Day 73: Six Basic Human Needs

While I was on the treadmill yesterday, I listened to Tony Robbins’ podcast episode called “Six Basic Human Needs.” For those who don’t know who he is, Tony Robbins is one of the world’s most famous inspirational speakers, business, and personal coaches, and gurus in self-improvement. He appeared in one of my favorite movies of all time Shallow Hal, featuring Jack Black and Gwyneth Paltrow. Robbins’ Ted Talk “Why We Do What We Do” is number six in the top ten most watched and listened to Ted Talk of all time!

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Probably Robbins’ most famous book. Noted: He looks much older now!

His podcast had gotten me thinking about myself. Before we’re going to that, let’s talk about what’s Robbins’ “Six Basic Human Needs.” Although he sometimes calls them interchangeably as “things,” they’re not really things (as in objects). He wasn’t talking about food, houses, cars, or luxury watches. Sure, we need them (especially food) but they are varied across cultures. Robbins was talking about the “true needs as social beings.” They are six “qualities” that fulfill the main purposes that we have to live our lives in the society. To Robbins, these six needs are universal. He also extends his argument to say that the secret to understanding your business counterparts, partners, customers, and so on, is to understand the importance of these six basic needs in their lives.What are they?: Certainty, uncertainty (variety), significance and recognition, love and connection, growth, and contribution.

 

Okay, after spending an hour listening to it, I felt that this was awesome. I felt that all of these qualifies make perfect sense to me. In addition to the fact that what brought Tony Robbins to come to this conclusion about these six needs was his 30-year-long research on human beings with whom he had interacted regularly in his line of work, he’s also such an inspiring speaker. No wonder people pay a lot of money to his event!

Ok, back to his points.

Let me try to summarize all of these points in a #nonphilosophy way.

We all want a secure job and sometimes hostile to change because “certainty” is what underpins our sense of the continuity — that our livelihood would continue into the future. That said, if everything is all about certainty, we would be bored to death; and that’s why we would like some “uncertainties,” challenges, surprises (that we want), and a wide variety of experience from time to time. There’s an episode of Freakonomics Radio that I had also just listened to that talked about boredom as one of those things that everyone, even the unproductive people loathed. Yet, having job stability and variety in life isn’t enough to most of us. We want to be different, to be unique, to have the “significance” in the society in which we live. This is the need that Robbins argue to underpin the reason why human beings often go out of our ways to search for money and fame, to the point that, as Dalai Lama has remarked, “Man surprised me most about humanity because he sacrifices his health in order to make money; then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health.” But all in all, we want to be able to connect intimately with another human being. There are things that money and fame cannot always buy, and that is the unconditional love and connection with another human being(s). Beyond that, as a species, we need to develop ourselves in order to survive, and that’s where the need for “growth” comes in, which eventually leads to how we think about the growth of another human being through our hard-wired ability to sympathize. We want to “contribute,” because life is about creating meaning which does not often come from what you get but from what you give, including good news to share with your loved ones and things or money you give it away to those who need them.

The best way to summarize this notion of contribution would be in the words of William Shakespeare himself: “The purpose of life is to discover your gift; the meaning of life is to give your gift away.” You could discover your gifts by finding the certainty in your career, or by shaking things around by facing occasional uncertainties, or by finding what makes you special, or by finding the right person with whom you could connect, or by developing yourself — but at the end of the day, if you don’t find the way to give those gifts away, you’d be imbued with the sense of unfulfilling because there’s a limit to all of the above qualities  without your knowing that you life also means something to other people. So, those are Robbins’ “Six Basic Human Needs” in a nutshell.

So, here’s what I really want to write about today, which is my take on these six basic human needs. I agree with Robbins, in principle, that the secret to any productive relationship is the reciprocity between the counterparts in understanding how each ranks these six qualities. You are not going to go well trying to befriend someone who unconditionally believes in challenges by giving him the sense of certainty and vice versa.

Personally, I rank the following:

  1. Contribution;
  2. Love and connection;
  3. Growth; and,
  4. Uncertainty.

As for the other two qualities – certainty and significance – I don’t find them to be important in the way I live my life. Let’s go through them one by one.

