an epic odyssey of self-pity where I mourn my present situation, my future prospects and my past decisions. Once that’s out of the way—usually signified by the completion of a nap—I have a buffet of options to pig out on. These include, but are not limited to:

– Watching the latest episode of Critical Role.
– Reading an old, favourite fiction book—Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, something light.
– Trawling my Reddit saves.
– Reading the Imperica newsletter.
– Stretching, yoga-style, and rolling out tense muscles.

The buffet of options also include the watching of Bob Ross’ The Joy of Painting—most episodes of which can be found on YouTube. For the unfamiliar, Bob Ross was a much-loved painter in the eighties and nineties. In his shows, he paints landscapes and talks through what he is doing. It’s remarkable, I assure you.

First, because Bob Ross is Bob Ross. Watching him “beat the devil out of it” makes me chuckle every single time. I could listen to him say “pthalo blue”, talk about giving trees friends and making happy mistakes for eternity.

Second, it’s an emotional rollercoaster. He’ll chuck some paint on the canvas, creating a sky or a lake effortlessly, drop a mountain or a barn in, and then precede to ruin it. That’s what it feels like anyway. If you didn’t know, Bob Ross loves trees. He’ll say that, and then just park a big dark line right down the middle of the beautiful horizon that has gently parted the waters of your heart. “No, Bob! What have you done?!” It always turns out that what he has done is make the painting better.

Third, joy. It’s a word that is in the title of the show itself, and it’s a word that is embodied by Bob and how he paints. He creates with a radiant joy—“radiant” because the viewer him- or herself can bathe in it. If you read any of the comments on any of the episodes on YouTube, this is evident. The overwhelming majority say things like, “The world didn’t deserve a man like Bob Ross” or “Without Bob Ross I wouldn’t have made it through period X in my life.” This isn’t a coinkidink. Bob Ross means a lot to a lot of people.

Which is why whenever Bob Ross helps me climb out of a spiralling bout of melancholy I always end up thinking, “I wish I could write like Bob Ross.” I wish I could bring the same sense of joy, fun and ease to my own work. I wish I could undertake the process and view the outcome with such wholesome goodness. Further, I wish more people would do what they do like Bob Ross. Without pretentiousness. Without falsity. Without ulterior or base motive. With love. With joy. For others.

Sunk love

We recently welcomed a puppy into our home and it has required a bigger adaptation than we anticipated. A few nights ago, while recalling the extent of the freedom I had before the Puppy Era, I asked myself some questions. “Was it a mistake? If I could go back in time would I make the same choice? Was it an option to re-home the puppy? Did I even want to do that?”

The answer I decided upon was “No”. Despite the unexpected changes and the mild curtailment of freedom, I still believe the upside outweighs the downside. For example, I now have a writing partner who helps me come up with ideas, and someone to playfight with of an afternoon.

But soon after I’d settled these questions the sunk cost fallacy came to mind. Was I answering the above questions that way simply because I wanted to preserve the narrative of my past decisions? Do I value the presence of our four-legged friend simply because I’ve invested in her presence in our home?

This path of thought also led me to an even more uncomfortable question. Imagine someone you know who has had children. Now imagine asking them the following: “Do you regret having kids?” Worst case, they feel affronted and you don’t get a Christmas card. Best case, they consider your question and answer in the negative. “Of course not.”

See, what I am wondering is whether children and pets represent the prime example of the sunk cost fallacy? If past investments of the material and emotional kind taint how we think about the present and future value of a thing, then isn’t the “love” we feel for children and pets the thing most likely to be affected by the sunk cost fallacy?

It’s a difficult question to ask, but it’s worth it. Do we love our children and our animal friends honestly and independently of our decision to have them in our life? Or do we “love” them because the human need for narrative consistency demands we perceive them as worthy investments and the consequence of well-made decisions?