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Aspire to be less wrong – Elon Musk

A few years ago I was inspired by my love of David Deutsch work and this quote by Elon Musk:

Aspire to be less wrong

Elon Musk

I couldn’t say it better myself. So cold winter morning I found some rights free space images from NASA and I put together this poster. Never printed it, but since then it has been becoming increasingly popular on the Figma community. So I figured I would offer some good exports for sale.

I hope you like it!

https://jesperbylund.gumroad.com/l/aspire-to-elon

Addiction and balance

I’ve started thinking more and more about addiction. I am not, in the classic sense, in any way an addict. But I think my addictions are taking up too much of my life.

I first realised how common addiction can be compared to the classic idea of drug abuse when I read Andrew Wilkinsons startling introspection:

Dr. Lembke explained that most addictions arise from substances or activities that release dopamine.

[…]

Things like video games. Food. Social networks. Porn. Email. Exercise.
Even romance novels. Yes, romance novels.

[…]

People can be addicted to ANYTHING that releases dopamine. And we are all doing it constantly in an unnatural way.

Andrew Wilkinson on Twitter

This means that everything that triggers in you an excited, focused, joyful moment can be addicting. And wow does that mean the normal world we live in is full of addictive things and addicts.

Here is Scott Alexander talking about how even eating could be viewed as an addiction cycle.

Everyone always says you should “eat mindfully”. I tried this once and it was weird. For example, I noticed that only the first few bites of a tasty food actually tasted good. After that I habituated and lost it. Not only that, but there was a brief period when I finished eating the food which was below hedonic baseline.

[…]

This seems pretty analogous to addiction, tolerance, and withdrawal. If you use eg heroin, I’m told it feels very good the first few times. After that it gets gradually less euphoric, until eventually you need it to feel okay at all. If you quit, you feel much worse than normal (withdrawal) for a while until you even out. I claim I went through this whole process in the space of a twenty minute dinner.

Scott Alexander in Astral Codex Ten

I think he’s right. Addiction is not a digital state, but an analogue gradual scale, and everything we indulge in slides around on that scale. Which means that life is full of addictive traps. Paul Graham says it well in this tweet:

Which means we will increasingly have to make a conscious effort to avoid addictions — to stand outside ourselves and ask “is this how I want to be spending my time?”

Paul Graham in Life is short

The hardest things to avoid are the ones that feel personal, without actually being personal. Things that trigger fear:

Things that lure you into wasting your time have to be really good at tricking you. An example that will be familiar to a lot of people is arguing online. When someone contradicts you, they’re in a sense attacking you. Sometimes pretty overtly. Your instinct when attacked is to defend yourself. But like a lot of instincts, this one wasn’t designed for the world we now live in. Counterintuitive as it feels, it’s better most of the time not to defend yourself. Otherwise these people are literally taking your life.

Paul Graham in Life is short

Graham is as usual a vivid observer of life, and I think he nails it when he says:

The things that matter aren’t necessarily the ones people would call “important.” Having coffee with a friend matters. You won’t feel later like that was a waste of time.

Paul Graham in Life is short

To take it back to Wilkinson, he echoes a similar observation:

After a month of this, I came home and had coffee with a friend.

I felt like a new man. Whereas before NOTHING made me happy, a month of quiet had flipped things on their head.

Suddenly the muzak playing in a cafe sounded like the best song I’d ever heard.

Andrew Wilkinson

What can we learn from these interesting people?

I think addiction is a slippery slope of immediate responses to emotions, enjoyment, stress, fear. The trick is to decide if this is really how you want to spend your time. Your life.

To do that, we have to look at things at a longer timescale. Is this an activity you will remember fondly, or time passed in a blur?

It’s easy to let the days rush by. The “flow” that imaginative people love so much has a darker cousin that prevents you from pausing to savor life amid the daily slurry of errands and alarms.

Paul Graham in Life is short

How do you want to spend your life? Is that notification really worth 10 minutes of your day? Is that extra drink worth being sluggish tomorrow?

Here’s Mario Merz explaining how intensity of living might be a better way to frame it:

It’s clear to me that in some moments we feel more purely alive than others: years unfold in minutes. The most popular refrain when someone is in the first flush of love, after all is, I’ve never felt more alive. Intensity is the pursuit of aliveness.

Mario Mera in Permitting Intensity

All addiction starts out as vivid examples of being alive. But we can’t chase the high like addicts. Because every experience quickly stops being rewarding and instead turns into the pain of withdrawal.

We need to be aware of this, and continue to explore vidid experiences of aliveness. But not chase the high.

Balance intensity of action with reflection and rest. Balance addictive input with boredom.

If you have any good ideas about how to do this, please let me know. Because I’m definitely not bored enough.

The people who judge you

We often imagine how people will react when we make decisions in life. Should I stay at my job? Start a risky new company? Even the most hardened individualist among us imagine the reaction of our parents, or friends, when we think about big decisions.

A life coach I recently listened to offered the idea that we carry with us the image of people we wanted to impress growing up. It’s probably your parents, but also others like your first boss, the cool kids from high school, or more mature friends of your siblings. Then when we decide on taking a new job, or doing a new project, we imagine how they would react. Will they be impressed? Will they call me a dweeb?

I think he’s right. We do carry around imagined panels of critics, made up from people who are maybe not even in our lives any longer. Perhaps setting limits for our lives based on people who are no longer around isn’t a good strategy?

The coach then proposed we write down an explicit list of people who’s opinion we still value, and the next time we have a decision to make, we can think of those people. Or even better, we can ask their opinions. Completely getting rid of the imaginary audience might be difficult, or even impossible. But switching them out for an audience that makes sense could be practical.

My own list turned out to be surprisingly short.

Advice on turning 38

Like Patrick Collison describes so well in “Advice” all advice is unfortunately lost in translation. You’ll have to experience it yourself to truly internalise.

Today I became 38, so here are a few pieces of advice I wish I could give to my 28 year old self.

Jesper Bylund celebrating turning 38 at Monocle Zürich Switzerland. Photo by Agnes Haverling.
  • It takes time to learn ideas. When you read it once and think you understand it, you’ve not even begun to learn the idea. And that is ok.
  • All progress is progress. Any increment is valuable. Because making progress is the only thing that matters. Progress makes you richer, smarter, stronger, but we can never stop. There is no final truth or form.
  • Being intellectually honest takes a lot of effort and discipline. But if you aren’t, why would you spend the time to learn? Why would you repeat an argument? If you don’t live the way it says is best.
  • Every time you do anything, is the last time you do that. So enjoy it. This is the last meal you prepare, that was the last what with that friend. Because it really is like Heraclitus says. The earlier you can internalise that. The better you will spend your life.

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s no the same man.

Heraclitus
  • Everything is addictive. And we have to beware of addiction, because it makes us to invest time, energy, and money in things that do not align with our long time goals. Instant gratification kills your long term dreams.

Making failure a way to win

Embracing failure has become a trope. Like a lot of important observations about life, there is something to this, it’s just badly explained. As a society we rush through ideas expecting others to “just get it”.

Which is why when I posted this tweet the other day I was surprised by the amount of response. Was this thought a piece of embracing failure uncovered in a practical method?

The fear of failure keeps people, you and I included, from doing the things that are important to us. You might call it worry, or anxiety, but those are synonyms in regards to failure. Things that we think are important, exciting, or worthwhile are always lacquered with fear.

Important things are simply too exposing. What if you start to write that book, climb that mountain, but don’t finish it? Maybe others will laugh? Maybe everyone will remember the failure and not the important goal? Maybe we’ll lose all our money, and safety?

Trying to avoid failure will not minimise the risks of these things. When we avoid risk we step away from rewards, both monetary and personal. Eventually we end up where there is little opportunity left to compete over. In lives that are so small, so safe, that they look laughable from the outside. You’ve probably wondered why your grandmothers world seems so small, now you know. And you are probably on the same path.

The way out of this trap is to stop avoiding failure, and minimise the loss from failure instead. That may sound like word play, but if we limit the loss we can make, trying isn’t expensive. With limited losses, a big possible wins, success is guaranteed if we just keep trying.

Risk = chance of failure * cost of failure

Mattis Larsson on Twitter

When you can try for the important things in your life, but the possible failure is not complete, there is always more opportunity.
What if you write the outline, and then start on something else? You still wrote the outline.
What if you start climbing that mountain, but don’t reach the top? You still climbed the mountain.

We can never remove the chance of failure. To live full lives we want to accept failing, and even aspire to fail more often. But if we minimise the cost, we can try and try again. Failing feels less scary when it’s no big deal. The laughs of worried spectators will grow ever weaker as your life grows larger.

We can continue failing forever, while winning at life.

