Hard or soft

I’ve persuaded myself that writing—be it short-form on this blog, or long-form book projects—is no longer a choice. It’s something that exists outside the realm of decision. Like the biological need to eat, drink and defecate, it’s something that has to happen, and will happen, regardless of my disposition. This is just one of the (many) ways in which I fool myself in order to attain a higher state of action, competence, being, whatever. But it does have its limits, and I’m beginning to think that they are determined by a little thing called compassion.

One of the beauties and burdens of my current situation is that no-one is compelling me to do anything. I don’t have any external mechanisms or authorities to urge me onwards. My momentum is mostly self-generated. Which presents a problem: How do I strike a balance between discipline and kindness? If there’s no-one to assign me limits or expectations, then how do I know when I go too far or do too little? The answer concerns compassion, but more specifically, it has to do with where compassion fits on the scale between hardness and softness.

Example: I wake up at 0430, do a minimal amount of work, then fall asleep until the late afternoon. The “soft” response would be something like, It’s okay, you clearly needed the rest and recovery. You’re now in a position to do better tomorrow. The “hard” response would be something like, You just wasted that day. You were up, awake, poised, but you let your environment distract you and allowed your energy to be sapped. The art of compassion is choosing when to be hard and when to be soft with yourself, and with others.

If you have a child, treating them softly could be shielding them from the consequences of their errors or ignorance. Treating them with hardness could be allowing them to get burned—sometimes considerably—by their own mistakes and missteps. To me, it is clear-cut that both courses of action are appropriate at different times. But how about we muddy the water? A farmer looks after a flock of sheep during lambing season. One of the lambs is lame. Is it compassion that allows the farmer to take the lamb’s life, ending its existence, but at the same time, ending its suffering? Is it compassion that forces a person to end a relationship with a co-dependent partner? Is it compassion that causes one friend to tell another of their defects? Sometimes a loved one needs a hug and some kind words. Other times, a loved one wants these things but would be harmed by them in the long run. Making the call, deciding what is necessary and when, is a treacherous game, but we all must play it. We must all decide when to be hard and when to be soft.

The utility of attention

Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is based on these words from Book Five of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations:

“The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Casting my mind about, I can think of many things that stand in the way of our ambitions. Limitations on hard resources like wealth; limitations on soft resources like energy or focus; not having the necessary skills or experience; lack of confidence or of connections; conspiracies of circumstance that skew timing or perception. All of this impedes, but Ryan’s point is that it doesn’t have to: constraints limit us. But they can also compel creativity and act as compasses which we can use to ensure we’re heading in the right direction.

Ryan talks about this more eloquently and effectively than I can, so allow me to draw your attention to an unexpected impediment to our actions and ambitions: attention from others.

Do you want to change the world? Do you want to build a dynastic company that lasts for centuries? Do you want to write a book that remakes the cultural landscape and changes the course of society? Do you want to create a new technology, a new device or a new process that solves one of humanity’s most insidious problems? Do you want to, in Venkatesh Rao’s words, undertake a “great work”? Okay. Then answer me this:

How much attention do you need?

Would it be helpful if everyone knew the scope and scale of your vision? Would it be helpful if no-one knew the extent of your ideas? It’s likely that the answer is somewhere in between; you need the right amount of attention from the right type of people. Visualised:

attention, blessing or curse

Until a certain point, attention from others is a blessing. It confers aide in terms of resources and support. Past that point, it is a curse. Too much attention eats resources and harms more than it helps. But what is interesting to me is that the curve on the graph above shifts.

For example, a modern-day writer benefits from a certain amount of attention. First up, it will mean he can make a living from his words. Second, and perhaps more importantly, a certain amount of attention will increase the diversity of his inputs; it will cause him to evolve new thoughts and sure up the foundations of old ones—or tear them down altogether. But it doesn’t take long for the utility of attention to fade. In fact, for most creative types—writers, artists, musicians, etc.—the curve above should be shifted to the left. Attention from a small core of dedicated followers is sufficient. As Maria Popova has noted many times on Brainpickings, an abundance of attention often detracts from a creative’s ability to do the work that got them all the attention in the first place.

