Goal Mapping Alpha

It’s finally ready! As promised, the alpha version of my Goal Mapping software is ready.

For those of you who aren’t down with geek lingo, an “alpha version” is a complete piece of software, but it has only been tested by the developer (me), so it has loads of bugs, it’s probably ugly, and may not do everything that later version will do.

For those of you who didn’t have a chance to read my previous post about Goal Mapping, here’s a brief rundown:

Goal Mapping enables you to create a plan with concrete steps to go from where ever you are now to where ever you want to be. You create the map, then the software calculates the best path to reach your goal and tells you what your chances of success are.

I’m pumped to hear suggestions from people using this, but I’m really practicing what I preach with this release, because frankly I’m embarrassed of this software. I know it’s ugly, and I know it has bugs. What kind of a perfectionist am I!?

  • In particular, it’s not compatible with any version if Internet Explorer. The fix would have pushed the release of the software past today, and that was unacceptable to me.
  • It works on Windows in Firefox 3.5 and Chrome. It hasn’t been tested on a Mac, or in Opera, Safari, or any of the many lesser used browsers.
  • My immediate plans are on this ultra high tech to do list, and I’ll continue to update that list as I receive feedback. Over the next few weeks, you should see the software stabilize dramatically.

Instructions for using the software are built right into it, so without further adieu, I give you:

Goal Mapping, by Pete Michaud →

Pete Michaud Techzing Interview

I had a great interview with Jason and Justin at TechZing.

Click here to listen to the interview →
Click here to read a transcript of the interview →

We covered quite a bit of ground in the interview:

Click here to listen to the interview →
Click here to read a transcript of the interview →

A couple things I want to correct for the record—they are just details, but I don’t want them to bite me later:

  1. I actually didn’t major in statistics, even though I took a couple statistics courses while majoring in business. I am a math enthusiast, but my wife is the one with a math degree! I think Justin’s point was that I brought an analytical approach to life and business which worked for me.
  2. Dr. Yakuboff did offer to waive his surgeon’s fee at a time when my parents couldn’t afford any more. It’s my understanding that the insurance came through at the last moment, so he never needed to do work pro bono even though the offer was there. I might be wrong about that, he might have done it pro bono, but I was only 8 or 9 at the time, so I’m not sure.
  3. Ironically, I have to rely on witness accounts of the immediate aftermath of my accident. Some people like my mom report that I died, but in the course of researching a book I wrote with my wife, Dr. Yakuboff said in an interview that my heart never stopped, which means I didn’t literally die. He’s probably right, he is in a position to know, although he didn’t see me until about 45 minutes after the accident. The important thing for me, whether I did or not, is that I grew up believing and internalizing that I died. My outlook was affected as though I had died, even if the witness evidence suggests that I didn’t. That’s a mouthful in an interview, so I left it alone. Just for the record!

I hope you enjoy listening as much as I enjoyed doing it!

Click here to listen to the interview →
Click here to read a transcript of the interview →

Equivocation Cripples Action

Readers frequently give me a hard time about some edge case in my writing as if I haven’t thought the subject through, and pared the word count down by half.

I’m confident that those readers don’t write a whole lot. If they did write, they would realize that in order to produce a cogent piece, especially in the abbreviated format of a blog, one has to chop mercilessly.

Here’s my process in a nutshell: I start out with a core concept, and write until I understand what I’m trying to say—often it’s more words than the final article. I throw everything away at that point, and write the essay I intended to write. Then I carve out all the tangents and caveats, and create new essay studs with the more interesting or robust ones. The rest of the tangents are just slush. Maybe I touch on them in the comments.

Maybe it comes as a surprise that I deliberately remove relevant caveats. If it does, this essay is directed at you.

Sloppy Thinking

It’s perfectly normal for the bulk of my readers to nitpick, because they are largely left-brained engineering types. Engineers spend their lives thinking about edge cases and solving them. I have news for you:

Writing a blog post as though it’s a piece of bug-free software is not only ineffective, it’s sloppy.

What may be even more counter intuitive than the idea that considering every possible scenario produces sloppy writing, is that it also betrays sloppy thinking.

Hear me out.

37Signals Logo

37Signals gets blasted all the time for this. The other day they blogged that they’d never sell their company for any price because they like it so much. It’s a simple message about how the mythology of the serial entrepreneur who makes a series of big exits isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

There was a firestorm of discussion about overstating their point, and hypothetical questions like:

“What if someone offered you $1 trillion for it?”

That is a perfect example of the sloppy, engineering thinking I’m talking about.

It makes sense in a piece of software to consider every exotic, theoretically possible scenario so the software never breaks. It makes no sense to expect DHH to explain in a blog post that a caveat to his position on selling is that if someone offered $1 trillion he would take it.

It’s sloppy thinking because it’s disconnected from reality, and it would be sloppy writing because it waters the point down without adding anything substantive.

Abstract Thinking

There has to be some balance.

Some people absolutely cannot think in terms of abstraction. That’s a blight on the world. It prevents law makers from understanding that just because $1 billion is a lot and $1 trillion is a lot, that those numbers aren’t nearly the same. It prevents citizens from understanding why speech should always be free, not just speech we personally agree with.

