Introspection, Nerdiness, Framing Problems & Creating Scenes
This week’s research note is on the wonderful Visakan Veerasamy, who needs no introduction.
Our episode with Visa is due to land next Thursday (2nd March). Watch this space!
Let’s dive in…
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Books + Key Essays:
“Broadly an articulation of the way I live my life, communitarian, public-commons-minded, encouraging, inviting, etc.”
“My goal: by the time you’re done with this book, you will be persuaded that you could be doing more to become a more nourishing presence in the world, and that it’s worth doing.”
Encourages readers to become more friendly, ambitious and nerdy:
Friendly: cultivate an abundance mindset in relation to other people. Get good at becoming part of something bigger than ourselves.
Ambitious: “wanting to do more, be more, see more, learn more, know more. It’s about recognizing that your own imagination is a bottleneck that limits the amount of good you can create in the world.”
Nerd: “someone whose behaviour is directed by their curiosity. The more of your behaviour is curiosity-directed, the bigger of a nerd you are.”
“This is a lot of what my 2nd book INTROSPECT is about: being kind to yourself, gently curious with yourself, the most heroic thing you can do is to refuse to hate yourself, and instead earn your own self-respect by living in accordance with your values.”
“Reviewing and editing this book, towards the end of my process, I’m now thinking that the meta-story of Introspect might be that it’s a book that I had to write in order to teach myself to ask my friends for help.”
Explicitly follows the hero’s journey structure. “I believe that the Journey itself keeps reappearing because it maps onto the emotional and psychological challenges that we all go through”:
Call to Adventure: heeding the personal yearning for sovereignty. Waking up to the world you inhabit and the emotional realities of the struggles to come.
Sword & Thread: grinding to strengthen yourself ahead of the upcoming struggles.
Enter the Labyrinth: path through the worst memories. Get into and confront fears, cope and programming.
Confront the Minotaur: face the final boss: us. “At the heart of the labyrinth is everything about ourselves that we find grotesque, hideous, cursed. Here is where we break down sobbing when we realize, he's not a monster, he's a child. He's me. And here we learn what love is.”
Return with the Elixer: rebirth with a transcendent sense of self. “Nourish and encourage ourselves and each other.”
Obtaining Freedom from the Authoritarian Tyrant
Project Management & Problem Solving
Reverence for Creators, Artists & Comedians
Scene Creation & Talent Cultivation
Theme 1: Memes
“My answer to all of the above questions is the same: I personally recommend starting with whatever is the smallest thing that you can complete, that will give you a win. Small wins give you the psychological boost to then expand your awareness and be more strategic.”
“Being proliﬁc makes you instantly interesting, too. You end up with a body of work, a portfolio that you can share with others. Lots of people are typically curious to find out what you learned from doing 100 of something”
“And here we arrive at another useful thing about the “Do 100 Thing” framework – sometimes you do a thing several times, witness yourself getting better at it, and then realize you don’t actually wanna invest the time and energy into getting better at it. And that’s fine. It’s satisfying to know that you could get good at something if you wanted to, but that you’d rather spend your effort on something else!”
“To a beginner, novelty is newness. To the master, novelty is nuance.”
“There is an art to replying and commenting, and probably like 60-70% of people I’ve seen on the internet seem to fail at it. The important thing is not to speak your mind, but to “support” the person you’re replying to.”
“You can support them by disagreeing well & you can “mis-support” them by agreeing stupidly.”
“Every “utterance” (status, tweet, whatever) is a bit of an invitation, a bit of a proposal. “Let’s play this game”. When strangers read the proposal accurately, and support the game, a shared understanding develops. You can make friends this way.”
“I am one of the best reply guys on the planet. I have consistently made friends with people “out of my league” by consistently providing good replies in their mentions, comments sections. I enjoy doing this and look forward to getting better at this.”
“Focus your time and energy on what you want to see more of”
Things you joke about have a habit of manifesting into reality. Joke about what you want.
“Share the good instead of the bad. It’s incredibly unfortunate that it’s so easy to share bad things.”
“There’s a fear that if you don’t keep up with all the awful things that your friends keep talking about, well, what else is there left to talk about? It can actually be lonely choosing to be a happy, well-adjusted person if your starting conditions were hostile, abrasive, and the norms around you dictate that you’re supposed to whine, complain, mock, taunt and so on. But the cool thing is that the world is a very big place, and there are always new friends waiting for you that you don’t know about yet.”
“More specifically: people often tend to think about marketing as a sort of nebulous, “advertise your brand” and “do promotion” enterprise – which might not be too far off when you’re thinking about extremely established brands/companies like say, Coca-Cola. “Solve for distribution” is much more direct, about getting your product to customers.”
“You can do almost anything for a living if you solve for distribution.”
“If you don’t go out and do the work of teaching people how to appreciate you, your odds of being appreciated are very, very slim. you’re basically depending on chance, on the whim that Serious Appreciators will notice you. It’s very risky to leave this up to chance.”
“Optimize for being a survivor”
“The big lesson of survivor bias is that you should optimize for being a survivor. Most major failure conditions are avoidable with a little bit of foresight, planning, study and so on. Make a deliberate effort to analyze failures, understand them, and take action to avoid or mitigate them.”
“The important thing is not to quit. Challenge yourself to have a hearty, cheerful sense of humor about it. Take breaks if you have to. Walk away if you have to. Cry and scream if you have to. But remember that the sun will rise again tomorrow. It will be the dawn of a new day. And as long as you’re still breathing, you can always start over again.”
“If you’re serious, you will optimize for survival, because you can’t keep playing if you’re dead. One of the stupidest things I’ve repeatedly seen smart people do – I call this Advanced Stupid – is that they get so fixated on trying to optimize something complicated, that they forget to optimize for survival, and then they get knocked out of the game.”
“As I got older it became clearer to me that not many people are really serious about anything. Some people go their whole lives without ever having met anyone else who I might describe as actually serious, so they find it hard to believe that anybody could really mean what they say, since everything everyone says is bullshit.”
“Lots of people play-act seriousness for social reasons, but quit when the going gets tough. So it makes sense that lots of people are broadly cynical.”
“Seriousness is something that really you can’t tell from an utterance. You can mainly only tell from watching how someone conducts themselves over an extended period of time. Over decades. Particularly, how they deal with shocks, rough times, downcycles. Everyone is optimistic when times are good. The thing to look out for is who keeps going when the going gets tough.”
“When I say serious I don’t mean solemn and tedious. I mean something closer to ‘dynamic persistence’, and a sense of humor is often critical to that.”
“I am committed to spending the rest of my life trying to be a beacon for serious players to find and connect with each other. And in my model, if you’re serious about your work, you also have to work through your personal issues – you have to be kind, you have to be gracious, and so on – so that your work can really shine.”
“Seriousness is love and curiosity expressed earnestly.”
Theme 2: Obtaining Freedom from the Authoritarian Tyrant
The purpose of introspection is to free yourself from the inner “authoritarian tyrant” who resides inside of you.
The authoritarian tyrant wants to choke the joy out of life by pursuing control and certainty.
Tyranny comes from a position of contempt.
Everyone has a desire for sovereignty. This operates externally but also internally (operate as a sovereign individual, not under the yoke of your inner tyrant).
Freedom from the inner tyrant enables a new sphere of interactions with the world. It enables failure, experimentation, curiosity, joy, and fuck around energy.
Fear is at the heart of everything, but we rarely acknowledge it.
The process of dismantling the inner tyrant requires a genuine sense of humour, levity and frivolity.
Does one have to be sufficiently far up Maslow’s hierarchy for introspection to be a valuable process? Is introspection a function of (relative) wealth?
How subjective is sovereignty? Is someone working 100-hour weeks at an investment bank who loves their job sovereign by Visa’s definition?
How does Visa calibrate the tension between the ‘be serious’ meme and the levity / fuck around energy required to dismantle the inner tyrant?
