Saturation

I quite enjoy talking with my mentor – I learn a lot, or at least I get food for thought. He’s a busy man, though, so we can’t talk every day.

But if we could, we’d have nothing to talk about. Part of how the conversation starts is reflecting on progress. With no progress, there’s nothing to reflect on. A thoughtful conversation with someone more experienced is bound by saturation, as is all growth.

Every day we wake up, we have a finite amount of energy, and we can choose what to do with that energy. But only a certain amount of it can be allocated to each type of growth until the saturation point is reached, and you will grow no further by investing more of your energy into the problem.

Most complex skills are subject to this, and optimal practice is informed by the limitation. Practicing guitar for 30 minutes every day yields much greater improvements than practicing for 3.5 hours every Sunday. If one day, old, you wake up and decide you want to know how to play, you’re inspired, and explode with energy – you won’t be able to transmute that energy to skill.

Perhaps a major cause of the limitation with something like guitar is the limited pace at which neurons can grow. It’s similar to the constraints on muscle growth. Work out, eat, muscles grow, repeat. Attempt a pattern of movement, eat, neural tissue grows, repeat.

This understanding places a limit on incremental growth, which is a crucial part of development. I think one way around this sort of limitation is to focus on breadth in a skill: practice a different aspect, that a different set of neurons would be responsible for. For truly complex skills, there are enough different aspects to occupy a full day, so all the time you have in a day can be dedicated to improvement.

There is a different sort of limitation – a bottleneck of understanding. Often work is done in the wrong direction, or not fully correctly. Or the right question is not asked for optimal growth; the framework of thinking about the problem is missing something. This is a sort of thing that mentorship and guidance is good for. It can help find the right questions.

Until you arrive at a question, though, hearing the answer may not even be helpful. Questions only come in struggling with the tools you have at your disposal. But once you have earned the question, you are truly ready to hear the answer, understand it, and instantly incorporate it into your worldview. This is the limitation of conceptual jumps, epiphanies.

These sorts of limitations – incremental and fundamental – apply in the realm of thinking as well. It’s possible to get very good at thinking, but it’s a journey of stumbling in darkness, making mistakes, reflecting deeply. You need to incorporate a style of thinking – which is a life-engulfing discipline – apply it, course-correct, and try again.

Human life is fraught with moderation. The most beautiful moments in life are moments where the rules are broken, or when a transcendental truth is spoken. But if a rule is broken every moment, they don’t truly exist, and there is no beauty in breaking them. If all truths are transcendental, there is too much noise, and nothing is worth listening to. Transformational conversations only have something to transform if there is something between them.

Creative thinking

I’ve long had this theory that creative thinking is merely logical thinking, after taking a step back from the problem at hand, and looking at it at a space on level above, or a meta space, or perhaps adding an extra dimension into consideration.

For dance, taking a step back would mean instead of executing the sequence of moves, looking at what rules those moves are made out of, and then altering those rules. what you do is a product of how you move – so change how you move.

For music, a piece can start to feel flat and lifeless if you’re just playing interesting patterns in a scale. Perhaps you find one interesting pattern; then another interesting pattern. And then eventually you exhaust the variety of new note patterns, stuck playing by the rules of note patterns. A step back, what are the notes made of? Perhaps, playing with the physics, with resonance – is a great variation that exists in a completely different dimension than patterns.

What about problem solving? You’re playing within a certain framework of rules, a formal system. But that framework itself is defined in a formal way; the rules are somehow described – through meta-rules, which adhere to the same logical principles as rules themselves. If you are able to break out of the box and use the language of the meta-rules – you, applying logical thinking, make a creative leap, as observed by someone stuck playing by just the rules of the problem.

Strengths

A friend recommended I watch a talk by Gary Vee: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0mXH7TX80aY . He’s an entrepreneur, and his approach to success is taking a long term view, connecting with people, helping as much as possible, and working hard.

I watched it. One thing that caught my attention was that he suggested focusing on your strengths, and not killing yourself trying to overcome your weaknesses. I’ve heard that advice before – from a guitar teacher in an online guitar course that I started with – Doug Marks, of Metal Method.

I get very curious when I hear the same advice coming from successful people from extremely different backgrounds. I think that signals depth, truth.

