How to be less anxious amidst a changing world
The world keeps turning, the clock never stops, and I just want to do the most optimal thing. This article will attack platitudes head-on and provide soothing answers.
The world keeps turning, the clock never stops, and I just want to do the most optimal thing. So the faster I figure out myself, the sooner I can get started to do what matters. We often hear sentences like “Be the best you can be”, “Know thyself”, “Travelling makes you grow”, “Stay on your path”, or “Be more conscious of yourself”. They are supposed to help us figure out what matters, but oftentimes they only make us more anxious: what am I to do with myself amidst a world that never stays the same? As soon as I figured out one thing, it seems like the chessboard has shifted and I have to start anew. This article will attack platitudes head-on and provide some soothing answers, like a pill popped quickly, but less addictive and hopefully more everlasting.
Give me raw thought
It is tempting to try to lay it all out on a big drawing board so you can see it all, like Stefan Zweig, and then edit away until you can “be the best you can be”. Edit until you have edited away all the rough edges, and everything fits together perfectly, until it all makes sense. Wouldn’t it be great if we could apply Zweig’s approach to writing in our own lives and edit away all the kinks until it all makes sense? Destiny laid bare in front of our eyes, and we just need to wield the pencil and re-draw our lifeline. But we will often find ourselves less like the erudite author, and more like the character in his chess novella: playing a (loosing) game against ourselves.
Of course, it is great if form and content are in tune, like what Goethe achieved in his Faust; when our thoughts come out in a nice hexameter, guiding our actions in the most beautiful synchrony Stanislavski could have imagined. But we are not “just” actors delivering a script, we are also trying to invent the script as we go along. As opposed to many less fortunate whose scripts had been pre-written and who had to make the best of it, many of us privileged ones have the freedom to choose. But we often experience this freedom as stifling. I think it is because we want everything to be in tune, want it all to make sense on a grander scheme that is editable from an easily accessible drawing board on our knees. However, we cannot constantly go back and try to edit our lives and live it too at the same time.
Instead, we can accept to be occasionally out of tune. Like free jazz, it gets annoying over long durations, but injecting some randomness in small doses can be beneficial. It can open up new ways of thinking by ejecting the networks in your brain from local minima (in ML speak), but it can also show you that the very drawing board you have mapped your life on can suddenly shift. The former is equivalent to new internal perspectives, re-interpretation of circumstances, “seeing everything in a new light”, like when a physicist invents a new equation and it suddenly all makes more sense. The latter is equivalent to external shifts, random often unforeseeable events like Taleb’s black swans, events outside of yourself that re-draw the constraints for a large number of people and often lead to noticeable differences over generations that macroeconomists pick up on. The latter shifts are often out of our hands, but we can choose to accept being out of tune for a while, and maybe find something beneficial in it.
There is a tendency in modern life towards decreasing latency. We go on an app to order our lattes so we don’t have to wait to pick them up, we want websites to load instantly so we can consume the content right away, and we want productivity apps that squeeze every second of idle time out of our agendas — maybe, we can also invent neural interfaces that squeezes the thoughts out of our heads faster right onto the screen on our laps, or onto the screens of our followers who can then consume our content even faster? This is often naively referred to as “mind reading”.
But what we forget is that the brain is already revealing itself to us and to others through language. Of course, this language that we have invented for ourselves is imperfect, it is difficult to communicate the meaning of concepts, and when you press too hard and really want to put your finger on a word, like when you repeat it to yourself many times, it vanishes (maybe because meaning is not in the words themselves, but in the relations between them, like Wittgenstein argued).
But through language we reflect, in articulating we concretize, we form our thoughts as we speak. When we finally hear the words that come out of our mouths, we are often amazed — is this really what I have thought? No, in the brain concepts might very well be intermixed, like the duck and the rabbit, only along more than two dimensions (duck, rabbit, mythological rabbit-duck, etc). When you speak, you are pulling words out of your head like rabbits out of the magician’s hat. So what if we stuck an electrode into the brain (à la Elon Musk’s Neuralink) to read out thoughts? Expecting to read out something concrete when we hardly ever know what we are trying to say seems like a pipe dream. Unless you appreciate raw thoughts, jagged lines, imperfect ideas, and the multiplicity of meaning and possibility that lies therein.
You often hear people say “you need to spend some time alone to learn who you really are”. It always sounds to me like the advice Laertes gets from Polonius:
“This above all: to thine own self be true,/ And it must follow, as the night the day,/ Thou canst not then be false to any man” (Hamlet, Shakespeare)
I get “neither a borrower nor a lender be”, but this being true to myself…The problem is, I think, that it is a problem that cannot be solved alone. Even if you took the time to go up in the mountains, pull out the drawing board, and sketch what you think of as your Self, I think you would stumble upon a paradox: you cannot know thyself really without the relation to the Others. Or more pointedly, the Self does not exist without the Others, and vice versa (as perhaps Wittgenstein or Hegel might have put it). In that, I think the Self vs. the Others is very much analogous to the problem of a word vs. the corpus of words that make up a language. It only makes sense as long as you are playing the (language) game.
I can try to spell out what I am like by looking around and seeing myself in relation to Others, e.g. my friends: “I am a bit of Will and a bit of Mo, with a splash of Dominique”. But when you are trying to take yourself out of the equation your run into all sorts of trouble. You might say: let’s find out who I am by observing other’s responses to me. You find yourself at a dinner, obsessed with your own thoughts, observing other’s responses, trying to objectively determine if they like or appreciate you (aka if they are good friends). You think you are being smart by taking yourself out of the equation. But the problem is that you cannot treat yourself as fixed (or ceteris paribus, as the economists would say): your friends will keep on interpreting your behavior, and adjusting their own, until they stop inviting you anymore because you’re always so grumpy and objective. At some point, your brain will again take everything for given and interpret your lack of social interactions as a consequence of you not being a likeable person, and voilà, you have your result: your friends confirm you’re really just a grumpy, unlikeable person.
But wait a minute — you have dug your own grave. If I walk around being a great skeptic (like Taleb may want to argue), I will only get Others’ responses conditioned on me being a skeptic. Behavioral research shows when you take the dominant person out of a group, the other members’ behavior shifts radically (source). If you were one of the others, you might not recognize yourself anymore. So what happens when you self-quarantine and try to find yourself? Contrary to what people might think, you will not find your “true Self”, but rather a different Self, one which is not conditioned on the usual group of people around you but rather conditioned on your new surroundings. Basically, don’t try to outsmart yourself.
“You contain multitudes”,
as the Brahman might say.
People jokingly say: “Hey, you are just a big kid”. I think that is literally true. Don’t you sometimes find yourself looking at the leaves on a tree, or an apple orchard (not the Chekhovian kind of impending doom), not really thinking anything, just marveling and experiencing a childish joy? That is before your reflection kicks in and takes the leaf apart into its constituting bits, chlorophyll and all. It is just that different personalities are layered on top of the childish one as we grow older, obscuring the simple core. The personality that is structured around the complexities of daily life that we come to increasingly uncover as we grow older has enveloped the naive one that treated the world as a big exciting zoo. If that is true, then imagine what other personalities you could conceive of untethered to the way society has come to conceive you. The tragedy is that we cannot live our lives like actors upon a stage, choosing to be Ionesco’s king for one soiree, or even bird-god Atahualpa the next. But maybe you can get a taste for it. A taste for being not one or the other, but all, and choosing as you momentarily please.
Travelling makes you grow as a person
People commonly say “you grow by traveling”. But you definitely don’t grow physically, so what do they mean? I think you do grow, but not in the way people think that this automatically happens when you set foot in an airport with a ticket to Ibiza. First of all, if you travel, you can choose to either go visit a country and then shut yourself off in a resort (to relax), in which case you are not really traveling. Or you can choose to interact with the locals to some extent. But if you choose the latter, you again find yourself in the predicament of not being perceived as your “true Self”. You have left your old relations and relationships behind you and with them your old Self. The new community, however, has its own thoughts about you upon arrival: they may quickly decide to fetishize you in some way (because you are a rarity) or demonize you (because you are a threat), or both together. Your exterior/your demeanor/ your provenance, the more tangible things about you, in the first moment trump whatever fancy Self you have constructed for yourself. Suddenly, you are confronted with a new version of you, and if you start to think about it, you may realize all the things you previously took for granted. You thought you’re this particular fixed Self, within a playground that you thought was the world.
The brain is extremely good at adapting (neural firing rates adapt to sensory stimuli all the time). And the better you adapt, the more you actually believe that this is the way it is, the way it has always been, and the way it will always be.