Conversely, an entrepreneur attempting to revitalise a stagnant industry and obliterate its incumbents needs way more attention—his curve is shifted far to the right. The more people that know about what he is trying to do, the greater the field of resources he has to draw on. The drop-off point for a mission of such audacity, where attention becomes a burden, is almost unreachable.

Eric Weinstein is quoted in Tools of Titans as saying, “General fame is overrated. You want to be famous to 2,000 to 3,000 people you handpick.” The nature of this statement is correct: the utility of attention—or “fame”—is bounded, but the ideal upper limit differs depending on the individual and his or her intentions. So consider your ambitions, their scope, their scale, and the timeline upon which they could play out. But keep in mind that when you ask the question, “How much attention do I need?”, the answer will usually be, “Less than I thought.”


One of the secret ambitions I’ve not had the raw resources—time, attention or energy—to accomplish is becoming a polyglot. A polyglot, traditionally, is someone who can speak at least five languages. This is not a vain ambition, but a pragmatic one.

First, it seems that speaking one language is equivalent to having access to only one culture, and thus creates a certain poverty of mind. If a language and the symbols it contains are merely frames for thought, then speaking only one language means a severe limit on the variety of thoughts a person can have.

Second, limits on the languages you speak also place bounds on the friends you can have. An English-only speaker can only be friends with other English speakers. A polyglot has access to a greater potential pool of friends, and thus, has more chance of engaging in better friendships.

Third is the fact that I’d love to read literature in its original language. For instance, I adore the Essays of Montaigne. In their English translation, they sizzle in my mind and set my thoughts afire. I would love to read them in French. The same goes for the work of Dostoyevsky. In English, his novels are glorious. In Russian? They must be magnificent.

Finally, speaking multiple languages is an aide to adventure. For example, one thing I hope to do in the next few years is cycle through France alone. Hop off the ferry at Dover and pedal one thousand kilometres down to the Midi-Pyrénées region. But that is made very difficult because I don’t speak French. How can I be alone, for weeks, in places I’ve never been before, if I can’t converse with locals or ask for assistance? That is asking for trouble. So, raincheck.

But one thing I have come to realise is that being a polyglot doesn’t necessarily involve speaking multiple foreign languages. I remember reading somewhere that, if one wants to become adept at mathematics, it is easier to approach math as a language, as a collection of symbols to be learnt and interpreted rather than a collection of concepts and ideas to be rote-learnt. To get a visceral appreciation for this approach, consider this picture of the inimitable Richard Feynman giving a lecture:

feynman math as language

Consider the symbols on the board behind him. To understand them, would it be better to try and learn the concepts they are derived from, or to try and grok the symbols so that you have a sense of what’s going on? In my mind, the latter.

Second example. A piano recently made its way into our home. We didn’t buy it; someone was giving it away. We said, “Yes, please”, and now Molly can play the piano again, like she did when she was younger. As a consequence, we’re starting to accumulate music books. Flicking through their pages leaves me confused. Consider the following:

bach sheet music

That’s a generic piece of Bach’s music that I pulled from Google. If, like me, you have no familiarity with musical theory or have never played an instrument, it reads like gobbledygook. But once you understand a few critical elements, interpreting it is easier. Once you have basic comprehension of elements like staffs, bass clef, treble clef, measure lines, ties, dots et al., it becomes possible to read the language of music.

Finally, consider programming. Programming is a catch-all term for the discipline of writing software. Seems simple enough. Yet there are a lot of languages in which it is possible to program, all with their own peculiar structures and semantics. Here’s an example from a Microsoft web page.

microsoft code

All those tabs. All those brackets. All that stuff. Nonsensical to me. Perfectly legible to someone who speaks whatever language this particular example of code happens to exist in.

By now, you are probably wondering what my point is. It’s this: the label of “polyglot” should stretch to include speakers of those things we don’t typically class as foreign languages. To me, mathematicians and musicians are multi-linguists just as much as a person who speaks English, French and Italian fluently. And what about people who can speak in sign language, or read Braille? Are they not on the road to becoming polyglots too?

