Can’t Bear to Hurt Your Characters?

I’ve been writing novels – or at least trying to write novels, with varying degrees of success – for about ten years. In general, I’m a very good writer, but I have a chronic habit of not finishing novels in particular. I begin stories, get a quarter or halfway through, and never finish them. Sometimes the story stopped being interesting and I forgot about it, but more often, I had no idea where to go next.

From the reader’s perspective, this writing looked like a bunch of elegant prose and interesting characters just sort of aimlessly drifting with no purpose. Any one chapter, or even a short string of chapters, might be interesting, but after an extended period of reading, you would be left confused. I was just as confused writing these driftwood stories.

Only recently did I realize what I was doing wrong, and I realized it by accident.

A few months ago, I decided to start on a novel – not an uncommon whim for me, to be sure – but the way I came at it was different. Instead of imagining an interesting scenario, or world, or set of characters, I wanted to tell a story about something. It had a moral, a plot, a purpose. (I wanted to write about three things: our relationships with others, our relationships with ourselves, and the relative importance of each.)

For the first time, I shaped the characters and the world around the story, not the other way around. Oddly, I wasn’t comfortable writing beyond chapter 1 without a very clear idea of all the major plot beats, especially the ending. I had never done that before: known the ending before writing much of anything.

Besides helping me gain a clear roadmap for where I wanted my story to go, this mindset also helped me to get over what I had known for a long time was my biggest flaw as a novelist: my inability to hurt my characters. I hadn’t known before how to fix that problem, but all of a sudden with this mindset shift, I stopped having a mental hangup about killing or hurting characters. It confused me at first.

After a short time, I realized a fundamental distinction between the way I’d been writing before and the way I wrote this new story. Before, I had been writing wish fulfillment. I started with characters or situations or worlds that I enjoyed imagining things about, and I wanted to share those imaginings with the world, so I wrote them down. It was never about telling a story, it was about sharing a cute scenario or a cool world or a neat character. And because it was about those things, I would be extremely reluctant to sacrifice the real purpose of the writing for the sake of a “plot”.

On the other hand, when the goal was to tell a story, I didn’t get too attached to any one story component, because the only reason those components existed the way they did was because the story required it; if the story had required something else, I would have come up with something else.

If you can’t bring yourself to hurt or kill your characters, ask yourself why they’re so precious to you. Is your writing shaped around a story you’re trying to tell, or is it simple wish fulfillment? There’s nothing wrong with writing wish fulfillment, by the way – but if you’re writing that type of fiction, it’s often best to know it. That way, you don’t feel compelled to add a plot to what should really be a fluffy one-shot.

Having It All Figured Out Is Overrated

I’ve pretty much known my purpose in life since I can remember.

So far as I can tell, I just had a really strange reaction to the concept of death. I first heard about it and I basically thought, wow, this is a problem, this really sucks, someone should do something about it. But as a kid, I just thought the grownups would take care of it, just the same way they would take care of my skinned knee.

As I got a little older, though, being very vocal as I’ve always been about my thoughts on death, I realized the grownups weren’t going to fix it. In fact, they seemed pretty damn complacent about the regularly-occurring permanent destruction of human consciousness. And so, being the egomaniac I am, I decided to personally fix this problem.

As I started high school (and college), my first classes were in lab sciences. After all, mortality is a biological problem and would likely have a primarily biological solution. But as I soon learned, much to my dismay, I suck at lab sciences.

Frustratingly, knowing your purpose doesn’t mean you’ll be good at it.

I immediately changed my focus from biology to computer science. The basic idea was very vague – I think it went something like, “since I’m no good at the science, I’ll make a ton of money and pay somebody else to do the science”.

But I went after it for four years, taking every computer science class my college offered. By the end of that, my new goal had developed into something slightly more cogent: I would create a series of technology-focused startups and become a billionaire, then use the money to fund a nonprofit research company. As soon as the nonprofit produced something promising, it could spin off into its own for-profit startup and start selling it.

I didn’t worry too much about not having any grand ideas for tech startups. I knew I would first have to become the kind of person who could actually execute successfully against a great startup idea if it fell in her lap. So, I made a list of stuff I would need to know to create and run a successful business, from programming to finance to business law, and set to work on ticking items off the list.

By the end of high school and college (which I completed simultaneously for efficiency), I headed across the country in lieu of completing my four-year degree, content with an Associate’s in Computer Information Systems. Toward the end of my schooling, I’d worked full-time at a sales firm for six months, and now I was headed to work in marketing for another six months.

I can’t elaborate past this point, since I’m still living it.

This all probably makes me sound very cool, but that’s only because I conveniently left out all the bad bits. I left out the part where I sobbed into my sister’s arms over the B in chemistry that I squeaked out with all my effort. I left out the part where I had a three-week-long existential crisis over my decision to not attend a four-year college. And I left out the fact that I have absolutely no clue what I’m doing a lot of the time.

It matters how you spin things.

Knowing your purpose is useful, but it’s hardly the be-all-end-all. It doesn’t magic away your insecurities or your problems. It doesn’t make you a good person. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you actually know your purpose: you might just think you do.

Becoming a sociable, mature, capable, hardworking, understanding, responsible, reasonable, rational, good person has not been any easier just because I’ve known my life’s purpose since I was 3. In fact, being a socially awkward egomaniac with a really weird impossible goal has made some of that stuff harder. And knowing my purpose hasn’t made any of those things less important, either: it’s made a lot of them more important.

There is no amount of awesomeness that makes you immune to insecurity. People I’ve met around here, with more raw talent and chutzpah than I’ve ever mustered for anything, are still insecure. It’s common to every human. And at least in my opinion, there’s solidarity in that.

You Have Enough Hours in the Day, You’re Just Not Using Them

I’ve recently realized that my workflow can be a lot more efficient.

I thought it was fine, but as it turns out, it was just what I was used to. Humans can get used to anything, and if we don’t have anything outside us telling us that these conditions are unacceptable, we tend to just, well, accept them.

I started feeling like I didn’t have time to do anything shortly after I arrived in SF. While it’s gotten somewhat better, it still feels like I want to get more done than there are hours in the day.

I didn’t actually realize that was a warning sign for a while, because I had no reference group. I don’t succumb to the usual time traps: I open social media approximately twice a year, I don’t watch TV, I don’t make a habit of being intoxicated, I have no time-consuming hobbies that aren’t contributing to improving my career.

But I realized that not succumbing to the obvious time-sucks doesn’t mean you’ve evaded them all.

I’d previously learned that when something about your life feels chaotic, you’re probably just bad at predicting it; it feels from the inside like the thing is inherently unpredictable, but it isn’t. In the same way, I realized, when you feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day, you probably have some energy/time sink somewhere. That’s what an inefficient system feels like from the inside: not having enough time.

That was what I was missing: there is a difference between being actually good at efficiency and simply not shooting yourself in the foot. I had to do better than just not screwing up. I had to actively work on being better.

I’m currently in the process of optimizing my workflow and trying to get stuff done faster. There’s a decent amount of up-front work to make it happen, turns out.

Instead of taking notes in my plain-text no-frills Notes app, I’ve started taking notes in Vim. Learning the keyboard shortcuts for navigation, then forcing myself to actually use them, took an hour or so. I’d be reaching for the mouse to highlight and delete something, or reaching for the backspace key, but then I’d stop myself, push caps lock (which I remapped to escape for convenience), and type the shortcut instead. After I got the knack of it, I felt myself working faster as I laid out the steps I’d need to take to build an iPhone app I’ve been working on.

I also recently forked my friend Lahwran’s dotfiles repository, which downloads (among many other very useful tools) an excellent window tiling program called Amethyst. No more switching between tabs while trying to hold something in my head!

I’m making better use of my train rides to and from work now, too. I’ve found that physical books are good, because they don’t require wifi, so I’ve been steadily reading through the small collection I brought with me on the plane, plus borrowed a biography of Elon Musk from my boss, which I’ve been reading for life trajectory inspiration.

Finally, I’ve felt like I had no time to sit down and write blog posts on here. But I realized, I don’t have to. There are other methods of documentation that are faster to jot down: for example, Twitter. I was hesitant for a long time, because I was worried it would be a net negative for time, but I’ve been posting quick updates about projects and publishing quick thoughts on there, and it seems to work out well. (My handle is @JenyaLestina, if you’d like to take a look.)

The moral of all of this is that if your life is hard for some reason, it doesn’t have to stay that way. People like to complain about life, but that doesn’t mean it has to suck. If your life is difficult – even in a minor way – don’t stand there and take it. Fix it.

The Advice I Needed to Hear

Moving to and living in San Francisco is probably the second most difficult, if not the most difficult, thing I have ever done. Not particularly because either of those things are inherently difficult, but because I came with a purpose which I knew from the beginning would be difficult to fulfill.

I was busy every minute of every day. I was either commuting to/from work or at the office between the hours of 6am and 6pm. While not at work, I was working on getting better at my job. While not doing that, I was working out finances in order to find a place to stay that would be within my budget as a sparsely-paid intern. And while not doing that, I was socializing within carefully chosen networks to maximize my connection potential.

None of this is a complaint. I was also living in the single most beautiful city I’ve ever been to, walking to work every day in the refreshing morning air, working at a job with some of the most friendly, relaxed people I’ve ever worked with (although it was true that for the first while I had a rough relationship with my boss), and hanging out with the smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. But I am definitely saying that it was hard, because it was.

The biggest problem I had was that it was very difficult to find time to think. Up until I moved here, I kept a daily journal in which I noted interesting happenstances, cracked jokes with myself, and kept a general record of my life. Since I wrote my day’s entry on the plane ride here, I haven’t been able to write nearly anything. One undated entry reads, simply, “I don’t have time to do anything.”

As a result, a lot of problems and thoughts just kinda… sat there in my head. They were too personal to bring up in any conversation, so I didn’t talk about them. Typically, I would work these out on my own, or sit down with someone in my family to discuss them, but my family was three hours away in the most inconvenient direction, and I had no time to spend with myself either.

Recently, I’ve had more time to think, and I’ve realized what advice I needed to hear. I wish I could go back to tell this to my past self, but I’ve told it to my current self, which is the second best thing.

Because some of these things might be generalizable to other people who react similarly to stress (probably other people who are trying to change the world in some major way), I’m noting the list here.

  • You’ve become a better person than you give yourself credit for.
  • Being inexperienced does not make you weak, immature, or unworthy.
  • You’re always moving to bigger and bigger ponds, so you’re always the littlest fish. That doesn’t mean you’re not growing.
  • Don’t discount your talents just because they’re your talents. Your life would not be automatically better if you had someone else’s.
  • Having some of the same flaws you had in the past does not mean you haven’t improved. Being the same person is not a failure.
  • Falling short of your ideal does not mean you’ve failed. Not trying to achieve the ideal at all does.
  • The desire to be seen as attractive and to feel loved is universal and not shameful.
  • You cannot possibly be qualified for every job. You cannot possibly please every person. This is not a reasonable definition of success.
  • People other than you genuinely believe in you.

Another Reason to Get Straight to the Work World

I’ve discussed in previous posts some reasons you should get a real-world job either before or instead of going to college. For one thing, college has an extremely high opportunity cost, in both time and money. For another, the purpose of college has become muddled to such an extent that the reasons people tell you to go are almost entirely desynchronized with the actual reasons you may want to go.

Today, I have another reason that you should at least take a gap year to work a bit first. And this one applies even if you’re 100% sold on college.

When I took a marketing job, I expected to do, well, marketing. Yeah, the job was in San Francisco, so I expected (and wanted) to do marketing for tech companies, but that didn’t change my fundamental assumption. My job title was “Digital Marketer” and so I thought I was going to do digital marketing.

As I found out over the course of the next few months, an employer will use any skill you have if they can find a use for it. By the four-month mark, I had done everything from graphic design to sales to web design to JavaScript programming.

This isn’t just because I work for a micro-company, although this probably happened faster and more thoroughly because of that. Any company will do this. And that’s the key distinction between the work world and college.

If you sign up for a college class in marketing, you won’t accidentally end up programming in JavaScript or creating website wireframes. You’ll do the coursework – nothing more, nothing less. When you go to college, you get exactly what you sign up for. When you get a real-world job, your responsibilities may start out as what you expected, but eventually you’ll probably end up doing a whole bunch of stuff that wasn’t in the original job description, based on a combination of what the company needs and what you can do.

In short: College is static; the work world is flexible.

