I’ve been traveling the last couple of weeks, and while traveling offers many thought-provoking experiences and opportunities to reflect, it can offer very little time to get those reflections out on a keyboard. So I offer up to you a small thought for the week: I tie my shoes differently now than I did when I was younger. If my experience is any indication of general trends, I tie my shoes differently than much of the population. Whether that’s the case or not, the fact is I changed how I tied my shoes one day.

Changing a long-ingrained habit is not easy. Our brains wire themselves ever more strongly with each passing repetition of a habitual action. Nobody consciously thinks about tying their shoes while they do it—it just happens reflexively. So to change one of these behaviors and re-wire that part of the brain takes a conscious effort, for a while, before the new habit takes the place of the old one.

I changed because it seemed worth it. I had seen a TED talk (see below) in which the speaker explained why a simple change in the sequence of hand motions produced a knot that was more robust and even aesthetically a bit better than the standard knot I was taught to tie. And I thought: I rarely care about how my shoes are tied, except when they come loose. But then again, if making an improvement requires such a small investment of effort, then surely it must be worth it?

If I have avoided two or three episodes of untied laces thanks to my mid-life reprogramming, then I’ve earned back the time it took to re-train myself in this simple skill. But the practice of upending habits and looking everywhere for improvement is an essential feature of the Jailbreak mentality. It is good for the brain, and in making improvements, it is good for life.

In similar fashion, I have in the past re-trained myself away from the QWERTY keyboard layout to the more-efficient Dvorak layout; I’ve changed the entire language of my computer operating system (and the keyboard) while learning another language; a thousand tweaks made to how I handle implements in the kitchen have improved the quality and speed of my cooking. Next up: breaking the tyranny of right-handedness and learning to write excellent script as a leftie.

What ingrained habit have you broken and replaced to make some small part of your life more efficient?

Small Observations

Today, I walked in sand.

Very fine, very dry sand is a fluid; it flows around your feet when you step in it, and runs downhill in little rivulets; the wind blows across its surface and sends up a spray, a mist of microscopic particles that caresses your bare legs and wets your clothes with a golden film of grit.  It engulfs in the collective mass of its atoms everything that stands in its path, a flash flood—though times in decades—that drowns beneath it anything too slow to get out of its way. Plants, rocks, tools, huts, houses and cities all succumb to the advance of the silica tide.

Walking on sand works where walking on water does not because the friction between the fundamental particles of the sand fluid exceeds that between water molecules. Step in the ocean, and the water parts before your foot: it displaced the water throughout the ocean, and could be measured an world away, if we but had instruments sensitive enough. But sand is not so yielding. It will accommodate your foot up to a certain point, allowing you to displace its particles; but at some point you have pushed too much, and no more sand will move before your step. The obstinacy of sand is what lets us walk on it. Its fluidity is what makes the walking hard.

In the desert, where this fine, dry sand lives, the wind whips up the its surface into an everlasting tempest. Towering sunburnt waves rise in formation, beating toward the sky in their decades-long, silent uprising against the tyranny of the wind. The dunes are everlasting, yet ever-changing. Moment by moment the wind sculpts and shapes their surfaces, adding here, subtracting there, so that the patterns written in breezy calligraphy down the slopes are never the same, whether comparing between points in space or points in time. But cease to consider the details of the patterns; stand upright, shield your eyes, and consider the sand en masse.  By looking at the dunes writ large, you are seeing statistically; andthe  statistics of the sands are constant throughout your view. The consistent distribution of rivulet widths, lengths, and branching patterns; the distributions of the dune heights and angles; the regularity of these can be seen at a glance. And so it goes—sand particles, on our scale, are identical; they form wildly different patterns when we observe their interactions up close; and their behavior becomes regular again as we pull away further. The sands are like people. We are all made from the same mould, from the same physical stuff; yet each one of us is radically different from every other one; yet societies the world over display a surprising regularity in customs and habits.

Who knows who the first people were to walk these sands? Did they survive the encounter, or did they grow weary, stop for a short rest, and then, when their rest extended too long, drown in the hot glacial deluge? Might they now form part of these sands on which I am walking?