Hence, the feeling of “hüzün” that the author Orhan Pamuk feels permeating his birth town Istanbul: a melancholic feeling of clinging to the remnants of old glory. It permeates many cities in the European East, and might come as a shock to a visitor from San Francisco who lives squarely within the Future. It is shocking to see the shifts in mentality as you travel from the European East all the way to San Francisco, to be confronted with the structures and definitions you took for granted, going in either direction. Travelling can give you a taste for alternative lives. So I am bullish on post-epidemic plane rides.
Be more conscious of yourself
People often tell you to be more aware of yourself, reflect more, and you will solve all your problems, be more considerate of Others, etc. First, one needs to realize the difference between “consciousness “ and “self-consciousness”. When I am at full consciousness, I can perceive my surroundings, the sensory stimuli impinging upon my receptors.
When I am self-conscious, I direct that consciousness toward myself and observe my own thoughts and actions: the brain observing itself. I think self-consciousness is overrated, an evolutionary byproduct that may turn out to be less help than hindrance. Or like Werner Herzog would say:
“I don’t even look into my face. I shaved this morning, and I look at my cheeks so that I don’t cut myself, but I don’t event want to know the color my eyes. I think psychology and self-reflection is one of the major catastrophes of the twentieth century”.
I would not necessarily be as harsh, but the issue is that self-consciousness makes you dwell in the past or in the future, and less in the present moment. Self-consciousness is built on memory, without it, there would be nothing to analyze. Sensory experiences leave a trace in the brain and the sum of them somehow adds up to what you experience as Yourself. They also give you data with which to plan your future life, to choose the paths you want to take. The more memories, the more data to peruse, the better, no?
Well, Funes the Memorius has perfect memory and can recall every moment of the last day, but it takes him another full day to do that (Borges, Ficciones 1994). The problem is perusing the past, perhaps in order to try and see if you can re-draw your lifelines on the drawing board, saps time and energy, as does perusing the data to project ahead. The problem is self-consciousness takes away from current living. Without going into the argument that you cannot change your past, and you can only forecast your future to a certain degree of accuracy (see Taleb).
Music, unlike the other Arts, has the incredible power to take you out of your ruminations and lead you by the ear moment for moment. It is a fleeting art, and by that very nature, it has the power to re-focus your mind on the current moment. Listen to the tunes playing around you and lose yourself (in the moment).
Fixing the odds
Imagine yourself as a gardener. You work hard all day to get the weeds under control, plant trees, plant flowers, plant vegetables, in the hope that it will all one day flower and bloom in a cornucopia of colors and tastes.
You notice that little walnut tree is starting to grow, to bear fruits, but you tell yourself you are too busy to enjoy, there is all the rest of the garden that still needs work: you shall enjoy once it is all done. Every day you wake up early thinking there will be enough time, but every time new problems arise that get added to the list: neighbors to be appeased, bugs attack your trees, moles turn your garden upside down. Then out of nowhere, one day you wake up, the sun shines bright, no moles in sight, the neighbors are happy, and you notice the first big red apple appearing on your fledgling tree. Bliss, you achieved it. All the hard work finally paid off. The next day there is a hailstorm and your garden lies in shambles.
You start anew, building up to that perfect moment. It is hard to find peace this way. Constantly running to preserve order, to exert control over your surroundings, until you fulfill your ideal. As soon as you seem to get a hold of it, it is already slipping out of your hands. A lot of anxiety I think arises in modern life from trying to fix the odds, to impose structure on something inherently in flux, and then trying to make it permanent: have it last forever, like the great Ozymandias (Shelley). But seasons are changing.
Might as well try to squeeze a little happiness out of every little moment of success along the way. Yes, the rest of the garden is not perfect, but look at this red apple. Yes, the bugs are invading my tree, but look at how these ants can travel vertically. Or as Hegel would say, you can use dialectics to re-interpret every situation (how else would Marx have dreamed up the perfect society out of the shambles of the proletariat). It’s like when someone describes your faults as never sticking to what you’ve been told or being not detail-oriented enough — great, that simultaneously means you are probably thinking outside of the box and know how to manage your time.
The more you learn, the better
Turning a decade older is a good time to reflect upon all the useless things learned. The problem, of course, is you don’t know what you might need, and you don’t know what you don’t know, so learning more stuff in school is better, no?
