Justified Rudeness

Dealing with conflict is a subject we could all use a little work on. There are times when disagreements boil down to a simple conflict of interests; in those situations the only real answers are to compromise or to leverage our way into getting what we want.

But many times conflict is unnecessarily created by shitty communication/social skills or some personal defect. And although it’s easy to think of ourselves as great communicators and kind and selfless people, most people I’ve observed drop all their noble virtues quite quickly when they feel they’ve been wronged.

This is a problem in and of itself, but it’s an understandable one. For all of the books we can buy on Amazon on conflict resolution, compassion, and empathy, it’s really hard to not get fed up with people’s shit logic, selfishness, or passive aggression.

What’s really troublesome is how easily we often excuse our displays of cruelty and maliciousness after we treat someone else poorly. We think to ourselves “they deserved it” so we can get rid of our cognitive dissonance and continue to think of ourselves as good people. We might say we were “teaching them a lesson” or “keeping it real” (if you say this non-ironically, please stop). We even have two idioms often used to justify treating someone we think is pretentious like shit: “knocking them down a peg” and “knocking them off their high horse.”

We let ourselves off the hook too easily with this kind of convenient hypocrisy. Losing our tempers is part of life, and it’s understandable, but never justified. If we consider ourselves good, kind, unselfish people because we can act virtuously when we interact with other nice, easy to get along with people, we set the bar for ourselves too low. We need the ability to behave kindly to unkind people just like we need the ability to behave justly in unjust circumstances.

Sometimes we’ll act like asses, sometimes we may even need to in order to accomplish our ends. But we need to take responsibility for our assdom instead of conveniently justifying it as someone else’s fault/responsibility. Otherwise we’ve just deluding ourselves.

Unnecessarily Difficult

I had a particularly obnoxious teacher in college who took great pride in assigning “difficult” assignments. Unfortunately, to him “difficult” meant “purposefully convoluted.” It’s not like the essence of his assignments were that complex, they were just poorly organized and unnecessarily vague. When I confronted him about a particularly hard to understand assignment he cheerfully replied “it’s supposed to be difficult to understand.” He said it in a cheerfully condescending tone too, which made it clear that he took great pride in his confusing instructions and had no intentions of clarifying the assignment to me whatsoever. He seemed to think that my struggling was proof he was doing his job well.

Unfortunately, I see people make this faulty correlation all the time. People often favor high-brow language or express their ideas in a round-about manner instead of stating them directly, and then congratulate themselves for their complexity and erudition, as if poor communication was a substitute for useful ideas. All of this seems to come down to a fundamental attribution of the value of doing “difficult” things.

Of course, most of us want to be accomplished and successful, which always entails difficulty. But some people seem to believe that if they purposefully make something more difficult to do, it becomes proportionately more valuable/meaningful as well. My teacher seemed to operate under the erroneous assumption that if good teachers helped students learn by assigning “difficult” assignments, inserting unnecessary roadblocks into his assignments would elicit the same response.

Obviously, this is nonsense. Doing X amount of work in 2 hours while having fun is the same as doing the same amount of work in 4 while being miserable because there are unnecessary obstacles in the way. We should always strive for simple, effective systems whenever possible. Of course, some things will still be difficult as hell because it’s in their nature to be. But when you are confronted with a “difficult” assignment, problem, or system of doing things it’s vital to discern whether it’s “difficult” because it’s a fundamentally challenging problem or if someone is simply stringing you (and themselves) along. Most importantly, it’s vital that we don’t make the same mistake ourselves.

