The Art of Self-Discipline

On the days when I’m languishing and finding it difficult to be productive, where procrastination and anxiety keep me in rabbit holes of distraction, and at the end of the day I look at the clock and realize how much time I’ve wasted, it’s easy to write myself off as a lazy, slovenly person. It’s easy to think of myself as the kind of person who does not have discipline, that I wasn’t born with that trait – fatalism has kicked in; I should accept who I am.

But that’s not what self-discipline is. It’s easy to see self-discipline as some sort of binary state when you are comparing yourself against others further along their own paths than where you want to go.

The Romans had a saying that “we can’t all be Cato’s,” referring to the stoic politician who served the State with self-sacrifice. But that saying is wrong. It should be “we aren’t all Cato’s, yet.”

In virtue ethics, your moral character is judged against an abstract ideal – the Stoic Sage. But possessing virtue is not a trait or character state. Possessing virtue is a process of becoming, of doing the right thing at the right time.

Having self-discpline doesn’t mean you are a paragon of discpline. It means you are exercising discpline in the moment. If you fail, it just means you are still working on becoming who you want to be.

The Japanese refer to this as ““, the Way. You never reach perfection, but your life is one long project of incremental progress towards what you are meant to be.

That is the way of self-discipline.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Decent Day

My productivity has been garbage recently. Maybe the lingering effects of working from home during the pandemic has finally ground me down, but I’ve been struggling with staying on task. I’m failing to prioritize my work, I’m failing to follow-through on intentions, and while I’m keeping up with some deliverables, it’s a real slog to turn stuff around. Even this blog consistently goes up days late.

I try to not take this to heart, because it genuinely wears me down. On a good day, I cross items off my list and stick to the pomodoro timer, letting its ticking provide a meditative soundtrack to my flow. On bad days, it feels like the whole days gets past me with nothing of substance to show; time that’s gobbled up by the Past forever.

On the days when I catch myself heading towards an abysmal performance by 5pm, I tell myself to just get one thing done. It doesn’t have to be huge or complicated, but get at least one important thing done and shipped, and you’ll have had a decent day.

It’s not the best day, it’s not a great day, but a decent day is better than nothing. And it’s easier to chain decent days together to push forward in your work.

Aim for decent days, when you get at least one thing done, then give yourself permission to be satisfied with that.

If you aim for perfection, you stall yourself out. If you aim for decent, you get at least this blog post out.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beyond the European Default Follow-up (7/4 time)

Last week I shared some thoughts on appreciating musical languages developed beyond the European music theory standard, and how it can be inappropriate to judge musical modalities using the vocabulary and standards of your cultural (musical) heritage. This isn’t to say that viewing art through different lenses can’t bring about interesting discoveries of the artform, but rather using one standard to pass a value-judgement of the merits of an artform can be fraught with problems.

Thanks to YouTube’s algorithm, the recommended videos feed provided some great gems appreciating the original. Through a drum cover, I learned the original was in 7/4 time (whereas I thought it might have been alternating 2/4-2/8 measures; sounds like I missed a 1/8 beat).

And here was another drum cover with some artistic interpretations on the beat.

I was able to learn a bit more about Konnakkol, and how it builds increasing complexity to the music.

And here was a great beatbox cover that got a shoutout from the male performer in the original video, Somashekar Jois.

Finally, I found that Somashekar Jois has a YouTube channel where he teaches lessons in Konnakkol. I was a little nervous about posting this since one of his past videos was an artist’s endorsement for Prime Minister Modi of India, but I still felt it important to provide the link here to learn more about the artform. If possible, I’m trying to focus on the art, rather than the artist (or his whatever his politics happens to be).

Oh, and a recent video from Adam Neely again touched on the problems with passing judgement on musical performance when you don’t critically engage with the sources of your musical taste. At best, you are falsely applying a single standard as a universal judge of taste, and at worst you are using music theory to justify sexist bullying of people just trying to have fun creating.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Beyond the European Default

Tim Ferriss recently shared the following video in his newsletter. From the video’s description, we are treated to a short but wonderful performance “on the most traditional, classical and ancient vocal percussive art form of India; the mother of all percussive languages – Konnakkol.”

I found as I was watching the video, I was trying to discern the time signature being used (I suppose in the hope of finding the cadence to bob my head along with the rhythm). Most of the song sounds like it switches between some sort of 2/4 and 2/8 back to back rhythm, alternating one bar of each. For a brief moment, I was going to push this out to my network to see what my music theory friends would say, since I consider myself an amateur at best.

