Patience or urgency?

When it comes to navigating a life, there’s contradictory impulses. On the one hand, we understand that good things take time. If I want to master X, I must spend a lot of time studying it, doing it, examining it, working with it. On the other hand, we understand that our time is finite. That the candle of life can be snuffed out by the lightest breeze of fortune. For example, I’ve made it my priority to read and write. That is what I want to spend my days doing. But, in the long-term, it makes sense for me to sacrifice some time reading and writing now so that I can read and write more later.

It’s a tug of war between immediacy and the future, between patience and urgency. We have the time to accomplish all that we dream of, all that we desire. A life is decades long. But not always. Sometimes it is cut short. So we have no guarantee that we have the time.

Patience or urgency. Which do we choose?

Monoculture of the mind

Monoculture—the agricultural practice of planting, growing and harvesting single strains or breeds of plant and livestock—is efficient. It allows for high rates of production, but only at the expense of high vulnerability to disease. If a hundred acres is populated with the same crop, then one outbreak of a certain pathogen can extinguish output across that hundred acres. I’m describing this, not because I’m a farmer or an environmentalist, but because the concept of monoculture provoked some clarity in my mind. See, multiple times over the past few years I’ve heard different people talk about the importance of speaking multiple languages. I even came across an apocryphal Roger Bacon quote which was something like, “The first duty of the scholar is language.” But why?

I’ve been fortunate enough to meet people from different countries. When I was younger, I spent several summers around the Dutch. The Dutch are remarkable for a few reasons. One of which is that, from an early age, they are taught multiple languages. In fact, in the place where I spent my summers, they often ended up as de facto translators. They would translate what the English kids were saying to the French kids, what the French kids were saying to the German kids, and so on. Thinking about it now, my thoughts are tinged with awe and not a little jealousy. Because the Dutch can comprehend multiple languages their intellectual landscape is populated with a much more diverse array of culture and ideas. Because they can speak multiple languages, they can think in multiple languages, and thus avoid a monoculture of the mind.

This is what people who emphasise the importance of speaking multiple languages are getting at, I believe. A language is a frame, a way of thinking and interpreting the world. One language is a single frame, and a single frame is a monoculture. Monoculture in agriculture is risky enough, but monoculture of the mind? Even more dangerous. If I have only one language in which to think, then my thoughts will be mundane, greyscale, uninteresting. If I have multiple languages in which to think, I will better understand how language shapes thought, and be better able to appreciate and utilise a diversity of ideas and approaches.

The descent

The donkey is torn. On one side is a pail of water. On the other is a stack of hay. The donkey needs food as much as it needs water. So how does it decide between these two equal desires, both of which, if left unsatisfied, can result in death? The traditional answer to the paradox titled Buridan’s Donkey is that it doesn’t; it is killed by indecision. In another version of the paradox, related by Nassim Taleb in Antifragile, the donkey’s choice is made by chance

“A donkey equally famished and thirsty caught at an equal distance between food and water would unavoidably die of hunger or thirst. But he can be saved thanks to a random nudge one way or the other. This metaphor is named Buridan’s Donkey, after the medieval philosopher Jean de Buridan, who—among other, very complicated things—introduced the thought experiment. When some systems are stuck in a dangerous impasse, randomness and only randomness can unlock them and set them free. You can see here that absence of randomness equals guaranteed death.”

Now, imagine this scenario—randomness influencing a choice between seemingly equal opportunities—applied to our life. Typically, we imagine our pasts as deliberate. We got from A to B to C because we chose to go from A to B to C. The reality is far different. Every choice in our past—and our future, too—is a crossroads with numerous diverging pathways. Of course, we consciously evaluate the merit of each available one. But more often than not, the path we take is taken because of an unexpected nudge in a particular direction. The nudge can come from a stranger, from a friend, from a family member, from the sweet tone of desire, from the whisper of fear, or from a peculiar facet of circumstance.

Consider it another way. You are born on the top of a mountain. At the bottom of the mountain is death. The only way down is via a succession of slides. You can see where some go, others just descend into a heavy mist. In such a situation paralysis will set in. You’ll refuse to go down any slide. No matter. The wind will howl, rain will roar around you. Eventually, via choice or via accident, you’ll begin your descent, and you may come to another platform. The same again. Many slides. Which do you take? Choose or have the choice made for you.

This is how our existence unfolds. We are ceaselessly descending towards death, down chutes which sometimes we choose and most of the time we don’t.


One of the first things I do when I get a new device—a phone, a tablet, a laptop—is explore the settings. I go through each and every sub-menu, determining what function each one has and deciding whether it’s default array is desirable or not. Sometimes it is—I like the toolbar of my laptop to be displayed on the bottom of the screen and the selected language to be English. Other times, it is not—I don’t want the time and date displayed, I don’t want certain apps to have certain permissions or to nudge me with push notifications.