Ambiguity

I’ve all but discontinued this journal/blog over the last month (or longer?). This is partially because I’ve been happy and haven’t felt the need to put my feelings on paper. But it’s also because I’ve been lazy and scared. It’s much easier to just let the days go by without documenting the nuances of your emotions and categorizing day-to-day emotions. When you have a smile on your face it’s easy to justify this laziness to yourself. After all, life is good right? No need to rock the boat. But ultimately, I need to remember that just because things are good now does not mean they will be good forever. And just because things are good right now does not excuse me from doing the work I know is necessary in order to improve myself for the hard times ahead. The eye of the storm is not a good place to relax and let yourself grow soft. It’s a place to strategize and prepare for the next leg of the journey. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what that next leg will be, which is another reason why I’ve allowed myself to procrastinate so severely. I have a bad habit of holding my hands over my eyes in the face of uncertainty and assuming that procrastination will make the problem go away. This is a mistake no doubt, but it’s also a deeply engrained habit. I could lay blame on the people that helped this habit develop, but that doesn’t help me now, does it? What I need to do is find a way to overcome this problem before it’s too late. Self-reflection in a journal/blog is one solid answer. It needs to be a habit and it needs to occur daily. I honestly have no idea if I’ll be able to stick with it though. There are so many different factors that make things difficult.

I think this is one of the things the “no excuses” crowd always seems to miss. Along the way to getting what you think you want there are sacrifices you may not be willing to make. It’s easy to say “Do whatever it takes to be successful,” but what do you do when “doing whatever it takes” damages your relationships, your sense of morality, or your emotional health? Obviously you have to make adjustments. But once you’ve abandoned your black/white thinking, how do you tell when you are making a necessary compromise and when Resistance or distraction is dragging you down?

My mother used to tell me that I took things too literally, and that platitudes and stories are just signposts there to help guide us in the right direction. The problem is that I’m not certain which signposts are helpful and which are Sirens leading me into the rocks. I’m not certain which life philosophy(ies) I can trust and believe in and which will lead me down a false path. Ultimately, I think this is a sign of a deeper weakness—an inability to successfully deal with ambiguity and uncertainty. It’s easy to accept that ambiguity is part of life in a theoretical sense, but when it comes to my real life it’s much more difficult. I crave some sense of certainty and consistency, some sure sense that I’m headed in the right direction.

I’m resisting the temptation right now to answer my own struggle with some platitude like “I guess that’s just how life works” and just end this line of thought right here and now. But ultimately that line of thinking can just be an easy way out to avoid wrestling with life’s hard questions.

On the other hand, perhaps this whole line of thinking is one giant masturbatory exercise in which I’m torturing myself over an ultimately worthless question. I don’t know. And that’s the entire point I’m trying to make. Ambiguity is painful. It’s painful not just because you don’t know a clear cut answer to a question, but because you don’t even know if you’re even asking the right question.

That being said, I think there’s a tendency to become too obsessed with finding answers to these kinds of issues. Ultimately a life is measured and defined by actions taken. Playing around with deep questions is a useful exercise, but ultimately it’s only the actions that results from these questions that counts. Thinking will always be a useful endeavor, but I can’t forget that it’s only a means to an end. The true goal is to be confident in my ability to move forward no matter what nonsense I get myself into and no matter how scared or insecure I get. Nothing ambiguous about that.

John Boyd

I’ve been thinking about , Robert Coram’s biography of John Boyd, one of the creators of the F-15 and F-16, after finishing the book last week. The book is amazing, first and foremost because Coram is a phenomenal storyteller, but also because Boyd’s life makes for an exceptional and compelling story. Boyd was an admirable man in many ways and accomplished more than most people ever will (or would ever want to), pioneering a physical theory that revolutionized fighter jet design, then fighting tooth and nail against the shortsighted and self-serving members of the Pentagon who tried to corrupt his F-15 and F-16 designs for their personal gain. In his youth, Boyd was one of the most skilled fighter pilots in American history, and in his later years produced a second revolutionary military theory, which reintroduced maneuver warfare to the American military after the strategic disaster that was Vietnam.

Yet for all his accomplishments Boyd was in many ways a tragic hero. Despite being intimately aware of the shortcomings within the military, he seemed painfully naïve about his shortcomings as a husband, father, and friend. Boyd seemed to fancy himself as a romantic embodiment of the lone crusader, standing up to the impossible might of the American military with only a small team of close knit supporters at his back. Yet within his courage and self-sacrifice was a powerful selfishness. He all but ignored his wife and children so he could focus the entirety of his attention on his work. On Boyd’s deathbed, one of his grown children hears him murmuring the names of his close work associates and waits for Boyd to start saying the names of his children. He never does.