Other people—myself among them until more recently than I’d like to admit—cannot seem to stop thinking abstractly.

stuck in a labyrinth of endless scenarios that never existed and never plausibly will exist, but that inform their decisions and beliefs all the same

They can’t just decide that they want to start a company and keep it, or to move to the beach and play the keyboard for a meager living because they realize that would totally fulfill them. Instead they drown under a running faucet of infinite caveats and doubts available at a moment’s notice from their abstract thinking. They are stuck in a labyrinth of endless scenarios that never existed and never plausibly will exist, but that inform their decisions and beliefs all the same.

Their thinking is muddled, their writing unclear, and their actions are not decisive.

Writing Real

I’m not interested in the hypothetical guy way at end of the long tail for whom my message barely applies. I’m harpooning the swollen belly of the normal curve.

It’s up to you, not me, to decide whether and to what degree my message applies to you. I’m not going to back pedal and equivocate on every useful thing I say so that I don’t offend some person that I’m not even talking to.

A big part of my message is to clear your mind enough to begin relying on your own clear-eyed judgment. Part of that is knowing what advice to take and leave, and knowing why you’re doing that.

Caveat Lector (I love irony)

One danger you may find is you, oh clever reader, able to rationalize anything, will convince yourself time and again that the message doesn’t apply to you. That you can waste your time on treadmills, fail to produce work, or yes, equivocate in your thinking. In fact, chances are that if you’re reading this you are near the dead center of the bell curve’s undulating gut.

Acting Real

I’ve hinted that this whole business goes deeper than writing. After a journey through the terror of sloppy thinking and writing, we arrive at our destination.

Equivocation cripples action.

  • It’s been shown that bosses prefer employees who appear to be certain. Explaining the nuances of a situation to your boss isn’t incorrect, but the reality is that it doesn’t matter. In reality, you solve the problem in front of you and deal with others as they become real.
  • Abstract thinkers (often geeks) over think romance to the degree that they are known for not having it. When approaching an attractive other, they consider all possible failure modes, and they even consider future fail modes should the approach be successful. Meanwhile their cro-magnon peers scoop up the girl and ride off into the sunset.
  • Employees stay stuck in jobs because the clear bell of apathy and stagnation is drowned out by a cacophony of fears and doubts ranging from social isolation to financial ruin. The reality is that you don’t need much money to be happy, you need to feel a sense of control and accomplishment (neither of which most jobs provide).

It’s the mirror image of the problem that concrete thinkers face. They can’t tell the difference between a billion and a trillion because they are both “a lot”. You can’t tell the difference between possible and probable because they are both “possible”.

The reality is that a trillion is three orders of magnitude more than a billion, and that a probability approaching 0 (~0) is not the same as a probability approaching 1 (~1), even though they are both hypothetically “possible.”

You will never figure “everything” out. You will never be able to make everything perfect before you start. Just make a decision and run with it. Figure it out as you go along.

Getting Real

You will never live the life you want by wandering aimlessly through hypothetical scenarios. I’ve tried it, it doesn’t work [Note: there used to be a link here to a Ken Sharpe article about how I was "laid off," read: fired. It's long dead now]. I’ve also tried just doing something. That worked.

I implore you: find a quiet place in your mind, identify your desires free of caveats, and make a plan to move toward those desires. Don’t try to plan for all eventualities. That will just prevent action.

Instead, think about what will probably occur as you move, plan for that, and start moving.


(Thanks to Hani Amir for the title photo.)

How I retired at age 25

When I was younger I pulled some ballsy moves, trying to get rich young. My goal was to be rich enough to do whatever I wanted to do by the time I was 25.

Back then I planned to fight my way to the top of the ladder, and sky dive from the ladder’s lofty heights into retirement, riding a golden parachute.

Instead I was left out to dry by the incompetent CEO who hired me then was fired, and I myself was fired shortly after that by the sociopathic founder of the company. It turns out telling your boss he’s full of shit isn’t a smart career move. Who knew?

In the end though, I achieved my goal: I retired at age 25, never having to work again.

The really surprising thing to me is that it was easy.

After Ideal

This is the 80s movie montage segment of today’s entry:

I left Ideal with a few ideas of how to proceed. I knew from my goal map that I needed more time to myself to build a product that had durable value. I found a long term contract (on Craigslist of all places) that allowed me to work from home for less than I made at Ideal, but still more than I had made at Acme. I had several ideas for software products, and kept my ear to the ground for opportunities.

Meanwhile, my lovely wife began writing a blog about a little known ailment called Reactive Hypoglycemia.

She has the illness, which is why she began the research. It was her project, but being the nice hubby that I am, I tweaked the site so it was presentable and accessible, and I typeset a book based on the blog’s content. She released that book onto Amazon last summer.

Her goal for the first month was to make $10. She made $12.77. Eight cents per hour might not sound like a reasonable wage to you, but it was enough. In the months that followed, she grew the number (with a tiny bit of help from me) from lunch, to dinner, and by October 2009, she made enough to pay the utility bill. Something else happened that October too. I’ll get to that in a moment.

Paralysis

The contract I had was cushy. It was a nice job on paper, but I had been hating it for months. It was deadly boring, and going nowhere. Maybe this will seem familiar:

I was staying because I thought I had to. I had followed my own advice to interview with companies regularly, and I could jump ship into a “better” job, but I’d be back at another office, and my goal map had made it clear how dubious that route really was. So I “had” to stay in order to pay the bills. I thought all I needed to do was wait it out, and when the next big, sexy opportunity presented itself, I would jump ship.

That’s that fear trap I’ve talked about. The mud in which we get stuck. The rubber band tethering us in place. But I got lucky.

Getting Lucky

Great news! You're fired!

One Saturday in early October, my client came to my house with his wife. He told me the company was broke, they were losing their house, and he couldn’t pay me anymore.

Bye bye, excuses. Hello, motivation.

I was significantly happier that day than I had been in recent memory. I felt bad for my client, but it turned out that the stress of figuring out how to make ends meet was better than the stress of a dead end contract sapping my life and creativity away.

At first I was still in my old mindset. Which of my various projects could turn a profit quickly? I was caught in this cycle of being a “software developer”, and thinking primarily in those terms.

Then my wife took me out for a drink and proposed a deal.

A Pretty Decent Proposal

She asked me to work with her full time. She had made $246.82 the previous month, and was on track to shatter her goals for October also (the goal was $160, she ended up making $394.01).

She was nearing the threshold she could manage with her organization (or lack thereof), and her technical skills (or lack thereof). She’s a brilliant researcher and writer, and if I could organize, streamline, and optimize the books and blogs, we’d have no trouble meeting the goals for the next few months.

The short version is: We did that. It worked.

The longer version is something I’ll flesh out in future entries. If you’re interested in reading about the details of how my wife and I built a mini media empire you can subscribe via my RSS, Twitter or e-mail.

In the mean time, let me hit the highlights by explaining what I learned in broad strokes:

Lessons for Achieving Financial Freedom

For all the time and energy I spent trying to get rich as a young person, I find it morbidly amusing that my freedom came from some small niche blogs and self-published books. I imagined innovative products and business models, gulping up huge sales wins, before the windfall of a large exit. I imagined blood, sweat, and tears. The reality turned out to be much different, and in many ways better.

Here are the main things I learned:

It didn’t need to be perfect

I have had Creativitis for as long as I can remember. Creativitis is a disease particular to creative people that prevents them from finishing much of anything because they get stuck tweaking it until it’s “perfect”.

Here’s the ontological argument against Creativitis:

That which exists is better than that which does not exist. Therefore an imperfect product that actually exists must be better than endlessly tweaking hypothetical shit to perfection.

If I could offer only one piece of advice, this would be it: it doesn’t need to be perfect. Save perfection for your aimless hobbies. What you need to succeed is “barely passable“.

Our sites started out with terrible looking, free templates. They were unoptimized. They didn’t encourage people to subscribe. The book covers were terrible.

None of that mattered.

There’s time to go back and fix things. StatisticsHowTo.com used to look downright shameful. Now I think it’s one of the best looking math sites around. That’s not saying much though—it’s certainly not going to win any design awards. I only fixed it after I fixed the content, and only after it began making serious money.

Fear held me back

Despite all my admonishments to be bold and take risks, still I was paralyzed by fear. It wasn’t the kind of heart chilling fear you might think of. It was ambient nervousness about an ambiguous future.

My lucky break was a huge lesson to me. Being laid off simulated the courage I should have had to begin with. If I’m ever in a similar situation, it won’t be luck that gets me through, it’ll be the secure knowledge that fear can only hold me back.

My expectations and assumptions clouded my vision

For years I was on the look out for the “big thing”. For the right company, poised to make a killing. For the right business venture with one in a million potential to blow the doors off existing markets.

Of course I didn’t notice the goldmine I was sitting on top of, because it wasn’t big enough. It wasn’t sexy enough. It was only a tangent, marginally related to my skills. It made about $10 a month, while I was making over a thousand times that and thinking that was peanuts.

That’s the magic of exponential growth. You make $10 the first month, and $40,000 the twelfth month. That’s a hell of a raise, if you stop long enough to grab it.

But it’s not quite that easy, because…

Support is essential to ride out the lull

There’s a long time in there—about 10 months—when you don’t make anything. Each month you make as much or more than what you’d made in all your previous months combined, but if that number is still $30, you’re in trouble without a backup.

If you’re going to survive that period, you have to have a nest egg, or a partner who can support you.

It doesn’t have to be hard

Being as hooked into hacker and startup culture as I am, I assumed that success meant pain. Everyone says getting rich is more difficult than you expect when you start. That it changes you. That only the really talented, and truly dedicated “make it”, and only if they get lucky.

That wasn’t my experience. In fact, nothing I did took exceptional skill. I admit I had an advantage over the average person since I have backgrounds in both software development and graphic design, but the work we did isn’t difficult, honestly. The development company I founded when I was 18 was way more work and less money.

I didn’t work insane hours. My wife and I worked pretty much full time (40 hours a week, each) until December when we took a 10 day vacation. Despite our absence, our business grew and exceeded sales goals. In January we took two full weeks off. Sales were even better. In February we worked more or less full time on a couple new projects, but not at any deliberate pace.

Freedom

Now I am free. Throughout this whole process, moreso than any other time in my working life, I felt a tremendous sense of balance and well being. I tinker around the edges of the business, but I don’t have to. It’s on autopilot, and if I don’t do anything to it at all, it’ll keep earning. It’s as secure as any investment vehicle, and if I want to, I can make it grow at any time.

I did it with a partner, a little luck, a sprinkle of skill, and some patience. I think anyone can do what we did.

Achievement Porn

Hacker News pointed me to an article recently called “Addicted to Fake Achievement“.

