The tyranny of the perfect day

“What does your perfect day look like?” seems like a sensible question. After all, it compels you to consider the different aspects of your life, prioritise them according to your preferable criteria and sequence them in the most ideal manner. It is an open invitation to create a mythical island of order in the treacherous ocean of chaos that is Life. The answer you give to this innocuous question can be liberating—unlocking insight and direction—but it can also tyrannise, imprisoning you in a quest for uniformity.

Here’s an example. A while ago I discovered my “perfect morning”. I liked to rise before the sun, meditate for a while, read whilst drinking a few cups of coffee, then write for a few hours. After that, I’d squeeze in whatever else my relationships, commitments and ambitions demanded of me. So, I thought, why not try to make every morning like that? I tried and it was surprisingly successful. But it also made me fragile. If I didn’t get up early enough then I felt the morning was lost. If my meditation session went terribly then it threw me out of rhythm. If I couldn’t focus whilst reading I felt annoyed. If I sat at the keyboard and nothing came to me, I’d wind myself up into a hybrid state of anxiety and fear. I was seeking uniformity in my mornings and Life was giving me the middle finger, thwarting my quest in mostly consistent, but sometimes unexpected, ways.

Imagining a perfect day and actually striving for it has much of the same effect. It implies that the problem is your lack of control, the absence of order in your affairs, rather than your ability to function in multiple shifting states and environments.

Now, I still periodically ask myself what my perfect day looks like. But I don’t fall into the trap of thinking that my perfect days should be uniform and repeatable. Instead, I labour under the assumption that perfect days can only be revealed in hindsight, not planned or prepared for in advance.

Big talk

There are two types of talk—small talk and big talk—and two types of people we talk to—intimates and strangers. For a long time, I pined for big talk. For deep conversations about the human condition, about the world, about complex ideas and disciplines, about sensitive matters and sacred topics. My thinking was that the perfect existence was one in which the talk is always big, regardless of whether it was with intimates or strangers. But due to recent experience, I’ve had to update that belief.

Similar to how there is no light without dark, big talk cannot be valuable without the small talk to contrast it with. For example, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I used to think small talk pointless. If given the choice I would’ve taken an awkward silence over an amenable but seemingly meaningless conversation. That was until my partner pointed out—as she does with many things—that small talk is the foundation of most relationships. If I didn’t engage in small talk with my partner then we would be a couple existing as mutes for a large chunk of our time together.

It is almost a re-aligning of the hierarchy, in terms of communication. Big talk has got no less valuable, but small talk has assumed more of a central position in how I think about relationships.

But there is another alteration which has come about due to my extended consideration of big- and small talk with intimates and strangers. Of course, I value deep conversations with people I know well. But I think I place a greater value on deep conversations with people I’ve never met nor am likely to meet again. I had thought that this was a category of conversation which was mythical, an abstract ideal instead of a concrete possibility. I was wrong.

It never happens in groups, only one-to-one. It occurs in the nooks and crannies that surround otherwise banal events—a party, waiting outside a shop, walking on the beach. All it requires is two people who are unacquainted. It is this unacquaintedness which makes it possible to forego conversational preamble and leap straight to the heart of a matter. There are things we can say to a stranger that we would have a hard time broaching with an intimate.

Summa: small talk is more valuable than I imagined, and more valuable still is the big talk one can have with strangers.

The order of chaos

At dinner a few nights ago someone brought out a dancing flame. It consists of a base which holds some highly flammable fluid, and four glass panes that serve to enclose it. The fuel is lit and sustains the flame for an hour or so, and for the entirety of that hour the flame flickers and moves and shifts. As is my want, I got to looking at it. In the few minutes that I watched it it never took the same form twice—from what I can tell. Which got me thinking about the nature of chaos and order.

There had to be a finite number of shapes, a definite number of ways in which the flame could manifest itself. The size of its base was fixed and the surface area of exposed fuel was determined, after all. So there was an order, a pattern to its burning, but one that I suspect it would be hard to map. Is this not how we consider chaos?

Specifically, aren’t many things that we think of as chaotic actually conforming to an order which we have neither the capacity nor the tools to comprehend?

Censoring

In “Jonathan Livingstone Corporation”, Venkatesh Rao lays out one of the most important questions an individual or an organisation can ask themselves: What are you solving for? He says the worst answer is “Money” and the best answer is “Aliveness”, which comes in three primary forms—scale, technology or people. Cue Venkat:

“…Three better-than-money motivators for solving business problems are: technology, people, and scale. When you focus on one of these, it’s not that you don’t want to make gobs of money, but that it’s a secondary consideration. You’d rather go bust than make it the primary consideration.

24 / Technology: when technology is the driving motivation for solving a business problem, the renewable payoff loop comes from satisfaction of borderline absurd curiosities. Will it waffle? mindset driven by hunches and raw curiosity about whether something can work. The thrill of watching a new kind of machine come alive.

25/ People: Can people (both as employees and customers) be made to come alive/thrive instead of slouching through life like dispirited zombies? There is something addictive about figuring out problems in ways where you solve for “people aliveness”. Beneath anoydyne buzzwords like “customer delight” or “employee engagement” there is this real thing you can solve for.

26/ Finally, scale in a general sense. Can something be made bigger, smaller, cheaper, more centralized, more decentralized, more/less automated? The payoff here is activating/deactivating a constraint, and rewriting patterns of abundance/scarcity by turning a knob to some extreme limit.

27/ When you have all three going on — solving for technology, people, and scale — the business seems to come explosively alive and burst with vigor. As a side-effect, it tends to also throw off cash like crazy. Like a seabird colony, but breeding wealth rather than babies.”

This question—What are you solving for?—and its answer—aliveness—are future facing. What you choose to solve for in the present determines the makeup of the future that will wash over you. But another variant of that question is, I find, just as important—What are you censoring for?

