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

Tech Shabbat Experiment

Almost a decade ago, I co-started a semi-formal group with some friends. It was intended as a bit of a mutual-beneficial group – we were all just starting out in our careers and felt that getting together monthly to practice public speaking would help us in our jobs. The nature of the group has evolved somewhat now that we are having kids and have grown comfortable in our jobs. Instead, we treat the monthly meetup as both social time and a chance for us to share experiences with each other.

This month, we’ve been challenged to try out the Tech Shabbat as discussed in Tiffany Shlain’s book 24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week (note: I haven’t read the book). In essence, we pick one day a week to abstain from screens – no smartphones, no computers, no television. It’s not a complete removal from all technology (for instance, I use my smart speaker to stream podcast episodes and listen to live radio), but instead we seek to disconnect from an increasingly interconnected existence.

I have completed three of the Shabbats, with the final one this weekend. Overall, this has been a very positive experience for me. There are some challenges and moments where I have to play fast and loose with the rules (like this weekend when I got lost on a hike…).

It’s also not clear if I should abstain from using our smart speaker at home; I’ve been using it to listen to podcast episodes and radio over the internet. I’ll even admit that there are moments of boredom or tedium where I feel a strong pull to give up the challenge and open a social media app. But despite any of these missteps or moments of weakness, I can say without any qualification that I’ve enjoyed the experience. I may look forward to the close of the 24-hours, but I do so with a sense of mental calm. The break gives me a bit of a reset, a chance to journal and bring order to my life. Instead of mindlessly consuming content, I’ve chosen activities that create memories and allow me to be more present in the now.

I’m not sure if I’ll keep the Tech Shabbat once the group activity is over, but it has given me a lot to reflect on. Cal Newport has discussed taking a more hardline stance on cutting unnecessary tech out of our lives. I’m sympathetic to the idea, though in practice I have to balance my quirky experiments with my wife’s needs, and I doubt she would entertain any drastic measures like what Newport suggests. Regardless, just taking the opportunity to pause and reflect is a worthwhile activity, which the Tech Shabbat has afforded me over the month.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – July 3, 2020

As I noted in my post earlier this week, I missed my last Friday roundup post. This is my first effort in doing better.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on June 26th July 3rd, 2020.

📽 Video: The Toxic World of Self Help: Hustle Culture, Toxic Positivity, Addiction, and Fake Gurus. | James Jani (YouTube)

I am guilty of buying into the world of self-help. The vast majority of my reading over the last five years has been variations on the self-help genre (to the point that I’ve coined the term animated bibliography to describe its form). I know that the returns on investing in self-help diminishes quickly, and I am aware of how dubious the promise that self-help sells is, but I constantly find myself getting sucked into it. This video doesn’t necessarily say anything new that I haven’t realized myself, but it pulls it together nicely with many examples of how dark this world can be for the copycat authorities that use the same tactics in different domains. This video is a good summary and reminder to myself the next time I’m sold the promise of a better life through tactics and strategies for sale.

Listen: A Recipe for Caesar | Common Sense Podcast by Dan Carlin AND Jon Stewart | Joe Rogan Experience Podcast

I covered a different interview with Jon Stewart in my last published Friday roundup, but I wanted to link these two different podcast episodes along a similar theme, despite the shows being wildly different. I noticed that both Dan Carlin and Jon Stewart remarked on the difficulty that comes with being a voice that people turn to when making sense of the world. Stewart noted that towards the end of his time on the Daily Show, he sometimes struggled to be the person to go on television and say something smart or comforting after a tragedy struck (it might have been part of the reason why he burned-out and needed to retire). Similarly, Dan Carlin has not put out an episode of his podcast Common Sense in a few years, but he released this episode earlier this year. In it, he notes that he’s tried recording an episode multiple times but felt he was adding nothing of substance to the conversation. He struggled to, like Stewart, be a voice for people (like me) who turn to him to help understand the world we find ourselves in. I listened to both of these episodes in the same week, and gained a new appreciation for those like Carlin and Stewart who make livings giving me monologues to pre-digest current events. It must be tough to strike a balance by being both insightful and non-inflammatory, where you avoid stoking the audience against “the other side” (whatever side that happens to be at the time). A YouTuber I follow recently commented on folks like Tim Poole whose sole purpose is to inflame the left/right hostility, rather than adding anything of substance to the discourse. It’s causing me to slowly evaluate what voices I allow in and whether they’ve earned their place in my attention.