That article is about video games, but this one isn’t. The thesis of that article is that some games (it mentions Role Playing Games) don’t actually require skill, just time. You start with a weak character and perform some task that’s almost too easy to fail. You’re rewarded by gaining access to another task that is also almost too easy to fail. The process creates the illusion of achievement. His point is that he’d like to play more skill based games, which he thinks would provide a more “authentic” level of achievement because you have to practice them and master a skill.

The skill, of course, being mashing buttons in a particular way.

Which brings me to my thesis, which is that he didn’t go nearly far enough.

The article is surprisingly interesting, and his point cogent, but there’s a whole meta discussion that he seems to have missed: regardless of whether the video game you’re playing is skill based or treadmill based, it’s still a video game. Far be it for me to judge a person’s choice in entertainment media, but no one who watches reality TV labors under the illusion that they are achieving anything substantial. Any achievement in a video game is a “fake achievement.” And video games aren’t alone.

The Social Pathology of Fake Achievement

The game article, and the meta discussion surrounding it is actually part of an even larger discussion that affects more than just video gamers. Games are just a minor symptom of a systemic disease:

  1. Our society is set up to make us feel as though we must always achieve and grow. That’s true because individuals growing tend to bolster the power and creature comforts of the groups they belong to with inventions, innovations, and impressive grandstanding (Go Team!).
  2. Because of this pressure to grow, there’s another incentive to make growth easier. More perversely, to make growth seem easier.

Why work hard for achievements, when you could relax and achieve the same? That’s not pathological, that’s how exponential progress works.

But why achieve at all when you can plug into any number of “achievement games” and get the same personal satisfaction? That’s when it becomes pathological.

Misaligned Incentives

Two days ago I got a call from the vice principal of my 5th grade son’s school.

My little guy can be a handful, but at school he’s an angel. Teachers love him, he always behaves. Except this time: he stole $10 out of a classmate’s backpack. So he’ll be getting punished, but there’s a line I need to walk here. I punish him for stealing to disincent him from stealing. But the true effect is to disincent him from getting caught stealing. His options for that are to actually stop (which I want), or just get better at it (which I don’t want). So the trick is to figure out a punishment that will make him think twice about stealing, but not one that will just make him more savvy.

Similarly, by creating profound pressure to achieve, our society has sprouted ways to exploit that insatiable drive by setting up “games” that simulate achievement, but that are actually meaningless.

Examples of Games

Gradubation

One salient example is our education system. Like a role playing video game, one educational challenge leads to the next, with each challenge being trivial for the people who are at the right level to undertake it. After years on a treadmill that’s too easy to fail at, players—students, in this case—are acclimated to the game of education, rather to real achievement. Their work for those years is not valuable at all, and often doesn’t even simulate what valuable work would be like: they have only managed to repeat patterns they’ve been shown back at the educators. This is the game. One possible side effect of this system is learning.

Even learning, when it really does happen, is not itself an achievement. Learning just tends to promote achievement because a prerequisite for many achievements is knowledge.

The only saving grace of the system is that education, while not directly fostering learning (which doesn’t directly foster meaningful achievement), tends to promote both as one of the possible side effects.

Another great example of a game that has an achievement side effect is money. People are rewarded for acquiring money, because money acquisition tends to promote achievement. Achievement doesn’t necessarily lead to money, and just because someone has money doesn’t necessarily mean they achieved anything. Again, achievement just a correlation—a possible side effect—of money.

How to Recognize Fake Achievement Treadmills

The good news is that these little “achievement games” are fairly easy to recognize once you realize what’s going on. The bad news is that more are cropping up at an alarming rate, sped largely by the intertubes.

Games fast becoming standard are the “followers” and “friends” games for example. Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIn, et al, all have their own ostensible raison d’etre, but the psychological underpinning they all share is this treadmill of achievement. This accumulation of points that’s correlated with whatever the intended benefit of the service is.

This explosive growth in “achievement porn” is why it’s more important than ever to get your mind right about what you’re doing with your life and why you’re doing it.

Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life?

The easy part to culling the bullshit is to ask yourself: Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life? Is it a real, true prerequisite for a tangibly effective activity? Alternatively, am I totally okay with doing this just because I like doing it, laboring under no illusion that it benefits me or anyone else?

The hard part is ignoring the voice in your head that will definitely crop up should you discover that you’re on a meaningless treadmill. That voice will tell you all the really great benefits of your bullshit treadmill in an attempt to convince you that it’s meaningful.

I know that voice will pop up because like every bullshit treadmill that exists, it exists because it’s correlated with something we consider “good”. Just like punishment is correlated with good behavior, education is correlated with scientific advancement, and money is correlated with value, your treadmill of choice is correlated with something good too:

  • With Facebook it’s “reconnecting” or “staying in touch.”
  • With Twitter it’s “influence.”
  • With WarCraft it’s “forming friendships.”

The fact is that each of these correlations are pretty much true, but none of them are necessary, and they are almost never optimal. People had influence before Twitter existed. In fact, Twitter influence is a sorry substitute for robust influence over devoted followers. Close friendships formed before World of WarCraft came out, and the fact is that there are far better ways to connect with people for the purposes of forming friendship.

If you like these things because they entertain you and relax you, fine, more power to you. I have a 110″ inch screen in my media room that I play games on a couple hours a week, because I think they are fun. But don’t delude yourself: they are bullshit. They are treadmills that are impossible to fail at, that exploit our deep-rooted desire to achieve, and that are sorry substitutes for whatever you’re trying to convince yourself they are good for, friendship, connections, influence, or otherwise.

