Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue

This is the third and final post I will be doing on Matthew Crawford’s book “The World Beyond your Head.” I’d like to talk about focus today. What makes you focus? What are your pro-tips for staying focused? At the end of the post I’ll list out my favorite ways to stay focused.

How do you learn to just focus? Is it the essential skill to conquer? Is this how you want to live your life to work yourself against the “violent repugnance for true attention?”

Why is focus so important in the first place?

“The project of becoming a grown-up demands that one bring one’s conflicts to awareness; to intellectualize them and become articulate about them, rather than let them drive one’s behavior stupidly. Being an adult involves learning to accept limits imposed by a world that doesn’t fully answer to our needs; to fail at this is to remain infantile, growing old in the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.” – Matthew Crawford

So then, once we have our focus what do we do with it?

“Attention is rewarded by a knowledge of reality. The role played by love in this account indicates that attention may be at bottom an erotic phenomenon.” – Matthew Crawford

But what if we can’t find something to focus on? What if it’s all boring all around us? How do we find something to focus on in the middle of all of this boredom? The writer David Foster Wallace had a trick up his sleeve for finding focus in the middle of boredom:

“Bliss lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find (Tax returns, televised golf) and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.” – David Foster Wallace

So then what keeps us back from focusing? Is it fear?

“Something in our soul has a far more violent repugnance for true attention than the flesh has for bodily fatigue. This something is much more closely connected with evil than is the flesh. That is why every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves.” – Matthew Crawford

So when we focus we destroy “the evil in ourselves.” What evil is Crawford talking about here? I believe he’s talking about unlocking and channeling this unfilled potential toward things that are beneficial for those around us. When we’re self-soothing with video games we give form to time. But if we really really thought about it, would we use our time the way we have been using it? Does watching 6 hours of TV really recharge our batteries?

“Learning how to think really means learning to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.” – David Foster Wallace

So what are the drawbacks of focusing on your own happiness while disregarding the needs of the group?

“When someone has difficulty relating to objects (including other people) as independent things, the name for this condition is narcissism. It is not a condition of grandiosity so much as fragility; the narcissistic personality needs constant support from the world, and is unclear on the boundary between self and other. Such a personalty can’t tolerate the complex demands of other people but tries to relate to them by distorting who they are splitting off what it needs, what it can use. So, the narcissistic self gets on with others by dealing only with their made to measure representations.” – Matthew Crawford

So with this new pressure on ourselves to figure out things we can only rely on ourselves. And in doing so, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the problems we find ourselves in. With no one to blame, our own handling of our life takes on greater significance as we learn that the conditions we find ourselves in is all our doing. This could be wearying.

“Once upon a time, our problem was guilt: The feeling that you have made a mistake, with reference to something forbidden. This was felt as a stain on one’s character. Ehrenberg suggests the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with an axis of the possible and the impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are, where capacity is measured in something like kilowatt hours – the raw capacity to make things happen. With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness – weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one’s fullest self. We call this depression.” – Matthew Crawford

And so, with this time that we have, we make our meaning. If we are free to make meaning and we can no longer rely on others to define that meaning for ourselves, we are putting ourselves in the role of the provider. We provide for ourselves. We must take care of ourselves. We focus to plan to reason and care for ourselves.

“If there are no external constraints, what you make of yourself depends on your gumption and mental capacities. Are you a high performance person? In a culture of performance, the individual reads the status and value of her soul in her worldly accomplishments. Like the Calvinist, she looks to her success in order to know: Am I one of the elect or am I damned? With radical responsibility comes the specter of inadequacy.” – Matthew Crawford

And so we focus on the exact right living of our lives. For if we are in charge of everything we must take the reigns and fess up to the requirements of life and live it as if we are the ones in control.

“It is not simply that we are too busy for others, we have also developed a heightened instinct for self-protection. Turkle reports that teenagers would far rather text than make a phone call because on the phone they fear that they reveal too much. In texting you can carefully craft the version of yourself that you present.” – Matthew Crawford

Here are a few ways that I gain/regain focus when I need it. YMMV on these:

  • Start a timer when you start a task. Tell yourself how long you think this specific task will take and see if you were right when you finish.
  • Do the pomodoro technique when you have a full day of work to complete to keep productive without burning out.
  • Put on your favorite song and set it to repeat. Each time your mind comes up from focus it will hear this same song playing and it will feel like you have effectively stopped time.
  • Do the most important task first. I got this one from one of my favorite productivity books of all time.
  • Write down the task then break it down into subtasks and keep doing this until the task is written out like a recipe with each step requiring no additional thought. Then execute.

“Faced with how hard it is to understand family and friends, the autistic retreats into auto stimulation. For his part, the narcissist splits off from others what he can use: the parts that bolster his own self-image. We recognize both as pathologies; they might also be understood as the destination toward which the ideal of autonomy tends, absent other ideals that can serve as a counterweight to it. The ideal of autonomy seems to have at its root the hope for a self that is not in conflict with the world.” – Matthew Crawford

Has this blog post on focus clarified some important concepts for you? If it has please let me know.


