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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

More is different

"More is different." It's a line by the Danish science writer Tor Norretranders. It's simple enough to be profound, and yet it goes against the grain of what many think today with their notion of 'the definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results.'

Mr. Norretranders shows that notion to be a fallacy. More is different. He explains in his wonderful book The User Illusion how life evolved from the simple to the complex. And it evolved thusly from repetition. Specifically from the repetition of the same thing over and over and over again.

In a different context, consider the idea of splitting a slab of marble. The marble could conceivably take ninety-nine blows from a hammer and not split in the least. And yet that hundredth blow might split the slab from top to bottom. More is different.

The notion of banging your head against the wall. Conventional wisdom would say to stop. Find a way around the wall. 'More is different' would say, 'Keep banging. One more knock might knock the damn thing down.'

From my personal experience I can report that there is definitely something to seemingly irrational persistence. I used to be lousy at a lot of stuff and just pigheadedly stayed after it until I became pretty darn good at it. Oh, I haven't pursued everything that way—I gave up on playing the guitar in a hurry ('put your fingers here on the neck and then shift them onto an entirely different position' What!!). But most stuff I've stuck with.

My favorite saying in life is: ruthless striving overcomes everything.

I remember the story by Kate Chopin called "The Awakening" and the line: "I have overcome everything!"

Overcoming is how my life has worked. It's like that pounding on the marble, day after day, year after year, decade after decade. There really haven't been any sensational breakthroughs, no clearly demarcated lines of achievement crossed. But there have been many soul-satisfying moments of, Hey, I can do this thing now. This thing that has baffled, demoralized, intimidated, exhausted me for so long has been overcome.

No great intelligence, no superior genes or talent. Just simple ruthless repetitive striving.

And overcoming.

More is different.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Other worlds are just a blink away


We're living on the verge of different worlds. Sure, it doesn't seem like it. It's the same old world, day after day. But think about it. A car accident. A winning lottery ticket. A bad diagnosis at your annual check-up. One moment, flash, and your life is forever altered. It's like entering a different world.

It doesn't have to be big things, either. A smile can save a life. There's a documentary called "The Bridge." A 24/7 camera was set up and it recorded all the suicides and suicide attempts of those who jumped from the Golden Gate bridge. One of the jumpers said (on the long walk that led to the bridge): "If one person would've smiled at me, I wouldn't have jumped."

You're down. You're suicidal. Someone smiles at you and you want to live. You're thrust into a different world.

Homeostasis, Freud called it. The tendency toward a relatively stable equilibrium between interdependent elements. That's what we as human beings instinctively shoot for, the great Viennese psychiatrist postulated. And yet, how one tick of the clock can upset that process.

Even for a nation. Think of the impact of 911.

Stability is over-rated. Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book called Black Swan (not the movie of the same name). A black swan is an event that comes as a surprise, has a powerful impact in our lives. It's something we "didn't see coming."

We think we know so much. We think we can predict so well. We can't.

Better to be uncertain, to live in a healthy doubt. I like the saying, "There is only hope for you to the degree that you are unsettled."

Life thusly accurately prepares you for those other worlds that are lurking just a blink away from the one you're living in.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Surrender to win

Battling your way through life? Yeah, life is a fight, and sometimes you can barely keep the fight going. You're strained, stretched. No matter how hard you try nothing seems to work. And you've tried everything and you get the same result—nothing. No, worse—you're going backwards.

Ever think maybe it's time to give up? In a positive way, that is.

It's counter-intuitive. Big time. And it's nuanced, as well. As the saying goes—it's like "not giving a crap with a positive attitude."

Giving up only makes sense, though, if you feel there's something that will take over to help you when you do.

From Sting's song "Invisible Sun":

There has to be an invisible sun. It gives its heat to everyone. There has to be an invisible sun. That gives us hope when the whole day's done.

I'm not into wasting my time believing something that's not true. But I am thoroughly convinced that something knows better than I do about the best way for me to live.

The few times I do manage to give up and go with that something I have been led. And into places far better than I was headed on my own.

It's a challenge. It's hard giving up control. But it's worth it—and it's such a relief.