Get off the treadmill. Go for a walk.

Hack the World: A Conspiracy of None

Introduction

What I’m about to tell you is part of the painful slashing and burning you need to undertake in order to live an authentic life. It’s maybe the most important essay I’ve ever written. It’s longer than usual (around 2600 words), but if this idea is new to you, it might change your life. It certainly changed mine.

The society into which you were born has socialized you to believe to your core that its structure is inevitable, and moreover that it is “correct” in both a practical and moral sense.

This is a lie.

But who is the one lying to you? How did the system come to exist? If it’s a lie, what’s the truth?

A Conspiracy of None

There’s no cabal who enslaves you. No master plan to keep you docile and breeding. It’s natural selection operating on not a biological level, but a social level.

Social evolution selects the social structures that can self sustain within the environment of global politics, i.e. the environment formed by the other surviving social structures.

It’s a “conspiracy” with no conspirators. In fact, we are all part of the conspiracy, because the conspiracy to keep us fearful and obedient emerges as a consequence of everyone doing whatever they were doing already. No individual understands or controls it, they just behave naturally. Given the constraints of brains, beliefs, and environment, the “conspiracy” emerges through the collective interactions of billions of people.

The Birth of the Status Quo

The status quo exists because of arbitrary limitations on our biology and environment combine to form incentives that compete to produce the outcomes you see. The “status quo conspiracy” exists because the Nash Equilibrium of incentives sustains it.

Nash Equilibrium and Stability

The Nash Equilibrium is a state in game theory in which all the players of a game play optimally given the strategy of the other players.

John Forbes Nash, the namesake of the Nash Equilibrium, was immortalized in the Russell Crowe movie A Beautiful Mind.

Facts about Nash Equilibriums:

  1. Nash Equilibriums optimize each individual’s strategy in the game, but don’t necessarily optimize the whole game.

    That means that if the players all got together and agreed on an alternate strategy, they could “win” more. An example is a group of competing businesses coming together to form a cartel. Now instead of profiting almost nothing because competition drives the price down, they can all agree to sell at a certain, higher price at which everyone in the cartel makes more money overall. This is exactly what OPEC does with oil.

  2. Nash Equilibriums aren’t necessarily stable—sometimes the incentives for the individual players tend to undermine the whole game until that game collapses.

    Think of the recent economic collapse: the players in that game had every incentive to keep selling subprime mortgages, and no individual player could stop the spiral without agreeing on that strategy with all the other players (which didn’t and probably couldn’t have happened). As a result, the unstable structure of the financial system collapsed.

  3. Despite Nash Equilibriums not necessarily being stable, most of the systems you see on a day to day basis are stable.

    This is natural selection. Because of natural selection, the organisms in the world around you are able to propagate their species despite the overwhelming odds against any arbitrary cell structure being able to survive and reproduce. Similarly, most of the systems around you are stable despite the overwhelming odds that any given group of people, especially a large group, will implode.

The Structure of the Status Quo

The Parts of Social Evolution

Each ring within “Natural Selection” in the illustration above is like an organism unto itself: it can live, die, grow, consume, produce, reproduce, combine, split, communicate—everything a biological organism can do. The main difference between a biological organism and a larger structure as that as of this writing in 2010 we as organisms cannot change ourselves during our lifetime. We can only change as a species over time by recombining our DNA through sexual reproduction. The larger structures can grow teeth and wings without dying first.

The status quo is all about these structures interacting at various levels. Let’s start near the bottom, with your body and its parts.

Your Body

You form a physical structure: your body. The individual parts of your structure are important, but only insofar as they support the overall structure.

The skin on your feet, for example, would benefit from not being walked on, but the overall structure benefits from walking, so the needs of your feet skin are ignored. When the skin on your feet is damaged and unable to serve the system, then (and only then) will the system (you) stop to help the feet skin with medical attention, and only to the degree that it benefits the system.

It’s not in your interests to give your feet a life of comfort, but it is in your interests to keep them healthy enough to carry you places and not cause you pain.

Even important parts of the system can be sacrificed to save the overall system. For example, your leg is caught under a boulder while hiking on a remote trail. Normally you want to keep and care for your leg because having it is beneficial. High on that mountain trail though, the whole system is in jeopardy. The leg has to go.

This is a trait shared with the larger structures: the individual parts of a structure are only cared for insofar as they serve the interests of the structure. If their needs don’t affect the system, the system does nothing. If the parts jeopardize the system, the part goes.

Where the Similarity Breaks Down

We could review ad nauseum all the parallels between legs and the working class, between leadership structures and the brain, but I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader. The point is that these structures behave like organisms competing to survive.

All that having been said, humans do differ from their individual parts and from social structures in a fundamental way. Unlike a cell, and unlike a body politic, you are conscious.

Muscle tissue, organs, feet—they have no subjective experience. They are entirely physical, to be treated as tools. But you are a mental creature. You, above your family, above your government, are an intrinsically psychological entity, defined by the continuity of your own consciousness.

So despite the larger structures treating you as if you are physical tissue to be used and disposed of, you are not, in fact, a tool. You, human, can choose to be more.

You, and organisms with similar consciousness, are an anomaly in the hierarchy of naturally selected structures: every other level of that hierarchy, cells and governments alike, exists to serve you.

