Emotional Baselines and Achievement

A recent SMBC comic discussing how humans tend to revert to emotional baselines got me thinking.  Go check it out; it’s humorously astute.

Shortly after the last Game of Thrones episode aired, reports came out that actor Kit Harington checked himself into a wellness centre to work on personal issues.  This was later corroborated with behind the scenes footage showing some of his emotional reactions as they filmed the final episodes.  Given that the show was one of his first major long-running parts, it’s not unreasonable that he’s experiencing complex thoughts and feelings around the show coming to a close.

Similarly, Olympian Michael Phelps appeared on Tony Robbins’s podcast and discussed his experiences with depression after his achievements in the pool.  He notes that after running on an emotional high from training and competing, returning to “normal life” without any substantial goals is a tough adjustment for athletes.  They spend long chunks of their lives devoted to a singular aim, and once they close that chapter of their lives, it can be difficult to find meaning in more mundane pursuits.  Instead of reverting to a normal baseline, their sense of balance is skewed and their baseline dips emotionally lower.

I’m neither an acclaimed actor nor athlete, but I have experienced similar emotional falloffs that helps me relate to what these two people might be going through.  After a summer of outward bound adventure in my army cadet days (we climbed mountains, glaciers, and biked through the Albertan countryside), I returned to my normal high school life and I experienced a week or so of crushing depression.  I felt that after climbing a mountain, what else could I possibly experience in life that would top that?  Setting aside that I was a teenager and lacked a more global perspective on life, in that moment I felt that I had peaked, and there was nothing left for me to achieve or look forward to.

The so-called “quarter-life crisis,” which for many coincides with graduating from four grueling years of undergraduate study, is a similar experience, where you no longer are striving towards a goal and now have to seek out to find your own meaning in life.  The vast, open stretch before you is daunting in its emptiness.  But, instead of possibility, you view the void with pessimism – what do I have before me that can possible measure to what has come before?

I don’t have children, but I suspect that the “empty nest” feeling that parents get when their children head out on their own is similar.  You’ve spent nearly two decades caring for your children, nurturing and guiding them towards self-sufficiency, and now that they are heading out, your goal is largely fulfilled and you need to redefine your identity and time in a post-dependent world.

When you experience the closing of a long-term goal that has spanned years, there seems to be a harsh recalibration period for your emotions.  Not only do you snap back to baseline, but you have to redefine your expectations for the baseline, and re-code that experience with a new sense of purpose and meaning.  The longer you stay in this limbo, it seems the harder you languish.

Achievement and success is wonderful, but I think we tend to only tell stories of the climb up the mountain and we tend to forget the back-half of the experience when we carefully climb back down, taking care not to fall back to earth.  I think sharing these stories is important because it lets us know we are not alone in the dark.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

 

 

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Thinking and Research Habits

You can tell who has recently released a book based on who is making their way through the podcast circuit.  It’s never a coincidence if you see an author’s name pop up on the latest episodes of several shows your have saved in your playlist.  I enjoy listening to these episodes to get book recommendations, and for the most part find that the shows don’t go into too much depth with the author.

This was pointed out by a friend of mine (thanks, Wil, for smashing my illusions!) when he commented that a show I happen to listen to lacks the depth he looks for in a good podcast.  After he pointed that out, I saw it everywhere: the host of the show brings the author on, and by whatever means the talking-points get established, the show typically has the host ask 5-10 key questions that are ripped directly from the book.  It reminds me of students who skip the reading because the whole thing is covered in class.  You get a good sense of what the main points of the book are, but that’s about it.  If you’ve read the book already, you might as well skip the podcast episode.

However, there are gems in some shows, and I spotted two a few weeks back.  On two different shows, authors who had recently released books were chatting about the ideas in the book and the topic drifted to the idea-generation process.  They were short asides, but I found them fascinating to hear how these authors come up with their ideas and structure the construction of their books.

You can give the shows a listen yourself, but I’ve summarized the main points below.

David Epstein
(promoting his book Range)
The Longform Podcast, episode 348 (starts at 21:08)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62028020

How do you set up the bounds of research?  How do you delineate what you put in the book?  What should I include in the book?

