I’ve been thinking about the limits of my world, specifically as it relates to my ability to understand it. Much of the time, I operate as if I have access to capital-T Truth, that I have some connection with facts about the world. It’s easy to fall into this kind of thinking – when I can predict and explain events, it gives me feedback that I know things about the world in a meaningful sense.
But I also know that this confidence in my knowledge is not as strong as I assume it to be. I have to remind myself to adjudicate the claims I encounter, or to remind myself of the difference between history and the past. It’s also good to listen to others who have learned about issues from multiple vantage points (see this amazing conversation on the Tim Ferriss podcast with Noah Feldman, and his experiences with constitution building in the Middle East).
Generally speaking, all of our experience in life has presented us with a mostly successful set of interactions with the world, but those interactions are subjective and limited. Taking the long view of world events, learning new languages, and empathy provide the Archimedean point beyond ourselves to attempt to stand on some point of objectivity (if this is even possible).
As Wittgenstein says, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” This shouldn’t be literally taken to mean language (though I’m assuming that’s what Wittgenstein meant), but we should apply this to our understanding vis a vis experience. The limits of my world are constrained by the limits of my experience and the mental framework I use to make sense of it. If I want to seek to expand my worldview, it’s important to both prune out the dead branches of knowledge while cultivating new seeds of wisdom.
While listening to a BBC podcast about Heroditus, the panelists described how Heroditus set about his project with the purpose of recording events with some accuracy before the details were lost from memory. Unlike some historians from Greek antiquity, Heroditus was writing about events that were within his lifetime. This created a new kind of writing that set itself apart from others in his genre because it aimed at corroborating stories rather than recording myth.
This is an interesting distinction worth keeping in mind. There is a difference between “history” and “the past.” It can be helpful to think of history as a subset of the past. History is the collection of stories we tell, and as a consequence it is necessarily selective in what gets included and what is left out. This makes sense from a practical standpoint – it is nearly impossible to capture every detail, nor does every fact in the past bear a tangible, causal relationship to the story being told (even if arguably from a systems perspective, many things create ripples of unknown influence that overlap with other events).
The challenge of history is accuracy – capturing events that happened with fidelity and charity. As new facts are discovered, and as new facits of importance enter the discourse, history is revised to (hopefully) move closer to our aim of truth. (For the moment, let’s ignore questions about power and who tells these stories and for what aim).
However, we must not confuse history (the stories we tell) with the past (events that happened prior to the now). Ignoring this distinction places us in danger of imbuing our myths with an illusion of objectivity. The stories we tell ouselves matter, of course, but they also carry power. Who tells the stories, and whose stories get left out, can carry harmful consequences.
We try to learn the lessons from history, but we cannot be so arrogant to think that history is complete.
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.