I asked my mentor about it – he thinks it can be good advice. I asked him what he thinks of my strengths. He listed a few:

  • Resilience, staying calm under pressure
  • Being happy to help others
  • Taking on work, regardless if it’s difficult or hard, glamorous or dirty
  • Egoless approach to work
    • Caring about the result, not the pat on the back – not needing to own achievements
    • Accepting feedback, and improving on it
  • Being comfortable out of my comfort zone, throwing myself against things I’m not great at until I get them
  • Coming up with crazy/creative solutions to difficult problems
  • Solving problems under extreme time pressure

He summarized this saying that I need to work harder than most with my set of strengths. I was reminded of a quote by Luciano Pavarotti (paraphrasing): “I’m not as talented as other singers, but I work harder”.

I can fail at something I’m bad at, then accept the feedback, and then work hard under extreme pressure to get better at it. Great. 😦

I was thinking about this in tandem with my goals, and the advice I got about working on discipline. That it may be okay for me to increase the pressure I have in my life, work under extreme pressure – on my job, on my side projects – and iterate on my release cycles, note the flaws in my work process, and improve.

Ego/discipline

I was thinking of all the things I’ve gotten better at, and how jumps in skill had to be preceded by overcoming an ego resistance.

Often, I had areas I was improving in, and I felt like I had a path of growth. Occasionally, I even felt like external circumstances were holding me back – not being attractive enough, or rich enough, or having enough free time, or having too much stress. But instead, most of the time I was totally blind sighted by my weaknesses in areas that I was not comfortable admitting to myself that I need improvement in.

I took for granted that I was good at certain underlying traits; improving meant admitting I was not, and then working really hard against my nature – or to change it, change who I am, or how I am. For certain problems, approaching them without ego was the skill: being curious, inquisitive, adapting rather than forcing pre-conceived notions and practiced approaches – are all elements of successful problem solving and engineering which are accomplished in large part by simply dropping your ego.

I’ve discovered many things to be skills, which I previously thought were mysterious black boxes, made out of many sub-components I could practice.

I also used to think that I’m simply bad at certain things, and will never be better. And have instead found that they are also skills, and also made out of small components I could practice.

I used to think being smart was something you were born with, and something I was good at – instead now I work to break it down, and improve on aspects of it. I used to think creative thinking was just some sort of unknown magical power some people have. I used to think memory was what you were given; that I was good at focus, or that I am naturally thorough. Or that I understand something when I first hear it, or that I’m good at conversation. I used to think I’m an introvert, not simply in need of better social skills.

I used to think I’d never dance, because that’s simply outside of the realm of possibility for me, and then came a time when I started to think I’m good at dance, and every sort of self-evaluation like that has always held me back – positive or negative.

It’s a harsh truth to accept – that someone is so much more popular than you because, while you’re incredible at certain things – they have a deeper truth about something that you’re exceptionally bad at. It’s not because they were born that way; it’s something you can have. And you are very far from having it, and you can certainly have it if you work on it. That feeling – is stepping over your ego. That moment – is when you can begin down the road to have whatever you desire.

One thing I thought I was always bad at is getting up early. I get really into whatever I’m doing, and am comfortable working late into the night.

In my situation, I need to work, and I need to work on side-projects, to get to where I want to go – have a business, have a green card. I don’t want to give up my hobbies, and I’m looking for a balance. And a friend told me I should live like in the military – come in at 9, and leave at 5, and work on my things 6-11, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

He said I’ll have to have discipline even if I quit. And that I won’t magically start living that way if all my time is free. I tend to be pretty productive in my free time, but what he said made sense. If I don’t project an aura of discipline and seriousness, and I try to employ people, they’ll happily take money, and not deliver, and my enterprise will never succeed.

Him and a few other people I respect maintain that it’s not something you just have. It’s a skill. I think incorporating that into my worldview – that for 29 years, I have not been “naturally bad at waking up early”, but rather “too lazy to be disciplined” – is a great opportunity to step over my ego, and try an approach that will salvage the best out of difficult circumstances, and perhaps lend me a tool that will propel my future goal towards success.

 

Time

“Don’t waste your energy” – a friend once told me. I was being dumb; I thought I was getting something for myself, taking what I want from the world. What I was really doing was devoting my limited, priceless energy to a cause that served no purpose I believe in. I was stumbling in darkness, failing to see that I merely have no plan for myself in those circumstances. Instead of taking what I want, I was satisfying primitive desires, being a slave to impulse.

I’d made that mistake countless times before, and I’ve done it countless times since.

Today, I was forced to face this ever changing, shapeshifting issue once again. How am I spending my time? Are my actions aligned with my beliefs, and what I truly want to achieve? Or am I swiveling about, lost and confused, unaware of my own blindness and the chaos that my actions breed, as I aimlessly wander from my path in endless tangents?

It can be a painful and scary thing to consider.