Not a marathon, not a mountain

When I was 7 years old I was invited to run a 400m race (approximately 440yards). I had no idea how long that was. I remember thinking I needed to pace myself. I was prepared to get injured, and persevere, to breathe until my lungs burned. But I was gonna make it. These other kids probably didn’t even prepare!

The day was overcast and chilly when we finally toed the starting line. Then it was over in a few measly seconds. It turned out everyone in my class could run 400m full out. In fact you could run the race several times a day without getting very tired.

In my mind it had been a marathon. But in reality, it wasn’t. A lot of problems we struggle with are like this.

It looked like a marathon to me because I lacked perspective, and I expected this new thing to be difficult. I didn’t know it back then, but I was exhibiting learned helplessness.

Learned helplessness is behavior exhibited by a subject after enduring repeated aversive stimuli beyond their control.”

wikipedia

The term was popular for a long time before it was discovered that this definition is actually backwards. We are born helpless, and our default mode of being is helplessness. What we need to learn is that more things are within our power to than we believe. Problems are solvable. We are not fated by birth, nor doomed by our situation.

We start learning this as children, but most of us stop after a certain point. Where that point is, can define your world view.

Most problems in life are like my race. Even many mental issues are like this. The situation might be hard, or the emotion overwhelming, but the actual issue is our lack of experience. We haven’t learned that we can change them.

Popular media portrays some people as having been through tough times, down on their luck, burned out. While other people are portrayed as if nothing bad ever happens in their lives, like they were born with a surplus of luck. And there are real differences – especially at a young age – that shape us in ways that are hard to undo. But this world view is mostly wrong.

It’s more likely that person A with infinite luck has seen more adversity than person B who’s down on their luck. In fact that’s the main reason why person A has better tools to handle problems. This portrayal and world view is holding us back. It’s helping us stay in the comfort zone, full of anxiety about the marathon of hurdles between us and our goals.

Of course we need appropriate amounts of adversity to grow instead of burning out, but most of us probably need more adversity, not less. And the only way to truly know is to try it.

That huge problems that’s currently stopping you? It’s not a marathon, it just feels like it. At the finish line, you’ll look back and wonder why you spent all that time waiting to run. You can do this.

This outdated worldview is holding back the internet

If you’re born before 1990 you probably tend to believe a computer is a laptop (or a desktop, but that’s so retro…).

Walking around the average office you might think that’s correct. But there are two issues with this world view. The first one is that the numbers don’t agree, I’ll get back to that. And the second one is that it gives us a bad explanation to understand our users or clients with.

What we believe are computers is just the shape that was popular for computing devices between the early 80s and 2007. They used to be beige boxes, but the use case was the same: they sit on our desk or table, and they let us peck at spreadsheets with our mice.

That’s not what the world looks like anymore. More and more people were introduced to computers that looked like the iPhone. They know what laptops are, sure. But to them that’s not what a computer is. For them the computer is a screen you use for internet services.

In fact most computing is already done on iphone-like devices:

“In terms of computing, no one now questions the shift that took place from desktops and laptops to mobile devices. However, reality was messier as it took nearly a decade for consensus to view the smartphone as a laptop or desktop alternative. For years, smartphones were viewed as merely laptop and desktop extensions. What was initially viewed as a superior email machine for executives marked the start of a paradigm shift in the making.”

Above Avalon

The world looked confusedly at us kids who understood the internet. Now we’re in danger of doing the same. We’re probably already moving towards computation that is even less like a traditional computer like watches and headphones.

Most companies still lag the mobile paradigm shift, partly — I think — because we who were born before 1990 still think a computer is a box with a keyboard.

It’s time to abandon the idea of the traditional computer. It had it’s day, I still love it. But that’s no longer a model of the world that makes sense.

The only useful distinction today is online or offline. And online is touch first.

Get focused with interstitial journaling

If you are like me you’ve struggled with focus during the work day. Maybe tried a bunch of tools to keep track of your tasks and notes but nothing seems to stick over time. Eventually things just pile up and you either clear it out and pray, or work nights with a knot in your stomach.

Interstitial Journaling can probably help with that. It won’t miraculously give you any more time, and it’s not gonna clear out your inbox for you. But it will give you the breathing room you need to spend your time wisely.

I learned this about six months ago from the brilliant community over at Ness Labs and it has really helped me. My clients and colleagues are noticing my new strategic use of time, and I’m delivering a lot more.

Here’s how you do it

Pick a tool.