Well, our brain — unlike the often-used analogy of a computer — does not like to just preserve facts faithfully. It constantly re-combines things, re-connects things, and forgets things, probably for the better. Yes, I could just treat school as a place to dump a bunch of things into my brain in the hope that it will do the work for me and someday I will draw the bunny out my magic hat (the brain often does this). The problem is if old ideas get in the way of new ones; if school inculcates docility along with the ideas. You should honor your teacher and, above all, honor the role you have been assigned in the classroom (and in life).
Teachers can forecast just as badly as oneself (see Taleb). While it does not matter so much for them to be wrong (they will keep on teaching), it might impact your whole trajectory in life (and how you conceive of your Self). What if we had a way to reset the scale so that the good, perfect kids are dethroned every month or so? Provide fresh opportunities for success, untethered to the past (of course, part of the problem is knowledge is incremental, but if we tried hard, could we not conceive of explaining new concepts in non-tautological ways?). Perhaps this would also be a way of teaching resilience — the one big intangible trait that helps the most amidst a changing world. Resilience when turned inwardly, and its outward-facing pendant, healthy irreverence.
These are qualities that help you out West, at the frontier, and when you do research or drive innovation or simply give in to the very human tendency to ask why, you are working at the frontier. At the frontier, it is hard to find love and appreciation. The more advice you seek, the more you feel like you are being pulled in different directions, sometimes opposing ones. Why? Because people from traditional disciplines or with traditional ideas will give you advice based on their framework — not the totality of things. Since you are building your persona from your relations to Others (see above), you will undoubtedly let their advice have an effect on you, maybe even assign a higher weight to it because you think of those people as “mentors”. You cannot help but see yourself in their light. But one should remember to take everything with a grain of salt, and discount Others’ opinions appropriately. Figuring out the appropriate discount factor is hard, but the more opposing opinions you hear, the higher it should probably be.
Go back to the old ways
In the future (aka San Francisco), you increasingly perceive a tendency to reject technology and go back to the way things used to be. Not just there, but there especially, among the very denizens of the data-powered, app-controlled future. It’s almost like the more you gaze into the crystal ball, the more atavistic you become (e.g. Burning Man).
So what happens if you start out re-building a centuries-old house deep in the Romanian mountains? I just want to live a simpler life, go back to the things used to be. Well, first of all, you realize it is an old house, nothing fits out of the box, everything has to be made to fit — it dawns upon you, might standardization be useful? You need to fix some planks and you find some nails. Now you could take the big stone that you find next to the river that is somewhat too big to be wielded and too jagged not to hurt your hand, but you could make it work. Or you could go to the store and buy a hammer, preserve some useful energy, and not take the risk of infection.
It escalates from there. You notice how each additional tool saves you something, especially time: going from a manual to an electric drill, all the way to adding a sprinkler to your garden instead of watering manually. Likewise, new innovations will become indispensable if they save time. Because ultimately, time is limited. Automating chores frees up time to think, which in turn can be used to drive innovation.
The ideal of unencumbered life in nature is pretty, but the struggle is real: time to think does not come for free. Those trees need to be watered while they’re young, and the water needs to be pulled from a well. Add to that the continuous stressor of having your whole existence depend on whether your trees survive and how big and pretty your 🍎 grow. You can’t just take a nap under the tree and wait for an apple to fall on your head.
Contrary to what new-age frontier folks might think, fancy tools are useful — up to a degree. The time saved from the 10th specialized kitchen machine will obviously converge to zero. But there should be no shame in crawling up on the shoulders of giants, leaning into advantages, and making the most of the time given.
In conclusion, 1) embrace raw thought with all its kinks, 2) if you are on a quest to find yourself, you might as well throw yourself into the world and learn to discern your various influences 3) get to know your various selves and don’t be afraid to occasionally step out of character, your inner child will appreciate the masquerade, 4) use travel (& books) as a way to explore alternative lives, 5) turn up the music after a prolonged moment of self-reflection, 6) re-interpret the cracks in the picture as distinguishing features, use hardship as a learning opportunity, 7) build resilience as early as you can and practice a healthy irreverence, 8) don’t be afraid to stand on the shoulders of giants.
P.S.: The author might have spent a bit too much time self-reflecting deep in the Carpathian mountains, and drawing too many buckets of water out of wells.