Read: Why I’m Leaving Academia | Ozan Varol

I have some deeper reflections that this article prompted, but I wanted to capture this here first. Varol has been a law professor for 10 years now, and with the success of his recent book, he’s decided to move on from his teaching duties to pursue other endeavors. This reminds me of Nassim Taleb’s idea of via negativa. Varol specifically invokes this idea (though not by name) by reflecting that decisions he’s made in his life that had the greatest positive impact were often decisions that “subtracted” from his life. It’s a reflection I applied to my own circumstances and still need a bit more time to process.

Watch: Every Race in Middle-Earth Explained | WIRED (YouTube)

Because we all need to have some fun once in a while, here is an informative half-hour from a Tolkein scholar who covers the history of Middle-Earth through its inhabitants.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Reflection – A Systems Review of Results

I’ve been mulling over a quote I wrote down in my notebook back in March, especially as it relates to my productive output at both work and for my personal projects:

“Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.”
~Paul Batalden

At the end of the day, I’ll look back at my lists of tasks and feel frustrated that another day has slipped by thanks to my monkey brain’s inability to focus. Of course, this is placing the blame on the wrong focus because it’s ignoring two important facts: it assumes I’m not in control of my behaviours when I blame it on my “monkey brain,” and it assumes that I’m setting myself up for success merely by sitting at my computer. Both of these are patently untrue. I have control over my environment and (to borrow a phrase from Jocko Willink) I should be taking extreme ownership over my work situation.

If I find myself frustrated with my lack of output, I have to look at the system that my productivity is set against. If I spend my day getting lost down YouTube video and blog holes, then it’s because my system is optimized for it.

If I’m allowing myself to give in to temptation or distraction, it’s because it’s easier to fall back on things that are psychologically comforting and there is too much friction to get started on the real work.

Motivation is a flywheel – I have to overcome inertia to get the wheel turning, and it takes time before inertia helps the wheel turn freely. If the system is optimized to prevent me turning the flywheel, then it’s important to look at the system for fixes, rather than bemoaning the outcomes.

It’s not a quick fix. It will take time, effort, and a direction to push towards that will start the flywheel. I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. If the flywheel grounds to a halt, then it’s my job to stop, reset, appraise, and re-engage.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Aristotle and Moral Education in Art

silhouette of three performers on stage
Photo by Kyle Head on Unsplash

I spent a large chunk of my weekend grading essays from my students. Their task was to watch the movie The Road, adapted from the novel by Cormac McCarthy and write a paper based on themes and ideas presented in the course. Based on the course content presented so far, I encourage students to examine the story’s protagonist and argue whether he is a good candidate to be considered a tragic hero as defined by Aristotle.

While grading papers, I mused about Aristotle’s strict criteria for what makes for a tragic hero. The tragic hero must be noble and good (though not a paragon of virtue), but possesses a minor flaw of character or error in judgment (hamartia), which when applied to circumstances brings about some sort of downfall or negative consequence (an inevitable reversal of circumstances, or peripeteia). It’s not that the character is vicious, but merely that their minor flaw is the cause of the negative outcome. However, the negative outcome must be caused by the character (and not, for instance, by the gods), and the consequences of outcome must be in excess of the original cause. The character must also see that they are the reason for their suffering (anagnorisis – the move from ignorance to knowledge). In the context of a narrative or telling of the story, this would elicit pity and fear, a purification of emotions (catharsis) for the audience.

On the one hand, Aristotle is spelling this all out as a way of formalizing and categorizing types of art (Aristotle was a philosopher and biologist by vocation). He might have even considered writing this down as a way of formalizing a set of guidelines to critique plays, finding a way to point out what makes some plays good and others not.

But I had another thought. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, took a dim view of the arts. In his Republic, Plato was comfortable with banishing the poets from his ideal city, and only allow art that held up the moral authority. I’m wondering if Aristotle had something like this in mind – that art could be used as a moral education tool.

Maybe, the best examples of art are ones that teach the audience lessons, albeit in a less direct route (than, say, fables). If this were true, then we could interpret Aristotle’s criteria the following way. A piece of art is valuable as a moral training tool when the audience can build an emotional connection with the suffering of others. Rather than it being a spectacle for them to lose themselves in, the art gives the audience a moral framework to judge themselves against. The tragic figure is like them: not a god or immortal, but an example of a good person trying to do good things. The tragic figure might even be a little aspirational, something the audience can work towards. They aren’t depraved in the soul, but they are responsible for their actions, even if those actions have negative consequences.

Instead of blaming their suffering on an external cause, the tragic figure realizes that they are the cause of their own suffering. The audience sees this, sees that they could be this person, and through their emotional connection, learns to empathize with the tragic figure. In a sense, they could be the same person, were the circumstances be different. The audience feels the pain, takes pity upon the otherwise good person, and maybe even fears this happening to them.