They don’t serve because of a moral imperative. They don’t serve by the design of some external creator. The structures exist because they were selected to exist by the arbitrary laws of physics. Despite the weighty pressure of social evolution conspiring to keep you and everyone else in line, you alone in the hierarchy of these structures have the power to choose how to exist–to opt out of the larger structure.

Your Role in the Game

The larger structures behave exactly like your body in that individual parts are only cared for insofar as the structure needs them. The game of evolution is played among structures at all levels of the hierarchy, mostly excluding those below and above them.

Of course it’s more complex than that: every structure, large or small, influences and interacts with those above and below it, but not usually in a direct way. Families wouldn’t exist if humans didn’t require pair bonding to produce viable offspring. In that sense individuals interact with families by comprising part of the environmental conditions that formed families to begin with. However, inter-family politics operate at a level only incidentally connected to biological facts like sexual pair bonding.

Yes, families and governments are influenced by their constituent parts, just like humans are influenced by having opposable thumbs. Still, inter-family interactions are separate from the individuals who comprise the family, just like human interactions are related to, but separate from, the fact of opposable thumbs.

The bigger the hierarchical distance between two structures, the less one has direct influence on the other. Like a person in a country, or a cell in a body, most parts have negligible effect on the whole.

You are not a Player

It’s imperative to understand that you are probably not a player in the global game. You are part of a smaller structure that itself plays that game. Our families, classes, institutions, countries, alliances are all vying to optimize their place within the Nash equilibrium. On average, individual people hardly play the game at all.

And that’s the best news you could’ve heard. If the system is optimized for larger structures than you as an individual, that means you as an individual are free to move laterally through the game. As long as you don’t perturb the larger players, you have absolute freedom because your “moves” aren’t constrained by the positions or strategies of other players because the other players don’t even perceive you.

The Art of Moving Laterally

The way you move through the system laterally is by looking for root causes: if there is a rule, it exists to create systemic incentives. You can violate the rule as long as you don’t violate the underlying reason—the root cause—of the rule.

Often the rules that are meant to control structures are applied to the parts of the structure, not to the structure itself.

It’s like an arena with a bunch of simple robots that all follow the rules:

Move forward.
If you find a wall, turn at a random angle, then continue moving forward.
If you find another robot, then stop.

These three rules applied to robots in an arena form the structure of a tightly packed group of robots that are not moving. There’s no rule that says “robots in the arena have to be tightly packed in a group”—the structure of the tight pack simply emerges from the rules that the robots follow individually.

But remember: unlike robot arenas, there’s no designer, no moral imperative for the structure to be the way it is—whether we’re talking about society or packs of robots. If one robot is broken and wanders aimlessly, there’s still a tightly packed group of robots in the arena. If one person lives a free and happy life, the economic machine keeps chugging on the fuel of wage slavery.

How to Spot A Rule to Ignore

Here’s how to spot a rule that is really meant for the structure but that applies itself to parts of the structure: look for the phrase “If everyone did that…” as in:

Rebel: I’m going to print a couple million dollars in fake currency.
Square: If everyone did that, our society would collapse.

This is a true fact about the structure of our system: if everyone printed money there would be hyper inflation and our system would collapse, harming everyone in it. But you, dear rebel, are not constrained by this fact, because you, individually, printing modest sums of cash, will not cause any material harm to the system, or to the human beings inside the system. The rule is that individuals can’t print money, but the root cause only applies to the structure.

So you ask yourself: will I personally cause a system failure by violating this rule?

The answer is no: the law against counterfeiting technically applies to you, but the root cause doesn’t apply to you, so ignore the rule if you figure out how.

If you do figure out a way to print money on the order of a couple million dollars without being detected, then you accrue significant benefit to yourself personally, while doing absolutely no harm to the system.

If you have alarm bells going off in your head that tell you that sounds wrong, remember, even though we’re heavily socialized to believe otherwise, the system has no underlying moral imperative. If you break the system without harming those within it, then you’re done nothing wrong.

This is truly a case in which no crime has been committed unless you get caught. If you get caught then you tend to destabilize the system, and so you must be punished to form the correct disincentive to counterfeit. Game over for you.

Let me make it clear though: this isn’t an overture for you to behave criminally. Instead take it as permission to question social convention. To look more deeply at the rules you live by and figure out if you’re constrained by conventions that shouldn’t apply to you, but that you never thought to question before. Are you sure you want financial success? Are you sure you want monogamy? Are you sure you want to make babies, even though orphanages overflow and our species pushes the planet to the brink of disaster? It’s net beneficial for our country if you make strong babies, but is it the right choice for you?

The Consequences of Moving Laterally

Moving laterally is not easy though. Every moving part of the structures is placed in a sort of social gridlock, each preventing the other from forging ahead. Your brain is awash in bullshit. Your family wants you to “succeed” by which they mean “act normal”. Your government uses the threat of physical violence to constrain your actions. Even your friends, when confronted with your changing attitudes, will tell you’re naive, unrealistic, or immoral—they will badger you to stay the same.

None of them do it out of malice. It’s a conspiracy of none—the structures exist because they were naturally selected for their stability, and that stability locks you into place.

You have to unravel your fettered mind, probably unravel and disconnect from your social circle, stop self-identifying with the government.

You may lose a lot—comfort, safety, belonging. In return you’ll gain more. You’ll find new friends who understand you and a new family who loves you, if that’s what you desire. You’ll find power, authenticity, and meaning.

