Friday, August 28, 2020

Older, Wiser, Richer Data Set

Aging hasn't been what I expected. There've been nice surprises (which I've been cataloging in postings tagged "Aging"). Here's one of the nicest (though perhaps the least surprising) surprises: Data Points!

As a child, I knew that I didn't know. I was smarter and more insightful than I am today, but, lacking knowledge of the world, I couldn't figure stuff out. My mind was like a vacant mill with no wheat to grind. Being all hardware with no software is an uneasy predicament. I watched adults constantly screw up, easily recognizing their fallacies, but couldn't devise better solutions. My imagination kept spitting out ideas, but, unable to mentally model results, it was like extruding confetti. And the worst part was that I knew it.

As a young adult, I was tossed around by a confusing world. I knew that the traditional course - the path of low confusion - was to put my nose down and work some narrow corner of it all, trodding well-traveled, well-lit pathways according to established procedure. But if that were a religion, I'd be the Anti-Christ. It's obviously not for me. I'm way too curious, intrepid, and promiscuous for that.

So I braved the storm, often grappling with the age-old quandary: "Am I crazy, or are they?" Even as I began finding footholds, I'd deliberately shuffle the cards, always opting for novelty. As any software developer will tell you, surprising behavior breaks things, so I often found myself chewed by spinning gears. While I came to an uneasy peace with it, I couldn't understand (among countless other mysteries) why malevolent forces kept thwarting earnest efforts. It was like I'd been denied some essential cosmic manual (I've been building that manual here since 2008). But I settled into a twofold strategy: give it everything you've got...and blithely accept outcomes. That seemed like the only sane course for those who don't understand the rules of the game.

Enlightenment is absolute cooperation with the inevitable." - Anthony de Mello

I took solace from ants:
I'm like an ant. I'll very contentedly reconstruct a smashed anthill, one grain at a time, even amid multiple re-smashings.

To human beings, I suppose this seems sad. Humans aspire to grander dreams than endless drudging anthill reconstruction. They're taught to rage at the smashing.

But to ants, human beings - who grow ever more crippled and demoralized with every inevitable round of smashings, and who only with great suffering manage to soldier on with reconstruction - are the sad ones.
I couldn't understand this baffling world, or mentally model better results, but I obliviously did my thing, marching to my own drummer, with infinite ambition and infinitesimal expectation.

Eventually, and unexpectedly, the world came to seem more predictable. I could model results. Patterns arose, recognition flickered, and expectant machinery began to hum. The news wasn't always good - as we've all long intuited, human life is even more selfish than we'd dared to recognize - but it's better to know the truth if you don't want to spend your life helplessly reeling from mysterious processes. I'm not here to mess around with obstacle courses or scavenger hunts, and I've weaned myself from Skinner boxes. I've got work to do!

There's still some (though not much) surprise, thank goodness. But it all breaks and baffles a lot less, simply because I've gone down so many corridors so many times. Having watched innumerable people think and act, it's much less mysterious, and the wide swathe of my daily life goes quite smoothly. Sometimes I feel as if I'm gliding.

I know, for example, to expect eye-rolling when I, a seemingly clueless gringo, enter a new Ecuadorian luncheonette. It doesn't throw me. I know to dutifully defuse trepidations via rapid-fire Spanish and entreaties for llapingachos. I come armed, as they say in the movies. I have moves. I've come to terms with the myriad Groundhog Day processes, having iterated so many things so many times that I'm like a deft short-order cook. It's a heady superpower.

I haven't exactly hooked myself snugly into the world's APIs, but I'm intimately aware of their specifications. With this knowledge of how things work, I've found repose. With me, it's never enough to know with my gut alone. I need to intellectually comprehend, or else I flail. It's a critical flaw (as I discussed in the introduction of "A New Explanation of Autism").

Thankfully, the newfound equilibrium seems sturdy. I still roam widely and make room for fresh unconventionality, but I do so with a sense of stability. I'm like a shrewd, conservative investor with a carefully balanced portfolio who sets aside some excess funds for wild speculations, just for kicks. Compulsive caprice has its dedicated sandbox.

Data points, the building blocks of wisdom, made all the difference. Utter bafflement is a difficult state for creative people. We need a stable launch pad. Muses are best summoned from a position of emotional security. To be incessantly thrown by the prosaic is to disrupt concentration and squander energy. Once you've achieved short-order cook fluency with the worldly yadda-yadda, you're free to laser-focus on enticingly blurry frontiers. And the fluency builds on data points. Loads of 'em.

There's peril, however. This is precisely how old people get trapped in shrinking comfort zones (per my recent posting on that). Increased comfort elevates discomfort anxiety, a splash-back effect that is absolutely unavoidable. It explains a lot about old people to understand that comfort zones shrink over time.

My workaround has been to constantly renew my sense of adventure and my compulsion to deliberately color outside the lines. I've configured my comfort zone to demand some straying from itself. I'm hardly the first human to methodically train himself to find comfort in discomfort, though it's not exactly a mainstream move. To most people, it's indistinguishable from masochism or self-destruction. As I wrote here,
Self-destructive people may seem irrational, but they're not. They're acting out a drama, just as we all are, but tweeking parameters for more challenging gameplay. They're working on a more advanced level, that's all.
Most do so unconsciously, while a few choose it consciously. But I digress.

Wherever I direct my mind, I now enjoy an ocean of supportive data points. My modeling works, I feel a sense of security, and I've freed up concentration for discretionary tasks. From this vantage point, I really sympathize with my younger self's modeling frustrations. I attributed flaky results to my own incompetence. I see now that I was doing my best with skimpy materials.
As a kid, I kept hearing a voice urging me to go easier on myself. That voice, I think, is me, now.
Three harder-won measures combined nicely with this free gift:

1. Dropping my fascination with fluffy mental drama - especially obsession with "What's Missing", freeing up my brain for more creative tasks and detoxifying my internal experience.

2. Channeling my natural fluency with reframing created some slipperiness that helps keep me from getting stuck and primes creativity.

3. Meditating restored a baseline perspective, helping me live as the framer (stable and bemused), rather than as the framed (fragile and anxious).

Those measures required sustained effort, while the data set was like a free toaster; a perq of the aging process. Data accrues naturally when you live a long while with eyes wide open; with insatiable curiosity. If a dog were to sniff from the window of a speeding car for 57 years straight, he'd enjoy a vast rich library of olfactory data to help him make sense of his world. That's me!

As a kid, I never understood the "wisdom of old age". Sure, old people had specific skills and narrow areas of expertise, but I rarely spotted much wisdom. Most continued to pointlessly shadow box with themselves, refusing to love the universe unless it gave them precisely their expected results. Like everyone else, they were entranced in toxic foolishness, and the only difference was their impenetrably thick crust of irritability, built up over a lifetime of frozen perspective. Some wisdom!

But now I can model this, and see how it happens. They've chosen the path of low confusion, putting their noses down and working one narrow corner of the universe, trodding well-traveled, well-lit pathways according to established procedure. They've been cruising highways with windows tightly shut, hardly smelling a thing. Willingly constrained to measly datasets and high comfort, there was scant incentive to develop more advanced skills such as acceptance, reframing, and creativity.

Seeing as how I linked twice to A Tale of Two Chickens - to explain about Skinner Boxes and The Path of Low Confusion - it probably deserves to be read if this posting interested you.

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