His “my way or the highway” attitude alienated his co-workers, many of whom could have become potential allies, and ultimately hurt his cause. He unnecessarily infuriated and insulted top military brass with his irreverence and impulsiveness, ultimately hurting his ability to influence the system from the inside.

Although he was loved by his close team of supporters (several of whom thought of him as a father), Boyd’s self-absorption jarred and alienation even them. At one point in the book, Boyd and a couple of his coworkers are watching a dog fighting movie to unwind from work. Boyd starts muttering to the on –screen jet to shoot its target down, which initially strikes his coworkers as quirky and charming, “Boyd being Boyd.” But as the movie progresses, his mutterings increase to a yell and he shouts “hose him!” so loudly the entire theater can hear. In moments like that, the charm of Boyd’s quirkiness evaporate, revealing a deep-seated selfishness underneath.

The chapter “they think I’m a kook” is one of the book’s saddest. An aging Boyd is thrown a birthday party by his friends and family, where they present him with their typical inside-joke gag gifts – a hose, to signify Boyd’s skill in “hosing down” rivals, and a B-1 bomber with a rock attached to it via string, to signify Boyd’s incessant criticism of the B-1. It’s clear that these gifts are intended with only warm intentions, and Boyd had met such gifts with glee in the past. But that night he becomes visibly upset. When his wife tries to comfort him in private he declares they “they think I’m a kook!”

Boyd, it seems, wanted to have things both ways. He wanted to be admired as a maverick and allowed to indulge in his impulsive eccentricity, yet at the same time wanted to be respected as a man of dignity. But he made a choice to be the former instead of the later, and suffered because of it. Perhaps he was aware of the decision he made, perhaps not, but his family, his friends, and his legacy still bear the consequences.

What lessons can be learned from Boyd’s life? Most important is the role of self-awareness and humility in one’s professional and personal life. Boyd seemed genuinely oblivious to the contradictions and hypocrisy within his own character and lost much because of it. There’s a certain pride that comes from doing and saying whatever we want, but we often lose much because of it. Boyd’s numerous accomplishments are in many ways overshadowed by his reputation for abrasiveness. Boyd made a choice. He chose to be brilliant, obsessive, and tenacious, but also to be obstinate, intractable, and disdainful. We make choices of similar consequence every day, differing in degree but not in kind. It’s up to us to decide which qualities we chose value, and what the our priorities in life truly are. Boyd was a hero, but he was a tragic one, destroyed by the same qualities that led him to greatness in the first place.

Post-Gym Brainstorming

After working out is undeniably one of the worst times to get any serious work done that involves long stretches of concentration. You’re aggressive (Provided you’re not a Zen-weightlifter), tired, and excitable, all the qualities you don’t want if you need to focus. Luckily, post-gym happens to be an excellent time for frenzied brainstorming and drawing out new intellectual connections between various topics that you’ve never connected before.

This is because high amounts of physical stress or mental agitation break down the process of systematic thinking. The majority of the time, you absolutely want your thoughts to follow a logical, deliberate path. It’s virtually the only way to arrive at meaningful conclusions. But although this kind of linear thinking is absolutely necessary to get anything done, it unintentionally limits the scope of the ideas your capable of entertaining at any one time. Breaking up this orderly, systematic process of thinking can be essential to generating new ideas and new ways at looking at whatever kind of problem you are trying to tackle. This is why I always get inspired ideas while pulling all nighters, provided I’ve done the necessary intellectual  legwork while in a rested state.

Unfortunately, extreme methods such as sleep deprivation aren’t the best strategy for long term intellectual performance. Luckily, the post-gym state can generate a similarly chaotic, restless state of mind perfect for generating new ideas. So try it. Next time you’re done with a workout, turn off your headphones and attack whatever mental problem you’ve been trying to solve. You might have the breakthrough you’ve been looking for all day.

Getting used to being tired

I’m beginning to get used to being tired. It’s not particularly a good thing from the outside looking in, but in many ways I think it’s indicative of a positive set of internal adaptations that are extremely valuable, integral even. The main lesson to learn: doing something is not dependent on feeling like doing it. Which is really just maturity and responsibility 101 . And in many ways being able to accept doing things you don’t want to is what separates children (and those in extended adolescence) from adults.

My responsibilities are not particular impressive, or even particularly demanding (of course, this depends on your reference point), but it’s my job to honor them and complete them in a regular and professional manner.

The short list:

1) Get my schoolwork done

2) Live healthily and cleanly

3) Be a decent person to others

If I do these things everyday I am breaking even. The problem is that all of these tasks take energy and effort, which must be expended on a day to day (and often second to second) basis. Since energy is finite, I often have to force myself to continue performing these basic tasks even once the motivation to do so has faded. Oftentimes I perform less than admirably, and occasionally I fail spectacularly (failing a class, snapping at someone, going a week without shaving, ect). And of course, after these fuck ups I have to get back on the horse and soldier through.

This struggle is commonplace to any college student and likely any person. But there’s a wrong and a right philosophy to approach it with. There seems to be a problematic common sentiment among people I talk to about finals and relationship trouble or whatever. Namely, that I just need to “get through X,” with the assumption that things will get easier once whatever challenging event I’m currently struggling with is over. Of course, this isn’t how reality works. “Getting through” one challenging event after the other is a fool’s philosophy, because there is rarely a grand pay off on the other side of the rainbow. “Getting through” high school just leads to “getting through college,” which leads to “getting through” your shitty, entry level job, and so on. Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself a little here, but it seems that such a philosophy ultimately reduces you to “just getting through” life. And that’s sad. And unfortunate, and rather tragic.

The winning strategy is to find away to normalize the feelings of tough times. This isn’t to say there won’t be times during which exceptional effort and focus is needed, of course that will still be the case. And it will be unpleasant. But slowly but surely you come to get used to working your X hours a day, X days a week. Doing what you need to do becomes normal, not an exceptional trial. This is what “getting your shit” together means.

Of course, I write this, as I write many things, from the perspective of a person who is only kinda-sorta there. It’d be disingenuous and delusional for me to believe that just because I’ve managed to get through a couple of finals weeks that I’ve achieved the level of professionalism which the good life requires. But I’m getting there. As are we all. It’s the mindset that’s important. It’s easy to trick yourself into believing that once this challenge is over there will be no more, comforting even. But after mountains there are always more mountains, and after trials are more trials. The important thing isn’t surviving another week in anticipation of an easier time (that will likely never come), but making progress towards the time when what was once only survivable is now thrivable.

Uncomfortably Quiet Classrooms

       Quiet classrooms have driven me crazy all my life. Not where kids don’t talk to each other during class–that’s a good thing–but where the teacher asks questions and no one seems to have any inclination to answer. Don’t get me wrong, the suck-ups and the self-important are rightly reviled, and I’ve come to realize that raising your hand to ask questions during class is a fundamentally self-absorbed exercise.
      But when good teachers do the favor of asking questions and trying to facilitate class interest and involvement, why do I see so many students leaving them hanging? What’s the point of showing up to class if we’re just going to be passive consumers of information? There’s nothing we can get from a lecture in which we sit quietly in the back that we can’t get from a MOOC or a YouTube video.
       I suppose it’s reasonable that some students are too self-conscious to say anything, but that shouldn’t stop them. We’re learning, stupid ideas happen. But it seems more and more that students don’t speak because they really don’t have anything to say. The internalization and manipulation of ideas is hugely important for real learning, and if that’s not valued it’s a huge blow against creating the leaders of tomorrow. And that’s a huge problem.
       On a personal note, sometimes I do end up being “that guy,” who needs to shut up for a full five minutes and the class move or let other people have a turn to speak. That’s me crossing the boundaries of etiquette, and it’s my responsibility to fix that. But as a rule, I’d rather be the loudmouth with the ideas than the rock.
                                                                      Come on Ariels, get back your voice.