Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Optimize for Meaning

The world offers many simple formulas for leading a good life - from the ever popular commencement speech advice "do what makes you happy" to the hippie/Disney incantation that "it's all about love". But no simple formula can capture all the nuance that makes up a good life. Behind the scenes the successful followers of these formulas cheat at the edges, making exceptions in difficult circumstances. It's not clear how a philosophy about the primacy of happiness or love offers guidance in hard times when a person must sacrifice short term well-being for long term gain.

Bending a slogan through enough curlicues of argumentation can apply it to all cases. But if any principle can be universalized with enough argumentation, then none stands out. Each serves as a reasonable map for people lacking any life direction but grows hazy in the details.

Undaunted by the failure of simple life philosophies, I recently made an attempt to fashion my own. Perhaps it is no more useful than the others. But it is mine, so I am allowed to adore it. It is:

Optimize for meaning

It is vague (what is meaning?), but I hope that its very vagueness helps it bridge the distance between the clean world of ideas and the messy world of existence. It seems a better description of the method of obtaining the Good Life than optimizing for happiness, or power, or global average utility.

My philosophy is derived through introspection. I perceive my life to be better when I create and participate in meaningful events. I am also heartened by the fact that it doesn't seem to be obviously unrealistic. A meaningful life still has all the facets of life we are used to - boredom, frustration, you name it. It is not utopia. The only thing it seems to lack is the burden of meaninglessness.

As a advocate of meaning, I'm faced with the question: how is meaning created? I recognize that my life today is far more meaningful than when I was a bored teenager growing up in rural suburbs. How did that change happen? I have no general philosophy of meaning, but I have discovered a few ways that it comes into existence.

The effort of creation - If you are so brusque as to ask a young artist why they bothered to hang one of their own paintings when they could buy better ones at the store, they will answer "because it is mine". It is the same reason why parents love their children, even if their children are not the best children in the world. Effort creates meaning.

A strategy for creating meaningful living environments is to surround yourself with physical artifacts created by you and your loved ones.

The esteem of the esteemed -  Meaning is found in the things loved by the ones we love. The favorite song of a friend can create a strong emotional response even if you don't otherwise like it. It feels important (which may be a synonym for meaningful) in a way which other songs do not.

Time - On my birthday I gave my girlfriend and I matching necklaces featuring black onyx pendants. We have not taken them off since, and each day they are infused with progressively more meaning. Keeping an object close to the body or otherwise giving it part of your scarce space and attention imbues it with significance. So does performing some ritual of care to an object over time. These objects of power can be used to elevate the emotional content of ritual, performance, and gift.

On a larger scale, old religious buildings or natural structures such as trees which are older than any living human are especially powerful things. The destruction of Buddhist statues by the Taliban caused an outcry even from non-Buddhists. But this outcry wouldn't have happened if the stone Buddhas were only 17 years old instead of 1,700.

Particularity - Modern consumer capitalism wipes away meaning by eliminating individuality and creating a feeling of anonymity. I felt good about my fine taste in clothes when I bought a slick new jacket from Uniqlo - until I saw multiple people on the street wearing the same thing over the next few weeks. I was just one of many people with the exact same taste.

Particularity is a rebellion against consumer anonymity. Buying handmade goods from Etsy provides a source of meaning to both buyer and seller. A rock that picked up on a particular roadtrip with a particular friend can never be copied by anybody else.

Sacrifice - Sacrificing an object that already has meaning or value can give meaning to a new event or object. The Burning Man festival is built around a sacrificial ritual - the burning of a giant, wooden man. The sacrifice of the man has a passionate intensity because of the week that attendees spend living in its shadow, with it the tallest and most reliable landmark to navigate the festival. When it burns, it is like burning "North" or the sun - a force of nature goes missing.

Gifting, another tradition associated with Burning Man, produces meaning. Something given to us feels more important than the same thing if we buy it ourselves, perhaps out of recognition of the sacrifice that the giver made to get it.

Religious fasting, a temporary sacrifice, gives meaning to the mundane act of eating. It is a very nice and pleasant thing to bring meaning to the boring necessities of life.

Belonging - Our connections to others give meaning to our lives. Existence in relationship to romantic partners, family, and larger organizations is more meaningful than existence as isolated individuals. Social roles are also important. People find meaning in filling the cultural expectations of a husband, wife, mother, father, or child.

Altered consciousness - Episodes of identity malleability are meaningful events. This often takes the form of transcendent connection, often in context of genuine religious experience or political activism. Connecting with something larger than ourselves (god, the universe, a political cause, etc.) gives meaning and provides some protection from the crippling existential fear of death.

Struggle - Feats of strength and endurance are meaningful. A severe injury, such as a broken limb, becomes an important story to tell people for the rest of one's life. People even inflict physical discomfort on themselves - running marathons and participating in triathlons. Perhaps suffering creates meaning mediated through increasing one's self-confidence. Becoming a more robust individual feels important.

I'm sure there are other things which create meaning that I have missed.

A world that optimizes for meaning looks different from a world that optimizes for happiness, global utility, or power. For example, some utilitarian philosophers want to eliminate all suffering, even that of prey animals. Aside from the strangeness of such a life (can we even imagine it?), it seems to eliminate a lot of the sources of meaning in the world. I am not ready to suggest that we keep around sources of suffering that we can eliminate on purpose, but I suggest we start to look at suffering as more than just an enemy.

Perhaps listing the things which are meaningful can help us understand the crisis of meaninglessness in modern life. For example, it seems that a lot of things which create meaning involve scarcity and effort, and the primary focus of the modern economy is to eliminate scarcity and effort. Could that be the source of our collective ennui?

This exercise helps me understand the fanaticism that I and others feel towards Burning Man. Even aside from the sacrificial burning of the man, it is an event engineered to generate large amounts of meaning. The festival is a celebration of eccentric creativity and individuation. It exists amidst a physical struggle - the temperature extremes, mandatory self-sufficiency, and harsh weather create shared suffering. The final event is a somber memorial of loss - the burning of the temple (loss also creates meaning).

How else can we create meaning?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Princess and the Tower

For Pamela

Once upon a time there was a young princess who was locked in a tall stone tower.

Each day she would spend hours gazing out the windows. From her high perch she could see for miles around. She could see the tops of forests on green hills and tiny people leading tiny horses on roads that were a thin ribbon of brown. She imagined running down the green hills and playing with the horses and people on the road. She wanted very badly to visit the land outside her tower.

She didn’t remember how she had gotten there, or why she had been locked up. The truth is that a person of royal blood is a dangerous thing, even if they are small. So people seeking power sometimes lock them in towers.

Her room was large and mostly round, taking up almost the entire top floor of the tower. On one side there was a flat wall with a tall wooden door. It was thick and she knew from trying that it could not be opened from the inside. Next to the door was a wooden slot above a stone shelf. Each morning, she would find a bowl of food and one of water on the shelf. Sometimes she tried to stay up and see who put the bowl through the slot, but it never came until she fell asleep.

Time passed and the princess grew older. A bird couple built a nest outside her window. In the springtime their eggs hatched and three baby birds were born. The mother and father took turns watching the nest while the other went to find food for the baby birds.

She gave them all names. She named the daddy and mommy Walter and Sarah, with kids Nathaniel, Jean, and Mary. In the morning she would sing to them and at night she would tell them a bedtime story.

There was a bookshelf on one side of the room. She learned how to read bigger and bigger books as time went on. She ripped out the pages of the ones she didn’t like and drew on them with pieces of charcoal. Some days she spent hours looking at the clouds in the skies and drawing their shapes. Up high, the shape of the clouds in the sky are strange and beautiful because there is nothing to block your view for miles and miles. She could see them make shadows on the ground as they moved across the land.

Other days she folded pages of books into fantastic costumes. She made herself into a sailor, a bird, or a dragon and staged elaborate plays for the family of birds.

Gradually she lost her desire to go down to the ground. She got used to her life of making beautiful drawings, talking to birds, and watching the clouds come and go. If someone were watching her, they would say that she was happy and without a care.

One day she was in middle of drawing a portrait of her bird friends when there was a loud bang on the door. Some of the wood splintered and cracked. A deep voice yelled “Princess, don’t worry, I have come to save you!”. She backed away to the other side of the room, cowering at the noises. There was another bang, loud as thunder, and another. Finally a thick steel battle-axe came through the door, followed by a sweaty man in dented and dirty armor. He had tired eyes and a face full of brown stubble. He kneeled down and offered his hand, saying “Princess, come here, we are to leave”.

“I don’t want to go. Who are you?”, she said.

“Princess, I am sorry for scaring you. I am to take you to your brother, the King.” he said.

The word “brother” caught her interest. She didn’t know she had a brother. She would like to meet him. Anyways, she knew she didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t well say “no” to a big man with a sword and battle armor.

“Ok, I will go with you”, she said taking his hand.

“It’s easier if I carry you, it’s a long way down”, he replied.