It must have been thousands of years ago. Everything has changed since then. When the sun has gone down, I can see lights on the horizon—a city is nearby, filled with the buzz of electricity and information and civilization. The dome overhead, in which then hung only stars, now is home to airplanes and satellites whose trajectories may be followed across the ebony skies. And I can stand in this spot with no worries about what I shall eat, or what I shall drink, or if I shall ever make it to my destination. Indeed, this is my destination.

But to say all has changed is to think too small. If I ignore the city, and ignore the satellites, and look at the dunes; there, there I see what that first traveler saw. As if side by side, we see the same patterns in the sand and the shield our eyes from the same sun. In all probability my lungs contain several oxygen and nitrogen atoms that were in his lungs as he stood here, he sharing my view and I his. And there is an immutability to this; man may be about his business, changing everything in his power to change, and yet in the sand the patterns persist. Man may not change those. He may dig up the sand, and pour it out on a far  continent; but the wind will follow it there, and caress it into its eternal shapes, and it will continue to flow and engulf as it has since the beginning of time.

When the wind is blowing, my footprints disappear almost immediately as I walk away. My walk has not disturbed the sand in its massive progress. It does not care. Of whatever significance my walk is to me, the sand does not care.

Let’s remember this. Our universes revolve around ourselves because we see through our own eyes and act through our own bodies. But in realizing that our volition extends only as far as ourselves, we break the illusion that our wants and desires order the objective universe.  Even the most powerful people on Earth have no power to change the forces of nature, the combination of winds and friction that sculpt they sands. We are small, and our ambitions are small.

Our efforts are of grand import in our own lives; we have the power to shape our destinies and overcome odds. We are empowered to leave footprints in the sand, and to choose the direction in which they go. The philosophy of Jailbreak is all about thoughtfully choosing that path. If possible, we may lead others to a limited degree. But let us not have too grand an opinion of ourselves.  It is to our benefit to acknowledge that we are part of a grander scheme, and the wind will wipe away our traces when we are gone. And this is for the good; those who come after us will have the view unspoiled.

Jailbreak Philosophy

Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. —Howard Thurman

Part of what makes achieving Jailbreak difficult—mentally—is finding the necessary imagination to envision a world different than the one that we already know.  I’m not talking about John Lennon’s Imagine-style fantasizing about a universe made in our own image.  But I am talking about the ability to imagine, at the very least, that our own lives could be different than what they are.  This must always be the starting point for anyone who, as Steve Jobs liked to say, puts a “dent in the world.”  For nobody ever put a dent in the world by plodding the same well-worn paths that they have been tracing for years.  Not even Steve Jobs, whose roller-coaster life can be described as anything but stable.  (I have, incidentally, enjoyed his biography by Walter Isaacson so much that I’ve read it twice.)

Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World
Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World

I am not one for business or management books.  I read a few earlier in my career, and I learned something from each; and I would highly recommend a number of them to anyone who enjoys business and management.  I enjoy some aspects of business, but not management.  I do, however, love mental jailbreak.  So when I heard about Peter Diamandis’ new book Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, I figured I should give it a try.  I even paused my most recent Nobel Laureate reading to take it in.  And I am glad I did!

Bold is divided into three sections, and the first two of those sections are essential reading for those anyone who values the ability to think differently, and who is into technology.  Diamandis, after all, is a part of the Silicon Valley establishment that has been asking us all to “Think Different” for the last half-century.  But I think that the first two sections of the book will also be of great value to artists, musicians, novelists, craftsmen: anyone who needs to both be able to focus intently on accomplishing goals and to back up and set goals in a larger strategic context.  And looking at life from a large perspective—and then executing on what you see—is the essence of jailbreak.

Consider the following meta-quote (a quote of a quote), which is originally from a book called Drive by Daniel Pink:

The science shows that…typical twentieth-century carrot-and-stick motivators—things we consider somehow a “natural” part of human enterprise—can sometimes work.  But they’re effective in only a surprisingly narrow band of circumstances.  The science shows that “if-then” rewards…are not only ineffective in many situations, but can also crush the high-level, creative, conceptual abilities that are central to current and future economic and social progress.  The science shows that the secret to high performance isn’t our biological drive (our survival needs) or our reward-and-punishment drive, but our third drive—our deep-seated desire to direct our own lives, to extend and expand our abilities, and to fill our life with purpose.

Right?  Right??  Who among us has experienced the motivation that comes from getting a new job making more money than we ever have before…and then discovering that a few years down the line the money, and raises, are no longer motivating?  The vast business literature out there will attest that monetary rewards are not the best way to motivate people past a certain point.  An individual’s progress climbing Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs dictates that he will desire something more after his physiological and safety needs are met—he will desire self-actualization, the ability to direct his own life, and fill it with purpose.  Pre-jailbreak, one may not be able to see how to take control of his life; or if he can see it, may not be able to walk the path to gaining control.  Perhaps it is a mental block; perhaps it is a financial or family constraint; perhaps the cultural role he is expected to fulfill won’t allow it.  But making the most out of the short life that we all share in this world requires that we figure out what it means to direct our own lives, find and fulfill our purpose, and be the best human beings we can be.  And the quote by Howard Thurman at the beginning of this post suggests a strategy for doing it.  Find what motivates you—and then LET IT MOTIVATE YOU!*

Gartner Hype Cycle Indicators
Gartner Hype Cycle Indicators

But back to Bold.  Part I is all about exponential trends in digital technology (Moore’s Law and all the disruption to industries that it has created).  This should be very interesting to all comers, because it is ultimately about the evolution of the toolset that we all use, no matter what our field of interest.  Computers, cameras, machine shops, artificial intelligence, biology and medicine, space flight—it’s all there.  Engineers will engineer faster.  Photographers will create more spectacular shots and share their work more easily than ever.  Toy makers will find new niches that let them make a living out of their passion.  And the hype cycle—which, yes, has a lot to do with the progress of technology but is a common trajectory followed by many experiences in life—is a paen to the victory of perseverance.  One does not Jailbreak in a day.

Part II contains three sequences—two practical, one inspirational—that should be very useful to the aspiring Jailbreaker.  The first is an examination of flow, the mental state in which super-productivity or super-achievement is possible.  Think of the last time you read a book, did homework, wrote something, or had a fantastic conversation and time flew by without your realizing it.  Perhaps you had been struggling with writer’s block for days, only to find that everything came out all at once in an amazing stream of awesome.  Or you’d been colliding with a persistent problem with a co-worker or friend forever, and one conversation—suddenly and unexpectedly open, honest, and intimate—brought the complication to a close.  It turns out there are identifiable creative, social, and psychological triggers that let one get into such flow states; and through practice, one can engineer the right circumstances to enable such super-productivity predictably.  Whatever it is that you need to do achieve Jailbreak—and whatever you will do when you get there—finding flow will make it happen.

The second sequence in Part II is a discussion of credibility, and the need to be credible to make any of your plans happen.  Diamandis means this in a business or social context, but I believe that credibility is equally important in personal endeavors.  First, you need self-credibility: do you really believe that what you are trying to accomplish is possible?  If you don’t, no one else will—and it won’t be possible.  So do your homework.  Is your goal financial freedom?  Do some math and convince yourself that the numbers work.  Do you want to jump careers?  Find examples of people who have done similar things, and study their successes.  Want to hike the Pacific Crest Trail for months on end?  Best to start with some small overnight trips so you know what you’re getting into.  And the amazing thing is: once you convince yourself, you have most of what you need to make your goals seem credible to others—any others who might matter.  Spouse, friends, parents, bosses.  Bold has some specific suggestions for winning over skeptics: build a crowd of believers, starting with those close to you who are well-respected enough to lend weight to your arguments; take it slowly (again with perseverance); and think carefully about how you present the message.  I loved his use of the old story Stone Soup as an illustration.

And the third sequence is the recounting of the life stories of people like Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and others who have changed the world for the better, starting out with little more than their own force of will.  The Steve Jobs “Reality Distortion Field” is very much in evidence.

Part III is much more focused on entrepreneurs and those trying to accomplish something very large in the business or social sphere.  It isn’t so important to those who are trying to think big in the context of their own lives, as they do when Plotting for Jailbreak.  Many of the suggestions there may be obsolete in a few years’ time. But if you do read the book, be curious and flip through it; you never know what you may be inspired to find.

Jailbreak is a bold philosophy.  It is easy to accept life the way you found it, to listen to the majority, to plod step-by-step on a path that keeps you going to you-know-not-where (the “culture”).  It is equally easy, and lazy, to assume that the opinions of the majority are always wrong, that you must rebel against your upbringing, and that most people are mindless sheep (the “counterculture”).  The truth lies between these extremes, and it is not easy to find.  Those who dare to make themselves better, who balance on the narrow way between blind faith and arrogant pride, must be bold.  And if it sounds like this book could help you develop a bold mindset, it is worth a read.

*I believe that Jailbreak is never accomplished by running away from life, abandoning responsibilities, or selfish grasping.  Those who take that route to self-actualization usually find that they have hollowed out the middle of Maslow’s Hierarchy—that is, they’ve given up on love and belonging, and on self-esteem and the esteem of others.  The driven career professional reaches his pinnacle with a divorce (or two) under his belt.  Regret catches up with the father who has abandoned his children.  And our favorite Christmas villain Scrooge (and his counterparts in reality) amass enormous wealth and have not a friend to show for it.  No, this method of trying to accomplish Jailbreak is just a prison transfer—one jail to another.  True jailbreak is accomplished by showing up for life, making the right decisions, and becoming better day after day.

Book reviews Jailbreak Philosophy

Silence. So many kinds of silence. Deep, still pools of tranquility. Whispering voices of tentative zephyrs stroking millions of paper mâché leaves in autumn forests. Gentle hums of indistinct human voices murmuring prayers in a stretching cathedral. The never-ending roar of the city, ceaseless as the mountain waterfall. Silence is everywhere, if you can find it, because it’s not an imposed axiom of environment, but a transcendent construction—or rather emergence—of the mind.

Food, shelter: the basic needs of human life, the can’t-do-withouts of physical existence. Love: the sine qua non of spiritual existence. Silence: in which everything finds its value, its authenticity, its reliability.

You say, How can silence be as important as food and shelter? Well how then is rain more important than sunshine to a growing flower? It is all needed, all important; but the Scriptural wisdom of the ancient maintains that “better is a little on the rooftop than plenty in a house of strife”.

Or how can silence outweigh the importance of love? It doesn’t, any more than the sense of taste outweighs the importance of eating. The latter can be had without the former. But who truly experiences the joy of a wonderful food without tasting it? And who really knows love if he has never rested, silently, secure in the knowledge that he loves and is loved unconditionally, apart from all words and demonstrations?

Silence is not well-regarded in the social and technological milieu pulsing on our every side. In the office, emails and phone calls and stop-ins and meetings and reports shout into our every moment, demanding our attention and response; productivity, the aim of every manager, comes to be defined not by the quality of thought and product you create, but rather by how much you add to the noise. Stay quiet, and risk being ignored in the daily fracas. It’s nearly impossible to drown out, anyway. In the wild, sounds that are quiet and distant indicate something not important; the loud and immediate requires our attention. But there is no dissipation in the electronic, no attenuation of things unimportant; everything shouts equally loud in an email box. Other people’s problems in a meeting take as much of your attention as your own. Put up filters to allow yourself to think, and be rebuked because you are unresponsive.

Not that too many have that problem: the banishing of silence from our lives outside of work is big business. Apple made sure we could distract ourselves with infinite variety when it introduced the iPod; the iPhone ensured that we could distract ourselves with the infinity of the Internet when no one was available to talk. The business of distraction is not just recently lucrative either: I suspect the Greek playwrights, Shakespeare, and the great novelists all filled and monetized a social yearning for distraction; Hollywood and the rest of the modern entertainment industry has been minting money from it for years. And if that’s a bad thing—nuance is not dead here—it’s not the fault of companies, technologies, or franchises. It’s our fault, for so willingly and easily distracting ourselves. All the time.

Taking in a little news helps keep us informed about our world. Obsessively watching cable news networks creates an echo chamber of too-strident opinions that leaves out ears ringing and our minds thinking of nothing else. Who doesn’t know folks who will divert any conversation into politics within five minutes of saying hello? The same is true of celebrity gossip. The financial press. Food!—the quasi-religious obsession of millions of paleos, primals, vegans, locavores, Monsanto-haters, fair-traders…There can be too much of a good thing, and we all go there. Sometimes our obsessions qualify us as quirky, sometimes as self-righteous pricks. Either way, obsessions need fuel like fire, and we choose what we feed ourselves. And not only do we choose what to feed on—we choose to feed in the first place. Nobody ever said that was required.

Constantly eating more food than we need leads to adverse systemic consequences for our bodies. Why should it not also be true of our minds? What would we be like if we gave ourselves time—quiet time—to digest what we put in our minds? Would we be a community of people who actually think for ourselves about important issues, instead of mouthpieces for our favorite media outlets? Would we shine with a light of true individuality, rather than with the dull reflection of groupthink emanating from our Facebook feeds?  Would we be comfortable voicing the produce of our minds in deep conversation, instead of referencing someone else, experts who, in all reality, have no more innate intelligence or ability than we do? Are we consuming the mental equivalent of huge amounts of empty calories, and suffering mental obesity as a result? Could we not rather consume small quantities of nutritious material and allow ourselves to truly absorb its goodness?

Silence is where we digest. Where we allow our mental filters to clear the detritus of our chaotic lives from the flow of our consciousness. It’s a detox, a cleansing, a freeing.  It’s where the rust falls off our souls and the scales fall from our eyes, and where we are finally able to see the world for ourselves and, more importantly, where we can see ourselves for ourselves. In the midst of a silent moment, when no one else has our ear or attention, we can finally listen to our own voice and find out what we actually think and who we actually are.  We find answers to questions about ourselves and discover which questions about the world are truly important to us. What is golden stays with us after the silence has polished away all the dross.

But this is all obvious. Monks of every religion have for millennia taken vows of silence to connect to themselves and something higher. Artists, authors and poets retreat to the mountains or the beaches or Venice—anywhere but their normal here—to free their hands from the quotidian grasping so that they can instead reach inside themselves and unearth that which is truly extraordinary. Maybe the best of them produce something of great worth to others. But all of them produce that which is of great worth to themselves. And what gives value to any of it? What gives value to anything? Scarcity—that great economic force that makes air free and diamond dear. So few people find their own voice, the true expression of who they are. But only we can find ourselves, and there is only one of us. No one else can sell us ourselves or mass produce our souls. To ourselves, we are the scarcest of resources the universe has ever known.

Yesterday I walked, aimlessly, through the river parklands in Perth, Australia; today, I set out to find some peace near LAX while laid over on my way home. I find walking to be my quickest way to silence the mind. It’s meditative: one foot, next foot, straight line, breathe in, breathe out. It takes me far from where I was, surrounds me with novelty. If it doesn’t require much thought—the danger of being hit by a car is low, I’m not late for anything, I’m not likely to be mugged—then my mind is free to wander, shake off its stiffness, stretch out. Silence outside promotes silence inside: the Kookaburra calls of the Perth parklands are better that the searing, stinking fumes of the LAX arrivals level. But it’s the act, the motion, that leads to transcendence. History is full of pilgrimages, Caminos de Santiago, that lose their power if motors are involved. There is no rhythm in the seat of a car: the crankshaft converts the cadence of the  combustion to smooth rotary motion. Airplane jets have no rhythm to begin with. Physically nothing is different than sitting at home. But walking, perambulation, keeps the mind alert and clear at the same time. Second best is the rhythmic swaying of horseback: if they were so inclined, the solitary cowboys of the West must have been the most contemplative of men. Is it any wonder that King David, a man after God’s own heart, was found among the lonely shepherds of Israel? The true value in a pilgrimage is, cliché, in the journey rather than the destination. I don’t know much about the Muslim hajj, but I hope it provides their faithful more peaceful contemplation than the pictures suggest.

We take moments of silence to remember those who have given their all in sacrifice to a higher purpose—defending the cause of freedom, spreading hope to a dying world—and in that silence we find remembrance and understanding. But when we can, we should go beyond dipping our toes in those clear, bracing waters; we should wade in, surrounding ourselves in silence, dive deep, hold our breaths, and, gasping, throw ourselves back on the shores of daily life with the peace that we found still dripping from us. We should give big wet hugs to the people we meet there. And when we’re comfortable enough in our own skins, we should invite those we love to join us…because peaceful silence, together, can be the conditioning oil to repair the dry, cracked leather of our relationships. And if all the world joined us, what better people we might be; what a multitude of hurts would be healed; and how much more peace would find its welcome in the world?

So find your silence. You need it. And the world needs you to find it. Whatever your place, whatever you have to give to the world, do this first: let silent contemplation be your offering.

Jailbreak Philosophy