We suffer from the what’s new syndrome

The idea behind meditation is to sit in a comfortable pose with your eyes close and back straight, and then empty your mind of any thoughts. Sounds easy of course, but getting rid of thoughts is difficult. To aid the process, the form of meditation I have been taught involves focusing on breathing. The process is a rhythmic one and there is much to learn about something we don’t consciously think about much.

I start by getting rid of any thoughts I’ve been holding on to. This could be about an email, a person or a chore. I consider it and then let it go. Within a few minutes, I am truly staring into the dark (minus magic lights of the eye or phosphene). Then I start focusing on my breath.

You can consider many things: the pace of breathing, which parts of your body when you breath, how much does each part move, what sensation does breathing cause in different parts, how much detail can you gather from each of those parts, what is the temperature of the air as you breathe it in and out, etc.

But soon enough I run out of things to learn about breathing. Usually this starts about 12-15 minutes in. And that is the most vulnerable time of my meditation session. If I let an interesting thought in, down I go the rabbit hole. By the time I realise that, I’ve lost the peace and quiet that comes from meditation.

Why do I hit that wall every time I meditate? How can I overcome it?

I think I hit that wall because my mind has had enough of the breathing and its related experiences. Now it wants something new. Anything new. Something worth thinking about or reminiscing or observing or experiencing.

The world of new awaits
The world of new awaits.

I don’t think this is a problem of our modern day lives with the continuous social media feeds, email and app notifications. (I could be wrong, but I haven’t come across evidence to prove that). I think it’s something to do with human beings love for the new.

In any form distraction is hard to deal with. While meditating, the mundaneness of the activity makes it easier to get distracted. We all suffer from what I provocatively call the what’s new syndrome.

That’s just a new name for something psychologists have studied for quite sometime. They call it novelty-seeking behaviour. Its genetic roots and relations to brain chemistry have linked the trait with problems like “attention deficit disorder, compulsive spending and gambling, alcoholism, drug abuse and criminal behaviour”.

Researchers separate people in three categories: neophobes , neophiles and, on the extreme, neophiliacs. A recent study suggests that neophiliacs are the ones most like to suffer from disorders. But, if these people can combine their neophiliac nature with persistence and “self-transcendence” (losing yourself in something you love), then that may be the perfect cocktail for success.

I might be a neophiliac, given that I enjoy working as a journalist. But I don’t think people can be cleanly classified into three categories. I might be a neophiliac when it comes to news, but I hate changing houses. My interest in new people waxes and wanes based on an algorithm that I haven’t yet cracked. And I certainly fixate on things, like certain foods or computer games, for quite a while before moving on.

All this is to say that there must be a mixture a neophobe, a neophile and a neophiliac in me. And I suspect that might be the case for others too.

How then can it help me solve my meditation problem? Perhaps I have to channel some of neophobe nature into hating new thoughts for a little while. I know I can be persistent, so may be I have a chance at achieving this.

Let us pick our battles, feminists

I recently reread Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If—”. And it reminded me of an online encounter I had with some feminists. The beautiful poem ends with this:

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

If those feminists could have their way, reprints of Kipling’s poem will be forced to add a few words to the last line: “And—which is more you’ll be a Man, my son, and a Woman, my daughter!”

Kipling had a son and a daughter, but “If—” was written as paternal advice to his son John. It was written in the Victorian era, which was a much more patriarchal society than today. And it might seem like an exaggeration that feminists today will want such a change made to a great work of literature, but may be it isn’t.

Even today many such feminists scoff at The Economist Style Guide‘s use of “he” over “he or she”. It says on political correctness:

If you believe it is “exclusionary” or insulting to women to use he in a general sense, you can rephrase some sentences in the plural. But…do not be ashamed of sometimes using man to include women, or making he do for she.

I have been on one occasion publicly asked to change “the common man” to a more gender neutral term “the people on the streets”. Something I didn’t really have any strong views about and was happy to oblige to making the change.

That incident did make me think that it’s important to pick your battles when fighting for a good cause. I care deeply about the rights of women, and as an Indian I feel ashamed at the monstrous acts committed against them every day in my country. In my personal life, I work consciously to keep my biases in check. This year I sat down with my extended family to talk about how much more an educated and well-off family like ours still needs to do to help the cause. But I wonder why some feminists make such trivial things their pet peeves. Aren’t there more important feminist issues to worry about than this?

Personal metamorphosis

Review of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis

“Sir,” said a letter to Kafka in the last few years of his life, “You have made me unhappy. I bought your ‘Metamorphosis’ as a present for my cousin, but she doesn’t know what to make of the story.”

Having finished Kafka’s legendary story, which has “inspired countless stage adaptations and doctoral theses and scores of subsequent writers”, I can share the frustration of the cousin. This story of Gregor Samsa, a travelling salesman who one day wakes up to find he has become a giant bug, has a simple plot but is hard to make sense of without the right metaphors.