I was talking with my mentor, and he outlined the ways in which I’m not succeeding. I proposed that it’s merely a problem, that a number of solutions come to mind, and it’s a matter of learning, adapting, experimenting, and growing – having a model of the problem, measuring the outcomes, and seeing how they respond to changes. He agreed with all the approaches I outlined, and was supportive of the general direction of thought.

But he went a step deeper, and asked me about my routines outside of work. He asked me what time I go to bed, whether my apartment is clean, whether I drink, or smoke, or do other drugs, how often. He suggested that the best thing I can do is to have a stable sleep schedule.

I said the reason my apartment is messy, and the reason I go to bed late is the same – I come home, and I work on projects, until I fall asleep. And I don’t go to sleep on a schedule, because I get into my projects, and want to keep working.

But I could see what he was doing. He was taking every time slot I have, and questioning whether it contributes to success, to my goals as he sees them.

This model of living is not one of two worlds – doing work so that you can get to the thing you actually want to do. It’s a model of optimizing your life to succeed at work, organizing your life around it. And to a large degree he has done that with his own life, as have many other successful people I know.

I’ve always thought I’m special, though. I’ve told myself stories of how guitar practice, dance practice – organize my mind in some not fully comprehensible way, to give me an advantage. Though truly, focusing directly on a single problem – could likely yield greater benefits for that one problem, and get you farther down the road of success.

I’ve always thought I’m special, though. I’ve told myself that I can use the tools for thought I gain in my life as an engineer, a mathematician, working on rigorous thought – to contribute back to things I enjoy where that sort of approach is not common. The other side of the excuse. Ironically recursive.

And so I was at the edge of a cliff at the mountains of the energy I’m granted every day, looking down at the valleys of opportunity. True beauty comes from depth; perhaps I’ve spread myself too thin, and breadth has limited my depth?

Today I thought – am I wasting my energy? Instead of taking something for myself from dance, and music – perhaps instead I’m the one devoting my limited, priceless energy to problems that are… beneath me? Beneath what I should be focusing on, what can truly elevate me in life? Perhaps I’m stumbling in darkness, and limiting my success, because I’m not focused on a singular cause?

A painful thought.

I don’t think it’s fully true. I think the resolution of the two worlds lies much deeper. The purpose of a life is not to win, significance is between the lines. The boldest paths are never straight; the outcome of a gauntlet thrown to the universe is never known. I can’t be slave to a destination.

I think increasingly, I do need to be very serious about the energy I have; not throw it around, trying to share and make everyone happy. Know its true value, and make sure it’s realized. Understand very clearly what’s a waste of time, and very clearly how what I do fits in with where I’m going in life. I need to crystallize my goals, so it takes no effort to decide if something is worth doing, and I should always have several things worth doing in front of me, and further refining my goals to only choose a few of those.

One last note.

It can be very hard to be present when striving for that sort of focus. Be open to the moment, or detached from outcomes. I think fundamentally, the model should start with being your best in the circumstances you’re in, and deciding what to do is about placing yourself in the right circumstances to shine. I think being present in the moment is in great conflict with being focused on a longer term goal – unless the people around you all contribute to that long term goal.

I think too often I find myself in groups of people who aren’t so focused, people in different stages in life, or different approaches to living. Perhaps I should be careful to surround myself with people with similar goals, and similar drive.

 

Fears

I have a burning desire to forge my own path in life; be my own person, live my own vision. The day for me to make some tough choices is approaching – I’ll need to get out of a comfortable job, and take a leap of faith. In some ways, I’m terrified of the future. I’m afraid that I’ll end up with no money, outside of the United States, with no options in life; that my skills will fade, and I will be unhirable; that I’ll work my heart out trying to build a business, fail, give up 15 years later, and have to work until I’m 70 to barely earn a retirement.

Every day on my way to work, I walk 30 minutes straight through the dirtiest part of San Francisco, through the Tenderloin (the ghetto), and see utter defeat: people scraping the bottom of the barrel, with nowhere to go, no path out. Homelessness, drug abuse, dirt, stench – hopelessness. The consequences of failure are very real. The world is more competitive than ever before, and the safety that modern technology has brought is a fleeting illusion, if you step outside of the beaten path.

I have no one to rely on but myself, and so I have to be able to rely on myself. I take the skills that I’m trying to acquire in this phase of my life very seriously, which is why I’ve decided to work so hard to understand and improve my thinking. To win, you have to truly be the best – outsmart and outwork everyone else, learn to use every aspect of your mind.

 

 

Problem solving stages

Thinking better is about knowing how to think.

