The Mystery of Beauty

I opened a new tab and, as is often the case, the background (courtesy Momentum Dash) gave me pause.  It’s stunning.  I couldn’t navigate away without stopping to stare at the sparkling sun on the edge of a rock-arch and ponder for a few minutes.

And that’s just a photo.  Close your eyes and imagine you’re there, in that high desert air, looking at the sun-shaped landscape in person.  It’s enough to give you chills.

But why?

What is beauty and why are we moved by it?  Physical attraction to other humans is easy enough to explain with evolutionary biology and psychology.  But what about beauty more generally?  The experience of beauty in a landscape, even one inhospitable for humans, is universal.  Why should we find our habitat inspiring even when it’s dong nothing to further our survival?  What utility is there in being moved by a flower, a tree, or a cloud formation?  What is going on when we experience transcendence in those moments?  And why do we crave them?  Why and how do they seem to elevate us?

A reductionist naturalism seems insufficient to explain the experience of beauty.  Maybe that’s where the oldest spiritual ideas originated, as a way to make sense of what’s behind those moments.  The feeling of awe in the face of nature’s beauty begs for an explanation.

How to Stay an Underdog?

I like being underestimated.

My sports fandom tends to strongly favor underdogs, overachieving gritty teams, under-the-radar greatness.  Narratives of quiet, background revolutionaries inspire me.  I always prefer the overlooked-but-making-steak-while-everyone-else-is-talking-about-sizzle position.

This orientation works well, except it gets hard the more you start to succeed.  The underestimated but hard working person will always eventually yield fruit that reveals to the world the previously hidden value.  The world is likely to respond by over-correcting in the other direction, piling on hype, looking for a savior, turning the previously quiet work into a movement.

That’s when it gets weird and difficult.

Embracing the attention is dangerous.  It will always lead you to overestimate your value and position.  After always having more substance than attention, if they level off or the relationship reverses and you embrace the attention, you might forget the substance.  It’s always safer to have more substance than style, but sometimes style runs ahead before substance can catch up.  That’s the danger zone.

What to do in those moments?  Downplay it?  Run from it?  That doesn’t seem to work.  You’ve got to rise to it while at the same time not care about it.  You’ve got to keep your mind above it while your work is firmly grounded.  You’ve got to re-cast your narrative and find a way to stay the hungry, humble, confident hard-worker with a chip on the shoulder.

Personal narrative drives and regulates emotion and psychology.  When big external shifts happen, you’ve got to re-center that narrative so it remains grounding and inspiring while fitting truthfully with the facts.  If your narrative gets pulled by external circumstances, you become a slave to the world.  If your narrative ignores external shifts and pretends nothing has changed, you become trapped in your own delusions.

You’ve got to own the narrative even while you adapt it to things out of your control.

10 Years Have Gone By on This Blog

I had a calendar reminder this morning that said “10 years of blogging”.  I don’t remember setting that reminder for myself, but I went and checked and, sure enough, this blog was created 10 years ago.

A lot has happened since then.  When this blog launched, I didn’t have an iPhone.  In fact, I had a little blue Nokia flip phone that was cool because it had a camera.  I had only been on Facebook a little over a year.  I lived in Michigan and had just one kid (now I live in SC and have four).  I had no idea I’d start a company and Praxis wasn’t even an idea yet.  I’d never published a book or recorded a podcast (I did listen to EconTalk though!  Downloaded episodes onto a little Mp3 player with no screen).

For the first several years, I posted here only occasionally, as my early blogging was done on third party sites like Students for a Free Economy, the Mackinac Center, The Western Standard, The Mises Institute, and the Prometheus Institute.  Things didn’t really get going until TK Coleman challenged me to blog every day for 6 months.  I did.  And I haven’t stopped, except for a few experimental spans until the withdraw symptoms got too bad.

I’ve never made it a point to get traffic here.  This is a place for me to organize my thoughts and structure my day.  It’s a personal challenge and motivator.  I’ve had a few posts that took off and got tens of thousands of views.  It makes little sense to me why and which posts.