After shaking off the possibility that he is in a dream, Gregor does his best to fit in society that he was once part of. But as the story progresses, his attempts bear no fruit in a household which is finding it difficult to sustain their earlier lifestyle after losing the sole breadwinner. At the end, after enduring the growing distance from a family he still loves and feeling useless, Gregor dies of depression and self-inflicted harm.

Despite the dark plot, Kafka, through simple words and short sentences, keeps the mood cheerful almost all through, with comical interludes and many happy moments. Of the many analogies people draw to understand Gregor’s metamorphosis, this one convinces me the most:

The reasons behind Gregor’s transformation are not all that complicated. Kafka declines to spell out the specific reasons but still makes it clear that Gregor (and by extension, all the other Gregors in the world) had allowed himself to become a powerless insect long before actually physically turning into one. As someone who has selflessly sacrificed whatever independence he may have had to support his uncaring parents and their attempts to live an “upper class” life without actually having to suffer for it, Gregor has already willingly given up all the unique traits that make one a human.

The bit of the story that really gets me, though, comes right at the end, where, after the death of Gregor with whom the family still seems to have some attachment, they go on a drive and start thinking about what a “voluptuous” woman Gregor’s sister has become and how they would like to find him an upper class husband. And the fact that that end seems so out of place, forces readers to reanalyse what Kafka had in mind about Gregor’s metamorphosis.

Hat-tip to Emma Hogan, whose brilliant review of Kafka’s biography made me pick up this book.

Why choosing a career is hard and why it should be

When someone asks me how I came to be what I am today, I say that I walked down the path of diminishing salaries and stopped where I felt that that is the least I needed to earn. What I don’t tell them is that, if there is one thing that I’ve struggled with constantly as a young adult, it would be with my choice of career.

At the age of 17, when I was about to enter university, I wanted to make lots of money but also be as educated as my dad. The middle ground was to become an engineer, earn an MBA and get a high-paying job. Chemistry and maths were the subjects I liked, so I decided to do chemical engineering.

At 20, in the middle of my engineering degree, I decided that my education was too shallow. To be truly valued I needed to become an expert. Earning money can wait. This is why I decided to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry, the subject I enjoyed the most.

At 23, in the middle of my PhD, I realised that, while research is a noble pursuit, my temperament is not cut out for a life spent trying to solve problem in a single narrowly-defined field of science. There were far too many interesting things happening in the world to not know and think about. That is when I started blogging about science. And money had merely become a means to an end, not an end in itself.

Now, at 26, having finished my PhD, I have become a science journalist. It seems like the job that I feel I could do most with given my skills, my temperament and my ethical code. It is the job in which I’ve found myself to be most at peace with myself.

And yet, even today I struggle with my choices. Every so often, I have to take a few steps back and look at what I’m doing. I feel torn about the opportunities that I may have let go on my way here, and those I still let go because I’ve made a decision to do something else.

Hard at work
Hard at work? Be sure to think about why you work. Svein Halvor Halvorsen

Do all young adults suffer from the same? Do they all give this critical choice of their life enough thought? Do we even have a culture that promotes deep thinking about our own careers? From what I read on Cal Newport’s blog, the answer to all the above questions seems to be “no”.

In a sharp commentary, Ezra Klein, a Washington Post columnist, explains that this lack of thinking about careers (or, more precisely, “no idea what to do next”) leads the world of finance to swoop up smart graduates with great work ethic. These kids did not enter university thinking they are going to spend their life making money for the already rich, but for the lack of better options and the attraction of a fat paycheck that’s what they end up doing.

Thinking about your career is as much a responsibility to yourself as it is to society that depends on you. In your lifetime there will be only so many hours spent working and contributing to the world (80,000 by one estimate), the least you can do is ensure that those hours are spent productively.

Newport’s summary of the three things that one must think about when choosing a career is a good start:

  1. The value of craftmanship
  2. The importance of lifestyle
  3. A personal ethic

That I would contend is still not enough.

Creativity in a box

Trapped-in-a-box
Not so bad. Dan Machold

As a writer, I suffer from a disability that I suspect isn’t unique. I am never pleased with anything I write. There must be, my critical self nags, a better idea to write about or a better way to write what I just wrote.

Perhaps it is this disability that has forced me to work as a journalist, rather than, say, a novelist. For example, both the aforementioned problems go away when I’m on an assignment.

The first disappears because once my idea has been accepted by an editor, I know that’s what I have to write about. The second vanishes because the acceptance comes with a deadline, which I’m forced to honour so it keeps my easy-to-distract mind on a leash.

This it turns out isn’t a bad way of learning to be a writer. As it happens, Neil Gaiman, a best-selling English author of fiction and comics, found that the restrictions placed on him as a journalist were great for learning to be a creative writer.

In an interview for the Financial Times, he said:

(After school I went) straight into work, as a journalist – a wonderful thing for a writer. You learn you can ask questions, you learn compression and you learn probably the single most important thing for any writer: delivering more or less on time.

