Reflect, don't dream

January 04, 2019

Everyone has an inheritance. There's the tangible part—the beach house—but there's another less tangible thing in the box, something more like a computer program: our mental programming.

You could even call it software. And much like other software systems, it's large, highly engineered, and organized into a stack.

The lowest levels run the most basic, reflexive human processes. When stressed, do you eat? When arguing with your spouse, do you raise your voice? Use violence? Like firmware, this stuff is mostly automatic, and can be very difficult to change; it's so automatic, you don't even realize it's running. Or that it can change.

A little higher up is the belief layer. Is there a god/afterlife? Is work a source of dignity, or necessary drudgery? Are Republicans evil? Is eating meat ethical? The operating system, of sorts.

And finally, the "application software": calculus, language skills, tap dancing.


All of this has been on my mind lately, for two reasons.

First, I met a guy a while back, I'll call him Ed (not his real name). He was young, maybe 25, and told me he wanted to do a startup, but he didn't want to be CEO, and wasn't sure in which area he wanted to work.

My gut reaction was that he needed to stop wasting time (less politely, fucking around) and get a job. And I was pretty strident about it. But this is an area where my views have shifted a lot over the years.

When I was maybe 22, my "Middle-Class Midwestern Protestant Engineering Graduate" mental softare assigned a high value to "work", and mild suspicion of anything resembling "leisure". The work ethic is real: hard work, discipline, and frugality are a result of a person's subscription to the values espoused by the Protestant faith. And that was that. Stop wasting time, and get to work.

Then I moved to the west coast, and became slovenly (I'm kidding). I stayed up later, dated much younger women, and branched out a bit friend-wise. Even as most of my friends were slogging through medical school, catching the 6:30AM train to the city, or packing thermoses of coffee with them so they'd be fresh when work started, at 7AM.

The grand irony being that the most "slovenly" cities—the most creative, open, tolerant places, the Seattles, the Portlands, the San Franciscos and the Austins—are economically cleaning up over the more "responsible" Midwest. I guess it doesn't much matter when you get to work, if some west coast hacker in a hoodie stays up until 1AM coding your job away?

Paul Graham on the matter:

The path to intelligence seems to be through working on hard problems. You develop intelligence as you might develop muscles, through exercise. But there can't be too much compulsion here. No amount of discipline can replace genuine curiosity. So cultivating intelligence seems to be a matter of identifying some bias in one's character—some tendency to be interested in certain types of things—and nurturing it. Instead of obliterating your idiosyncrasies in an effort to make yourself a neutral vessel for the truth, you select one and try to grow it from a seedling into a tree.

No amount of discipline can replace genuine curiosity. Maybe discipline isn't as important as we thought? Perhaps "Middle-Class Midwestern Protestant Engineering Graduate" needs a little upgrade there?

And yet, he says it himself: the path to intelligence seems to be through working on hard problems. Note that word again—work—not sitting around idly dreaming, or thinking about things.

So I've come full-circle on this. I started off having my beliefs handed to me, then I sort of threw them out. But in the end, a bit a conservatism might be the best approach: don't be so quick to throw out long-established things. If it's worked 500 years, what are the odds this is the year it won't?

That pretty much sums up my feelings toward marriage, university education, exercise, and reading the classics, among other things.


The other reason I've been thinking about my menetal software: Caroline and I are having a girl in a few months.

And I'm wondering: what should I pass down, to her?

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