Ambition, Inspiration, and Habits

This post was inspired by a friend who posted a quote “You are not lazy, your goals are not inspiring enough.” He thought it was “absolutely true.” For whatever reason(s) I initially interpreted it as “you wouldn’t be such lazy sack if you actually had any ambition at all.” I suppose I may need to do some introspection as to why I read it like that to start, anyway this is important context for some of my thoughts which followed.

Atomic Habits and The Power of Habit are two books I have read recently that shed some important light on this topic. One of the major claims from Atomic Habits is that habits are far more important than goals. There is so much more to laziness (aka bad habits) than lack of inspiration. Inspiring or ambitious goals are good and all, but they are hardly a solution for laziness. Okay, so, maybe nothing I am going to write here wasn’t stated more eloquently in one of those books. You’ve been warned.

Ambition: (æmˈbɪʃən) n 1. strong desire for success, achievement, or distinction

Inspiration and the way it fuels passion and will power is certainly important. I am not discounting that at all, but even inspiration, powerful as it is, in itself is still insufficient for many people. The missing piece is often strategy and tactics to pair with it. Still, inspiration can be crucial because even excellent strategy and tactics can also fail, or fail to even form, without it.

Inspiration: (ĭn′spə-rā′shən) n 1a. The excitement of the mind or emotions to a high level of feeling or activity

What I find interesting and counter-intuitive is that, when it comes to real fundamental changes inspiration isn’t so often necessary, and specific goals may even be counter productive; good habits alone can usually get you there. And smaller scale habits are stackable. A good sleeping habit, with only a slight nudge, can almost automatically lead to a better study or practice habit.

There are many implications in this thought in regards to parenting, mentoring, or coaching. For example, It is very hard to impart inspiration to my children around brushing their teeth, good hygiene, or other healthy stuff. It is a bit unrealistic to attempt to inspire them on this point and expect good behavior to flow from that inspiration. It is much less stressful and more practical to merely help them form good habits. Setting specific goals along the way feels like a good idea until you watch motivation to continue fall off a cliff once they succeed. or once they fail for that matter.

Habit: (hăb′ĭt) n.1a. A recurrent, often unconscious pattern of behavior that is acquired through frequent repetition:

Again, not that inspiration is irrelevant, it is still a long term aim, and often crucial for the habit to really stick over the long haul, but it can come later after stacking multiple good habits together. In my experience it can sometime arise naturally out of the positive results of good habits. Practicing an instrument turns from merely a habit into fun, all of a sudden making music is inspirational and you feel driven to compose or perform, or do it just for the pure joy of it.

I think one problem with the quote “You are not lazy, your goals are not inspiring enough.” is that it is open to being interpreted in a way that is blaming and shaming, especially here in the US where we have certain attitudes in general towards laziness and ambition. The way it is structured paired with the fact that laziness is so frequently seen as a moral failure, my mind just goes to “your failure isn’t this, it’s really this”, and it can’t help that lack of ambition is another frequent failure category here – could be those puritanical roots mixing with capitalism, who knows. Anyway, blame and shame often aren’t deserved or even if they are it’s not ultimately helpful to point that out if what you’re aiming for is self-improvement.

Many people get into some bad spot with their physical or mental health, and while a lack of inspiration might be a problem, it isn’t so much what got them into the mess. Bad habits are more frequently the culprit.

Plenty of uninspired people stay fit; historically anyway, it’s less likely in modern society. Obesity isn’t an primarily an inspiration issue. Yet in our American culture it often gets portrayed as such.

Assuming most depression is not merely caused by a chemical imbalance, but can be a product of behavior and environment ( a topic for another time ) plenty of people are not depressed sort of by accident. Good sleep, regular exercise, healthy diets, meaningful relationships – all largely maintainable via habits – plausibly contribute to this. At least most people have a sense of the absurdity of inspiring yourself out of depression. Depression can look a lot like laziness in fact, but it would not be compassionate to advise a person suffering in this way to try setting ambitious goals – a main thing they are failing to be able to do is have ambition! May as well ask them if they have tried not being depressed.

Making laziness connect to inspiration puts it at the level of something intrinsic to who a person is. However, if laziness is a mostly a product of habit which emerges from a more unconscious level and is, therefore, less about who we are deep down, but more about how we have been trained to behave, then it becomes less about shame. If lazy is something we do not something we are, well, this is clearly fixable! Behavior modification is something rather well understood. There are concrete steps. Changing things at the level of personality – getting inspired – This is harder. Where does one even start? It will be different for everybody, of course. Plus, how do you know if it ‘worked’?