Of course, the idea of tethering your mind to a task at hand isn’t a new productivity tool. What is counter-intuitive, though, is that putting yourself in a box that is governed by self-set rules does not kill creativity. If anything, it is enhanced in a way that may produce more results.

Redefining the notion of a book

Two months of failing to fulfill my reading goals towards the #100bookschallenge has made me rethink the purpose of taking up the challenge

Less than a decade ago, it was easy to recognise a book. It was anything that could be printed, bound and put on shelf of a library or a store. Now, though, things have gotten messy.  There are ebooks, Kindle singles, Atavist originals, Matter stories, and the list goes on.

In many parts of the world, digital has become the primary platform for the written word. The advantages are plenty and this trend towards digital is no surprise. But it disrupts how ideas get shared, and sharing ideas was the main reason for books to come into existence.

While it was with the classical definition of a book that I began my #100bookschallenge, the main reason behind taking up the challenge was to be able to learn about the greatest ideas out there. These are increasingly being communicated not just in books. A lot of the ideas are long conversations that have been running on a blog, or those that appear in longform writing/journalism like the New Yorker or The Economist’s special reports.

Thus I’m revising the definition of a (non-fiction) book that can count towards my challenge of 100 books. Apart from the classical definition, all pieces of writing that will fulfill all the conditions below can be counted towards my target:

  • Longform writing that has a clear-defined message or explores a topic in a significant amount of detail or has a central theme.
  • Has been written by a single author (‘classical’ books may have more than one author).
  • Is more than 10,000 words long as a single piece.
  • A series of blog posts won’t count if at least one of them is not close to 10,000 words long and explains the main idea of the series.
  • The writing should be so dense (full of ideas) that I cannot stop myself from writing a review of what I read.
  • (UPDATE) The work should be not just newsworthy ie it should still relevant and worth reading after, say, many months or sometimes years.

As to why just 10,000 words? Because it’s not too short and it feels like the right length to have a comprehensive look at a topic. I’m open to revising my definition, so please feel free to make suggestions.

What intellectually stimulating conversations look like

Nicholas Taleb’s Reddit AMA has been, by far, the most intellectually stimulating “ask me anything” that I’ve ever read. I don’t agree with everything that he says (see last question below, for example). Nevertheless the whole thread was thoroughly enjoyable. Here are excerpts of bits that made me pause and think:

R: What kind of risks do you think we overlook most in day to day life?

T: The answer to your question is in the following: 7000 Americans die every day, many, many of preventable causes. What we talk about is usually the sensational. Do the math: they die from lack of stressors (activity), corn syrup, cigarettes, etc. So the real risks/killers are discernible; they map to the risks for your life.

R: Is your freedom the only source to go on fighting with such fervor?

T: I have always been fighting… But my freedom gives me more moral obligations, make me feel more guilt for not shouting fraud when I see it.

R: What kind of system would you set up in order to promote anti-fragility?

T: Rule: any company that would cause a national emergency requiring a bailout should it fail should be classified BAILABLE-OUT and employees should not be allowed to earn more than civil servants. That would force companies to 1) be small, 2) not leech off the taxpayer.

R: What is the most important skill or trait a human being can have in the modern world?

T: A sense of honor. It puts you above everything else.

R: What is one thing that a recent college graduate can due to be Antifragile?

T: Get passing grades and follow voraciously your curiosity on the side instead of competing in school. In the end what matters is your curiosity, nothing else. And read nothing that doesn’t interest you but interests someone else.

R: You’ve talked a lot about financial issues and health issues. You have touched on the environment, but not said much about energy use.

T: The problem is the nonlinearity of harm. We have too many people on the planet, with too much concentration of pollutants. And these people are converging to the same habits.. We are not supposed to be eating the same thing. Any concentration harms.

R: What can the average joe do to make sure “skin in the game” is enforced on those in power?

T: Decentralization is where we start. Vote for that and for people promoting it.

R: What have you been reading recently?

R: You can check out his amazon reviews if you haven’t seen that yet. Link

R: How many books in your library have you not read?

T: Actually, only 40% partially read.

R: Can you begin to be antifragile while being poor or you should first make some money and plan ahead?

T: The poor is more antifragile than the rich: less to lose, both economically and psychologically.

R: As an engineer and technologist, I’m exposed to a lot of neophilia. Do you have any suggestions for heuristics besides reading the classics as an inoculation against neophilia?

T: Yes, use the Lindy effect as a testing rule… that is, look for solutions from simpler technologies.

The longer a technology has been around, the longer it’s likely to stay around.

R: according to your principles, how would you deal with the obesity epidemic hitting the U.S.?

T: The general problem is that we are not made to control our environment, and we are designed for a degree of variability: in energy, temperature, food composition, sleep duration, exercise (by Jensen’s inequality). Depriving anyone of variations is silly. So we need to force periods of starvation/fasts , sleep deprivation , protein deprivation, etc. Religions force shabbats, fasts, etc. but we are no longer under the sway of religions… The solution is rules…