One knows oneself by one’s deeds

This is the second in 3 posts I’ll be doing on “The World Beyond your Head” by Matthew Crawford.

In the last post I talked about how Getting things right requires triangulating with other people. In this post I’d like to highlight the surprising motivations behind gambling then I’ll finish by conducting a thought experiment to determine the role of ‘manufactured certainties’ to stay sane.

In his book, Matthew Crawford references a book by Natasha Dow Schull called “Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas.” In the book, Schull notes surprising motivations behind gambling.

“The appeal of games is that they give the player a sense of control.” – Matthew Crawford

With so many things being upended by technology, from the 2016 election to the dwindling quality of interpersonal relationships, it’s nice to know that at the heart of it, we are all looking for ways to gain a sense of control.

Crawford quotes Schull’s book on gamblers in Las Vegas finding their sense of control at the casino:

“The goal for compulsive machine gamblers is not to win money, as one might suppose, and you cannot understand their addiction without keeping this in mind. The goal is to get in the zone: the place where ‘Their won actions become indistinguishable from the functioning of the machine. They explain this point as a kind of coincidence between their intentions and the machine’s responses.’ You hit the button and the machine responds every time.” – Matthew Crawford

Crawford shares the surprising fact that winning is not the goal. The goal is the player’s relationship with the machine:

“‘I don’t care if it takes coins, or pays coins. The contract is that when I put a new coin in, get five new cards, and press those buttons, and I am allowed to continue. So it isn’t really a gamble at all – in fact, it’s one of the few places I’m certain about anything.’ If you can’t rely on the machine, then you might as well be in the human world where you have no predictability either.” – Matthew Crawford

What’s the purpose of gaming if not to alleviate the pressures of the modern world?

“We therefore seek out other, personal technologies that can can give us safe haven: ‘manufactured certainties,’ as Schull puts it, that help us ‘manage our affective states.’ That is what computer games seem to do for our quasi autistic cohort of young men; it is what machine gambling does for those who have gone down that particular path. Perhaps such pursuits help us manage the anxiety and depression that come when experiences of genuine agency are scarce, and at the same time we live under a cultural imperative of being autonomous.” – Matthew Crawford

What gives you a sense of control? How do you “manage your affective states?” In this dizzying world of technology and social media, which ‘manufactured certainties’ do you rely on? Are you a gamer, gambler, or a musician? Do you like to scrapbook?

“For Hegel, one knows oneself by one’s deeds. And deeds are inherently social – their meaning depends very much on how others receive them. The problems of self-knowledge is in large part the problem of how we can make ourselves intelligible to others through our actions, and from them receive back a reflected view of ourselves.” – Matthew Crawford

Here’s a thought experiment: Do you go down the path of self realization through the making of things? Or do we condone the pursuit of gaming to ‘manage our affective states?’ I suppose that decision is ultimately up to you.

“You have not executed an intention successfully unless others attribute to you the deed and intention you attribute to yourself. One can think of counterexamples to this formula – a successful deception, for instance. But it serves well as a corrective to the cult of sincerity, which perhaps amounts to this: the idea that you yourself can be the source of the norms by which you justify yourself. This idea seems to be the late modern understanding of autonomy, in a nutshell.” – Matthew Crawford

Getting things right requires triangulating with other people

This is the first post of 3 I’ll be doing on Matthew Crawford’s “The World Beyond your Head – On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction.” In this post I’d like to focus on three different thinkers and how isolation kills creativity.

We’ve all felt it. The pang that this work would go faster if people would leave me alone so I can get my work done. This works well when you know exactly what you are doing because you’ve done it a million times before.

Picasso was famous for saying, “Dramatic action needs solitude.”

Perhaps that’s why when other famous artists of his time like Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin were traveling the world to find inspiration and new ways of looking, Picasso was content to sit alone in his studio night after night in isolation, waiting for the muse to strike. He rarely painted from models but rather accessed the references for his artwork from his mind’s eye.

Picasso’s profound output and acclaim seem to support Crawford’s statements about sustained attention in isolation:

“To attend to anything in a sustained way requires actively excluding all the other things that grab at our attention. It requires, if not ruthlessness toward oneself, a capacity for self regulation.” – Matthew Crawford

But before we head for the hills to live the life of an unwashed recluse, it’s important to talk about Frank Lloyd Wright, the 20th century’s most famous architect.Frank Lloyd Wright’s contributions to the world of architecture include over 1,000 designs and nearly 600 completed buildings.

At the height of his career he gave up on living in the city and retreated to his home Taliesen in Wisconsin.

What followed the move to Taliesen was 8 years of unproductive work. What caused this unproductive period? He had isolated himself so thoroughly that he no longer swam in the intellectual ideas he had before. His inspiration waned and the 20th century’s best architect ossified.

“We think through the body. The fundamental contribution of this school of psychological research is that it puts the mind back in the world, where it belongs, after several centuries of being locked within our heads. The boundary of our cognitive processes cannot be cleanly drawn at the outer surface of our skulls, or indeed of our bodies more generally. They are, in a sense, distributed in the world that we act in.” – Matthew Crawford

I believe that Crawford is trying to say that we need to be in the swing of things to really appreciate what’s around us.