Knowing how to do anything involves knowing what situations might occur, and what to do in those situations.

Problem solving is one of the most common patterns in thinking. I believe that solving a problem involves a set of recurring stages, and each stage has a recurring set of thought patterns that help overcome that stage.

Here are, in my opinion, the general steps of solving any problem:

  1. Understanding the problem
  2. Conceive of a sequence of steps that will solve it – a plan
  3. Execute the plan

To understand the problem, make sure each word in its description is known, and then find all possible questions to ask about every explicit or implicit statement, and try to get answers to all those questions.

An understanding of the problem should yield a set of things that must come into place for it to be solved. They may be interdependent, and it may take several iterations, with subsequent ones building on previous ones. Regardless, it’s necessary to take the unstructured set of things that must come into place, and structure them into a linear sequence of actions that can be executed.

Once the sequence of actions is accepted, it must be executed. Execution is all about focus. For focus to be possible, the object of focus must always be explicitly known, otherwise minds resort to disarray. If a part of the plan does not have an immediate method of execution, it must be broken down into smaller action items that can be immediately carried out.

Breaking problems down

I was practicing guitar – a piece I’ve played thousands of times through over 4 years of near-daily practice, and have not yet mastered: Cliffs of Dover, by Eric Johnson.

I was going through it with the mindfulness of my mental laziness – tendency to avoid working the most on the things I know least about – and noticed a particular section that I’ve never broken down to its last detail.

To give context, I have played most of the tricky parts of the piece in isolation hundreds of times, from snail-level slow, to 32 times as fast, experimented with technique, every possible finger placement and transition, different ways of holding the pick, etc – I’m obsessed with perfecting this song.

But this, I’ve known for years, was my weakest part of the song, it came least naturally to me, and feels most tricky, though it has a very ancillary place in the song – it’s not the star, it’s not marvelously beautiful – more like a very impressive space-filler.

And I realized that it was also my least practiced part of the song. So one lesson for me was: always make sure to be very aware of what the weakest, least understood area of thought is, and focus most on decomposing it.

The awkwardness of it comes from the fact that it’s supposed to flow continuously and very quickly, but it has a very jagged, non-continuous shape on the guitar neck, and you need to jump around a lot. But the split-second stopping points of the melody are never during the finger jump.

And so I found that I always practiced the melodies between the jumps, as practicing it with the jump was very awkward.

And that was my biggest mistake. What I should have done instead – was isolate the jumps, and repeat them 1000 times.

So I started to isolate it, and repeat it – and there are 3-4 consecutive awkward jumps in a row, so I repeated those. And an hour later, I found that I had committed the same mistake as before – of not focusing on my weakest area the most.

I found that between 2 jumps, there’s a section without a jump, which I really suck at, and that is what actually makes the jump hard. And I was further able to isolate it to merely a 3 note chunk – that repeats a few times. Working at this 3-4 note level, I was able to really understand the mechanics of making all these jumps possible, and devise an optimal fingering.

I’ve played that part for years, and I don’t think I was ever aware of how poorly I understand how to make that section happen, while being painfully aware of every detail about every other part.

In hindsight, this lesson is too obvious: break down a problem to its smallest components to understand it in depth; isolate unknowns by trying to break the problem down further and further. Always ask “what’s still not known”, and strive to find the smallest knowable thing. Sometimes finding a bigger thing can fool you into thinking you’ve attained understanding, and never be satisfied.

Triggers

One thing I’ve experimented with is switching intentions.

For instance, I can “become” shy, outgoing, focused, impenetrable, or sensitive, or relentless, or uncertain, positive, regretful, or even non-feeling intentions – be as a rock, or be like water. I can project these essences of feeling, and I have a certain degree of conscious control over it: to a degree, I can choose an intention, and my body language, posture, and thinking patterns align around it without further effort. It’s like acting… Except the key thing that I’ve thought about using it for is for the thinking differently, or thinking in a certain way.

It seems as though if I learn to best leverage this type of acting, I can skew my thought process towards generating certain kinds of conclusions, and maybe I can even know which sorts of errors I’m more prone to in various mental states. I could imagine precise thought to benefit from a cold rational intention, and sensitive personal interaction to benefit from thought patterns that aren’t so demanding and exact, that allow for much more error.

I was thinking about this on my walk today. When I take walks, I like to listen to music, and work on my vision – I’ve been doing it for years, and I’ve gotten some results, and I just like to believe that vision can be improved with work; I try to allow my eyes to relax, and focus more clearly. I found that switching around my intentions allowed me to change what I could do with my eye focus – certain intentions allowed for more clarity. More serene and thoughtful and reflective modes, but also more focused and confident modes. This didn’t change my vision by itself; I still had to do the same mental work I normally do, but different intentions changed the characteristics of how difficult it was to focus on smaller things.

As I was trying to channel memories from different times in my life, playing around with my intentions, I noticed that certain songs – that I listened to a lot during certain periods in life – were like a gateway into an intention, they allowed me to channel experiences and thoughts attached to a part of my life, and made for a very powerful and effortless fusing with that character.

I found that I can channel other sorts of patterns of thought, ones that I don’t have any recurring pattern (like a song listened to on repeat) attached to. But I found it much harder.

And so I thought of this as a tool to compartmentalize modes of thinking – attach them to a repeated trigger, like a song. Have a ritual, a mantra, whatever – any repetitive action that through Hebbian plasticity will trigger a mental state – do it every time I need to summon a character, and then work hard to sustain that focus and attach it to the trigger. Suddenly, I understood why rituals and traditions and other similar patterns of behavior have been so popular around the world for so long.

Change

I’ve been thinking about ways to excel at thinking, inspired by thinking about the technical interview process for software engineers. Interviews famously focus on skills that are different from everyday work, but I don’t want to have to study for them by learning algorithms and carefully practicing writing them out on paper. I don’t want to “crack the coding interview”, though I’ve done that in the past with great success: you can really become quite good at being meticulous and error-free on this one task, with practice.

Instead, I want to have superpowers. I want my brain to be able to produce those optimal algorithms flawlessly, with full confidence, without taking time out to prepare for an interview.

I want the fundamental way my brain works to produce error-free thoughts, and give it a notation to naturally express itself with laser-like precision (i.e., write out code as naturally as thoughts).

So instead of focusing on “how do I solve algorithms questions?”, I’m going to focus on “what are the components of thinking, and how do I perfect each one?”.

What are the components of thinking? I hope to get more and more insight and depth around this question. I have something to start with, however: focus, creativity, thoroughness, seeing blindspots and edge cases, understanding assumptions, logical and critical thinking, systems thinking, humility, sensitivity, respect.

I want to think about how to improve each of those components. And I want to have standardized loops to measure these things for myself. I won’t be able to be scientific, but I’ll try my best to be honest with myself in evaluating exactly why the routines I choose don’t go perfectly smoothly, and figure out what sort of improvement in my way of thinking could have remedied it.

One reason I wish to improve my thinking in this way, is that I believe that applying this sort of thinking the best you can, every day – leads to a dramatic difference in how you grow, who you become, over time; I believe that through every action, the path of someone who puts this much care into every aspect of life – shines through; and I believe that that is the best way to be human, the best way to connect to other people, the best way to be a source of positive change.

I’m going to apply this to: creative puzzle solving (such as algorithms), learning pieces of music, learning Spanish, training to do a handstand, improving dancing in tango and zouk, improving my posture, a hobby project app/game that I’m working on, and my everyday work, which involves time-sensitive operations that require great care, prioritizing, scheduling, diagnosing, thinking creatively, teamwork, planning, and executing plans. I’m going to do my best to use these time slots as opportunities to watch my mind think, and understand what about that thinking lies outside of my framework for optimal thinking.

When I say “standard loops”, I mean something quite subtle. For instance, when writing out algorithms, one thing to keep track of is how good the algorithm is; similar, when practicing music, a thing to look at is how well the melody comes out. For the sake of this work, I’m not going to care about those aspects of practice at all. Instead, I’m going to care about what my mind is doing while it’s trying to come up with an algorithm and write it down, and retroactively look for what went wrong. I’m going to look at the thinking process that creates the performance process, not the performance process itself, and that will be the “standard loop”. Which is why I put it in quotes; there’s no standard path; I’d solve the same problem differently on a different day, though I hope to isolate the aspects of thinking, and practice them individually, similar to how I may practice a dance move 1000 times.

Some things that make sense to measure: how well did I understand a problem after first encountering it, how thoroughly did I explore solutions, was the solution I arrived at optimal, did I make any trivial mistakes as I went through it, did I panic or get lost or discouraged or distracted, did I lose sight of my goals, did I focus on the wrong aspects of the problem, was my solution perfect?

This will always be pushing the front in how I think, and perhaps some “improvements” will cause me to make more mistakes. I’ll have to get outside of my comfort zone, be honest with myself, and focus on the smallest, improvable details of how I think. The outcome will be thoughts, rather than numbers.