  • There will be a few topics you generally know should be in, but after that you don’t know.
  • Epstein starts with a broad search down rabbit holes.  He used to think this was a bad thing and a waste of time, but now it’s thought of as a competitive advantage.  Sometimes, though, you end up with a bunch of nonsense.
  • He creates a master thought list – citation and key ideas or sentences.
  • As these coalesce into a topic, he moves like-ideas together.  When a topic emerges, he tags it with a title and creates keywords that he would use if he’s searching for it.  Then he moves similar tags together and a movie storyboard emerges where one topic flows into the next.
  • The goal is to avoid it being a bunch of journal articles stitched together.
  • It’s a road map of his brain’s exploration of the topic.
  • Unlike academics who just read journals and don’t go in-depth, he uses his journalism training to talk to the people – more will always come out in conversation than what’s included in the text.  Scientists will include interesting tidbits offhand that are related, but don’t expand on it, so it creates a thread to pull on.  It’s also a good fact-checking exercise and makes the story richer.

 

Cal Newport
(promoting his book Digital Minimalism)
Love Your Work, episode 183 (starts at 49:30)
https://www.stitcher.com/s?eid=62048017

How do you find ideas that are well-timed/timely with discourse on careers, technology, etc.?

  • He thinks, writes, and publishes all the time (especially blog posts and articles).  He’s constantly reading and testing out ideas.  He’s talking to people, having conversations, and seeing what topics emerges.  It’s a work ethic to him to constantly be reading and writing.
  • He tests out what he’s interested in and see if others are interested.  It might be foundational to something he works on over time, or it might wither because it doesn’t gain traction or doesn’t bear fruit.
  • To validate ideas:  1. He asks, “Are people talking about it, or leaving interesting comments on my blog posts?” 2. With ideas comes a sense of “mental confidence.”  He asks “Is this working for me?  Does it click as a structure to provide a workable framework for seeing the world?”
  • Over time, something will emerge and persist.  It generates advice that’s useful, more evidence comes up, and it is applicable across situations.
  • The search is opportunistic, but once something emerges, he does a deep dive. (Kadavy evokes the fox-porcupine reference from Isaiah Berlin, popularized by Jim Collins).

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

A Solution to the Animated Bibliography

First off, I didn’t realize it, but last week was my 150th post!  It snuck up on me, unlike my 100th post in March of last year.  If all goes well, I should hit my 200th post in February of next year.

I was listening to a recent podcast episode from the Tim Ferriss Show where he interviewed author Jim Collins.  In the latter half of the episode, they discuss Collins’s latest publication, a monograph that expands on his flywheel concept that he introduced in an earlier publication, Good to Great.

What I found most interesting was his reason for releasing a monograph (which comes to a total of around 45-pages).  He stated that one option was to release it as an appendix to a future edition of Good to Great since it was material that has been expanded since the original publication.  However, he decided against this idea since it would force anyone who already purchased Good to Great to buy a second copy of it, which seemed unnecessary.

A second option would be to release it as an article, either in a magazine publication or online.  His reasoning against this, however, is that articles and blog posts are too ephemeral, and would likely not get the traction he was seeking.  He wanted something that wouldn’t be forgotten immediately in the wash of news and opinions that are put out there for consumption multiple times per day.

Instead, he opted for a somewhat outdated option of releasing a monograph.

What struck me most was his comments concerning idea mediums, which reminded me of a few of my rants on animated bibliographies.  His reason to avoid writing a separate book to expand on the flywheel idea is that he doesn’t see value in taking a relatively small idea and working to inflate it to 300 pages.

[Collins] “A piece of writing has a natural length. A symphony has a length. “Gimme Shelter” by the Stones has a length. You wouldn’t say, “Well we should make ‘Gimme Shelter’ a 72-minute piece.” It’s the wrong length for “Gimme Shelter,” and writing is like music. It has an appropriate length for what the music is trying to do, to be. What I realized back in 2005 was sometimes you could have something that is a powerful extension idea or an ideal, it really shouldn’t be a book. It’s not enough to be a book.”

~From the show’s transcript.

This is a good comment on the self-help book publishing industry’s trend to push out books that have a few novel insights and a huge amount of commonly-cited research studies that fit the narrative (and confirmation bias).  In fact, it reminds me of a video essay I watched recently which articulates (better than I) the problems with the self-help genre overall.

This certainly won’t stop me from reading self-help books, and I’m still knee-deep in many other animated bibliographies – I’m a bit of a glutton for punishment.

However, I think this insight is fantastic and expresses why some ideas don’t deserve to be turned into books (unless it’s a book of essays).  It makes sense that some ideas have a natural size, and the size should be commensurate with the number of pages devoted to explaining it.  While the industry does not incentivize these examples of smaller publications, I think it’s a great solution to the need to pad out books with the same sources and the same studies.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan