Sunday, 27 March 2016

Tricking my brain to think long term

Recently I have been thinking a lot about how to start to force myself to act more concretely towards the long term. I have long felt that given a series of choices about what to do on a given Sunday afternoon, there are some things which will be nice in the short term (like eating icecream and watching a bad tv show) and there are some which will be less nice or even nasty in the short term, but very nice in the long term (like getting in shape or, in my case, practicing my writing).

Clearly this is a spectrum of benefits. For instance by my standards watching a bad tv show is much worse than watching something good which I can learn from and which might even teach me something. In some ways this is a choice, a decision which we all need to make about what is important to our long term growth. Having the desire to be a great chef will prioritise a completely different set of activities than that to be great dancer*. The important thing is that there is a choice to be made and a part of that choice is about deciding where you would like to be in some number of years.

The problem then, as far as I see it, is that making this choice is only the first step. I have said for many years that I want to be a great writer. I knew that was what I wanted to do, but for years I just wrote maybe one short story a year. That was the equivalent of someone saying they wanted to be an Olympic runner and then only training one day a year. To get to long term goals you need to make plans and then you also need to be able to act upon those plans. In some ways I think how to find the drive to act is pretty much the defining question of the 21st century**. I know that I personally have struggled with this a lot. I thought then that it might be interesting (for you and for me) to talk a little bit about what I do to motivate myself to do things.

The first one is that I get numbers involved. I have written hundreds of thousands of words every year ever since I set myself yearly targets and started tracking how much I was doing on a spreadsheet from day to day. I think that this did two things. The first was that it gave me a target to aim for, but not a target which I could fail at. What I mean by that is that it wasn't as though I said 'I will write a thousand words a day' (which my yearly target often amounted to). A target like that could be failed and then I would most likely give up. By making it a yearly target I could do nothing for an entire month and still have the potential to catch up (in fact one of the biggest numbers I track in my spreadsheet is how many words per day I need to do now to reach my target). The second big thing which this spreadsheet does is that it gives me a sense of achievement. Partially I can achieve by beating my target for the day and feeling good about that, but also I can look back on what I did manage to do in the past year and see undeniably just how many words I wrote.

The second big thing I did was that I made a concerted effort to think through my long term goals as though I was planning them for someone else. This is a process I return to every now and again and it is useful for a number of reasons. One is that it allowed me to look at my list of things I wanted to improve at and see that it was far too big and needed to be pared down. Another is that it allows me to see where I am going wrong and where I'm falling back a bit and I can re-plan to account for that. Finally it lets me find new targets and re-plan my approach based on both what works for me, but also what I have read about as good ways to learn the skills I want to acquire.

The final tactic which I have begun following a lot recently is what I do in the local time when I have that brief choice of fun thing or hard thing. I really like the approach that says you do the hard thing for just two minutes, no more, and then you make the decision. Normally what happens in that situation (as it did with this blog entry) is that I find there is no longer a choice to make, I did the hard thing for as long as I wanted anyway***.

I want to finish by saying that this is, I think, not advice you should necessarily follow. Rather I believe that this is an area where every person has to find there own way of doing what they want to do. Each brain is different and if you want to trick your brain to work in the long term then you need to find smoke and mirrors which will work on you specifically.

* (Though I am generally of the opinion that picking up a broad range of more general skills and knowledge is a good thing for you as a person. I've known too many scientists who didn't read or know anything about politics. Having said that, I think that is also a choice to be made).

** (For the first time we have access to a huge amount of education for free. If I wanted to learn chemical engineering I could probably get a very large percentage of the way there without spending a cent more than the cost of my internet subscription. That's amazing, but it's also tough, we can't hide behind barriers anymore, we just have to accept that we don't have the willpower to do things).

*** ('Do the hard thing' is actually one of my main... I suppose the word would be mottos. It is just so significant now that we have so much leisure time and entertainment at our fingertips)

Sunday, 20 March 2016

But he's a poop head!

I have a few reasons for that childish title, but among them is the inspiration of having recently had a conversation about famous children's author Roald Dahl. We discussed his merits as a writer (many in my opinion), his less known raunchy works (originally published in playboy), but the conversation turned to the controversies about him. Even long term Roald Dahl fans have to acknowledge that he had some problematic anti-semitic,racist and sexist views  (for a really great explanation of the problematic nature of the sexism inherent in one of his works see here). Honestly I think for the most part these views don't permeate his writing too badly. However what I really wanted to write about was the fact that this discussion happened at all and that I found myself leaping to his defence so readily.