Given that Aristotle’s ethics was predicated on relative moral excellence, it’s possible that he intended art to be educative, though I don’t have the scholarship background to confirm whether this is true (or plausible). To be clear, I don’t think art must function in this capacity. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to have art for its own sake, or for the creative expression of what’s inside the artist.

Still, the thought of morally educative art is interesting. I’ve often thought of what kinds of art I’d want to expose my own children to in the development of their moral character. What kinds of lesson would I want them to absorb and learn from as they develop an internal sense of ethics and morality?

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – June 12, 2020

I’m sorry.

There is no formal round-up post this week. I’ve done a poor job with staying on top of things, so I don’t really have a curated list to share. Don’t get me wrong – lots of stuff happened this week both awesome and thought-provoking, but I didn’t do a good job of carrying those items forward into a coherent post. I noted in my journal this week how disappointed I’ve felt with my output recently, and I narrowed it down to a lack of consistency. When we first entered the isolation period, I was coasting on the momentum of my regular systems. However, those systems have atrophied over the last month, and the content funnels aren’t getting filled like they used to.

I’ll do better next week.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – May 29, 2020

This was a pretty bad week for me consuming content. Between some big stuff happening at work, and a general feeling of blah-ness, I don’t have a lot to share this week.

Here is a round-up list for the week ending on May 29th:

📽 Video – Comedy News: Is It Deep or Dumb? | Wisecrack

I think this video does a good job to interrogate my love of certain kinds of comedic news. I was a late-convert to Jon Stewart, and felt crushed when he announced his (much deserved) retirement. While I’ll admit I haven’t given Trevor Noah a fair shake, I pretty much stopped watching the Daily Show after the change-over. Similarly, I’ve watched other shows that riff on the format, whether on cable (such as Samantha Bee), subscription services (like Hasan Minhaj), or online content (I get John Oliver through YouTube). It’s not lost on me that all of the names listed above are Daily Show alumni. My consumption also includes shows that are inspired by the presentation format, like Some More News on YouTube. Still, it’s rare that I consistently follow any one show because I tend to find the material or subjects to be somewhat hollow. The only exceptions to this, as noted by Wisecrack, are Oliver’s and Minhaj’s shows, which I feel to be both smart and wise in the material they present. Rather than trying to punch for the sake of cracking jokes, their shows punch at topics that are meant to help people that aren’t in on the joke. That is, their shows aren’t just speaking to the in-crowd as a private way of mocking the out-group. This was a great video essay that made me think.

📽 Video/Reading Group – Hannah Ardent Reading Group on “The Origins of Totalitarianism” | YouTube & Hannah Ardent Centre for Politics and Humanities at Bard College

I purchased Hannah Ardent’s The Origins of Totalitarianism as a birthday present for myself a few years ago (I know, I’m weird). I still haven’t cracked into it as of writing, but last week I received an email update from my alma mater, and in it they discussed how one of the faculty members had recently returned from time spent doing research at the Hannah Ardent Centre for Politics and Humanities at Bard College. The email also described the regular reading group that occurs, and how it recently moved online to promote physical distancing. I checked out their YouTube page and found this series that I hope to carve out some time to follow along with. Origins is a pretty hefty book, and Ardent is a pretty powerful thinker, so I’m glad to have a resource to help me understand the nuances of her work better.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Friday Round-up – May 1, 2020

Note – this is an experimental posting format. I’ve thought about increasing the number of posts I commit to per week, but I don’t want to add unnecessary work if I’m not willing to stick it out. Let’s be honest: sometimes it’s really hard to get a single post out each Monday that I’m satisfied with, so increasing my posting frequency just to for the sake of increasing my output is a terrible idea. I will run a short experiment to see how easy it is for me to get out a Friday Round-up for the next month. If the experiment goes well, I’ll consider making it a part of the regular rotation. You can find the first round-up post here from April 24th.

Have you ever noticed the tendency that when you’re thinking about a topic, you seem to notice it everywhere? I first became aware of its phenomenology back in my university days, where stuff that I was learning in my lectures seemingly popped up randomly in my non-class time. Turns out, there is a word for that feeling – the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon, also known as the frequency bias. It’s why you start to see your car’s model everywhere after buying one. I bring this up because today’s articles are all loosely connected with scientific literacy in the digital age (especially as it relates to COVID). The more I read about thoughts concerning how to understand research about the pandemic, the more content I noticed about the topic of scientific literacy in general. This might be the phenomenon/my bias at play, or maybe the algorithms that govern my feeds are really in tune with my concerns.

Here is my round-up list for the week ending on May 1st:

📖Article – What You Need to Know about Interpreting COVID-19 Research | The Toronto Star

My round-up for the week started with this short article that was open in one of my browser tabs since last week. There is a lot of information floating around in our respective feeds, and most of it can charitably be called inconclusive (and some of it is just bad or false). We’ve suddenly all become “experts” in epidemiology over the last month, and I want to remind myself that just because I think I’m smart, doesn’t mean I have the context or experience to understand what I’m reading. So, this article kicked off some light reflection on scientific and data literacy in our media landscape.

📖Article – Experts Demolish Studies Suggesting COVID-19 is No Worse Than Flu | Ars Technica

This next piece pairs nicely with our first link, and includes reporting and discussion of recent flair ups on Twitter criticizing recent studies. Absent of the pressure being applied by the pandemic, what this article describes is something that normally takes place within academic circles – experts putting out positions that are critiqued by their peers (sometimes respectfully, sometimes rudely). Because of the toll the pandemic is exacting on us, these disagreements are likely more heated as a result, which are taken to be more personally driven. I link this article not to cast doubt over the validity of the scientific and medical communities. Rather, I am linking to this article to highlight that our experts are having difficulty grappling with this issues, so it’s foolish to think us lay-people will fare any better in understanding the situation. Therefore, it’s incumbent on journalists to be extra-vigilant in how they report data, and to question the data they encounter.

📽Video – Claire Wardle: Why Do We Fall for Misinformation | NPR/TED

The Ars Technica piece raises a lot of complex things that we should be mindful of. There are questions such as:

  • Who should we count as authoritative sources of information?
  • How do we determine what an authoritative source of information should be?
  • What role does a platform like Twitter play in disseminating research beyond the scientific community?
  • How much legitimacy should we place on Twitter conversations vs. gated communities and publication arbiters?
  • How do we detangle policy decisions, economics, political motives, and egos?
  • How much editorial enforcement should we expect or demand from our news sources?

There are lots of really smart people who think about these things, and I’m lucky to study at their feet via social media and the internet. But even if we settle on answers to some of the above questions, we also have to engage with a fundamental truth about our human condition – we are really bad at sorting good information from bad when dealing at scale. Thankfully, there are people like Claire Wardle, and her organization FirstDraft that are working on this problem, because if we can’t fix the signal to noise ratio, having smart people fixing important problem won’t amount to much if we either don’t know about it, or can’t action on their findings. I was put onto Claire Wardle’s work through an email newsletter from the Centre for Humane Technology this week, where they highlighted a recent podcast episode with her (I haven’t had time to listen to it as of writing, but I have it queued up: Episode 14: Stranger Than Fiction).

📖 Essay – On Bullshit | Harry Frankfurt

All of this discussion about knowledge and our sources of it brought me back to grad school and a course I took on the philosophy of Harry Frankfurt, specifically his 1986 essay On Bullshit. Frankfurt, seemingly prescient of our times, distinguishes between liars and bullshitters. A liar knows a truth and seeks to hide the truth from the person they are trying to persuade. Bullshit as a speech act, on the other hand, only seeks to persuade, irrespective of truth. If you don’t want to read the essay linked above, here is the Wikipedia page.

I hope you find something of value in this week’s round-up and that you are keeping safe.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan

Quarantine Reflections – The Second Mile

person running on tracking field
Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Last week, I discussed how important exercise has become in helping to regulate my mood while I stay safe at home. I wanted to share a quick second observation I’ve noticed for exercising. When I first started my challenge for the year, I told myself that I just had to make small commitments to keep the progress going. I started the challenge very light – just 1 mile in the first week. It was easy to manage and commit to. Each week adds a mile, which is a doable amount: 2 miles in week 2, 3 miles in week 3, etc.

I am in week 17 now, and it’s forcing me to run consecutive days. While I’m not running distances that really necessitate me to need recovery days, there are inevitably days where I wake up and my body feels stiff and my joints feel like I’m full of sand. It’s a lot harder to tell myself that if I just commit to one mile, I can easily do the rest. That trick no longer works on me.

But I’ve realized something different that really helps me. I’ve noticed that no matter how I feel physically (assuming I’m not ill), if I can stick it out until the end of the second mile, I know I can do the run. There is something that happens between the first and second mile where the stiffness goes away. It’s likely the official warm-up period, but by mile-two I hit my stride, my breath falls into cadence, and I’m able to easily keep my target pace.

Understanding the magic of the second mile doesn’t make it psychologically easier to get on with the run (my mind still loves to procrastinate when I know I’m about to spend 45-minutes sweating), but it does let me know that physically I’m up to the task. The resolution sets in and I get to work.

Stay Awesome,

Ryan