Call to Freedom

We are socialized into thinking the system is inevitable and righteous, but it’s not—it’s a partially designed, partially organic hodgepodge. It’s disconnected the welfare of humanity as a whole, and especially disconnected from your personal welfare.

I’m begging you: please find it in your heart and mind to let it go. To see it for what it is. To ignore it when necessary, to game it when possible.

To live freely you must adopt an attitude of social nihilism: our society and culture is completely arbitrary. It has no meaning beyond itself. It has no underlying moral imperative. Statements about the way things are have no bearing on the way things ought to be.

Those fortunate to be comfortable enough to ponder such things say that the system is as fair as we can make it—that it provides the most net happiness for everyone, so we shouldn’t mess with it. Whether they are correct or not is beside the point. Whether or not it’s in our systemic interest to incentivize people to be docile and productive, it’s never in your personal interest to lay down quietly.

You were born ferocious and petulant. Reconnect with your roots; reconnect with a time when the concept of masking your inner desires hadn’t occurred to you. You must become a predator not of people, but of the system. The system has a body all its own. Sink your fangs into it, tear its flesh, suck it dry—being careful all the while not to harm any of the others within.

All around you’ll see people going about their lives in a way that isn’t right for them, but that’s oh-so-right for the system at large. They do it because they are socialized to self identify with the social structures they are part of and to act in the interest of those structures. You know better now. You know that you can opt out. You see that the incentives ensure most of the herd will do its best to optimize for the system and not for themselves, but you know that the fate of the structure does not rest on your individual contribution.

Human: the world is yours. If you are wise enough to see it through the social fog, and courageous enough to grab it, then it belongs to you.

The world is yours. Take it.

Incoherence

I’ve had a few people ask me to clarify what I mean when I say that a statement is “incoherent.” There are three types, each increasingly sinister.

Type 1 Incoherence

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Jackwocky, by Lewis Carroll, is a good example of one type of incoherence. The syllables in the poem can be pronounced, but they contain no meaning. The words used have no definition, so saying them doesn’t signify anything.

Type 2 Incoherence

Another type of incoherence, slightly less innocent than Type 1 because it could be accidentally confused for Type 3, is the type in which real words are used in a nonsense way. Leaves above the shelf wheel short love.

Type 3 Incoherence

This is the dangerous type of incoherence. This is the type I’m talking about, when I mention it in an essay. This is the type in which a statement is made that apparently makes sense, but that in fact contains no meaning.

Coherent: Pink Elephants

I have a pink elephant.

A pink elephant is coherent because it’s possible that an elephant could be painted or genetically modified to be pink. If I make a claim that I have a pink elephant in my possession, my claim is falsifiable, because I can let someone examine my elephant. It might exist, or it might not, but the concept is possible.

Incoherent: Unsittable Chair

I have a chair that can’t be sat on.

That statement appears to be falsifiable. We have a concept of a type of entity called “chair,” and we know the rough properties of that type of entity. We know what it means to sit on something. It seems that we can figure out whether the statement is true or not.

We can’t.

“Chair” isn’t an ontological entity; chairs don’t exist, except via our perception of how we can physically relate to certain shapes of matter (in this case, by sitting on the shape). A “chair,” then, is something we can sit on. To say that I have a chair that can’t be sat upon is incoherent because if I have an object that can’t be sat upon, then it is, by definition, not a chair at all.

But I’m not just wrong in my assertion that I have an unsittable chair: I’m neither right nor wrong. It’s neither true or false that I have a chair that can’t be sat on, because the concept precludes itself.

Incoherent is Worse than Wrong

Our mind creates a scaffold around these incoherent concepts, so they appear to have some reality to us. They feel like they could be real. In fact, the scaffold covers a fundamental non-existence. No one can say whether or not it was brillig, or whether the slithy toves gyred or not. The statement just contains no content. The feeling that it could be real is the mind projection fallacy at work.

The really dangerous thing about incoherence is that it’s hard to break the spell. You argue about something as though it exists, and you’re unable to come to any definitive conclusion about it. At least things that exist are falsifiable. Smart people fall into this trap all the time. Here’s one I bet you have heard before:

Since God can do anything, can he create a square circle?

Cute, but incoherent. Even if we accept the concept of an omnipotent God (which itself is incoherent), the definition of circle precludes that it could be a square. Untrained skeptics will pat themselves on the back for “proving” that God doesn’t exist, and untrained faithful will scramble and probably settle on God being able to do it. They are both wrong: the question simply contains no information. Can God create a mimsy borogove?

Supernatural to Hypernatural

We know that the concept of “supernatural” doesn’t make sense. I think we need to replace it. Here’s why, and here’s my proposal for its replacement.

Hypernatural

Without the concept of supernatural, there is still this whole genre of “the unexplained” that falls outside of science-y things like theoretical dark matter or space travel; stuff that intrigues people, like magic spells and ghosts. Where does that fit?

Most skeptics would put it all in a bucket labeled “bullshit.” I won’t go that far.

Much of the supernatural that people believe in is demonstrably false, that’s true, but I think there are mysteries out there that have some physical underpinning, and I’d go so far as to call those things “magic,” for all the connotations it brings of child-like wonder.

I think about mundane experiences, like sight, for example, that evoke such majesty and emotion in us, and how it’s so limited. We see a tiny fraction of the radiation around us, and we call that the visible spectrum, but there’s no fundamental difference between the visible spectrum and an X-Ray, for instance. Yet, before we invented some fancy equipment to “see” X-Rays, we didn’t know they existed. I think being able to “see” the full range of energy would be totally magical. That we can detect the existence of these without being able to directly perceive them is inspirational, and it gives one pause.

The Realm of Magic

What other mysteries lie beyond our perception? We know, because we’ve studied these things, that our perception falls within a very narrow band of available inputs. That our eyes are dim, our ears are dull, our nose is weak. At least those organs, which we evolved just coincidentally, gave us a hint that such inputs exist. It gives us a mental platform to imagine what it might be like to perceive the full spectrum.

What about those inputs that our frail bodies do not even hint at us about?

What physical dimensions and energies lie outside our ability to perceive them, and even (so far) outside our calculations to predict that they exist at all?

To me, these things are totally magical… but they are not supernatural. They are part of our physical reality, subject to laws and observation just like we are. What we perceive in our daily experience is what we call “natural,” but our “natural” is actually a subset of “real reality” — nature as it truly is, in all its complex glory. That larger, unknown, untapped reality, is what I propose we call “Hypernatural”: more than our concept of natural; an overarching natural, that covers everything the universe is.

What strangeness like multiple universes, we find in this larger reality, we must remember: that is what is normal. What we perceive is wrong; it’s we who live in the dark closet, warped by our bizarre, arbitrary perceptions.

Why not just “Natural”?

There are at least two dangers in expelling “supernatural” from our vocabulary without replacing it:

  1. First, people who give up on the supernatural often give up on “magic” as well. When I say magic, I mean the sense of wonder and discovery that accompanies unenlightened observation. I want to have my gut wrenched by the thought of an atom, I want to visualize the possibilities of other dimensions. I want to do it in a way that captures and expands upon on the sense of wonder I feel when looking at sunrises, or watching kittens play. I’ve noticed a pattern among people who reject the supernatural of forgetting that the “merely real” is still mind blowing. I think having a term for the mind blowing portion of reality is important to retain the magic.
  2. Second, “supernatural” is a useful concept. It’s logically bankrupt, but it still describes a portion of our experience that isn’t otherwise labeled. If we get rid of the faulty label, and the fallacious reasoning that goes with it, but fail to replace it with a better label that comes with better reasoning, then our minds will default to what we already “know.” It will fill in the gaps when we come to a point in our experience that “supernatural” would have previously covered. We’d have no other label, so either we’d reject the experience or relapse into supernatural (i.e. wrong) thinking. Having a better label for these experiences provides our feeble brains with the tools they need to reflect on experiences outside of the ordinary, without spiraling out of control, and without losing our sense of wonder.

(Article image is by Alex Grey)

Solitude of the Mind

Today I’m getting ready for an adventure. For this adventure, I’ll be sleeping in the same bed, eating the same foods, and wearing the same clothes. This is an adventure of the mind, into solitude and reality.

The World of Language

As modern people, we live in a world that’s literally made of language. Most of what we think about and do only exists in our minds collectively; it’s not dirt, or a painful cut, or sweat, or the sensation of food going down our throats. It’s jobs, it’s relationships, it’s money, it’s the future.

The latter list are things that don’t actually “exist” — they are constructs and concepts. We say we “have” a job, but where is it? Can you hold it? Can you smell it? No, because it’s actually just a complicated understanding between you, your employer, and whoever else it’s relevant to. Relationships are similar: just a shared understanding between people, a concept that stops existing as soon as we do.

So, the question is, what is real? What really matters? Are those things the same things?

Disconnecting

dhilung@Flickr

dhilung@Flickr

In the interest of discovering the answers, I’m spending tomorrow and the day after eschewing language. I will not speak, I will not read, I will not listen to people speaking, I will not follow written instructions. I will attempt to even quiet my internal dialog, so I can experience complete silence. In short, I will completely cut myself off from all language.

My hope is to reconnect to some authentic state of being. I want to cut off language, the primary source of all this “unreal reality,” and experience a state of just existing. Feeling the ground on my feet, and look at the grass around my house.

Preparation

I’m trying to keep this simple. I can’t read any food labels or use the oven or microwave (numbers are words too!), so I have to stock enough grabbable food to last for the two days. I’m letting everyone who might try to contact me know what’s going on so they don’t worry or disrupt the experiment. I have clothes for a couple days, and the necessary groceries one needs, so I should be free to lay on the floor, or walk through a field without interruption.

Chronically Connected

This is going to be difficult for me in particular because I spend so much time reading, writing, and thinking analytically. It’s how I spend my days, and the reality is that in an idle moment I will almost always grab a book or fill the time with something “productive.” That’s what makes this experiment all the more important: as a person who has internalized this conceptual planet, I need to gain a wider perspective on what is real.

It’s also why I am only planning two days for this time. I’m a little scared by the prospect of even that period of time, since it’s such a wide departure from my normal routine. Being alone with one’s self is a daunting prospect. Still, I feel it’s doable, and if it’s valuable I can see doing a longer stint in the future, in which I actually leave society for a remote place, to be sure I am really isolated.

Obviously, I won’t be writing a journal during my experience. I’m also not entirely sure I’ll be able to verbalize whatever non-verbal insights I gain, but after it’s all over, I’ll certainly try.

Follow up:

  1. Ideas are Real
  2. 30 Day Trial: Solitude as a Dream
  3. Incoherence of the Supernatural
  4. Supernatural to Hypernatural