A 14th century Zen master Dogen Zenji put it simply, “If you walk in the mist, you get wet.”

I’ve had a number of projects that I’ve worked on. Most of them have been me working on something, believing in it and working by myself to get things done. It’s worked well but at the same time I can’t help but feel that you need to have other people there to bolster your strengths and hide your weaknesses.

We are so much stronger when we have help from other people. There are ways that I could not do things on my own or that I am blind to the reality of the problem because I only see it from my perspective.

What happens when you have another set of eyes?

“A passenger acts as another pair of eyes on the situation he inhabits with the driver, and tends to improve a driver’s ability to notice and quickly respond to out of the ordinary challenges.” – Matthew Crawford

Another pair of eyes can illuminate areas of reality you’re blind to:

“In other words, one has to be able to explore a scene from different perspectives to perceive what remains the same about it – its nature and structure, regardless of perspective – and locomotion is an indispensable part of this process.” – Matthew Crawford

But don’t just trust any other set of eyes. It’s very important to make sure that the others you are relying on share your beliefs, passions, and attention to detail.

“The cohesiveness and ongoing association of a firefighting unit offer an advantage not enjoyed by most motorcyclists: they are under mutual surveillance and can criticize one another’s mistakes. They can also cover one another’s blind spots, offering up a third-person perspective such as: There was a large ember floating upward right behind you as you exited that room. You got lucky. Such facts, conveyed by a colleagues, can become material for a fire fighter’s retrospective understanding of the situation, or indeed a collaborative reconstruction of it. His own experience is altered in conversation.” – Matthew Crawford

I pair program with 2 other developers in San Francisco twice a week. I’ve learned more through these pair programming sessions than I ever could studying from a book or taking a course. We are constantly interacting with each other, questioning decisions, validating assumptions, seeing how each other solves tasks, and sharing our pro-tips.

“Getting things right requires triangulating with other people.” – Matthew Crawford

In his last lecture Randy Pausch sums it up perfectly:

“The key to innovation is that teams beat individuals.” – Randy Pausch

Has this post clarified the need for collaborators? Co-conspirators? Let me know. I’d love to hear about the teams you build to keep you in touch with reality and not flailing, stuck in your head.

To acquire principles that work, it’s essential that you embrace reality and deal with it well

This is the fifth and final post I will be creating on Ray Dalio’s book “Principles.”

In this blog post I’d like to focus on embracing reality. How do you make your decisions? How do you know that what you know is true? Facebook’s method is to “move fast and break things.” Dalio’s suggested that we find “believable people.”

I like to thing I’m a good judge of character but after reading “Mindwise” by Nicholas Epley, I’m starting to mistrust my gut. At the end of the book, Epley suggests there’s only one way to know what other people are thinking – ask them.

So if our gut instinct, putting ourselves in their shoes, scanning for micro-expressions are all for naught, what can we do?

“To acquire principles that work, it’s essential that you embrace reality and deal with it well.” – Ray Dalio

How do you embrace reality? I believe Dalio is trying to say that the only way to learn how things truly are is to push yourself to action. Once we have acted in the world we can start to see how it acts back. Does it conform to our assumptions? No? Then we’ve just learned by embracing reality.

“Embrace your realities and deal with them effectively. After all, making the most of your circumstances is what life is all about. This includes being transparent with your thoughts and open-mindedly accepting the feedback of others. Doing so will dramatically increase your learning.” – Ray Dalio

Have a hard time open-mindedly accepting the feedback of others? Get more feedback. I know it sounds counterintuitive so let me say it another way. I develop iPhone apps. I lead a group of developers who discuss the latest technologies and how they apply to the programming landscape.

However, if we’re only just discussing iPhone programming and not actually programming iPhone apps we aren’t doing anything. I like to say, “iPhone developers develop iPhone apps.”

“The biggest mistake most people make is to not see themselves and others objectively, which leads them to bump into their own and others’ weaknesses again and again.” – Ray Dalio

This seems like another opportunity for us to seek feedback more often from believable people.

“Because it is difficult to see oneself objectively, you need to rely on the input of others and the whole body of evidence.” – Ray Dalio

Then what do we do about the problems that surface while we are embracing reality, acting and getting feedback? What are we supposed to do with the problems of reality when we run up against them?

“View painful problems as potential improvements that are screaming at you. Once you identify a problem, don’t tolerate it.” – Ray Dalio

So we’ve embraced reality, acted to test it, spotted the problems, and we don’t tolerate them. We fix them. We learn how other people have worked through similar situations.

“We all see ourselves and the world in our own unique ways, so deciding what’s true and what to do about it takes constant work.” – Ray Dalio

I wish there was a magic bullet I could share to make life easier but it seems like the more we run from our problems and stick our heads in the sand, the more the problems and reality bite at our heels.

Take a stand, embrace reality, act, get feedback, identify the problems, and deal with them. This is how we embrace reality. This is how we win.