Often, the fact that college works this way feeds the harmful “that’s not my job” mentality, which will poison your career and dampen your options. If you’re reluctant to take on any responsibility beyond the bare minimum of what you were hired to do, you’ll never be given any additional responsibility. Even if you avoid this mentality, getting some real-world work experience early on will serve you well, in or out of college.

If you’re in the sort of profession where you need a college degree, or you’ve otherwise decided you’re Going To College, consider taking a gap year, or getting a part-time job in your field early into your degree. The flexibility you acquire from doing real work is worth its weight in gold.

The Center of Conversation

In every group discussion where people are free to move around, people always form an approximation of a circle or simple polygon around a central point. This “center of conversation” is not a tangible thing, but it’s very visible in the dynamics of groups.

Today, I’d like to talk about this social concept, and for those of us who don’t utilize this important source of positive social vibes, explain how to start.

What I call the “center of conversation” is the point that’s on average equidistant from each participating conversation member. Even people who don’t use this concept have an intuitive understanding of it, to an extent that social interactions feel more awkward when all parties involved are not standing at appropriate distances around the center (that is, on average equidistant from both the center and each other), and likewise they feel smoother when all parties observe this rule.

People who understand this concept will find themselves shifting around the center as people walk around, leave or join the conversation, or as the group dynamic otherwise shifts. People who really understand this will find themselves glancing toward the conversation center whenever they need to break eye contact.

The center of conversation doesn’t dictate that people have to stand in perfect circles all the time. Peoples’ personal preferences and convenience always take precedence over the center. But with preferences accounted for, people arrange themselves according to it. Given a choice of two places on a couch, people will choose the one closest to their appropriate place relative to the center. If an outlier in a group doesn’t understand the center and moves counter to it, the rest of the group will likely shift around to readjust the center.

If you’re the social butterfly type, try to find the center of conversation that you’re subconsciously moving around. If you’d like to make yourself more likable, once you find that center, try glancing at it instead of away from it whenever you need to break eye contact. Eyes are powerful indicators of attention – looking in a direction has the same weight as pointing in the direction. If you look toward the center, you’re pointing toward the other people, toward your conversation together, and you’re indicating that both of those things are important to you. Even if the other people don’t realize what you’re doing, they realize that you are doing it and they feel appreciated.

If you’re the kind of person who probably breaks this rule all the time, don’t sweat it. You can teach yourself to pay attention to the center of conversation just like you can teach yourself any other skill. Next time you talk to anyone – in a group, one on one, whatever – think about where the center is. It’s easy to find between two people, it’s just the point right in the middle of the space between you. Among larger groups it’s slightly harder, but not much. Think about the middle of the space between you and pinpoint whatever you think is closest to the center of that space. You don’t have to be perfect – it’s a vague area that you indicate by moving around it or glancing at it, not a point you have to precisely identify on a graphing calculator. Just get the vague gist and you’ll be golden.

It could take a while to get the hang of doing this, but in doing so, you’ll make people more comfortable around you. In this modern, segmented, isolated world, comfort is the single most important thing, in both our personal and professional lives. When clients buy a service, they’re primarily buying their comfort with the people providing that service. And what more could anyone want than to be comfortable around the people they care about? Any way you can make those around you feel comfortable is an advantage you have – not over them, but with them.

12 Things I’ve Learned from My Apprenticeship So Far

…In approximately chronological order.

I’ve learned a lot about jobs and the work world from my Praxis apprenticeship thus far. I could just keep this knowledge to myself, but why would I? I can make no guarantees that these insights are generalizable, but I’ve tried to explain them.