She nodded her assent and he whisked her onto his big shoulders, piggy-back style. His shoulders were thickly muscled like a horse. She gave one final look back at the nest outside her window. It was empty, the birds were scared off by the noise. She felt a pang of regret that she would not see them one more time.

As they walked through the doorway she gasped and looked back again. She saw her room from the other side for the first time. She kept her eyes on it as they began to climb down a long spiral staircase, and the last sliver of her room disappeared from sight. The princess fell asleep on top of the big soldier.

In the next few days she learned the story of the life she had been living for the past ten years. When her father, the king, had died, her uncle had kidnapped her. His plan was to kill her brother and marry her when she was of age, so the kingdom would pass to his own family. However, one of her uncle’s men were still loyal to her brother, and he had helped hide the young boy and smuggle him out of the country. Her uncle ruled as regent for 10 years while her brother in exile grew into a mighty king. He came back with an army to defeat their uncle and take back the throne.

Life was strange in her brother’s castle. She got a new room with big windows and a fancy bed. She liked it. But everybody thought her very quiet and odd. She thought them noisy and busy. She spent a lot of time drawing in her room.

She enjoyed the beautiful clothes she got to wear. They reminded her of her bird family. She wished she could show them how colorful she was now.

It was a strange experience to meet her brother. She was allowed to eat dinner at his table one day with his advisers. He seemed to care about her well-being and she liked that. But he spent most of the time talking about the affairs of the kingdom with his advisers. He seemed to be a very busy man. After that, she did not see him often. She guessed she admired him, but she did not like him.

He encouraged her to marry and that made her nervous. But one day she met a quiet young Duke who preferred writing poetry to fighting and they became fast friends.

They married and had children. She was a good mother and a wise princess.

Eventually her brother died in a war and her husband became King and she became Queen. The people were happy to have such kindly monarchs. Their wisdom and gentleness was celebrated throughout the land.

She had a good life. But when she had a spare moment from the tasks of running a kingdom and raising a family, she would think back wistfully to her time in the tower. The paintings on the walls of the castle were pretty, but they were never quite as beautiful as the clouds she remembered. And the professional court musicians were very good, but she missed the honest song of the birds.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Blessing for the New Year

(Remarks as prepared for the Ritual of the New Year, January 3, 2015. Dedicated in memory of Dan Ha)

The most important part of any gathering is the guests. Not the music, not the location, not the food. So thank you for coming here.

The year is young. Like all young things it has great potential to surprise those who give it life, with disappointment or delight. How the events of the year will unfold is not under our complete control, but we can give to it a good beginning. We can start the year with goodness and love, put forward our best intentions, and pray that our actions today will echo forward through time, to guide us for one more trip around the sun.

On Christmas Eve I received a blessing from a Jesuit priest. He said “Bless you and all you care for, in the name of the father, son, and holy ghost”. It struck me that this was a very big blessing, I wonder if it was bigger than he realized. It was both a blessing and a challenge in disguise, because the responsibility lay on me to determine its size. All whom I care for could be limited to only myself, or it could be limitless.

Know that its circumference extends to you.

People think of the New Year as an occasion of rejuvenation or rebirth. But that doesn't sound quite right to me. Both of those words imply going back to some previous state, and we can’t go back. Instead, I see each year as a process of evolution and discovery. In that spirit I have prepared a blessing for tonight.

A Blessing for a New Year
by Jacob Lyles

In this new year I bless you.
May you grow and unfold with the passage of time
according to your nature
and share with others the gifts given only to you
knowing that to hoard gifts is to squander them
(worse than never receiving them at all)

May you know the bigness of a caring heart
May you know the perception of a still mind
May you know the joy of a purposeful being
May you know the comfort of knowledge and maturity

Time never stops. All things change into other things. Even the most heavenly joy does not last forever upon this Earth.
But with each passing comes new life
and by that we know that god is fundamentally kind.

We are all older now. The gifts we have are fading, like wilting flowers in a vase. May we have the wisdom to recognize the new gifts time brings to us, as fresh as the gifts that we first took pride in.

When you are afraid, may you feel loved
When you are full of love, may you be moved to act
And may this new year bring you closer to what you are meant to be


Monday, December 8, 2014

The Silicon Jedi

There are many warriors, they are not priests.

There are many priests, they are not warriors.

The Jedi mix these two ancient castes in a powerful combination. Unusual for priests, they are active in the world, serving a vision of the Good through feats of grit, daring, and sacrifice. Unusual for warriors, they are in touch with a deep well of spiritual energy. This gives them access to mystical forces that makes each one worth a thousand ordinary soldiers. 