But then I realized that the folks who I thought would be better equipped to give me an answer were likely trained in classic music theory; that is to say, European music theory. But applying a European music theory framework would be wholly inappropriate for classical Indian music. I don’t mean inappropriate in a politically correct sense (quite the contrary, it would be a fun exercise to apply European music theory as an exercise to see where the similarities and differences are between the two music styles), but instead it would be inappropriate from a practical sense. The two musical styles share the common thread of using percussion and pitches to “tell a story” but the similarities end there. They are two styles with differing underlying grammar and syntax. Applying a different musical theory lens would be inadequate to capture the nuances of the performance, and possibly miss a richer historical context to give the performance more meaning.

It reminds me of a video Adam Neely put out almost a year ago that’s well worth a revisit because he raises important points about what we choose as our defaults – what “counts” as music. If we judge everything based on what’s been given primacy over the last few hundred years, we at best have an impoverished understanding of music and culture, and at worst continue to perpetuate a systemic bias (read: racist) in favour of some kinds of music to the exclusion of others that we deem inferior (coded as foreign, exotic, world, or worse).

This isn’t to say you have to like any one kind of music – let your tastes take you wherever and drink in the art of whomever speaks to you. It’s just important to remember that art extends far beyond the preferences we think of as universal, and that our taste should not be placed at the centre of culture.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Editing with Rapt Attention

Last week I discussed how I created a video training series for one of the ethics boards I serve on. All told, I’d estimate it took me around twenty hours to sketch, film, edit, and publish the series (this is an ad hoc estimate; sadly I didn’t do any time tracking to appreciate the effort). While I’m comfortable with the filming, I noticed a particular period of the work that created a bit of a flow state for me.

On the last day of editing, I was up against a bit of a deadline to finish the videos and push them out to the trainees. I admit that the deadline helped me to focus more (or at least resist the temptation to get distracted), but I noticed that when I was editing the videos, I hit a bit of a flow state. It’s not that I found the tasks particularly challenging, but there was something about the rote, somewhat monotonous task of watching and cutting footage that helped me move through the videos fairly quickly. It was almost 4-hours of editing before I felt like I should take a break to stretch and shift my mind to something else – the time seemed to go quickly. Then, after my break, I returned for another multi-hour stretch to finish off the last of the videos for the rendering queue.

It’s not often that I feel myself working in this state, where time gets away from me for hours at a time. In fact, most of the time I feel somewhat disengaged with my work, and I have to apply discipline in order to work on tasks. This was a rare example of working on something that felt right.

I joked with my wife that I wish I found a job as an editor, but I was only half joking. The lesson I take from this is to be mindful with how I engage with activities that trigger flow, and find a way to go back to that state in other areas of my work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Intersecting Skill Sets

Last week, I created a video training series for the ethics board I’m on to help with onboarding new board members. Prior to COVID (the “before-times”), I would book out a meeting space on a Saturday morning to train new board members for 4-5 hours at a stretch. However, since we have been unable to meet face-to-face for the last year (we moved to remote in March 2020), it’s been difficult to help new members get up to speed. On the one hand, we could have accomplished the same training agenda using a video conferencing platform, however on the other hand, sitting on a training call for 4-5 hours is not a great experience for anyone involved.

We decided to go about the problem differently and embraced a flipped classroom format. By having training videos available, members can go through the lecture material at their own pace, then we can have a shortened video call to answer questions and do practice scenarios. Once I make the videos, they are always available, so there is no further cost to my time, except when we want to update content.

I was able to marry my experiences on the board reviewing ethics applications with my experiences vlogging over the last 7 years. Side note – our first podcast episode was released 7(!) years ago, on March 10th, 2014. Time flies!

Thanks to the time spent filming, editing, and publishing video content, I was able to put together an hour and a half series of short videos to go through the main points of being on the board and reviewing ethics applications. I had done something similar when I created a short onboarding video for my work at the college a few years back, but this was the first time I plotted out a multi-video series to create something resembling a course.

Admittedly, the fact that I did it myself shows in the quality. I don’t have the hardware to easily read scripts naturally, so I spoke extemporaneously with a set of notes, which shows in the final versions. Also, I don’t have a lot of experience with graphic design and after effects, so the shots can be a bit static. Nevertheless, it’s hardest to go from zero-to-one, from nothing to something. Everything after this point can be incremental improvements.

It was an interesting experience to marry these two different parts of my life. Vlogs, even the podcasts that I did with Jim, are more personal, with little actual expectation that people will see it. The videos Jim and I made were more for myself as a creative exercise. But these videos I’ve created are intended to help pass on some of what I learned while on the board and prepare them for the work we do.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Falling Through My Systems

This late post is a nice springboard into something I’ve been thinking about throughout the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, when I was still commuting to work, I had a fair number of systems to help me get stuff done. My commute to work helped me film daily vlogs, listen to books, and think about big ideas for blog posts and Stay Awesome vlogs. When we started working from home, those outputs began fading. Now, I feel behind on my blog posts, I *maybe* film a personal vlog once every two weeks, and Stay Awesome has been put on an indefinite hiatus until Jim and I get some extra headspace bandwidth to devote attention to it.