  1. Pay attention to the vibes you get off the people interviewing you. Vibes/auras/senses/whatever are just other words for “thin slicing”, when your subconscious knows something based on a well-trained intuition that you simply don’t know consciously yet. You don’t get much time in an interview and you need to take every opportunity to understand your potential future bosses. Knowing whether you’re going to like a job starts with knowing whether you’re going to like the people, and knowing that starts with thin slicing, aka, vibes.
  2. Interviews are a two-way street. At the same time that you’re being interviewed, you should be interviewing. Come up with your own sly interview questions that get your interviewer to tell you more about the job and the company than the simple words they say, just as they’re asking you sly interview questions to get you to reveal more about yourself than you say. At the same time that you’re making yourself look more appealing to them, they’re making themselves look more appealing to you. Know this and use it to your advantage.
  3. That ‘welcome lunch’ is not just a friendly gesture. In fact, this is another interview with a slightly different purpose: gauging your interpersonal skills. Nobody wants a new hire who doesn’t get along with the whole team, and that’s what this lunch is for. Understand that purpose and ace this test.
  4. The only way to survive at a startup is to train hard and train fast. The best way to thrive in any company is to do the same. The quicker you bring yourself up to speed, by actively asking questions, by reading job materials in your off hours, by immersing yourself fully into your role, the quicker you can become indispensable.
  5. Don’t speak, just do. I read in one of many brilliant business books that a great leader never has an off day. The same is true of any great employee. Even if you have off days, you’re tired, you’re achy, you don’t feel great, you’re stressed, you don’t say anything about it. You buckle down and you get the work done and you say nothing to anybody about how hard you’re working. They will see the results and it will be worth more than a million words.
  6. Always be “on”. An actor is “on” from the instant they step into their character. A gymnast is “on” from the instant they begin their routine. And an employee is “on” from the instant they step into the office. In all these areas there is an energy that you must project, and the act of projecting that energy is what us performers call being “on”. You deliberately cultivate this energy – it doesn’t happen naturally. It’s tiring at first, but you get used it; it’s a muscle like any other and you have to use it to improve it. Presidential candidates are absolute beefcakes in this area: they’re “on” nearly every minute of every day. Fortunately for you, all you’ve gotta do is be “on” in the office.
  7. The “I’ll do it myself” mindset is just fine, but avoid it while training. “Doing it yourself” while you don’t know what you’re doing is a huge waste of your time and your company’s. Take the time to learn, then do it yourself correctly.
  8. Your boss isn’t always right, but pretend they are. This is especially true if your boss is insecure, which some are. If, for example, your boss throws a hissy fit over a remark you made, don’t defend yourself: just stop doing whatever it was that pissed off your boss. Your second quickest ticket out the door of any office is a pissed-off boss. (Your quickest ticket is a pissed-off client.)
  9. Your clients aren’t always right, but they’re right more often than you might think. At least in marketing, there’s this idea that we marketers know better than everyone. And we do – about marketing. But most of us know jack-shit about programming, which makes our technical clients furious sometimes. Cut your clients some slack when they correct your usage of their industry jargon. Also, make super ultra sure it never happens again.
  10. Nobody should ever have to correct you in the same way twice. The single most frustrating thing on the planet is to have to tell somebody something multiple times. It’s an incredibly silly idea that everyone could pay enough attention to everyone else all the time to always remember everything they say, but we all have such inflated egos that we can’t help feeling like that’s the way it should be. Your boss and your clients have this feeling too. Humor them. Never forget anything they say and never need to be corrected more than once.
  11. Humility isn’t a mere confession of your fallibility; humility is actions taken in anticipation of your failure. The only useful declaration of fallibility is the one followed immediately by action. Preparing for your failure will make it way less sucky when you succumb to being a normal human and failing at something at some point.
  12. Your career path determines how hard you work at your job, and vice versa. If your plan is to advance in your role, work super hard at that. If your plan is to move into another role, perform to a solid level and spend your spare time moving toward your next career step with as much vigor as you can muster.

These are the things I can give handy advice for; there are of course some things I haven’t sorted out yet. I hope that given another three months I’ll be able to give handy advice for those, too.

How to Be Happy

Growing up, my mom used to tell my siblings and I that when we were upset and didn’t want to be, we could choose to be happy instead. The whole concept seemed ridiculous to me. “I can’t just flip my emotions on and off like a light switch,” I remember telling her.

But the problem was, she was right. It’s entirely possible to “flip your emotions on and off like a light switch”. There’s a lot of research backing up that statement—not surprising, my mom graduated with a Master’s in psychology, I should have known she didn’t pull this idea out of nowhere. Further, though it took me longer than I would care to admit, I did personally realize the wisdom in her two-word advice, “choose happy”.

Many experiments show that if you smile, you’ll feel happier. It’s not even entirely about the conscious decision to feel happy – merely moving your facial muscles or even forcing a smile using chopsticks can do the trick. Your brain just has an association between smiles and happiness and so smiling can make you happy.