To what extent is Visa’s worldview a product of philosophy? If he hadn’t read as widely as he had, would the techniques set out in Introspect be as effective? If not, then is the solution to the problem of introspection actually just to read more philosophy?
At the margins, should the world be more or less utilitarian?
You have to unseat the authoritarian-tyrant from the throne of your consciousness.
Liberate your inner artist, journalist and comedian. Break them out of the prison of your fears. Then, together, perform the most daring of heists: to retrieve the Jewel of Life, locked up deep within the tyrant’s palace.
Introspect about dismantling one’s inner authoritarian-tyrant. That’s the petty, insecure tyrant in each of us that chokes the joy out of life with their cowardly pursuit of control and certainty. This requires cultivating courage, kindness, and, perhaps most importantly, a genuine sense of humor. As Alan Watts said, “humor and self-righteousness are mutually exclusive”.
Almost everybody has some desire for sovereignty. Many people struggle with having this desire, especially when it brings them into conflict with the world around them: their family, their peers, their community, “society”.
I decide what is right and wrong within the domain of my life; I take responsibility and ownership of that, and if it turns out I was mistaken, I make amends and revise my views.
That's what the Crown motif (in my profile pictures) is about, for me. It's not about power over others. Nobody can have dominion over anything greater or lesser than oneself. It's about conducting oneself with grace and decency, about taking responsibility, refusing self-abandonment, self-abdication.
And the result has been tremendous for me – even a little bit of freedom from judgment has given me room to explore and learn. Once I stopped being some sort of authoritarian taskmaster over myself, insisting that the music had to be a certain way, I found that a whole new world of delicious interestingness opened up, and I found my hands and ears and body delighted to really explore and feel all kinds of sounds, good and bad, and understand them as well as possible.
A useful oversimplification that I’ve been playing with for a couple of years now is the idea that you can reduce everything to Love and Fear. In this frame, “Good vs Evil” might itself be a fearful version of Love vs Fear.
Fear is at the heart of so many things – almost everything, it's basically omnipresent – but we seldom consciously notice it, I think because its surface immediately reacts to deflect scrutiny.
Dismantling authoritarianism takes mischief, frivolity, joy, playfulness.
The thing I get angry-passionate about is: Thinking you know in advance what’s a waste of time and what’s not? That’s hubris! There is an arrogance to this class of small-minded narrow utilitarianism, that refuses to see that great things come from small and sometimes silly beginnings.
When you take stock of how much of value in the world was created by fucking around (literally trillions of $), you have to ask why fucking around isn’t venerated globally.
Theme 3: Journaling
Journaling allows you to discover yourself – there is so much more to you than you realise.
Your relationship with yourself will change over time. Journaling is a way of improving that relationship.
“Journaling is the "ball of thread" that will allow you to trace your path into the abyssal labyrinth of your subconscious, and back out again. You want to create a space where you can practice outrunning the censors of your conscious mind . What’s exhilarating is, beyond their reach, you will discover a richer, more complex, more beautiful, more powerful version of yourself, waiting to come to life.”
“Journaling is one of the core tenets of this book, and if you take away little else from it, I’d like you to at least experiment a little bit with journaling for yourself. The delightful, exhilarating thing about journaling is discovering – with our own hands and eyes – that we are so much more than we typically think we are!”
“Done well, journaling is a way of outrunning your inner critic, your homeostasis engine, your mind’s propaganda department that tries to pretend that everything is stable and familiar.”
“If you do barely anything with your life but take little notes every day – snapshots of your opinions, impressions, perspectives, predictions – and then you thread these notes over time, say, 10 years… ...by the end of it, if you reflect, review, corroborate, verify and discuss them with others, you will develop a robust, dynamic worldview. You will deeply appreciate the nature of human reality in a way that you cannot get from any single book or person or experience.”
“The thing about the ongoing process of journaling that you cannot get from reading a book is – your own relationship with your own writing changes over time . You read things you wrote that you thought were smart last year, but look stupid to you now. And vice versa.”