Among the legions of startup infantry battling for success in Silicon Valley the Jedi still live today. 

Steve Jobs was a Jedi - a hippie and a spiritual pilgrim before becoming a businessman. This was key to his power. As a young man he prioritized feeding his soul, thereby awakening a thirst for beauty that drove his professional career. I imagine Steve would be happy that so many people were inspired by him to listen to the inner voice of their souls, but regret that so many others imitate his. Merely copying his business methods won’t lead to his success, that's only a little less silly than copying his method of dress. The spiritual journey is difficult and it is not optional. 

Jobs was a high profile Silicon Jedi but he was neither the first not the last of the kind. There are a few active today (the Jedi never exist in large numbers - quality over quantity is their way). If you have the privilege to encounter one, you will find it a delightful experience, but also a challenging one. They have a way of seeing through the lies we wrap around ourselves to hide from difficult facts. The Jedi way of life is raw, rejecting false comforts.

You can sometimes tell a Jedi by his strangeness. The rich inner life that a Jedi experiences makes him less in need of external social validation. His soul shines through in his style - his way of acting, thinking, and talking. He will read the Tao Te Ching in the office. He will walk barefoot in downtown Mountain View. He will build a user interface that looks like it comes from a more enlightened galaxy far, far away.

Actually, Jedi are not particularly strange compared to normal people. Everybody is strange on the inside compared to the standardized world of mass culture. Fear of the perception of others causes us to hide our inner world. In the startup realm, letting your freak flag fly risks that you will offend a member of the click-hungry tech press, a potential boss, or a future investor. 

Being a real human being seems dangerous. So in the valley of innovation a uniform develops - the uniform of maximum risk aversion. The appearance of the last breakout success is widely counterfeited. But it is folly to clutch for safety in the midst of the risky business of entrepreneurship. It is not really safe - like driving half speed on a busy highway. And it isn't fun.

The majority of startups die before they get off the ground. It is probably better to have a distinct taste that some people love and some people hate than to blend in. It is probably more profitable and fulfilling to have a great time and let the haters hate. Yes, when you find yourself CEO of a billion-dollar company your risk-averse corporate board might fire you. But life is not a one act play. 

The best place to look for modern Jedi is Burning Man. US coastal professionals are spiritually starved. Burning Man feeds that hunger. At Burning Man, CEOs and engineers mingle with artists and shamans - sometimes all four are found in one body. It’s a bridge from the default world to the spirit realm, a necessary source of inspiration, connection, and catharsis.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Favorite things

If you would like to be in love with being alive, then this post is for you.

A friend turned me on to the On Being podcast, which has since become my constant companion as I work through the backlog. If you're going to listen to one show, check out this magical conversation with former Irish priest John O'Donohue. His gratitude for the beauty of the human experience is contagious. The piece of traditional Irish music embedded above is linked from the On Being website as a companion to the conversation.

Other powerful episodes include interviews with Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh and French priest Jean Varnier. Conversations with Paulo Coelho and Ekhart Tolle are also worth your time.

Over Thanksgiving I read G.K. Chesterton's novel Manalive, about a remarkable man who goes to great lengths to stay in love with life, confounding everybody else around him.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Hay there

While I defragment my life/mind enough to get back to writing, enjoy some of the things that I have enjoyed lately (source at Szabo's blog):

"The technologies which have had the most profound effects on human life are usually simple. A good example of a simple technology with profound historical consequences is hay. Nobody knows who invented hay, the idea of cutting grass in the autumn and storing it in large enough quantities to keep horses and cows alive through the winter. All we know is that the technology of hay was unknown to the Roman Empire but was known to every village of medieval Europe. Like many other crucially important technologies, hay emerged anonymously during the so-called Dark Ages. According to the Hay Theory of History, the invention of hay was the decisive event which moved the center of gravity of urban civilization from the Mediterranean basin to Northern and Western Europe. The Roman Empire did not need hay because in a Mediterranean climate the grass grows well enough in winter for animals to graze. North of the Alps, great cities dependent on horses and oxen for motive power could not exist without hay. So it was hay that allowed populations to grow and civilizations to flourish among the forests of Northern Europe. Hay moved the greatness of Rome to Paris and London, and later to Berlin and Moscow and New York."
- Freeman Dyson 

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Aphorisms 2

A worry is a wasted thought

A man is remembered, not for the pleasures he enjoyed, but for the responsibilities he carried