1) Certainty. I think the only thing that is certain about certainty is the fact that we are made to believe that which can be certain. I believe that Jean-Jacque Rousseau was right when he made an argument a few centuries ago that the sense of certainty, whether through job security, marriage, or commitment to a certain system of belief, is what the upper-class elites has created to keep the lower-class workers in check. By doing so, the upper-class elites provide the reason for the lower-class to continue to be aspired to want what they don’t need. Take job security for instance, what’s so secure about working long hour on a manual labor every day making money for the upper-class who is benefitting from your labor? Wouldn’t it be better if we’re all living in nature, catching our own fish and planting our own vegetables, so that we could spend time with the people whom we love, with the hobbies that we like, and the with the ideas that we cherish?

The upper-class elites have created the system that makes us feel as though we need to get a job, work hard, and pay bills so that we could forever be slaves for their service. What’s certain about that kind of certainty is the chain around our hands and legs. I also think “certainty” is an enemy of growth. There’re so many brilliant people (some of whom I know) who had stopped working after they’re certain about their “secure job.” For instance, there’s a professor whom I dearly love who has basically stopped working and doing anything academically meaningful after he had received his tenure — or a lifetime contract to teach — from his university. “Certainty,” in this sense, leads to complacency and eventually to smugness, self-satisfaction, self-congratulation, and self-regard.

In his new mega-hit podcast Revisionist History, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the concept of “generous orthodoxy” or the idea that should one want to follow one own sense of morality — what one believes to be right from within — one needs to re-think the role, teaching, and of course, “certainty” associated with the institution that has defined your life. At the end of the day, most of the forms of certainty are associated with conventional institutions which do not change much over time (therefore “orthodox”). The definition of a moral life is the life in which one is determined to be “generous” about being on the side of uncertainty when facing backwardness defined by this conventionalism. I highly recommend that you listen to an entire podcast (there are 10 episodes in general) — especially this episode!

So, certainty is not always good. This was the secret reason why I like Don Draper in the first three seasons of the TV series Mad Men so much — he refused all attempts to get him to sign any permanent employment contracts because he believes that once he’s settled he’s done as an advertising genius.

2) Uncertainty: Ok. this is where I tend to agree with my friend Tony Robbins. In fact, I think the reason behind people’s interest in traveling (which is the umbrella of today’s largest global economic activities) as the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, once said was to find new experiences in unfamiliar places, just so that the productive uncertainty would be experienced. To me, personally, challenges and variety are one main quality that urges me to still want to get up in the morning. Although I hate surprises in general (like, when my brother sent me a message that my father has just passed away) it would be boring if everything is so certain. I like the fact that there’ll be new things for me to look for in my email inbox every day. There’ll be challenging problems for me to solve on a daily basis. And that there’ll be things that my ability to help to contribute, either to help alleviate or improve, would be appreciated. Because I do not care about getting recognized for any of the achievements but will take full responsibilities for the failure should it help to teach the public a lesson, I feel that my love for uncertainty is intrinsic and is not determined by the outcome. In other words, uncertainty is what I want my life to be challenged with because I believe that which is helpful to my ability to live like a human being who is principled yet flexible, and idealist yet practical.

 

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This was my first visit to MIT (the actual date this photo was taken at the corner of the photo). I was certain then that there’s no way I would ever come back there as a student. There was no possible scenario that which could happen. Financially, there’s no way my family or I would be able to afford the school. Intellectually, there’s no way I would be qualified to be a student there. Geopolitically and in terms of compatibility, there’s no way that a student from a developing country who didn’t speak a word of English like me would be considered admissible to such a prestigious world-class institution. Generous orthodoxy that led to uncertainty? 