Is journalling a prima facie good, or does its value depend on the quality of the journal entries? Is it possible to journal ‘incorrectly’, or even harmfully?
What’s Visa’s steelman case against journalling?
Theme 4: The Self
The coherent self is a construct.
All problems are interpersonal problems. Different elements of us are in conflict.
Lots of people have a very narrow, fixed idea of themselves. A static self-image is avoidable.
We need to build an internal consensus among our competing parts.
We need to be kind to ourselves and to make friends with ourselves.
“What I’ve come to believe is that each person is a bundle of conflicting impulses, motivations, interests and so on, and can’t be reduced to a singular motive. For lasting behavior change to happen, there needs to be a sustainable consensus amongst the various different parts of the individual.”
What elements of Visa are rebelling at the moment? Where is the current tension between his competing parts?
This is consistent with other things I've read about people in ultra-solitude. The coherent self is constructed for interfacing with others.
All problems are interpersonal problems. Because if there were nobody else to comment on it, be annoyed by it, compare yourself to, then it wouldn’t be an issue. We think of ourselves as fast or slow, ugly or attractive, rich or poor, in relation to other people. I wouldn’t assert that this is absolutely true, but I think it’s a useful frame to peer through to consider our issues. What are our problems, really, and why do we struggle with them?
A lot of people have a very narrow, fixed idea of themselves. They might have never consciously thought to develop this idea. It might be inherited from a surprisingly small set of experiences. Having a self-image is almost unavoidable, because We Live In A Society. But having a static self-image is very avoidable. It just takes a little bit of work.
The greatest violence is the violence that we do to ourselves, when we’re afraid to be who we really are.
The most important person you have to be friends with is yourself.
Theme 5: Project Management + Problem-Solving
Project management is one of the most important skills to develop. It’s the skill by which you learn other skills.
Projects require collaboration – either between people or between past and future you.
This ties into the 100 things meme. Project management is often about breaking the problem down into smaller problems and dealing with them one by one.
Project management is about identifying, framing and solving problems.
Solving problems is often about reframing them.
Storytelling is framing. We are constantly framing – arguments, ideas, identities.
School is a particularly rigid frame.
What’s the difference between ProductivityTM and project management? Why is the latter preferable to the former?
Is there a tension between the importance of project management and the creative, spontaneous, artistic soul that Visa is encouraging? Can one fuck around and project manage at the same time? Which comes more naturally to Visa?
How did Visa develop the skill of reframing problems? ‘Reframe problems’ seems like quite an abstract challenge to apply the ‘100 things’ framework to. Is it essentially a marketing skill?
How can we encourage children to adopt a different approach to problem-solving?
How material are questions of agency to problem solving & problem management issues? Where does agency come from? Is it a product of, or a precondition to, the various solutions proposed by Visa to problem-solving issues? How socially determined is agency?
How has gaming impacted Visa’s approach to problem solving?
Project management, I think, is one of the most important life skills that I was never quite taught. In a sense, it’s the skill by which you learn all other skills.
You can sometimes solve difficult problems simply by changing how you frame it.
A project is anything that requires collaboration, even if it's “only” between you-today and you-tomorrow.
People can go from feeling extremely incompetent to feeling extremely competent just by taking baby steps persistently.
You can sometimes solve difficult problems simply by changing how you frame it.
In Man of Steel (2013 film), young Clark Kent is utterly overwhelmed by his super senses, and hides in a closet. His mother has to show up. He says something like “The world is too big” and she says “then make it small.” It’s a very touching, moving scene that I think about a lot, and I’m surprised it doesn’t come up more.
Part of why video games are so compelling is that they do the hard work of project management for you. But the “problem” is that well-defined projects that are easy to participate in aren’t necessarily fulfilling ones. The concept of “gamification” started out quite promising, but unfortunately I think it came to be associated with the superficial veneer of gaming – frills, trinkets, points, etc – when what is really required is that we investigate the fundamental structure of the systems we are trying to invigorate. To paraphrase Steve Jobs, design is not what it looks like, design is how it works.
The biggest struggle with project management is when it seems impossible.
I suspect that almost all persistent problems persist because they are misframed.
Well-defined, well-scoped problems tend to get solved. We don’t even really think of them as Problems. We tend to think of them more as tasks.
Since we tend to solve well-defined problems, the problems we’re left with are the ones that are poorly defined. And the meta-problem with poorly defined problems is that we tend to not realize that they are poorly defined.
The problems we struggle with the most are not actually the ones where we admit ignorance, but the ones that we misdiagnose. The ones that we think we understand, even as we continue to fail at solving them, or making progress at solving them, over and over again.
The most persistent problems tend to be the ones where we misdiagnose the problem. As a consequence we end up perpetuating the problem. Sometimes we even worsen the problem.
The important thing is to cultivate a healthy, collaborative attitude towards problems.
Reflecting on this always makes me question and rethink how I’m framing things in my own life. I typically find that the first, obvious, intuitive choice is rarely the best one. If you experiment with your frames – zoom in, zoom out, change the angle, you’ll likely find a better one that achieves a better effect.
School is a very rigid frame. There’s a fixed curriculum, a fixed pedagogy (which is simply the dominant method of delivering that curriculum), and probably most frustrating of all, a fixed system of standardized testing, which atomizes individuals and conditions us to think of one another as competitors in fixed, finite games.
When evaluating any particular problem, ask yourself, what is the frame here? What are the assumptions? What if we looked at this from a different point of view? What if this bad thing were good, actually? How would that be the case? What if the good thing were bad, actually? How would that be the case?
Some of the best ways to improve your framing skill is to simply expose yourself to as much diversity as possible. Travel. Check out media that you don’t normally consume. Explore new genres of music. Watch documentaries about subjects you don’t typically think about. Ask lots of [[questions]]
Few things are framed “properly”. Most things are framed without much thought put into it. The way you frame something can be an art form all by itself. Artists, musicians, poets, creatives can all teach us valuable insights about what it means to frame things differently.
Theme 6: Reverence for Creators, Artists & Comedians
The arts, comedy, quotes, literature, and music is sacred. Collecting, exploring and celebrating it is a way to create meaning and profundity in your life.
Immersing yourself in the art that inspires you and treating it with genuine reverence makes your life more meaningful.
“Life can become something meaningful, beautiful, profound, exciting, compelling – when we internalize and embody the ethos of the library.”
Nothing is original - everything is a remix.
“Consecrate an altar of your ideals. Remember: A talisman is any object that’s charged with meaning. An altar is a house of talismans. A ceremony is any process of meaning-creation. A temple is a ceremony hall, where meaning is reconstituted. You are the primary person responsible for managing the meaning of your life. And you can make your life more meaningful just by thinking about it. You can do this entirely inside your own head, but I recommend further externalizing that into your environment – the clothes and jewelry you wear, the books you read, the art you hang up on the walls.”
What explains the myth of the Troubled Artist? Why is ‘true’ art often associated with suffering?
Visa writes elsewhere that we should not pedestalise our idols. Is there a tension between this and treating art with reverence? Does Visa distinguish the art from the artist?
What about comedy in particular is sacred?
A meme that’s been floating around Twitter lately is the idea that you can cultivate good taste. Does Visa agree with this?
Basically, the core idea is that all creativity begins with imitation, and there is simply no way to be absolutely “original”
Put together vision boards on Pinterest. Make collections of your favorite objects. Make lists of your favorite quotes. This stuff might seem frivolous but it’s very, very powerful.
Another way of thinking about all of this is that it’s about optimizing for serendipity that you want. Optimizing for luck. Making yourself receptive, being prepared for opportunities. Something like this happened for me not too long ago.
One of my private beliefs that doesn’t always translate very well is that true comedy is sacred.
And not sacred as in solemn, but sacred as in profound.