So the research says. But I doubted it. For years, until I realized the truth of it independently. Today, I’m going to dissect the reasons I doubted it, because I feel many people probably have the same doubts when reading articles like this one.

I had two reasons to doubt “choose happy”. The first was that I was afraid people would look at me weird if I went from crying to laughing in the span of less than two minutes. The unaltered procession of human emotions is a slow ebb and flow, and a drastic change would make people ask uncomfortable questions.

They probably would have done that. But I wish someone had told me that there are things much more important in life than seeming strange. Spending a majority of my time feeling depressed and anxious for no reason was dramatically worse than it would have been to have some people think I was odd. I should have weighed the pros and cons of feeling the emotion versus letting it go.

The second reason I doubted the wisdom of “choose happy” was that I thought all emotions were important. I thought that they were always there for a reason, even if I couldn’t find what that reason was. It was a gradual realization that led me to the simple fact that some emotions don’t make sense – they’re the result of hormonal imbalances, meaningless stressors, mental overstimulation, and many other things which don’t need to be dwelled on.

Nowadays, I think about emotions in the context of net utility. Is feeling this emotion useful to me? If I’m feeling embarrassed about a stupid mistake, that feeling can be useful, to prompt me to fix the mistake immediately. But after I’ve done everything I can to fix the mistake, including making the appropriate social reparations, I can let the emotion go, because it’s served its purpose. Continuing to feel embarrassed even when I can no longer do anything about the mistake, including learn from it, is pointless.

And if the emotion didn’t have any purpose to begin with – say, if I’m feeling angry because I’ve had a long difficult day at work, which is not even slightly connected to any particular problem that can be solved – I can analyze the cause, decide it’s pointless, and let go of the emotion.

How do you let go of emotions? After your brain stops intuitively holding on because it thinks they’re important, or that it would be weird to let go, it’s typically as simple as focusing on something else. If just passively thinking about something else doesn’t completely fix it, try smiling, putting on a fun or silly song, deliberately focusing on happy thoughts, or even closing your eyes and imagining a pleasant location to hang out for a while. (I’m deliberately giving advice that doesn’t require getting up, because I personally don’t like advice that says “get up! stretch! jog! sweat!” – it does genuinely work, but it’s always delivered in a very pushy way. That being said, if you haven’t already heard this advice from a hundred thousand people, being outside and/or exercising does in fact make you healthier and happier, so try it if you feel inclined.)

So the list of question to ask when you feel any emotion is:

  1. What emotion is it? Is that really what I’m feeling? Emotions are frequently very transparent, but they can become tangled. Further, some emotions can mask others: a lot of men have a tendency to express anger when they’re truly sad, for example. If your emotions are unclear, sort them out.
  2. What probably caused this emotion? Go over salient events in your mind and find the proximate cause. It doesn’t have to be anything major and it frequently isn’t. You’re looking for a cause, not a good reason.
  3. Does this emotion have net positive utility? Feeling negative emotions has inherent negative utility, but that may be outweighed by the positive utility of the action it makes you take: learning from a mistake, apologizing for a misdeed, fixing an internal or external problem, etc. Figure out if the emotion is prompting you to do anything useful, and if it isn’t, if you really need to keep it. Compute the net utility.
  4. An important note about these utility evaluations: A common trap I’ve seen many people fall into is where they keep a negative emotion around because they believe it prompts them to do something good which, in fact, they would do anyway. In particular, a lot of high-achievers end up with the misconception that being miserable is what prompts them to achieve things, when in fact, they would achieve more if they were happier. Therefore, strongly doubt any utility evaluation that leads you to the belief that you need to be miserable all the time in order to get things done.
  5. If you determined that the emotion has net positive utility, keep it around, but only as long as it continues to be useful. As soon as you’ve done everything useful that the emotion was prompting you to do, throw it away. There is no reason to be miserable longer than necessary.
  6. If you determined that the emotion has net negative utility, toss it immediately, using any of the tricks described above.