It’s a simple practise, and one that, surprisingly, teaches me a lot, both about the device itself and about my intentions for its use. But this morning, I’m wondering, can I apply it to something else? Can I examine and reconfigure my own defaults?

Life is a slow accumulation of precedent. As we age we encounter new situations, and for each of these new situations we decipher a suitable response. We decide how to behave when we encounter our friends, we decide what to do when we get to work in the morning, we decide what to do first when we get home, we decide what to do when faced with direct and indirect conflict; for most mundane scenarios we develop a default response. Yet, these defaults are often a consequence of convenience. Companies that make tech devices have reasoned their way to defaults; there is a rationale for their selections (mostly). Not for ours. We’ve stumbled into them.

For example, on the rare occasion that I go to a party, I tend to stick close to people I know and not stay too late. That’s my default. What if I changed it? What if I sought out people I didn’t know and stayed until the end? What would I gain and what would I lose? Another example: when I read something online that makes me think, or gives me a new perspective, I don’t do anything. My default is inaction. What if I shared it on Twitter? What if I made the effort to contact it’s creator and say thank you, or to give a detailed response? What would be the consequences of such a profound shift in my media consumption habits?

We like to think that we are creatures of will. That all we do we do because we choose. Not so. Most of what we do is done without thought, without consideration, simply because we decided before to do that and it worked so maybe we just do that again next time. Thus, we breeze through most of life’s scenarios on default. So, it follows, that to significantly change our life, there aren’t many more effective strategies than identifying defaults and changing them where appropriate. More is to be gained from this, from modifying the makeup of our unconscious choices in the little moments, than determining to decide better at those big moments, at those monumental milestones of existence.

Looking up, and down

Naval Ravikant, in an illuminating conversation with Shane Parrish, described the consequences of dual-thinking

“The more I’ve read, the more I’ve learned, the more I’ve experienced, because I verify this for myself, every positive thought essentially holds within it a negative thought. It is a contrast to something negative. The Tao Te Ching says this more articulately than I ever could, but it’s all duality and polarity. If I say I’m happy, that means that I was sad at some point. If I say he’s attractive, then that means that somebody else is unattractive.”

Intuitively, this makes sense. But it has some particularly insidious consequences. Consider the idea of virtue and vice. Courage and cowardice. Truth and its distortion. Honor and betrayal. The act of seeing—or attempting to see—virtue and vice manufactures a division: “X is virtuous, Y’s character is full of vice.” Such thinking compels us to categorise, to divide.

Alternatively, think about role models. The people we look up to, the people we admire. We all have them, right? But if we look up to some, it means we look down on others. By putting some on a pedestal we unwittingly put others down in the dirt.

An ugly observation, but a true one.

Stepping into the river

Sometimes, the only way I can be “productive” is by fooling myself. Thus, when logic and rationality prove unpersuasive, I resort to compelling narratives and vivid imagery. And one of the most powerful images I have is that of standing in a river. I imagine myself wading, barefoot, from the bank, out into the current. I imagine that, in my hand, is a spear. And I imagine that I am there to hunt. I feel the cold, fresh water rush around my lower body and I watch as multitudes of fish swim towards me. As I advance to the centre of the river, the fish swerve, avoiding my foreign presence. But as I find my position and become still, waiting, their avoidance lessens. I become a part of the river, and the fish begin to edge closer, to swim in closer proximity to me. When they do this, when they get close enough, I bring my arm down, releasing the spear in the swiftest of motions, impaling one of the fish.

This imagery suits the task of writing. If I feel that I cannot create, then I wade into the river, watch what comes downstream and capture it with my pen. It also suits the process of meditation and mindfulness. Step into the river of thought, be still, and see what flows by. It has another layer too. Heraclitus said that we never step in the same river twice. It is true; every time I take off my shoes and make my way into the river of thought, it is different. The fish are different, the river bed feels different between my toes, the sky above me is new, and the water that so gently moves around me is, without question, not the same.

What we hear

The older I get, the more certain I become that the primary role of our minds is to persuade and seduce our selves. Consider all the alluring narratives we construct about our past, present and future. Think about how we selectively process the feedback from reality. Wonder about our mind’s ability to create a connection between any two disparate points. Or, it could be that as I get older, my mind is becoming more adept, first, at discerning my wants and needs, and second, at ensuring they are met, either in truth or in an illusory fashion. 

The mind is a labyrinth, easy to get lost amongst. Especially, when it conflates impression with reality. For example, we tend to believe that we are what we think. If I have thoughts of jealousy and anger, I must be a jealous and angry person. If I think like a liberal—whatever that means—I must be a liberal. It’s not true, though. We are not what we think. Or, phrased more enigmatically, sound is not what we hear. How can it be when the very cells in our body are entirely replaced, over and over again? How can it be when between our selves and reality there is a barrier of remarkably flexible permeability?