I was also known for my notebook. I carried a Field Notes notebook everywhere with me, and was constantly scribbling notes into it. Then, around 4 months into working from home, I found myself abandoning the monthly notebook and appropriating a disused larger notebook to jot down tasks, lists, and random thoughts. The Field Notes book was small, portable, convenient, and had many systems to track things I found important, such as exercise, health, habits, etc. Now, my notebook is largely devoted to task management, because when every day feels the same, you can quickly find yourself several weeks down the line having nothing to show for your time.

In a sense, I’ve fallen through my systems. The various “systems” I implemented succumbed to inertia when I both lost the cues that triggered them and lost the will to keep putting effort in the system to power the flywheel, and friction has ground them to a halt.

James Clear has a pithy phrase, that “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” This is a riff on an older Greek observation from Archilochus: “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.”

Regardless, the question I have is whether I truly had a system if it was a fair-weather operation that wasn’t robust enough to adapt to these kinds of radical changes. When I lost the external liminal cues that came from commuting to work, or from even leaving the house on a regular basis, the things I called systems disappeared as well. Is it charitable to call these things “systems”? In virtue ethics, you aren’t said to possess a virtue if you only exercise it some of the time – you aren’t considered courageous if you don’t act courageously in a moment that requires it. Does this apply to systems as well?

Part of me says yes, but that’s not very helpful. Perhaps I should reframe my thinking and consider the quality and attributes of the system. Borrowing from Taleb, some systems are fragile, some are robust, and I suppose some are antifragile. I understand antifragile systems in the context of biology (e.g. stressing muscles can allow them to get stronger over time), though as of writing I can’t think of any productivity system that get stronger under pressure.

Regardless, it’s clear that much of my productivity was built upon what can now be labelled as fragile systems. They worked under certain conditions, but outside of that narrower band they are less able to withstand fluctuations or variance. In my reflections over the last few months, I’ve been seeing the value in understanding the causes of system failures so that I can create new processes to help me in work and life. For now, the first step is to acknowledge that I’ve fallen through my systems, and having acknowledged this, I can stop spinning my wheels and start seeking traction.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Gifting Books

I’ve longed for the day when I would be in a position in my life to gift people books. I don’t mean gifting people books for Christmas or their birthday, or even as a congratulatory token for their accomplishments. Instead, I mean an unprompted, unsolicited book to people I think would value the read. Where I can give a book because of how much I enjoyed the experience, and by giving it to others I hope to share that feeling.

I’ve finally found such a book. Last week, I finished Waubgeshig Rice’s novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, a dystopian novel about an Indigenous community in Northern Ontario that gets cut-off from the rest of the Province. It’s dark, but also life-affirming; it felt like the perfect pandemic read, even though it was published two years ago.

Despite its themes and content, it was a wonderful book to read. As I noted in my Instagram post, the characters feel real and the narrative helped me feel as though I was walking among the community while the story unfolds. A commenter on the book noted that the story is very accessible for folks who are unfamiliar with reservation life of Indigenous peoples in Canada. Yet, the book doesn’t talk down to the reader – it’s infused with cultural references, history, and language that makes you work to understand it in places.

I have already gifted this book in audiobook format to one friend, and I have ordered two more copies for other friends. I am also excited to give this book as gifts because I feel it’s important to support Indigenous and other minority voices, and help amplify them so that we can enjoy more great art from these creators.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

What Is “Creative” Work?

One thing I love about reading Seth Godin is how he tends to reframe how I think about things. Like many other people, I’ve been feeling in a bit of a rut with work. Without the context shift of going to work in an office, the days start to blur, and working from a distance keeps me detached from my colleagues. Instead, my work is largely done on documents and spreadsheets, and the tedium easily sets in. It feels monotonous and largely procedural.

However, the first page of Seth’s new book forced me to reconsider how I view my work. When reflecting on my work, I realized that I was defining “creative” narrowly.

“The Practice” by Seth Godin (2020), page 3

Were you to ask me whether my job is creative, I would probably take a view that conforms to my notes on the left. My job has some elements that I have “artistic” control over, but largely “no” because it’s process driven. However, if I define “creative” more broadly, it’s easy to see how my job is creative. I create tools and process flows. I define problems and find creative solutions, then teach them to others.

We often bind our thinking about “creative” to notions like innovation and novelty (divinely given?), when instead we should think of “creative” as deriving from “create,” which is more process driven than outcomes driven.

This doesn’t solve my tedium with spreadsheets, but it helps me frame my work within a different context. I am not just a cog, but instead I have the ability to adapt the cogs I use to suit my needs.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan