Enchantment as solace for the human mind

I was thinking there may be only 2 realms of solace for the human mind: Enchantment or Entertainment. But I think there’s a third: Work at which you are expert, or in which you can feel yourself actively improving toward expertise.

Basically, there are states of mind that provide relief from the stress induced by mean and mundane activities. Mean being low, wicked, or brutish. Mundane being tedious, repetitive, and often mandatory.

Entertainment is basically just stimulation of the release of “happy” chemicals in the brain: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins — achieved primarily through sequences of anticipation and fulfillment, e.g. Joke lead-up and punchline. Entertainment borders on, or even achieves, Enchantment when the anticipation or its fulfillment is emotionally arresting.

There feasibly may be more categories of manifestation of Enchantment, but this set of 3 seemed to be pretty inclusive:

Awe – overwhelmed by beauty/greatness (e.g. Mountaintop)
Gratitude – overwhelmed by goodness (e.g. Act of kindness)
Camaraderie – overwhelmed by oneness (e.g. Team victory)

The effect, of course, is that you become transfixed in the present moment with a personal attachment to the source of the emotional arrest.

The kind of enchantment that seems to make a person particularly industrious is that of an envisioned future. And while it may seem that an enchanting future must invariably be observed through rose-tinted glasses, I actually think the engineer has a different opportunity. The engineer can not only imagine the future, but can conceive and design the transitional states.

There are other kinds of enchantment that do other kinds of work. Enchantment with natural ecosystems of plants, animals, and terrain often generate higher-order affections toward the earth and its inhabitants.

Enchantment with individual people often generates an enthusiasm for that person’s well-being and happiness.

And both of these can lead to selfless, generous behavior.

Really, the healthiest mind is probably one which cultivates many sources of enchantment, such that when one falls away, another can readily take its place.

Because when enchantment falls away, all that can replace it are basically mood-altering drugs — like sugar, television, or alcohol, etc.

All that said, doing work for which you are well-suited (capabilities match skills) enables the state of smooth, masterful operation called Flow. In some ways, Flow is the highest solace for the mind, because you actually produce your own enchantment. The thing you are connecting with is you.

And by sorting this out (for myself, anyway), I think I just did what I was talking about. Yeah, and I liked it — it’s exhilarating. Like an adventure sport.

Ideas by Groups vs Individuals

There’s a class of ideas that I would describe as “systemically coherent”. I.e. Fully baked. These ideas reside within ecosystems of other ideas, composing a plausible comprehensive vision of a future state.Not easy to do this — you have to understand a lot of different domains: theory and operation, present position and velocity, historical trajectory (and you need to be able to read between the lines of history… which is always merely an interpretation through someone else’s mind’s eye). And there’s inevitably black swan type behaviors which looked like nothing pre-event but ultimately consumed the entire storyline. And everything follows some probabilistic model.

Some individuals have been able to grasp narrow slices of the future within the capacities of their minds. Nikola Tesla is an archetype — known for prototyping his inventions entirely in his mind, and only after many virtual simulations, building the final article which functioned just as he expected.

These individuals develop an extraordinarily accurate and coherent set of models for how things work. And I would guess they are all constrained via visual feedback systems. I.e. They visualize the thing they’re imagining, and inspect how it responds to various manipulations. The visual feedback is the only way to transfer the amount of information needed for this mind’s eye approach to work.

Narrowness must necessarily characterize the efforts of the individual idea-maker — time is a natural limiter to the task of cultivating each detail of the idea to its perfection.

Now groups…

Groups, of course, are composed of individuals, so multiple individuals working in parallel is a reasonable starting point for modeling groups.

There are, however, several interesting ways that humans interact that enhance that simple model:

1. People change how attention is directed. If somebody just comes and sits down in your office, doing nothing but sitting there — there’s still a change in your attention. Only by imposing a mental block on the knowledge of that person’s presence — either effortfully or automatically by way of habit — will that person’s effect on your attention be diminished. And if they’re not just sitting there but rather talking… about something interesting… or about you… that clearly increases the intensity of the effect on attention.

If we were to model attention as a vector field — like the magnetic field around a 2-pole bar magnet — the presence of another person is like another magnetic pole in that system. And the resultant vector field is dramatically warped — possibly even dominated by the new pole.

An ideal magnetic vector field can be achieved by adding or removing magnetic poles of different intensities… and you can imagine adding or removing people to optimize a human attention vector field. Different activities would require different attention vector fields, so the optimal configuration of people would be task-dependent.

E.g. If the task is to dig a ditch, it is critical to have a group. Without a group, the individual attention wanders to higher-order planes of thought. With a group, there is continuous feedback: “We are a group. We are all digging this ditch. I am part of the group. I dig my part of the ditch.”

Naturally, we would also need to consider the effects of sociopathies at the individual and group level… later.

2. The effect of people on individual attention can be designed toward many different ends. In the above ditch-digging example, a collection of minds might induce individual conformity and ease the boredom which would naturally plague an individual and diminish likelihood of task completion.

Another collection of minds might act as the sensors and actuators on a rocket, which keep it flying straight in the midst of turbulent airflow. I.e. Each individual relies on the capabilities of the other members of the group in order to focus on its own specialty. Another analogy: It is very difficult to climb up a flat wall — not so difficult to climb 2+ walls facing each other. 2+ minds facing each other can give birth to an idea none could have summoned individually.

3. The capabilities of the individuals in a group cannot be harvested without well-tuned interfaces between group members. The full package of communication includes the quality of mental models being externalized, the precision and concision of words and imagery used to represent those models, the emotional packages in which the words are ferried, the tonal modulation and gestures used to express those emotions, and the clarity of the audio/visual medium to express it all from transmitter to receiver.

4. Well-designed attention vector fields + interpersonal interfaces are then augmented or attenuated by environmental factors. E.g. Cluttered vs clean work spaces, High vs Low noise environments, etc. Individuals can more or less control their environments, but not so with groups, necessitating a careful design of rules. All systems of rules fail, but the better ones fail gracefully. I.e. There is no cascading fall-out from the failure — the system maintains a state of control.

5. The group is always changing, so the next design question addresses the dimension of time. How will the group change over time to ensure perpetuity of the work-in-process and the group’s defining vision and mission? There are many historical examples to initiate our model-building. Sculptures, monuments, and other public artworks have long been used as a medium for inducing remembrance. External memory stores preserve historical narratives. Naturally, those narratives get simplified and often deified over time, and that requires its own control system. However, the technique remains useful for perpetuating a vision through time. Oral re-telling or visual re-enactment of those stories presents a potentially more dynamic medium. The combination of static artifacts/monuments and dynamic re-tellings could serve to ensure ongoing critical re-evaluation of the vision and its historical legacy.

6. Humans bond. And those bonds perform work on the system. A mother protects her child at cost to herself (and possibly others). Families are incubators for the young. Communities work together to improve and sustain their joint living conditions. Under certain circumstances, strangers will form quick bonds and protect each other from harm — typically under high-stress, often in the pursuit of a high-emotion, shared goal. Even rivals will unite when necessary.

Plenty of biological explanations for the phenomenon, but there are more interesting questions… What is the capability signature of a bonded group and how is it distinct from an unbonded group? For now, we might just say a bonded group is *more* capable than an unbonded one. As a pop culture reference, the entire premise of the MCU blockbuster The Avengers was that an unbonded group could accomplish very little while a bonded group could do the seemingly impossible. And that bond was, in fact, orchestrated by the group’s architect, depicted making machiavellian use of the unfolding events.

Bootcamps and other physically-demanding environments are designed to produce, among other things, camaraderie. Abstracting from that example, we would surmise that human bonds form primarily by way of shared suffering.

Shared suffering in service to a shared cause is even better. Hence Race for the CureĀ® and other such inventions.

Interestingly, the positive affective feedback loop resulting from interpersonal bonding can lead to a misattribution of goodness to any event of shared suffering in service to a shared cause. Like warfare. War is hell, and yet many servicemembers miss it afterward. The bonds that form between warriors seem to transcend their hellish context.