We all have a past and they are all messy. Abandoned trails, completed projects, prolonged relationships, one-off but life-changing interactions, terrible tragedies and experiences of great joy. But only you as a person have the fullest grasp of that past, and even the grasp is not that full.

Imagine each and every moment of your life is plotted on a graph in chronological order, and that each and every moment is allocated a value somewhere between minus-one and one (indicating negative and positive). The points of that graph you choose to highlight to others are what you are censoring for. And usually, the thing we censor for is what we consider to be the best version of ourselves—even the weaknesses we divulge are meant to strengthen our position in some way.

Of course, there is a personal dimension to this—I highlighted it with the idea of narrative selection. But the question, What are you censoring for?, concerns mostly how you appear to others. It is, in a way, akin to positioning. You have a large amount of aspects of your self and your story to highlight and only a small space with which to communicate the most important information. That which you censor—that which you leave out—indicates that which you are aiming for. It is, in essence, a question of determining how you want your reality to appear to others.

Health and fitness

In his early books teacher and coach Dan John makes a distinction between “health” and “fitness”. For the former he uses Phil Maffetone’s definition: Health is the optimal interplay of the organs. For the latter: Fitness is the ability to do a certain task. This distinction is important because when writing a training program the coach needs to know which is the focus, health or fitness? A program designed to improve the heath of a person looks remarkably different than one designed to improve a particular facet of fitness—be it strength, endurance, or capacity for a sport or discipline.

I no longer coach or teach it, but I still retain a strong interest in movement and health. And one of the things I have noticed is that it is easy to forego health when training for fitness. For example, I’ve had my share of lumbar and neck problems. Multiple years of tweaks, pains, aches and inability to do certain things without a bit of discomfort. With the help of a close friend and coach, much of that has been remedied. He helped me figure out what the problem was and what needed to be done about it—it wasn’t a one-time cure and there are areas which I have to pay special attention to indefinitely.

Why am I telling you this? Simple. For years I was only interested in training for fitness. For strength, for power, for aerobic and anaerobic capacity. Now, I train mostly for health and to maintain the ability to do most physical things. I want a high baseline of mobility, stability, strength and co-ordination, not for its own sake, but so I can swim, cycle, run, walk, climb, fight and do any other physical task that presents itself or seems interesting. Yet because of injuries and weaknesses my programs have retained the appearance of fitness programs, emphasising few areas.

Well, now I am beginning to wonder if perhaps the best route for me—and for many others—is to have two programs. To choose health and fitness. Put simply, maybe everyone should have a health program that is practiced everyday for a short period of time. One that involves big compound movements across all categories—push, pull, squat, hinge, loaded carries etc.—and ensures the trainee moves the muscles and joints through the entire range of motion. On top of this daily program could be layered a more traditional fitness or injury prevention program which is tailored to the individual’s needs.

So once I return from my holiday, that is the route I will be exploring. A health program and a fitness program.

The JIT Magician

I’ve talked before about the importance of a narrative frame, of the process of storification that helps embed a thing in the mind. Well, the other day I finally found a narrative frame to go with the philosophy and strategies of just-in-time information that people like Tiago Forte are such proponents of.

A short aside: “Just-in-time” was a manufacturing term before it became an informational mode of operation. It referred to the mini-revolution in technology and processes that meant huge warehouses of parts that might be needed could be done away with. Instead of stocking inventory just-in-case, the denizens of Toyota realised that they could remake their workflows to have their parts appear just-in-time—saving a tonne of capital and labour in the process. JIT manufacturing is the foundation stone of lean manufacturing.

Anywho. A narrative frame for just-in-time information management.

Imagine three armies of combatants in a fantasy realm. The first army is tied to its supply train. It can move only as fast as the supply train following it can move. There is some leniency with how far away from the supply train the army can advance, but not much. This dependency is also a weakness. To inflict chaos upon the fighting force, an enemy simply has to dislocate it from its supply train.

The second army is made of autonomous units. Each individual carries his weapons, his armour, and all the miscellaneous items required for him to survive for a week or two. These individuals are grouped into squads, each of which is autonomous from one another, and so on up the command chain. Providing they have robust channels of communication, the units of the army can move further and faster than the previous force, and they are less vulnerable because they do not depend on a centralised resource.

The third army is made up of magicians. They wear robes and carry only a staff which they can use to conjure up all that they need. Their staff is their weapon, allowing them to sling destruction. It is their armour, allowing them to protect themselves and their allies. And it is their life support, allowing them to make camp and survive in the wild. This army can move with terrible speed and is a near-invincible foe.

The Magician is what the practitioner of just-in-time information resembles. He need not carry a library for he has a rigorously annotated and organised set of notes and procedures. Solutions to any problems he encountered have likely been previously documented and archived, and if they haven’t the JIT Magician need only solve them once to have solved them forever.

People find their level

“Water finds its level” is a beautiful compression of an engineering concept. As John Lienhard says about the common perception of the expression:

“Few said anything about hydrostatics. Most saw it as a metaphor for how things equalize in society. The principle actually says that the water levels in two basins, connected by a pipe, must be the same. That had to’ve been known long before Aristotle; but Aristotle articulated it and wrote it down.”

But this expression can be transformed. Water finds its level, but so too do individual humans. Specifically, over a lifetime people gravitate towards their preferred level of complexity. A person’s desired level of complexity is, to me, a combination of their informational tolerance and their temporal tendencies.

A small amount of information with a high signal:noise ratio delivered at a slow pace is easier to deal with than a flood of information of indecipherable quality rushing in with great speed. Between those two poles our preference sits and as we live and learn, we make choices designed to take us to environments composed of less or more complexity.