As I’ve said earlier, I believe it came from music, and literature, and art. I knew that I wasn’t the first person to suffer what I was suffering. And I knew of people who had at least theoretically made it through depressive episodes. And I dared to believe that I could be one of them too.
I highly recommend immersing yourself in art that inspires and nourishes you. Assemble an altar of your favorite work and treat it with genuine reverence.
Through these books, from a very young age, I would learn about ancient Egypt, and Greece, and Rome, and their various mythologies. I would learn about supervolcanos and plate tectonics and electromagnetism. I would learn about dinosaurs and galaxies and carnivorous plants. The library ensured that school would be a fundamentally miserable experience for me – because I always learned more, and better, on my own in a library, than I ever did in school.
Life can become something meaningful, beautiful, profound, exciting, compelling – when we internalize and embody the ethos of the library.
To me, artists are the Keepers of the Light of Human Consciousness, and with our words and songs and pictures and movies, we have held each other since the dawn of time.
Theme 7: Scene Creation & Talent Cultivation
Visa has published a 50-year plan for building a global nerd network. It explores the creation of scenes and the building of community:
“One, you need to have some kind of attractor that they’re drawn to, or ideally a whole consortium of attractors. Good content can be an attractor. Good social groups can be an attractor. Events can be an attractor. Locations can be an attractor. And, well, Individuals can be attractors.”
“look for talent hosts and scene managers, reward and encourage them.”
“look for switchboard operators, and encourage them”.
“If there isn’t enough of this, the scenes become jealous, hostile, zero-sum, generally unpleasant places to be. People start competing for each other’s slices of the pie instead of trying to expand the pie, and things get unpleasant. Then the best people leave, and everything gets worse.”
“The big mistake (I.M.H.O!!!) that public intellectuals have been making for the past 10 years or so is that they are still operating with old media models of thinking. Most of them, as far as I can tell, seem to prefer an audience of 1 million fans over 500 truly great co-creators. I get that I'm probably overlooking a bunch of nuance, that's part of what I call the Times Square problem, it's the glitziest, loudest voices that get most attention. The Internet is not just Times Square, there's all sorts of interesting shit going on but we have to look for it.”
“Handover protocols are important so you don't fucken waste years and years of people's efforts and then end up with nothing to show for it when all goes to shit and your personal ego burns out.”
“I'm personally generally of the opinion that things should be kept "informal" up to the edge of chaos.”
“A group of people who do interesting work publicly, around each other, who challenge and support each other (even implicitly!) to be bolder, more ambitious, do better”
“But also we should always assume that every community will eventually fail, and the important thing for each individual is to build personal relationships with other good people. Empires rise and fall, cities tend to remain. It’s good to plan ahead, with the knowledge that configurations don’t persist indefinitely”
“Culty bullshit Look up a list of “how you know when you’re in a cult”, and let’s try to subvert / do the inverse of every one of those things. Encourage people to do their own thing, be with their own friends and family, question everything. No pedestals, no Supreme Leaders.”
““Do unpaid work” thread:
Stage 1: Do unpaid work for yourself Stage 2: Use that as leverage to negotiate a position where you get paid to do work for others Stage 3: Save up enough so you can be free to do more, higher-quality unpaid work for yourself Stage 4: We’ll see”
“Why do scenes die My instinct is that too many posers show up, money-grabbers, low-effort prestige-seekers.”
What type of socio-political environment is ideal for cultivating knowledge production and transfer? City states appear to have been a successful model (Florence, Athens etc). Does Visa agree with this, and if so why? What would a modern-day recreation look like? Could it be Balaji’s network state?
‘Good reply game’ is a fairly intangible barrier to entry to Visa’s network. He does define it, but it’s suitably vague that he can apply it as arbitrarily as he wishes. Is this intentional?
What steps does Visa take to avoid audience capture?
Why does the lone genius myth persist? What does its popularity tell us about popular attitudes to scenes and genius?
What are some of the most exciting small scenes Visa is part of at the moment?