On the civilian side of things, the premise of the reality show Survivor was televised, extended competition between teams. Shared cause was simple: beat the opposing team and win the prize. Corporate team-building exercises seek to reproduce the same effect on a limited scale.

The group designer must then consider, given particular constraints, how to induce bonding within the group.

More later…

Modeling the precursors to accomplishment

Accomplishment seems to be a natural result of internalization and coordination (sometimes conscious but mostly unconscious) of Effortful control + Creative release.

Effortful control is the holistic capacity to operate the human machine — all systems: physical, mental, emotional. It is to Know thyself & Heal thyself. It is both the knowledge and habituated action to maintain an internal state of control. And until the actions are largely habituated, the coordination is sloppy — and not in control.

Creative release tends to follow effortful control — it might even be considered its reward. Effortful control is consciously employed by high-performers to consistently “set the stage” for creative release. The best of the best are well-tuned to perform because they are buffered internally from the outside stimuli by way of their habituated effortful control mechanisms.

Creative release is observed from the outside as equivalent to the accomplishment itself. It is the culminating performance on the reality tv talent show. It can appear effortless, magical, astonishing.

On the inside, from the performer’s PoV, creative release is observable in each small breakthrough leading up to that culminating performance. It is the daily cleverness to overcome a select set of difficulties and the parallel consolidation of a “second nature” tool set of concepts and skills.

The outside and the inside briefly join together in that culminating performance. And we call that accomplishment. And it sets a new precedent in that category. Collectively, we shift the adjacent possible upwards and there is a new field of potential targets for our ongoing study and practice.

This cycle is observable in any domain area — though it’s not usually a public, worldwide performance as in the Olympics. Often it is far more parochial — inside a company or possibly an industry.

The cycle feeds affect back to both the performer and the audience, which elicits further action to achieve higher accomplishment: “The tribe is pleased, and I am honored.”

Thus, it is only natural that children would be trained to exercise effortful control, afforded opportunities for creative release, and ultimately to experience accomplishment.

Properly coordinated, we would expect any child who is reasonably well-tended to initially cultivate a broad set of skills, and experience junior-level accomplishments — entirely parochial, but nevertheless induces the necessary affective feedback.

Gradually, there would emerge a set of skills and activities which more readily lead to accomplishment, either due to better training from the adults tending the child or due to the child’s own aptitude. And voila — we have uncovered a body of skills which, if the child carries on as they have been, will likely be cultivatable to higher and higher accomplishment — possibly even on the world’s stage.

Currently, this intuitive model for cultivating human accomplishment seems to be an add-on to the institution of public education. Naturally, the more involved (and typically wealthier) parents will ensure their children are engaged in extracurriculars — which typically do conform to this model.

48 Daily practices and efforts for children and adults

1. Look after your immediate and near-term personal needs and those of your family.
2. Extrapolate the likely near-term future and prepare.
3. Go walkabout within your locale — at different times of day.
4. Clean up your living conditions.
5. Improve your living conditions.
6. Exceed your physical conditioning — strength, power, or volume.
7. Eat food that makes you feel physically strong and mentally sharp.
8. Externalize and Test your knowledge.
9. Ensure you understand what you are saying — and do not agree with what someone else has said unless you understand its explicit meaning and have a reasonably good sense about its implicit meaning.
10. Simplify a complex thing to its principles and develop analogies for explaining those principles to others.
11. Ratchet forward a skill set.
12. Make art — and carefully study your artful forebears & contemporaries.
13. Memorialize something worth remembering.
14. Talk about important things with a close friend.
15. Tell stories and jokes with captivating presentation.
16. Be affectionate with your inner circle.
17. Invest in a friendship you intend to keep.
18. Read for knowledge.
19. Study the human timeline.
20. Study something of no present interest and connect it to what you are interested in.
21. Consider the blind spots of your perspective.
22. Take a calculated risk to test your capabilities.
23. Do your future self a favor.
24. Build and protect a suite of revenue-generating assets (aka wealth).
25. Study a system of people, technologies, natural phenomena, and working principles — and its history.
26. Observe other people’s needs — consider multiple solution models, test hypotheses, and cultivate a superior design for economical & reliable implementation.
27. See an important thing done.
28. Study a behavioral tendency and consider its causal factors — i.e. why do you do what you do?
29. Condition your internal & external environment for continuous improvement.
30. Cultivate a physical appearance and self-presentation.
31. Improve your cognitive and physical tool sets.
32. Present a gift to a person of power and/or wisdom.
33. Be alone with your thoughts and internally examine your ideas.
34. Cultivate a public curriculum vitae.
35. Imagine the world without you.
36. Identify the prominent features of the power structures around you and safeguard your position from abuse.
37. Study your subconscious biases and safeguard against their otherwise undetectable abuses.
38. Establish refuges of the body & mind.
39. Consider your dangers.
40. Consider gruesome realities — and be grateful you’re not facing them.
41. Harden yourself to fears.
42. Reduce anxieties to those which merit immediate attention and can be addressed with systematic effort.
43. Build a reputation of leadership within multiple areas of competence.
44. Seek pleasures which inform your perspective and increase interpersonal connection — avoid those leading to isolation and ignorance.
45. Train assistants and an heir apparent.
46. Seek treasures prepared by forebears for worthy heirs.
47. Assemble a comprehensive list of items of importance to humanity — then narrow down to short list of personal concerns — then address those concerns systematically.
48. Design a system of habits, relationships, capabilities, and refuges by which you can sustain happy, productive living interminably (with expected low points due to personal tragedy).

