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.

How to learn through failure

“Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

George Bernard Shaw

I recently read this blog post by Jim Nielsen where I learned how to notice if I’m actually learning or not.

Like everyone else I’ve read ad nauseam about how important failing is to the learning progress. I’ve become convinced that this is true, but I find myself unable to explain how does that work?

I can’t just attempt to fail, fail repeatedly, and magically improve?

So when I read Jim Nielsens piece Learning and Being Wrong I was ecstatic to find a description for what failure and learning feels like in practice.

The post is based on notes from Adam Grant’s book Think Again, which I haven’t read (yet).

In a series of quotes and notes Jim describes what it feels like to learn.

“If you don’t look back at yourself and think, ‘Wow, how stupid I was a year ago,’ then you must not have learned much in the last year.”

All that time we spend regretting past choices and missed chances are actually a proof that we’re making progress. How wonderful! And it doesn’t stop there.

He’s also found this amazing quote that describes what learning looks like in practice.

“Being actively open minded means “searching for reasons why we might be wrong—not for reasons why we must be right” because “the purpose of learning isn’t to affirm our beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.””

This quote is almost a step by step instruction on how to learn. Whenever I learn something new, I should actively look for ways to be wrong. This seems counter intuitive. But doing it this way I will much quicker understand if I am mistaken, or end up not being able to find anything wrong, and proceed knowing it’s true enough.

This process lets me trust what I know a lot more, as well as gives the right kind of attitude about knowledge: it’s never absolute truth.

A thought that struck me when I got this far was: Would that process work for new knowledge as well? Things where there is no one to ask, or no existing reference material? 

Let’s say I do some test or look at something and formulate some naive idea about how it works. I write that down and then start looking for ways I might be wrong. I will probably keep discovering edge cases and ways my theory is incorrect. But iterating on that process, I could end up discovering completely new knowledge.

So here’s a three step process for learning anything through failure, based on the above insights:

  1. Form a hypothesis based on your observations. Ex: React is the most popular framework for new digital businesses.
  2. Actively look for ways to be wrong. Ex: Ask around for startups looking to hire for alternative tech stacks. Check google trends and news trends for competing frameworks.
  3. Either reform your hypothesis based on new information. Ex: React is the most popular framework in new VC backed digital businesses.
    Or realise that you can’t invalidate it, and act as if it’s true.

I have no idea if this is true or not. But I’m mightily excited to try and disprove it!

I’ll end this post with another brilliant insight from this post, what knowledge feels like:

“being wrong is the only way I feel sure I’ve learned anything.”

Let me know if I’m wrong, please. And enjoy being wrong!

Living fully committed

Listening to Steli Efti talk about avoiding having a half-assed life by committing fully to whatever we’re doing. Being ready to give it our all, not hedging the bet, and letting something fail if it doesn’t work out.

It’s a powerful message, and I’m feeling very inspired to be less distracted and hedge less. The idea ties together really well with Derek Siver’s axiom Hell yeah or no.

Here’s the original tweet Steli is talking about:

Why smart people come up with bad ideas

I recently made an observation, a very smart person I know blurted out an idea in a meeting and was convinced the idea ended the conversation.

The person who blurted out the idea is very smart, but the idea was not very good. I’ve seen great organisations implement bad ideas many — many — times. But this time I asked myself: why does this happen? What causes brilliant people to jump on bad ideas, and take decisive actions that are clearly not great?

My hypothesis was that stress causes us to believe that the real linchpin in a situation is having an idea, any idea, of what to do next. As if an idea was all it took to solve problems.

I wrote a Twitter thread about it to see if anyone else had similar experience. It turns out a lot of people do.

I’ve made an observation recently, and I’d love to hear if you’ve seen the same? People who are stressed (very busy) tend to believe ideas are more valuable than they really are.

Jesper Bylund
Turns out a most people see this behaviour

Some very smart people chimed in with their own experiences and it seemed like I had stumbled upon an important insight. Then my friend Fredrik offered this insightful reframe of the behaviour:

It could be rephrased like this, people who are very busy think in basics. Speed at the cost of depths and I wholly agree with your observations

Fredrik Paulin

This reframe is powerful because it removes the emotional component from the idea completely. This behaviour is not something that some people do. It’s not an error that pops up as the side effect of fuzzy thinking. It’s a classic error that is innate to humans, black and white thinking.

To avoid this behaviour myself in the future I want to define this problem as follows.

Tl;Dr

Stress causes humans to think in basics. Which means we’re grasping for straws, and an idea that seems to solve the problem, no matter how badly, is preferable to not making a decision.

A side effect of this behaviour is a tendency to believe ideas are more valuable than execution. Because by choosing an idea, the stressed human believes they have taken action.

Ten days without coffee

Last year my fiancé Agnes lived without caffeine for 10 days to see how it would affect her, I wanted to try it myself.

