Jordan Koschei jordan koschei

Page 7

Increasing Optionality

One heuristic I find useful for making decisions is: will this increase or decrease my optionality?

In other words, will a given decision open up the range of future options available to me?

I have a friend who lived, for several years, off of 50% of his salary. This gave him several options that most of us don’t have:

  1. Each year he worked gave him enough money in the bank to spend a year not working, while maintaining the same quality of life. (Or, in his case, working entirely on personal projects without drawing a salary).
  2. He could take a much lower-paying job without having to adjust his lifestyle. If he found a job he was passionate about that paid only half his current salary, he could take it without downsizing his life.

Conversely, if someone is living off 100% of their salary, their options for other jobs are constrained — they either need to find work with equal or higher salary, or they need to downsize.

Debt is the prime example of a constraint on financial choices. If I take out a loan, it may increase my short-term optionality (I have more immediate funds to work with), but decrease my long-term optionality (a larger chunk of my income is now devoted to repaying debt)

Money is an easy example, but there are plenty of others:

  • If I have a pet, will it constrain my ability to travel?
  • If I take on volunteer commitments, will it constrain my ability to spend time working on a side project?
  • If I take a trip and plan out what I’m doing every hour, will it hamper my ability to make choices in-the-moment and do what seems interesting?

I suppose this is all related to opportunity cost — time and resources are finite, so we can’t do one thing without reducing our bandwidth to do other things. Optionality is about understanding your priorities.

It strikes me that life is largely built around choosing where we’re comfortable reducing our available options, in order to open up more options.

I choose to work a full-time job because, even though it reduces my available time by 40 hours a week, it increases my available resources to spend on the other 128 hours.

I choose to work on my side projects because I value them more than I value whatever diversions I could spend that time doing.

At any branch in the path, though, I still find it useful to ask myself: will this increase or decrease my range of available options?

Do One Thing

Most of us live in a constant state of Continuous Partial Attention. Rather than focusing on one thing at a time, our attention is constantly scattered among a variety of sources, each of which only has part of our focus.

We’re at work, but we’re also keeping tabs on a text chain.

We’re reading a book, but we’re also checking Twitter or Instagram every two paragraphs.

We’re in a conversation, but our eyes keep flicking up to the TV on in the background.

Maintaining a state of Continuous Partial Attention is rarely a choice, but our current media environment seems specially designed to keep us in that state. We keep our phones in our pockets like a totem, our hands and minds constantly reaching for them as soon as we feel the mildest itch of boredom.

We can no longer bear to be doing nothing. We can’t just stand in line, waiting, without checking some other source of information. We’ve sacrificed solitude — not even true solitude, but just being alone with our thoughts — at the altar of being Always On.

Checking our feeds makes us feel like we’re in control. Really, they’re just making us scattered and docile.

We need boredom. We need to give our minds the chance to do one thing at a time. Boredom is a prerequisite for creativity. Multitasking is a myth.

Ironically, it’s this same media environment that’s connected to the massive upswing in jobs that are considered “knowledge work.” And knowledge work requires more dedicated attention than other jobs. It’s hard to write, or code, or design without reaching a state of flow. And yet the things we’re writing, coding, or designing seem best suited to preventing others from reaching the same.

A professor of mine used to say:

You can’t use a hammer without getting a callous.

What’s the callous our current tools are giving us?

###All this is to say:###

I’m tired of never being fully present. This week, I’m issuing myself a challenge: only do one thing at a time.

If I’m eating, I want to be eating — not reading or watching Parks and Rec or doing something else at the same time.

If I’m working, I don’t want Twitter on in the background. Or Slack. Or email.

If I’m watching TV, I don’t want to be on my phone as well.

That’s my plan. Feel free to join me.

Building an Online Community

You are the framer of the Constitution in this world that you are building. You are the Abraham in the series of begats.

I’m a big fan of Reid Hoffman’s podcast, Masters of Scale. In the most recent episode, featuring Caterina Fake (of Flickr fame), they discuss how cultures form in online communities. Social networks become their own “civilizations,” and the founder is “the Abraham in the series of begats,” carving out the culture and mores which will define the community.

Masters of Scale title card

This idea has been on my mind a lot since I launched the Hudson Valley Talentbase. The early tone of the community sets the tone for the entire project — attract trolls early, and it becomes a platform for trolls. Shut them down, and they’ll congregate elsewhere.

Talentbase is still young, and there are only a handful of users that I’d consider “active,” but I’m already seeing the seeds of what the community could become. Some users are engaging with the platform in interesting and unintended ways — using the “Post Your Work” feature to post nascent ideas, for instance, or using it as a blogging function. The norms are already being set. I’m no longer the one controlling the experience — I’m just setting up the framework and watching how users interact within.

My fear of setting the wrong tone early was part of the reason I first launched it as an invite-only platform. I wanted the initial population to be made up of people I trusted, and the people they trusted, so that I could establish Talentbase as a place to showcase high-quality work and have high-quality conversation. Hearing two well-pedigreed social media founders discuss this exact idea is validating.

Some other ideas I found interesting from the episode:

  • Towards the beginning of Flickr, there was a large userbase in the United Arab Emirates, but also a large number of photos of Britney Spears with a bare midrif. Those turned out to be mutually exclusive populations — by allowing the midrif photos to continue, Flickr caused their UAE userbase to migrate elsewhere.
  • There’s no such thing as an objective platform. Every online community stands for something, based on the rules it chooses to enforce, but only some communities know what they stand for.
  • Every founder of a social network understands what lines can’t be crossed. Only some of them vocalize those boundaries and codify them for the rest of the community.
  • Near the beginning of Flickr, Caterina Fake made a point of greeting each new member personally. This is a great idea for making a community feel personal (though I’d be tempted to automate the initial contact, and then respond personally to those who answered.)

It’s food for thought for anyone starting an online community. What tone are we setting, and how will it propogate throughout the platform?

Small Sabbaths

The idea of Sabbath — a time set apart for rest and (in the observant believer’s case) worship — is essential to the Christian faith. And it’s not just Christians who believe in the value of restorative, rejuvenative rest — Sabbath is found everywhere, both in other religions and in the secular world (weekends, anybody?).

We humans are wired to need a day off. No matter how much our culture promotes go-go-go, we need some time set aside for rest and contemplation. It’s not just okay to preserve a day for yourself, without thinking of your day job/freelance work/side hustle – it’s necessary.

But I think we need more than just the one “official” Sabbath day per week. Each day needs its own smaller Sabbath — some time to ground ourselves, get lost in our own heads, and clear the board for whatever comes next.

I’ve been trying to be more disciplined about taking time to myself at the beginning of each day. I need true rest, away from high-attention outside inputs — no TV, no podcasts, no smartphone. Just time to be alone, contemplating. Giving my mind space to wander, to mull over old ideas and come up with new ones. To make connections I wouldn’t have made under the dull throbbing influence of the many activity feeds.

I always aim to work from a posture of rest — that is, not rushing and scrambling and feeling on the back-foot, but working diligently with the understanding that my work is not what defines me. But the only way I can hope to do that is by allowing myself time in the presence of things that are energizing, not enervating.

For me, that means some time each morning with no news media (enervating, and depressing). No podcasts (enervating, and a good way to avoid doing your own thinking). No Netflix (if you feel more tired after an hour of watching it, that counts as enervating). Yes to reading, and thinking, and praying. Yes to listening to music. Yes to making something for its own sake, rather than because it’ll get plaudits or likes or shares.

I’m coming to relish these small Sabbaths each day. I’m not yet consistent with them, and sometimes I forget or run out of time. But in a society that’s obsessed with productivity and efficiency and “life hacks” (what an awful phrase), it’s worth taking the time to just be a person.

Do you know what’s gross? There’s probably someone out there who’s going to read this, or a similar article, and think, “Cool! I can use this to be more energized and efficient at work.” But that’s defeating the purpose. Sabbath isn’t designed to be pragmatic. It’s designed to be Sabbath.

2017 Book List

I’m making an effort to up my reading this year.

I used to be a voracious reader, but that fell off around college (yes, pursuing a degree was the main thing holding me back from getting an education). Lately I’ve been trying to spend less time immersed in the feeds on my phone and more time buried in books.

These are all books that I’ve read on paper — I find that my retention is much, much lower on a screen, even on e-ink devices like the Kindle — and that I enjoy being able to flip back a few pages when necessary to recall or revisit something.