How to build expertise

TL;DR — Expertise is relatively straight forward to develop (more detail below on the necessary conditions). The bigger question is who should develop what expertise, so as to ensure its longevity.

— More Detail on the above —

Application of expertise is the most reliable means by which any individual contributes substantively to the economy of exchanges by which we all meet our needs. Luck (“right place, right time”) is a significant part of the system — but by definition, it is the exception, not the rule.

The cultivation of expertise has been studied for millennia, and is actually pretty well understood. Building expertise is really not that complicated or difficult to do, even at a mass scale, given certain conditions are true. Notice the caveat.

Conditions needed to cultivate expertise (relatively easily):
1. Establish early a child’s capacity to apply extended, disciplined effort in a self-improvement task. If this is not developed during a child’s relatively slow-paced early years, it becomes progressively more difficult to build due to the time-pressure of mounting responsibilities. Then extended, disciplined effort (particularly if joined with critical feedback on the subpar elements of the resultant work) may lead to the learner’s retreat “back to safety”. It is possible to get past the learner’s retreat, but only by applying far more substantial effort — and even then, probability of success is much lower due to the greater proportion of extraneous factors associated with life at later stages…
2. Learner is assisted early in their practice of skills to avoid forming self-limiting habit patterns. Aside: as a wrestling coach, I saw this rule repeatedly ignored via sloppy drills with little to no feedback to the learner. As the saying goes, “practice makes permanent”.
3. Learner has access to the conceptual schema of the domain (i.e. What are the essential understandings, how are they related, and how are they applied?) — better yet, they are equipped with the skill of assembling a conceptual schema from the available knowledge sources.
4. Learner is equipped with a means of self-assessment — i.e. a way of comparing their own performance to a model or exemplar. Preferably, performance feedback and assessment is immediate.
5. Learner has a context for useful application of their skill, at their current developmental stage of expertise, progressively increasing, if they are improving (as indicated by self-assessment).
6. Learner has an eclectic array of exemplars which serve as rich models for comparison against their own performance, and which normalize the seeking of higher levels of accomplishment.

All that said, I actually consider the far bigger problem to be which expertise to build. It takes a lot of time to build robust expertise — years — and the return on the learning investment follows that same track. Thus, both the individual and society benefits most from the continuous cultivation of expertise over time. From youth, then, humans should be equipped with the tools by which they might insightfully assess various expertise pathways, as they suit individual predilections, environmental benefactors/malefactors, etc.