The transit of the sun

Life can be likened to the transit of the sun across the sky. The moment the sun pokes its head above the horizon; birth. The sun’s climb to its highest point; growth. The sun’s fall back towards the Earth; decay. And the sun’s setting, the instance of its disappearance from our sight? Death.

Birth. Growth. Decay. Death. These two processes and these two events are the banners under which all aspects of life, of existence, fall. The only thing which exists outside of them is non-existence. In our metaphor, non-existence is the absence of the sun, of light. It is darkness. It is night.

A glove of kindness

The expression, “Iron fist in a velvet glove”, has always seemed evocative. In my mind it conjures images of great statesman, of the manipulators that exist in epic fantasy sagas and gritty dramas, of the people that exist in the shadows and pull the strings, forcing everyone else to dance to their own unassailable rhythm. It makes me imagine people who, on the surface, are courteous and caring, but who when pushed by circumstance reveal themselves as immovable entities that stand firm and do not yield, no matter the pressure. And I’d always thought that it’d be good to be like that. To be soft on the surface and hard at the core. To be willing to yield, but only to a degree. But upon reflection I would alter the metaphor. Instead of trying to be an iron fist in a velvet glove, I think it is better to be a hand of courage in a glove of kindness.

Courage—be it intellectual, physical, or moral—is something that all of us are going to need at some point in our lives. It is not an option, but a necessity. But kindness? We can scrape through without it, indeed. But the world will be a worse place, for ourselves and for others. A world filled with courage and devoid of kindness is a hard world. An inhuman world. And I want no part of it. So I will strive to be a fist and wear a glove. But I will choose courage and kindness as my material, instead of iron and velvet.

Radical and permanent transformation

On my second read-through of Mindfulness in Plain English, I came across many ideas that I hadn’t detected before. Some were subtle, others were sharp blades stabbing right into the heart of my consciousness. The following sentence is one of the latter:

“The purpose of vipassana meditation is nothing less than the radical and permanent transformation of your entire sensory and cognitive experience.”

A bold statement. But it isn’t limited to just this particular discipline of meditation. Is this not the purpose of an education? Isn’t this the hoped for consequence of acting in and learning about the real world? Isn’t this what we should be pursuing? Shouldn’t we be constantly trying to deconstruct our assumptions and remodel our selves at the most fundamental and basic level? Shouldn’t the true quest of an adult’s life be nothing more than the relentless and rigorous testing of everything we think and everything we think about what we do?

Move to live well

I took a hard line. “Everyone should make movement a part of their life. Everyone should avoid a sedentary lifestyle. Everyone should have experience in the fundamental human movements: squats, pushes, hinges, pulls, loaded carries. Everyone should look after their body with just as much care as they do their mind.” Recent conversations have changed my stance. See, what I had failed to realise is that there’s a difference between the longevity and the quality of a life. To live long—to seventy, eighty years old—it’s probably okay to never do any serious physical activity. You’ll probably make it that far if you have a sedentary lifestyle and don’t become morbidly obese or eat a diet of pure processed, nutritionally un-dense foods. My own anecdotal evidence supports this: I’ve known and I’ve seen plenty of people endure without any special effort invested in their own wellbeing. I’d just always denied it. I’d fallen into a manner of thinking which was, essentially, “You move or you die.”

Now, I’m not recommending the above. Far from it. In fact, when I look into my own future, one thing I’m anxious about is the inevitable decline of my body. I like feeling supple. I like feeling strong. I like being able to get on the floor and get back up with ease. I like being able to run and jump around. I like feeling energetic. I don’t want that to fade. So I move, so I stretch, so I try to stay strong, so I test my cardiovascular system, so I try to expand my gross and fine motor capacity, so I take preemptive measures to soften my inevitable decline. I realise that I don’t have to. I could make it into my later years without any of this extra work. But that doesn’t appeal to me. My body is the greatest, most incredible tool I possess. It’s worth far more than any machine or property I can purchase with currency. And I want it to function to its highest capacity until the day I die. I want to feel minimally inhibited for as long as humanly possible.

I suppose I’ve gone from thinking, “You move or you die”, to thinking, “Move to live well, not long.”