The Paradox of Creative Work

Often I find myself in a creative block simply due to thinking about myself "being in a creative block". Whatever reason that got me there in the first place (not finding the right word, spiraling digression, etc) no longer matters. Now, all that's preventing me from writing is just thinking about the fact that I am unable to write.

In fact, this paradoxical effect of self-awareness is so prevalent in creative endeavors. 

This is especially true to art forms like poetry. Thinking about writing a poem whilst writing it is almost impossible. You inescapably fall into the trap of judging your poem before you even write it. You begin thinking about the other poems you've read ("am I sounding too much like Ginsberg?"). Then, once you begin deliberately trying not to be influenced by other writers, you find yourself unable to write a single word. 

Part of the reason, I believe, is that when you analyze the emotions behind your art, you can no longer experience and therefore express those emotions fully. Somehow, the act has become too rational, too structured. You stop trying to paint the inexplicable, and start trying to make sense of it. But that's the business of writing essay, not writing poetry.

This is why I suggest anyone aspiring to become a creative writer not to major in English. Four years of Literature classes will force you to develop the habit of analyzing everything you read, which in turn will destroy your ability to create. For a reader, that's ok, but for an artist, it is a death sentence.

Of course, other art forms like story-telling and film sometimes involve more deliberate thinking. However, the same paradox applies. 

Too often a very good short-story writer fails to start a novel because she cannot stop thinking about the fact that she is writing a novel and not a short-story. Some of it, no doubt, is the anxiety from the self-fulfilling fear about losing one's ability to create. Some other part of it, I believe, comes from knowing too much about one's own creative effort to allow the mind any breathing room to actually create.

There is something strange about the creative brilliance: It disappears as soon as you try to control it.

"Don't try," said Bukowski. I now think he was on to something.

Professional Mistake Maker

Today I learned that Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates and educator, calls himself a "professional mistake maker" on Twitter (@RayDalio).

This is crazy, because a best friend of mine always calls himself a "professional loser" too. He and Dalio also happen to share many traits. For example: the desire to understand the world as it really is, the intolerance for bullshit, the dedication for doing the things they really care about, etc, etc. They also happen to be two of the few people I truly admire.

I think maybe people who consider themselves professional "loser" or "mistake maker" have the gift of not fearing their own failures. 

They are not afraid to fail, as long as they are failing in a methodical and reflective way. 

In other words, they meditate on their failures, so that the next time they fail, they fail for a new and different reason. Note that it is impossible to avoid failures, even though some people spend a lifetime trying. We all fail, sooner than later, if not all the time.

Rumor has it that Dalio lost a lot of money in the 2020 market crash when bond and stock became positively-correlated, which totally f***ed up Bridgewater's strategy. But what did he do? He spent the next few months learning about the historical consequences of similar long-term debt crisis, and is about to publish a new book: The Changing World Order

If that isn't a professional failure, then I don't know what is.

Things I Learned Today: April 25, 2020

1. The Diminishing Returns of Everything

The first couple hundred lines of code of your project will have a much larger impact than the last few thousand lines of code ever will.

The same rule goes for the amount of time you spend on a project:

  • For instance, I spend the past two days working on a single CSS file, in an attempt to center-align some stupid buttons (a futile attempt, since they are still not aligned). In comparison, at the beginning of the project, I built out the entire REST backend of the web app in a single afternoon.

This applies to the size of a corporation. The 13th employees of a company will likely have a disproportionally larger impact on the company's future than the 750,013th (according to Wikipedia, Amazon had 750,000 employees as of 2019).

The same goes for abs. The first ten thousand set-ups you do just may give you that 6-pack abs you want, but another thirty thousand sure won't get you the 7-pack.

And, interestingly, this also applies to certain automations that don't scale very well:

  • For instance, if it takes me 5 hours to figure out how to turn on my bathroom light with my voice (saving me roughly 5 seconds per day for not having to flip a switch), then in 5 years it will only have saved me 2 hours, netting a 3 hours time loss from the automation.

The only exception to this rule I can think of is McDonald's fries. The more you eat, the better they become. It is true.

2. Lesson: Don't Do It Again

Today I learned the valuable lesson that, after 14 straight hours of working, I do not feel great.

Even as I type out this sentence, my eyes drift across the screen, my brain whirls incoherently, and I can't find the letter "e" on my keyboard. Maybe, some would say, it is time for me to learn time management.

Things I Learned Today: April 24, 2020

1. The Falsity Of "Shareholder Values"

From John Kay's illuminating book Other People's Money, on the rise of financialization and its consequence:

  • In 1987, ICI's annual report stated:
    • "ICI aims to be the world's leading chemical company, servicing customers internationally through the innovative and responsible application of chemistry and related science... Through achievement of our aim, we will enhance the wealth and well-being of our shareholders, our employees, our customers, and the communities which we serve and in which we operate."
  • In 1994, ICI's annual report stated:
    • "Our objective is to maximize value for our shareholders by focusing on businesses where we have market leadership, a technological edge and a world competitive cost base."
  • The company then proceeded to sell off its commodity chemicals business to finance new acquisitions, many of which failed to integrate. Ultimately ICI was taken over by a Dutch company AkzoNobel on June 2007.

2. On Having No Head

Today I discovered a crazy meditation technique called headless meditation. It is mind-blowing.

Ready? Here's what you do:

  1. Sit in a chair.
  2. Keep your eyes open, meditate*.
  3. Now, look into the air. Don't focus on anything in particular. Keep the gaze soft.
  4. Do you see your head? No.
  5. Notice that, in your consciousness, the idea of having a head is itself a part of your consciousness.
  6. Notice that the feeling of "meditating from inside a head" slowly dissipates, and you're left with just the space of consciousness itself.
  7. You no longer have a head.
  8. Continue to meditate. Perhaps close your eyes. But it is easier with your eyes open.

*If you have never meditated, here's how: pay close attention to your breath, the sensation of your body, the sound you hear... yadi yada. And if you ever find yourself distracted by a thought, notice the thought itself and come back to your breath.

Pretty cool.

3. Pineapple Infancy

It takes two goddamn years to grow a pineapple. Yes, 24 months for one pineapple.