11 ways to get on in life

1. Make things (technician, tradesman, laborer, artist)
2. Make better things (designer, engineer, inventor)
3. Make better things easier/faster/cheaper (manager, trainer, toolmaker, logistics)
4. Make things better for people (service, social benefit work)
5. Make better people (teacher, mentor, adviser, coach)
6. Make people better (nurse, doctor, surgeon)
7. Make people feel things (storyteller, entertainer)
8. Make people buy your things (sales, marketing)
9. Make & enforce rules about things (lawyer, judge, police, legislator)
10. Make knowledge (scientist, scholar, analyst)
11. Make organizations of people and things (governing authority, business owner)

4 essential elements of fitness… as I see it.

But it’s mostly just #1 — if you have #1, you’ll find a way to get #2-4.

1. You enjoy using your body to do fun, interesting, useful, challenging things.
2. You know how to maintain your body, so you can use it for a long time.
3. You know how to improve skills / capabilities to do more interesting things.
4. You have access to a place, time, and people to do all the things.

The above is for physical fitness, but it works for mental fitness too.
And, I think, for career fitness.
And philanthropic fitness.

So I guess we’re really talking about “human” fitness.
I.e. Being good at being a human — in all the ways you can be a human.

The big idea is to “pull” rather than “push” yourself.
Fun, interest, usefulness, and challenge are good “pulls”.

Building a habit of persistence

Perhaps persistence may be “gotten” by making a habit of continuously re-rendering the sights and sounds and feelings of accomplishment — with sufficient variation that it can be “like new” each day. Thus, we “pull” ourselves along toward some end by enamoring ourselves of the glory of those moments.

To exert control over our “inner lives”, we need to both amplify the signal we’ve designed for ourselves and attenuate the signals of the environment around us (which are often in conflict with the signal we’ve designed). This is particularly true of the “self-made” individual who transitions from one world to another. (e.g. “rags to riches”)

The interesting question that follows: How do we both cultivate our own view of things — which sustains our persistence in the face of difficulty and noise — while remaining receptive to changes in that view?

This is a difficult thing to do and will always be — there is no point at which the individual on this path may rest. However, empirical evidence presently suggests a way forward — and it’s the been the same for ages. The way forward appears to be the cultivation of the Mastermind (a la Napoleon Hill) — a group of people who do not necessarily share the same views, backgrounds, or values but who do share an ethic of improvement, a set of constructive habits, and shared rules of working together.

With such a mastermind, ideas, plans, and mental models can be externalized, examined, evaluated, and sharpened to a fine point. Not endless dialogue about trivialities or a free-for-all of words, but rather a structured “wringing out” of poorly-conceived notions and a building up of an eclectic set of models which may, in fact, disagree, but can yet be held together by recognizing the Area of Validity of each.

Final statement: Such Masterminds have existed for millennia and will continue to be formed, sustained, and renewed into the future. And I think it’s fair to say more are needed, they are needed early in life, and it’s worth considering how we might make more of them.

The primary difference between those who accomplish their vision and those who don’t

Over time I’ve concluded that the primary difference between those who accomplish their vision and those who don’t is whether they command their own time.

The problem is that nobody really has control of their own time during the work day — it’s the time for interaction with other people. This is particularly true under startup conditions, where there’s always too much to do, much is unknown (and thus requires discussion), and processes are not optimized and people are not well-trained, so information gets repeated, lost, misunderstood, etc. and needs to be revisited.

Thus, my hypothesis is that those who intend to accomplish their vision must work outside the workday (i.e. Nights & Weekends) in order to increase the proportion of time under their command.

Under conditions where processes are optimized or workloads are lower this may not be true. This is situation where you’re harvesting the rewards of prior effort (either yours or a predecessor’s) which produced a “well-oiled machine” that runs without direct intervention. And under those circumstances, you can use your workday to start building something else.

All that said, as soon as the other thing you’re working on becomes a “real thing”, you’ll find yourself back in the startup mode and you’ll lose your workday to interaction again — with team members, customers, vendors, etc. — which means you’re back to working nights and weekends in order to apply more time under your own command.

In short, to build something / accomplish a vision, there’s no getting around working a lot — i.e. nights and weekends. And it seems to me that young people who grow up putting a lot of time into recreational activities while still dreaming of fame and fortune need to come to grips with the contradiction in habits and expectations. And it seems like parents might better manage their own expectations for their children’s futures by looking at how their kids spend their nights and weekends.