Pick a note taking tool. It can be anything, but it has to be with you in all situations. Paper works, your phones note app will also work. I use Roam Research but the tool doesn’t matter, it’s all about the process.

Your action trigger

It’s called interstitial because it happens between all your other tasks. Every time you stop doing anything, anything at all, you take a short note in your journal. It’s ok if you forget in the beginning, just take a note as soon as you notice. The important thing is you’re building a habit that will save you time.

What to do

Add a new line in your journal with three things:
The time. What you just did. And what you will do next.

That’s it.

What might this look like?

I usually start off my days quite organised and then suddenly there’s a four hour gap and I restart writing something like “2:15 oh no, I’m on YouTube again”. But that’s ok. The goal here is to create the habit, not to be perfect. You’ll start noticing patterns quickly regardless.

08:20 Finished meditating. Time to clear out my inbox.
08:58 Done with email. Gonna look at my todo list, and pick our the important things.
09:12 Started sorting my todos but I had forgotten my meeting with Annelie, omw now!
13:30 Meeting went well, but then I spent 2 hours “inspiration” browsing on Pinterest… Now I’m gonna cross of my first todos.
13:37 Planned next steps from meeting. Time to prep a presentation.

A fictional, but normal, piece of journal

Why does this work?

We all get distracted. Sometimes it’s simply tired brains wandering, but often it’s priorities changing, ad hoc meetings or calls. We can’t stop being interrupted. So we have to work with the interruptions.

Interstitial Journaling uses this fact by writing down what’s going on at every interruption, or every time we finish something. This way we can learn from the patterns in our lives, and it makes us consciously pick the next thing we’re gonna work on.

This is the core benefit of this form of journaling. Making how we spend our time explicit we become our own personal coaches. Checking that we do our reps, and advising us on what to do next, without the shouting.

A nice side effect is that we can start to notice patterns in how we spend our time. Helping us learn how much time certain tasks really take, and automatically becoming strategic.

It was just my second day journaling this way when I exited a meeting and was just about to resume a project, when updated my journal and realised that there wasn’t enough time before my next appointment. Instead I scheduled time with myself for the project later in the week and did some smaller tasks.

I was being strategic with my time, as a side effect of knowing what I was doing! It blew my mind.

This method has helped me a lot, and I hope it helps you too! Either way, please let me know your thoughts!

Revisiting life strategies two years later

At the end of my Life strategies post I promised to follow it up after 6 months and reflect on what worked and what didn’t. That was over two years ago, so today’s the day.

Did having explicit do’s and don’ts help me shape my life? Not at all, is the short answer.

I think the reason is that I didn’t spend any time reflecting on these strategies. There wasn’t a way for me to stumble across them in my day to day. Despite being tremendously powerful ideas to me when I wrote them down, I forgot about them after a few weeks.

Since then I’ve started using Roam, designed a competitive reflection journal with Ting, even practiced interstitial journaling for 6 months or so and I’d love to brag that I’m much better at revisiting ideas. But in all honestly I’m still not great at it.

I do weekly reviews of all my commitments and tasks. I journal every day. I do a monthly summary of everything I’ve learned and noted down. But there’s very little discovery of my old thoughts, and usually not a lot of time for reflection when I do reviews.

This could be my failure of priority. Basically a not taking the time. Or it could be I simply prefer to keep thinking forwards instead of backwards. Who knows?

What I do know is that I hope I can figure out a way to learn better from my own experiences. (If you have any strategies I would love to hear them?) Because what is the point of doing things, learning things, and taking notes, if we don’t take the time to reflect and learn from them? And how can we learn from our thoughts if we don’t revisit them from time to time?

Vacation from consumption

In a conversation with a friend he explained that he takes weeks off consuming in order to focus on creation. That sounds amazing.

He has, like me, the idea that he wants to create more than he consumes. Regardless of if it’s published or not, simply create for the joy of making things. That’s why I was excited about this concept.

My friend picks a week with few meetings and blocks off time for creative work. He writes down a handful of things he’d like to work on, and makes a commitment to not consume anything during the week. This sounds a lot like Taleb’s via negativa to me, which is an idea I like.

I asked him about the process during the week; his response was simply that he works on his list, and often he finds that he creates something quite quickly, after which he can spend the rest of the time blocked off exploring the offshoots of what he created. But he doesn’t start consuming.

Sounds like a perfect vacation to me. I can’t wait to try it.