A final note about the utility of positive emotions: feeling good is a good thing. I’ve seen people be happy but wonder whether they really should be feeling happy. You can dissect the emotion and what actions it makes you take to figure this out, but don’t decide you need to be unhappy because it’s uncommon to see sane adults who visibly care about anything. Emotions are good to keep if they’re useful, and being happy uniformly makes your life better, so ceteris paribus, happiness is useful, and therefore, happiness is almost always good to keep.

In conclusion:
Choose Happy.

Thoughts from Planet Earth

Sometimes I look at the sky and I think, how high can I jump? Like, half a foot or so. And then I think, how high can I get in an airplane? That’s the kind of delta that human ingenuity gives us. And it’s not even the limit: how high can you get in a rocket ship?

But even so, the stars that I’m looking at are so much further away. If Earth was a word, the nearest star is ten times every word you’ll ever say in your life. And yet, we humans went from the half a foot we can jump to the upper stratosphere, where the tallest mountains are vague outlines of purple and white.

It took a lot of work. Not with our muscles, which can only get us about five feet up if we train relentlessly for years, but with our brains. Thousands of ordinary human brains, no smarter or greater than you or I, made the airplanes and the rocket ships. In fact, human brains did a whole lot more than that. They created the entire modern world.

I wake up in the morning to an alarm app that comes installed on my smartphone, which gets its data from a clock which runs on humanity’s collective knowledge of quantum physics and syncs with all the other phones via a network which runs on humanity’s collective knowledge of binary logic. I get dressed in clothes that came directly from somebody I’ve never met who donated them to a Goodwill on the opposite side of a continent from my current residence, and that person got them from a store which got them from a country I’ve never been to. I take a train to work which moves through a huge tunnel under the ocean at upwards of ten times the speed I can run. Humans made all of this! Some of it is pretty suboptimal—the fact that I have to get up at 6am certainly comes to mind—but you can’t deny that it’s incredibly cool.

If thousands of ordinary human minds were able to make all these things, I think that with a few thousand more, we’ll be able to make it all the way to those stars and to the planets that might orbit them.

What might we find there, on those distant worlds? Maybe nothing more than we minimally expect. Some interesting places, both habitable and hostile, to which we can add the beauty that comes with perception by intelligent life. And this isn’t a loss! Improving the diversity and span of human experience across the galaxy is one of the best futures I can imagine for us.

But maybe, just maybe, we might find someone else out there. Not humans in funny suits, like in sci-fi movies, but things which are more different from us than we are from petunias—because we and petunias both evolved on Earth, though our evolutionary branches separated aeons ago. Sentient things made of complex configurations of silicon, crystal, liquid, metal, or things even stranger. Sentient things which are further from humans than anything we know, but that we can still call people, because though they may not have human thoughts, emotions, or biases, they have goals and they don’t want to die and this is all we really need.

Think how similar we are to each other, compared to the others we might find out there. All humans look the same—bipedal ape-like things made of flesh and built from DNA. We think the same—simple animals which evolved higher thought, planning, and consciousness by a constant competition with one another which produced predictable patterns and errors in reasoning. We act the same—pack animals inclined to organize into social groups and gatherings who are practically mandated by our development process to use syntactic combinatorial language along with specific nonverbal gestures and facial expressions to communicate. We feel the same—emotional creatures motivated primarily by fear and secondarily by joy, sadness, anger, and love. We’re as alike as peas from the same pod.

And maybe this is the part of my mind that grew up on Star Trek talking, but it doesn’t make any sense, if we could find and cooperate with these others—and I think we would, judging from how badly we want to not be alone in the universe—that we would still have such silly things as the various -isms and -phobias which are manifestations of inter-human hate and insecurity. How could we hate a fellow language-using, emotion-feeling, hairless ape built by DNA, when we could get along with electrically-charged systems of fractal crystals and gaseous blobs of pulsating color?

If our distant ancestors could gradually build our modern world and our distant descendants could get along with these impossibly different aliens, how could it make sense for me—operating in a flawed modern world but made of the same stuff that made up the humans before me and will make up those after—to hate another human?

These are the things I think of, looking up into the sky at night.

De Formae

Latin: With Regards to the Subject of Beauty

How many beautiful things just evaporate into the wind?

One day on my way home from work, I descended the elevator onto the train platform, listening to music. I forget which song I was listening to, but whatever it was, it definitively clashed with the noise of the station. It was not ordinary station noise—footsteps, chatter, rustling of paper maps and bags. As soon as I placed the sound, I quickly removed my headphones and stuffed them into my bag.