Now, it makes sense that bad habits have a depressing effect – a tendency to siphon off motivation and inspiration. So I suppose there can be sort of a vicious cycle, a tail spin that induces a sort of hopelessness. If that is where a person is, then building habits may not be the first step. Maybe they need to hear they are not worthless. Maybe they need an emotional boost to get going. In that case a little inspiration may go a long way. My friend, who had been in a place like that in the past, seemed to hear the quote as saying something more like “your root problem isn’t laziness, you have intrinsic value and ought to be inspired instead of demotivated.” And amen to that! But when I encounter quotes like this isolated on a wall in a gym somewhere I think I am still going to have trouble interpreting it that way. Maybe it is just me.

Positive Imagination Vectors Wanted

“My friends, nothing important is lost when others gain, when homeostasis occurs among humanity and compassion and opportunity are celebrated for all.”

I have been thinking about this line of thought in different ways over the past few weeks. Clearly, and depressingly, many people are opposed to the cause of achieving greater justice or equality. What is also sad and perplexing is that many many more seem just indifferent. Why? The extreme vast majority would really only stand to gain from the reforms or systemic changes that are being discussed in this wave of protesting.

But it is a similar pattern when I look back at the environmental movement, or pushes to curtail wealth inequality or whatever. I dislike lumping people in simplistic ways but it seems to be especially prominent among “conservatives” – as if what they want to preserve/conserve is the status quo, and in standing on that hill to die, they fail to have the perspective that the status quo is also a boot on their own damned neck.

The status quo so often really only benefits those at the very top. Yet the people at the very bottom protesting their plight find indifference, if not opposition, from so many in the middle. It’s as though they are suffering from some sort of Stockholm syndrome.

Is it something like inertia? If the oppression you experience is fairly bearable day to day, or is far enough removed from ones immediate present experience that it is hard to really imagine, there could be fear that any change may be for the worse. Many lack imagination for the positive but have an overactive one for the negative. Have we spent so much more time in fictional dystopias than fictional utopias that we have atrophied in our ability to even recognize the potential of positive change?

On the one hand Pascal’s Wager was never a very convincing argument to put your faith in something, but on the other hand, it seems rather useful to consider, “what do you stand to lose, really?”

Does a bit of increased cost or reduced convenience as a downside really outweigh all the potential benefits “going green” at a societal level? When we talk about universal health care as a policy, and the absolutely huge potential is dramatically overshadowed by some potential pitfalls of the implementation details, what is really going on there? If we fix some racially oppressive systems, improve the social services available to our communities, and reduce their capacity to harm and do violence, do the theoretical downsides really tip the scales compared to what we stand to gain?

An attack on all of us.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio: “An attack on police officer is an attack on all of us.”

My first thought: An unwarranted attack by an armed police officer on an unarmed civilian is an attack on all of us.

Some of my white friends are going to balk at that, I mostly have white friends, it’s just the demographic where I live, but seriously, if we as a society to a very large degree grant a monopoly on the use of violence to the police and they habitually abuse that, and it turns out we have no legit recourse to correct their behavior or hold them accountable… what else is it?

Can we vote this problem away? NYC mayor is a Dem. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, concedes it would be better to shoot people in the leg instead of the heart, an improvement barely worth mentioning as so much of his platform is. so get real, voting in the short term at least, changes almost none of this. It’s not a party issue, its a system issue.

Okay, that said, I am going to vote in the local primary here today in a little bit anyway. But dammit do I wish it could be a ranked choice ballot. There is no doubt in my mind the voting method we have is part of what leads to nothing really changing.

Common Fallacious Reactions to Recent Protests

Some major recurring logical fallacies I have observed in the past weeks in peoples negative reactions to protests and the idea of #DefundThePolice.

1. Whataboutism – pointing out “black on black crime” or other such things that distract from the actual issues . The “what about this white guy who was shot by a cop” line fits here to, but has a unique twist in trying to validate one angle – that of unjust police brutality – while attempting to de-legitimize the other; systemic racist oppression.

2. Red herring – “Don’t forget about the good ones!” Framing around individuals – be they good or bad – misses the point. We shouldn’t dehumanize anyone, “good” police officers included, but neither can we allow the system of policing to go on dehumanizing the rest of us. It’s different than whataboutism because rather than just distracting or discrediting the core argument it tries to re-frame it and make the issue about the “bad ones”

3. Sunk Cost – This manifests as an inability to imagine any means other than police to deal with crime or social problems. ie. “yeah, they have some longstanding problems with corruption and abusing people, but It’d probably be worse if we didn’t have them. Better stick with it!”

There is plenty of victim blaming and false equivalence as well I suppose. Victim blaming is a form of ad hominem of which whataboutism is sort of a variant, depending on how its done. False equivalence has tended to be more of a pre-reaction. They aren’t even getting to the point of considering anything the protesters have to say because they get stuck at the rioting and looting being just as bad (or maybe worse really) than the murder of people. Resisting arrest or being obstinate with police is not on par with shooting a man in the back as he runs away. It’s not close really, and yet, the common retort is “they shouldn’t have resisted.”

Nothing surprising really, these are common logical fallacies people have been committing since forever, but I hope pointing them out in this case this helps people think a little sharper about the issues or maybe improves how to respond to those who you might think are on the wrong side of things this time around.

Seeing Jesus in oppressors

A friend on Facebook: “This is what living like Jesus looks like!” (Houston cop seen comforting 5-year-old girl at George Floyd protest who asked: ‘Are you gonna shoot us?’)

I went to bed feeling pretty upset about this. Which is really my fault, I know better than to check social media before I head to bed. Anyway, I was upset because it’s a pattern I have seen. White Christians, not necessarily Trumpers, not even conservative politically speaking. (Though it is no surprise this this comes from a Fox source – if any outlet has figured out how to secretly speak to American Christianities under the hood superiority complex it is them) They are consistently praising meaningless displays of solidarity between the police and those protesting the police. Falling over themselves to be the first to commend, what is becoming more and more obviously, mere lip service. But this one felt a little worse, and I couldn’t put my finger on it at first.

I will spare you some of the preceding comments but I got around to responding with something I thought might be worth sharing outside of that discussion.

Me: “I am going to try to slow down and compose my thoughts here. I will aim to explain better my reaction to this clip and your take soon. Please bear with my slowness. I hope it will lead to a more constructive discussion.”

My friend: “I truly appreciate that. I have a feeling that we’re just miss understanding each other.”

Me: “My emotional reaction here is complex, and I don’t want write a whole thesis about it because even then I am sure I wouldn’t nail it all down well. I’ll try to be brief-ish

Admittedly the last week has seen me pushed much farther than I had expected along the spectrum of “the police can do no wrong” towards “the concept of police as we know it is irredeemable”. But even so, keep in mind that that ends up primarily as a judgement on systems not the individuals within. And I shouldn’t expect everyone to be at the same spot on this spectrum as me given how much I have been moving along it myself recently, so I apologize in so much as I attributed a wrong heart in reacting to your take here.

That said, I think what bothers me is not what you see in the clip, but maybe what you don’t see, and again, I am glad I paused, because doing so made me consider how not so long ago I would not have seen it either.

I have an analogy or parable like thing:

Imagine 200 years ago on a plantation. A black man has been lynched. The slaves are angry and afraid, nearing open revolt. Tensions are high. A slave overseer spots a distressed little girl. He’s not a heartless man and he is not in an enviable position. He attempts to comfort the little slave girl saying “I don’t want to hurt ya, not at all, just you follow the rules and you have nothing to fear”.

The overseer isn’t purely the bad guy some would paint him as, but he is hardly a hero. His kindness may have flecks of genuine humanity and compassion in it, maybe it isn’t meaningless, maybe it does offer some temporary comfort for the girl. Yet, in the bigger picture it is a supremely hollow gesture, for his answer ultimately would be that he most definitely would harm her if it came down to it. His loyalty is not to the slaves. The abolitionists are right to see slave overseers as a principal enemy against their cause in spite of a million gestures such as this.

Jesus’ goals have always aligned more with abolitionists than with oppressors, so seeing so many of my Christian friends and family jump at any opportunity to see him more in the actions of the police than in the actions of the peaceful protesters has been profoundly troubling for me.

But if not

Ideally voting would work
All people would have a voice that is heard and respected

But if not

Theoretically peaceful protesting would work
The cries of those concerned about injustice would not fall on deaf ears

But if not

Perhaps a bit of rebellion might work
Tear some things down with the hope they will be replaced by something better
Or at least the plight of the oppressed would get some notice

But if not

If the only solutions offered are to return to step one or step two
If rebellion is suppressed, as so many who benefit from the status quo, would want to do

Repression doesn’t last
Anger and desperation, will grasp for what might work

Hope we hear before people feel they need to strap a megaphone to their chest
That we can change before the message is driven through a barricade

But if not

Can those who fail to hear admit their fault at last
There could be more than lectures about what might have worked

But if not…

Hold systems responsible

Many people are talking about holding some officers responsible for the murder of a man in Minnesota recently. I think that would be good, but am exceedingly wary of the “few bad apples” line of reasoning that often goes with my white friends being upset at stuff like this. There is a tendency for people to want things to be about individual responsibility, and I don’t want to discount that, but it needs to be balanced with the role of the systems themselves.

To an unhealthy degree we have collectively abdicated much responsibility and accountability to others, but it is also a necessary thing to some extent if we want to maintain much of our modern lifestyle, therefor it behooves us to understand that we don’t just abdicate these responsibilities to people at the tops of organizational hierarchies, but to also to systems that we collectively put in place, or allow to be in place, these machanistic systems can supersede the humans at their helm. The police chief can’t change the nature of the ship he steers all that much, and neither can the officers.

But we as individuals outside of the system have some power if we see the system for what it is. The person who called the cops in this situation in MN, fault lies with them. The lady in NY who, a couple days earlier, called the cops on the bird watcher; same. She did wrong in calling the police, but ironically she did what she did probably because she instinctively knew that the police were for her a tool of oppression that she had some power to wield.

Understanding the systems is important and powerful.

“A system cannot fail those it was never built for.” I don’t know who said this, but it’s really been resonating with me. There are some good reasons police aren’t as accountable as they ought to be in general, and why, if these officers are charged and convicted, it will be the extreme exception rather than the rule. Origin has some influence for sure

Holding systems accountable for the results they produce is done to little in my opinion

Deaths of Despair

I have a radical thought. There is no need to agree on whether abortion is murder in order to agree on a pro-life policy. Hear me out.

Most abortions are deaths of despair, this is a much easier point to agree on.

A person in despair who is at the point of ending a life, their own or that of another, should not be intimidated with punishment via the law or beaten over the head with moral guilt. Beyond being completely ineffective, this approach is the opposite of mercy. To help them as people, and to solve the problem at the abstract sociological level, they need reasons to be hopeful. Most of the time financial resources are an exceedingly important component.

Universal Basic Income (UBI) in providing to both mothers AND fathers an obviously available, no strings and no stigma attached, financial resource to provide and care for a child is the most pro-life policy to be proposed that I know of so far, ever. What’s more it accomplishes this without any need to restrict reproductive rights whatsoever.

In this way UBI cuts across one of the most divisive issues in modern American politics.

Up to now I used the appropriate language to appeal to pro life friends, but pro choice friends please also consider. Even the term “pro-choice” – millions of people have gotten or are getting abortions because they feel like they don’t have a choice. Their economic situation has them pinned in a corner, and even if the women themselves don’t believe this, there is often pressure from the fathers or the potential grandparents. Even if birth control is used successfully and abortion isn’t the issue per se, how many families are postponed or maybe never happen because it just doesn’t feel like a legitimate option?

A candidate advocating for this idea can be legitimately pro-life and pro-choice. They can make a compelling case that they are pro-family in a way that other candidates cannot.

Tablet Art

In my last post I talked up the iPad a bit. That device and some of it’s apps and accessories in particular do have some major advantages over the competition, but I wanted to share some of the experiments I did prior to getting an iPad to show that the tablet form factor in general has some nice potential.

Adult Coloring books, art therapy coloring books, or mandala coloring books – they have lots of names I guess – have gotten popular. There are most certainly good arguments for why doing this coloring with physical medium is advantageous, but there are also some very nice ways that this coloring stuff translates onto tablet platforms. Here are some items my kids did and were really proud of.

In terms of skill building there was some good discussion related to color theory, and they got valuable experience with color digital color picking mechanisms.

Some of the art therapy aspect is about the process, but a nice result is rewarding too of course. Not to put down any kids potential, but these pictures printed out were a very nice product that no one would reasonably expect a young kid to be able to do with physical paper and markers.

On the other hand, one of my sons is pretty diligent about coloring and did manage to finish a pretty cool color by number

Anyway, beyond coloring there are some decent apps for doing drawing, painting, and animation on Android apps. I really wanted to balance my last post so that I don’t give the impression that if people want to do digital art they should go buy an iPad.

Here is one example I did quickly while experimenting with a good passive stylus [something like this] (which after using for a bit I very much recommend BTW)

Blocky Nutcracker