I also find that the more I read, the more I’m able to read. I think a lot of people avoid books because there’s that initial friction to getting into them, but that friction goes away quickly the more you read. I suspect the friction comes from training our brains to expect the quick dopamine hits of Facebook and Instagram and quick-cutting TV commercials. I find it also helps to keep my phone in another room — if it’s out of sight, I can sink into the book much more easily.

What I’ve Read So Far This Year:

  1. When You Are Engulfed in Flame, David Sedaris
  2. The Unsettling of America, Wendell Berry
  3. Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
  4. In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan
  5. Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink
  6. The History of the Hudson Valley, from Wilderness to the Civil War, Vernon Benjamin
  7. Starbucked, Taylor Clark
  8. Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas
  9. Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond
  10. New York 2140, Kim Stanley Robinson
  11. Monsignor Quixote, Graham Greene
  12. Growing a Farmer, Kurt Timmermeister
  13. Lincoln in the Bardo, George Saunders
  14. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
  15. Hillbilly Elegy, JD Vance
  16. Deep Work, Cal Newport
  17. Legends of the Fall, Jim Harrison
  18. Rocket Men, Craig Nelson
  19. Rest, Alex Soojung-Kim Pang
  20. The Planet on the Table, Kim Stanley Robinson
  21. The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan
  22. The Years of Rice and Salt, Kim Stanley Robinson
  23. Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari
  24. Dreamland, Sam Quinones

That works out to 8 fiction and 16 non-fiction.

Of the fiction, 4 were hard sci-fi or alt-history speculative fiction, 2 were character studies told via trips through Spain, and 1 was about the soul of Abraham Lincoln’s son traveling through the Tibetan Buddhist afterlife.

Of the non-fiction books, 2 were biographies, 10 were sociology, and 5 were related to food and agriculture.

My most commonly-read authors this year have been Kim Stanley Robinson (2 novels and 1 anthology of short stories) and Michael Pollan (2 books on food).

Upcoming:

  • Radical Technologies, Adam Greenfield
  • Southern Reach trilogy, Jeff VanderMeer
  • Augustine’s Confessions, new Sarah Ruden translation
  • Annals of the Former World, John McPhee

I’ll read more, I’m sure, but I try not to plan out too far in advance. I prefer to order a few books specifically, and take out a few from the library spontaneously at the same time. That way I always have several books to choose from on my nightstand, some planned and some not.

Handwriting

As I get older, I’ve come to value handwriting more and more.

When I was a kid, I never understood why we had to handwrite everything in school, often in (gasp) cursive. I preferred the speed and precision of typing, especially as someone who had terrible handwriting. I felt the same way throughout my academic career, especially when it was validated in college by the expectation that everything would be type.

Even in college I noticed that my retention was lower when I typed. I ignored the signs then, because I still preferred typing to hand cramps, but now there’s research backing up the idea that typed notes are less effective than handwritten ones. As the Wall Street Journal asked: Can handwriting make you smarter?

Similarly, my retention is lower when reading a book on a Kindle rather than on paper. Anecdotal, I know, but I suspect the data would bear this out.

[begin unscientific conjecture]

My guess about why paper and handwriting beats screens and typing? The human brain has been tuned over millions of years to register geographic data as important. Where’s the best source of food? Where’s good shelter? Where’s that den of vicious animals to avoid?

Screens don’t have their own geography — no matter what you’re reading on a screen, it’s still the same screen. Your brain has less reason to automatically memorize it. There’s no geographic data like there is with the page. Similarly, handwriting has a spatial component that typing does not — the texture and smell of the page, and the feel of the pen as it glides over the paper, make a difference.

[end of unscientific conjecture]

All this is to say: I want to be someone who writes things out longhand more than I do. I want to carry a commonplace book around with me to record quotes and notes. I want to draft essays on paper and then transfer them into my computer. I want to keep a journal that doesn’t rely on a hard drive. I want the notes I put in the margins of books to be comprehensible by future generations.

What’s stopping me? Mostly my handwriting — it’s atrocious. I often can’t read things I wrote a few hours earlier.

I wish I’d spent more time working on my handwriting in school. It’s possible to practice and change your handwriting, but it’s hard, and you have to work through the decades of muscle memory (and hand cramps).

Also, there’s the downside of having a notebook that looks like it was last used by a serial killer. Row after row of capital A, lowercase A, capital B, lowercase B. I’m just inches away from “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”

But it’s worth the effort.