I pulled up a list of the higher traffic posts just for fun.  Of the 1,123 posts over the last 10 years, here are the top 30.  I don’t know if they’re any good.

Playing with Legos is More Valuable than Learning Algebra
Every Industry Gets Worse When Government Gets Involved
Three Types of Racism
Being Liked vs. Being Respected
Why Government Fails – Public Choice for Everyone
How My Son Learned to Read When We Stopped Trying to Teach Him
Why I Don’t Care About Income Inequality
103 – GlockStore Founder Lenny Magill on Sales and Why Problem Solving Beats a Resume
Praxis Customer Reviews
Doing Work You Love and Being Happy Are Not Necessarily the Same Thing
Liberal Collectivism, Conservative Collectivism, and the Libertarian Answer
If You Did Vote, Don’t Complain
Are People Who Don’t Smile Unhappy?
Why Is It So Hard to Exit a Bad Situation?
Five Great Economics Books
The Education System Isn’t Broken, It Just Sucks
Your College Degree is Worthless
Stop Doing Shit You Hate
The Absurd Assumption Behind Schooling
Education and Bike Riding
How I Learned to Get a Lot Done Without Being Busy
Alexa the Speech Pathologist
Why Most Homeschooling Systems Devolve (you can’t overplan a startup)
The Limitations of Cost-Benefit Analysis
Four Visions of the World: Constrained, Unconstrained, Stasist, Dynamist
The Obedience-Entitlement Matrix and Generational Differences
My Kid Learned More from Mario Maker than I Did from a Marketing Major
What if Everyone Was Forced to go to Auto Mechanic School?

Anyway, it’s been fun.  Miles to go before I sleep!

My Anti-Statistics Approach to Sports

Not what or how many, but when.  Not when in time necessarily, but when in the feel or flow of the game.

Professional team sports are about emotion and psychology.  They’re about runs and momentum.  30 points in a casual back and forth game flow isn’t deadly.  2 points at the precise moment the opponent cut a 15 point deficit to 6 and was feeling some magic begin to build is.

Like all endeavors, sports have the Pareto thing going on.  5% of plays get 95% of the results.  The response, the stare down, the “everything’s ok”, the “I’m back”.  These are the plays that matter.

Run stoppers, run starters, responses to big emotion swings, creation of big emotion swings.  Just a few plays determine a game.  You can see it and feel it.  Great players make those plays consistently.  Killers.  Assassins.  Cold blooded.  Ruthless.  Heartbreakers.  Daggers.  When that kind of player is on the floor against your team, you fear them.  You know some magic is about to happen.  Their stats and FG% don’t matter.

MJ had it more than anyone in history.  Kobe had it.  Dwayne Wade had it and still does even though his body doesn’t cooperate.

LeBron doesn’t have it.  Westbrook doesn’t have it.  They are stat guys.  Perfect in this era of stat worship.  They’re guys who get praised for triple doubles when they turnover or miss on the last three possessions of the game and lose because of it.  For them, what they rack up is more important than when they do it.

You don’t fear them in big moments against your team.  You want them on the floor in those moments.  That’s when they brick, or make weird decisions, or turn it over.  Their style of play looks greater than all the greats in stat sheets.  If timeliness weren’t a factor – the predominant factor – in determining victory, they would be great.  But they’re not.

Great players often surprise you when you watch them play and then look at their stats.  The stats always seem smaller than you’d expect, because the impact on the team, the timeliness, the way they seized and clearly controlled emotion throughout was so much bigger.  Good-not-great players are the opposite.  You watch, you see nothing that gives you chills, then you check and their stats are massive.  You can’t for the life of you figure out how what you just saw translated into those big numbers.

Highlights don’t do justice either.  Everyone has a few posterizing plays.  Great players have them more often, but that has nothing to do with their greatness.  Young Blake Griffin made posters, but was anti-great.  Highlight reels show amazing plays in isolation, devoid of the only thing that matters; the context of the game and the moment.  Dunking on a guy is cool.  Dunking on a guy who just hit back to back threes tying the game and made your team start to worry is great.  If it turns the game.

Everyone knows this.  Everyone who watches feels it in their veins.  You’re better at seeing it (or its absence) in your own team.  They either have or don’t have that thing.  But everyone tries to be smart and overthink and use a bunch of convoluted stats and end up sounding like idiots when they discuss greatness.  Greatness doesn’t inspire mathematical comparison.  Greatness inspires fear.  If you watched Jordan play, you never question whether anyone is greater due to some statistical shenanigans.  Be serious.  Jordan scares you in a way stat packers never do.

An Extremist Position on Metaphors and Understanding

I was watching Netflix’s rebooted Lost in Space with the kids (we love it!) and got thinking about metaphors.

A character suggested draining fuel tanks to remove a blockage.  She said, “You know, like when you’re trying to sip lemonade and a seed gets stuck in the straw a-” another character interrupted and said, “Yeah, I get it.”

She was annoyed because she already understood the logic of the solution and didn’t need the lemonade metaphor to get it.  It’s a pretty common annoyance to understand something plainly stated and have someone proceed to dumb it down with a metaphor.  But the reason character two didn’t need the metaphor is because she already had one.  She could visualize the problem and proposed solution and translate the language into a mind-picture of what would result.

My friend and colleague TK Coleman and I talk about metaphors often.  He’s referenced George Lakoff’s work on metaphors so much I feel like I’ve read him, even though I’ve only skimmed a chapter or two.  I’ve come so far as to suspect that language and meaning are not possible absent metaphor.

Every conceptual breakthrough and big business idea I’ve had hasn’t crystallized until the right metaphor could be formed around it. I get inklings of ideas and solutions, and beat my head against the wall trying to clarify to myself and others.  Success only comes fully when I stumble upon the right metaphor.  I don’t think we ever really understand something until we have a good metaphor for it.  Metaphors seem to be the bridge between the subconscious and conscious mind; between impressions/intuitions and coherent descriptions/implementations.

Different Beats Better

Every time you see someone doing something better than you and that little fight or flight mechanism starts to light up, stop.

Don’t try to be better.  Be different.

Don’t play the game like everyone else and hope to be the best.  Change the rules.  Play a different game.  This shift forces creativity, self-discovery, and big breakthroughs.  It channels competition into its highest use and drives specialization and the division of labor, instead of commodification, imitation, and homogenization.  It turns everyone into valuable sources of inspiration, information, and collaboration, instead of threats and intimidation.

If you want to know what this looks like in business, check out the book Play Bigger.

Don’t Get Stuck Waiting

The worst thing in the world is to be stuck waiting on something, with nothing you can do to speed it up and no action to take until it’s done.

If you’re creating a business, work of art, or project of any kind and you’re waiting on another person before you can take the next step, I feel you.  I’ve been there and I hate it.

The first thing I like to do in such situations is to explore every possibility of what I can do.  It’s amazing how often there are things you can do to move the project forward even when you think you’re stuck waiting.  Probe every possibility, and take every action you can take, no matter how small.

Next, I like to explore any possible ways I can speed up the other party.  Can I offer to help?  Can I do some of it for them?  Can I give them a deadline?  Can I light a fire under them?  Can I break the arrangement and find another, faster partner?

Sometimes there’s nothing left to do, and no way to speed up the other person.  Here, the feeling is so frustrating – like being stuck in traffic with no way to impact the drive time – it’s easy to succumb to cathartic rage.  But if you want to prevent this kind of situation in the future, now is a great time to reflect and learn.

Step back and evaluate the task you’re working on, and the role the other party plays.  How might things have been structured or framed so that you didn’t get stuck waiting?  Work through as many permutations as you can.  What would need to be different in your situation to not be stuck like this?  Make a plan to get there.

Every time I’ve been held up, powerless to make progress until I hear back from someone, I’ve resolved to never be in that position again.  Each time, I gain understanding of how to avoid it in that specific situation, and reduce it more generally.  Now when I embark on any endeavor, I make it a top priority to arrange the project in such a way that anyone I’m working with will be a collaborator, not a permission slip or bottleneck.

“I’m going to do this regardless, but it will be better if you help” is vastly superior to, “I really want to do this but I can’t do anything unless you will do part of it”.

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