I like a few writers who I know to have held problematic views, Orson Scott Card, or downright reprehensible ones, H.P. Lovecraft (see here in particular ). I think there is an interesting word present in the previous sentence however, the 'like' I used, specifically applying it to the author's not the work. I think this speaks to why this is interesting to me. After all I don't think I would be even the least bit shaken if somebody told me that the inventor of the ballpoint pen used to beat up puppies (at least, I'd be annoyed for the dogs, but I'd still keep using his pens all the same). There is something in the personal connection we feel with writing that makes us care what these people believed.

Form me certainly a part of this is that books are rich ground for ideas, and if I enjoy treading that ground then it is because it is filled with good ideas. This is honestly one of the reasons why I like Terry Pratchett so much. I think he writes well and he amuses me, but I haven't found his books laugh out loud funny for a long time. The ingredient which keeps bringing me back to them, is that I think he is such an interesting thinker and I love his musings on human psychology and thought processes. If I found out that he also held some similarly dumb and acidic views to the above authors then I would find it deeply upsetting. It would suggest that I could not trust him as I once believed, that rather than absorbing and assimilating his musings in a more relaxed way, I had to be on watch, judging each thought for its validity. I have experienced this in part when seeing the long standing
feud between two of my favourite comics writers, both of whom end up seeming rather more juvenile as a result of their participation.

Having said that, I think the main reason why I care about a writer's belief is that writing and reading is such a close collaboration. What I mean by this, is that reading a book creates something rather akin to a conversation in your head between you and an author. This is true for many mediums of course, however I think writing is peculiar in that it is more creator controlled than many. In films for instance, many people talk about the director as being the creative vision behind a movie, but there are hundreds of other people involved in any production. This means that what you read from the page is much closer to the author's original thoughts when they put them there. Leading to people feeling that they are much closer to and have a greater understanding of their favourite author's thoughts and feelings. As a result finding out that they are somehow dumb or hateful as people feels like much more of a betrayal. This is probably the root of my defensiveness over Roald Dahl.

This discussion emphasises why I think writing is hard but fun, that it represents such a close connection between creator and receiver. However it also highlights one of the reasons why I think that this blog is important. If I'm to be a writer that people want to read then I want to have interesting ideas to tell them about through my writing. In order to have those then I need to cultivate and chase after them (culling the bad or dull ones as I go). This blog represents a mental effort to push myself in that direction.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

President Trump

President Trump has my vote. He represents the highest ideal of modern politics. A champion, a saviour, a fighter. I would like to beg a minute or two of your time to explain why you too should put in your lot with President Trump.

It doesn't matter what your views are these days. What matters is that the other side are wrong, utterly and completely. They have held on to these stupid views despite constant evidence to the contrary. Annoyingly though, against all reason, the people who agree with you keep compromising and working with these obvious dullards. President Trump understands that, he's never going to work with the other side, he is going to fight and shout and scream until he gets his way, your way.

Perhaps you care about foreign policy, in fact certainly you do. Here again all of the so called “politicians” we are currently saddled with waste all of their time thinking about strategy and planning. It's clear though, that what really matters is what they say. American is only strong on the world stage as long as it has the loudest voice. Again, I cannot imagine a more qualified voice than that of President Trump, he does not speak, he bellows and when he does the world sits up and notices.

Truly what this comes down to is that I want to win. I realise now that I don't even care what position he takes, I just want the candidate who I am backing to beat the other side. President Trump could come out in favour of eating babies, but if he wins the argument (and he will) then all that will matter is that through him I am victorious. How will he win then? Why is he the best? Because when they all convene in a big conference room, all of the other political types will be hemming and hawing. They will talk about compromise and about middle grounds, wasting time on making “good arguments”. The American public doesn't care about middle ground or arguments and neither will President Trump. He will enter the room with one aim, to make more noise than anyone else. His ideas will be followed because they will be the only ones which are heard and that's simply how business is done these days.

This is why you too should vote for President Trump. The game of politics has changed, it is no longer a genteel pursuit for elites and intellectuals. Modern Politics is about winning and making sure that the other side lose and Trump will do both of those things. No matter what your beliefs are, believe that Trump will win, we know he will, he says so louder than anyone else.