There was a man playing a beautiful, haunting, nostalgic melody on an electric keyboard. He had a sign up next to him, a whiteboard on a stand. “I hope everyone is having a wonderful day!” it said. “Just trying to get my music out. Hopefully my music will be heard. Feel free to let me know what you think!” This was followed by his Venmo information and, below the sign, a red cloth bag. Until my train came I stood and leaned against a pillar, listening to the music. It was the most amazing music I’ve ever heard, and I wanted to record it, but after I had the thought to do so, I hardly had two minutes before my train came and I had to leave for home. I never did let him know what I thought, but I did drop a twenty dollar bill into the cloth bag.

My fiancé is an artist, but not like me. He didn’t “draw”, he did literally everything else. Anything on the border of that word was fair game—typography, topology, graphic design, architectural sketches, blueprints, you name it—but never proper art. At least, not anymore.

For a long while I had the nicest handwriting of anyone I knew (don’t be envious, it’s a thoroughly useless skill to be good at, in fact it winds you up addressing a lot of envelopes), but then I met him and that changed. Whenever he would come to visit, and for a while even after he was living with me, he would leave me little notes. “Good morning, love. Have a nice day today.” “So you know, I’m headed out to buy some groceries, I’ll be back in an hour or so.” “Hey, darling, would you mind putting a can of soda in the freezer for me so it’s nice and cold when I get home?” I used to keep all his notes. Then there got to be too many and I stopped. When we moved, I left them at my parents’ place.

My youngest sister is a writer—among other things—and I used to have frequent conversations with her when I had yet to realize that amateur fiction is something I am neither good at nor particularly enjoy. She has a way of beautifully crafting circular metaphors, where a person does a thing and the thing is blue, and then through the course of the story it shifts colors to gold and then to red but then finally, and usually this comes after the character dies, it shifts back to blue, and it’s wonderful and reflective and sad and I am not doing it justice with this poor artist’s description.

I used to want to write down her eloquent phrasings and plots, but then at one point, I was driving her to an event of some description, and she said something particularly eloquent, something about golden braids. I wanted to write it down but I couldn’t pull over to do so as we were pressed for time, and I asked if she could write it down for me and she said, no. I asked why and she said, maybe it’s better to let some words just become air.

There is so much beauty in this world and much of it is unobserved, or, perhaps worse, unnoticed. I wonder who else who heard that man at the station is still haunted by his music. I wonder who else saw my fiancé’s doodlings and notes and the way he organized our bedroom and thought of Sen no Rikyū’s ideals of simplistic natural beauty. I wonder who else read my sister’s metaphors and plots and was moved by their eloquence. It’s entirely possible that I’ll never know.

But why is it even my first impulse, when I see something beautiful, to capture it? Why is it humanity’s first impulse—for this I presume is the reason people put pretty birds in cages? We desire to possess what is beautiful. My justification involves a desire to experience the beauty more than once and my memory’s inadequacy at satisfying this desire, but it’s just that, isn’t it? A justification. If you have a seemingly different thought process but it still winds you up with the same result, chances are you wrote the bottom line before the arguments above it.

I’ve tried to deliberately give up this impulse to capture beauty, because I’ve noticed the capturing detracts from the observation. If you’ve already seen something a million times but are trying to preserve the memory for a later date when you’re liable to have forgotten many of the details, this is a good time for capturing. But if this is perhaps your only chance to see the beauty, just see it. “I want to look at it” clashes violently with “I want a picture” and leads to a poorer overall experience of the beautiful thing, and it seems to me that a faulty memory fully utilized is still better than that same memory half-assed plus a blurry photograph. If you don’t see it again you have one good memory; if you do, you can take the photo next time.

I think the man at the station knew that. Besides the message, he only had his Venmo information on the sign: nowhere people could find his music to listen to more, no Soundcloud or Youtube username. Perhaps my fiancé knew it too, though it’s possible he’s just dismissive of his talents: in a society built on self-deprecation and humility, and among humans for whom words shape reality, it’s not surprising that many people are chronically undervalued. I know my sister knew it. Recently, I learned. And now, you know too. I hope it is of use to you.