Her research showed that 10 days should be enough to go completely off caffeine, including withdrawals.
This intrigued me, as an avid coffee drinker since high school. I’ve never thought of giving coffee up, I haven’t seen the point. But I have to ask myself, am I really enjoying coffee, or is it an addiction? Can I even function as a human without caffeine, or will I get terrible withdrawals? Time to find out.

I’m doing this during the darkest months of the year in Stockholm (Sweden), so we only get a few hours of light every day. Will I stop being productive? Will I snap at people? I’m a little worried to be honest, but also excited to find out!

Day one, Monday 2021.01.18

Almost lunchtime and so far so good. The morning wasn’t bad at all but I’m feel a little drowsy and slow.

To be clear, I’m not naturally a morning person, but I am really strict with my sleep schedule because I had insomnia growing up.

Afternoon meetings were really hard to focus on. Felt oddly warm and comfortable, and almost dozed off more than once.

Day two, Tuesday 2021.01.19

Morning felt fine. Felt sluggish at lunch, but that could just be my normal lunch time coma.

Feeling some slight headache coming and going. And warmer than usual. I’m naturally always cold. Temperatures under 25C is just not for me. But I don’t know if caffeine withdrawal can have this effect?

The headache persisted the entire day. Just getting slowly worse until I went to bed.

Day three, Wednesday 2021.01.20

Not a great day. I woke up at 4am from a headache and couldn’t fall back asleep. Felt ok all morning, but then after lunch something strange happened…

I feel great. I feel awake. Like I’ve just had a pot of coffee without the jitters. This is really odd.

Day four, Thursday 2021.01.21

I feel great! Not what I’d call energetic, but I’m not tired at all. I feel calmer, and warmer, than usual. This is actually quite great, though I do miss drinking coffee.

I can’t believe how many drinks have caffeine in them. The only warm drink without caffeine I’ve found was some fancy red tea that smells and tastes like bubble gum. They haven’t been a great substitute… Also its warmer today which helps.

Day five, Friday 2021.01.22

I don’t feel as good as yesterday. But I still feel surprisingly springy in the morning. I discovered they serve decaf espresso at a local coffee shop, which really helps still the hunger for drinking something warm.

Day six & seven, weekend

I felt great. Energetic, focused, and calm. Woke up hungover one morning and that was annoying but still no real craving for coffee.

Day eight, Monday 2021.01.25

I slept well. Woke up early and had a massively productive day. Was focused without hardly a break from 8am to 9pm. And I felt great!

Day nine, Tuesday 2021.01.26

Slept badly and really feeling like I need a coffee. But oddly, as the days goes on, I need it less and less. Actually feeling pretty springy and energetic now at 2pm. This was rarely the case when I was drinking coffee.

Day ten, Wednesday 2021.01.27

That’s it, this is the last day. I did it! And it’s strange.

Feels like this wasn’t as hard as I had thought it would be. Almost like I wanted there to be more problems? Which is a strange thing to want.

I feel great though. I feel rested, and despite a few bad nights I’m not very tired during the day.
When I do get tired, it feels more like a calm sleepiness rather than the abrupt mental cliffs I experienced before.

I’m excited about having coffee again. But also kind of worried how it will make me feel. I’ll have to follow this up with a post about going back on coffee.

Watching films

For the last two years I have been trying to be mindful about what media I consume. I’ve been trying to only watch, and listen to, what I want to. Not because I should keep up, or because it’s routine, or because I need the distraction.

This has resulted in less podcasts, turning off my Netflix subscription, and instead coming back to classics. Or sometimes, simply not doing anything.

I’ve seen more black & white films these last two years than I’ve seen Netflix shows. And I think it’s been good a thing

Yesterday we couldn’t find “Blood and Sand” with Rita Hayworth. While searching we realized we hadn’t seen “Parasite”, the Korean film that took the word by storm in 2019. So we saw it. And I’m extremely happy we did. It’s an amazing film, and work of art.

Time is a great judge of what is worth your attention, and what isn’t. But the Lindy-effect can’t filter out what is great today.
I think I might need to sample a bit more current culture.

What are we consuming that broadens our minds?

Something the Farnam Street newsletter got me thinking about today. Read the whole thing here.

““[M]y worry is that … you won’t put enough really excellent stuff into your brain. I’m talking about what you might call the “theory of maximum taste.” This theory is based on the idea that exposure to genius has the power to expand your consciousness. If you spend a lot of time with genius, your mind will end up bigger and broader than if you spend your time only with run-of-the-mill stuff. The theory of maximum taste says that each person’s mind is defined by its upper limit—the best that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming. … In college, you get assigned hard things. You’re taught to look at paintings and think about science in challenging ways. After college, most of us resolve to keep doing this kind of thing, but we’re busy and our brains are tired at the end of the day. Months and years go by. We get caught up in stuff, settle for consuming Twitter and, frankly, journalism. Our maximum taste shrinks. Have you ever noticed that 70 percent of the people you know are more boring at 30 than they were at 20?.””

— A Commencement Address Too Honest to Deliver in Person