 

3) Significance and recognition: I personally think that this is the quality that shall be suppressed. As I have written about, half of the problems we have in the world have to do with miscommunication. And guess what? Those miscommunications are often, if not always, results of one party wanting to be recognized rather than communicating the message. I have encountered many instances that the communication broke down because one party did not want to accept any messages that weren’t implying that which party was “doing the right thing,” or “operate with a good intention,” or “should be rewarded,” and, the very worst, “so right that this conversation should not even take place at all.” I think Robbins is absolute right that many people want to be recognized and that we should understand this fact in order to make the world a better place through giving these people what they want, namely recognition, but I also I think that we should also try to push it one step further: To teach the world that the need for recognition is a root cause of many problems. Recognition is purely symbolic, and many philosophers including the ancient Taoist master Laozi had reminded us more than two millenniums ago (he’s a contemporary of Socrates) that the more we try to be symbolically recognized something, the more we will lose the grip on what we think it is. This is simply because symbolic objects, thoughts, or qualities cannot be held constant. They change all the time — I mean, literally all the time (and this idea is vivid also in the writing of David Hume about the self).

An attempt to recognizing something symbolic is the same as an attempt to recognize the quality of the water in the creek. The moment you want to recognize how clean and clear the water is, that water whose quality you want t recognize is already running down the steam and the water in front of you is no longer the same water whose quality you want to recognize. You can only compare the general idea of it — the general cleanness and clearness of the water in the creek — which cannot be held constant. As in a person, the moment you want to recognize the quality of yourself, you are no longer the same person whose quality you want to recognize. In my earlier post “16 things I never have,” I wrote about how I have never won any competitions nor received any awards in my life. One of the reasons for my seemingly unrewarding life is the fact that I rarely apply, self-nominate, or get myself involved in anything that would lead to an official recognition.

I just want to add my personal story here. Our brain consists of about 100 billion (100,000,000,000) neurons, which are specialized cells transmitting nerve impulses (also known as a nerve cell). Hey, those are about ten times more than the population of the world today. What if my life is just one of those 10 billion neurons in someone’s brain? I mean, what if everything I have done in life with the hope to leave the mark on this world for people to think of me is just an attempt of a neuron of a person’s brain. And that person is just a person in a world of billions of people. In other words, what all of this — what we know as life — is just a joke? This feeling scares me because it would mean that there is no meaning in any of this thing we call life whatsoever. In order to deal with this feeling, we have to think, do, and act on things as if everything is an end in itself.

4) Love and connection: This is something that is very important to me. Although I think that loneliness is a powerful force in life, I think that a meaningful connection with someone outside of yourself is a true need. Loneliness is a productive space that sometimes plays a significant role in helping you to grow since coming to terms with yourself — the person with whom you would be spending most of your time — is the same as coming to terms with your own reality. Most of the time, although I enjoy spending time with myself, I always enjoy having a fierce critic, a receptive companion, a caring colleague, and a loving family by myself. I might not completely define love and connection as “needs,” as I also believe in a stoic life in which one has to always prepare to be alone and in the state of bare life — which is the state of life from which we come and at which we will eventually arrive.

In other words, loneliness helps us to come to terms with death so that we won’t get so nervous when it’s arriving but caring and connection gives us the meaning so that we would want to prolong the state of living as much as we are healthy enough to reciprocate their love and care.

5) Growth: I think it’s true that in business, one has to “grow or die.” We’re happening to be living in the society in which the market not only dominates the way the economy works but also pushes all of us who are in the system to constantly find our comparative advantage so that we don’t lose our jobs or opportunities to still be in the system to others — or to the machines. I don’t define growth that rigidly. I think growth should simply mean “do better than yesterday.” There’re many ways to do that. As the podcaster Stephen West always says at the end of his podcast Philosophize This!, “thank you for wanting to learn more today than yesterday.” I believe that we must learn from the past mistakes whether that be our own or someone else’s (in which case, we’d call it “History” — maybe that’s the reason why we should all learn history). There is no gift from one stranger to the other that is more special than their experience so that we could live a healthier, livelier, and in general, better life.

6) Contribution: This is a topic for a standalone post! For short, contribution — giving — is the reason I still want to live in our hectic society and among many people who have views on the world that are very different from mine.

I might not like some of their views, but I deeply believe that we are all intrinsically “good” but what drives us to act in the way that is not always good to others or the environment are either ignorance or wrong incentives.

I believe that I could use my skills to improve both conditions: To make people less ignorant and to change their views about incentives. Keeping this blog has been one of the channels through which I try to contribute.

Day 72: The Power of Logic (How to Change the World Part 2)

I have two stories to tell. All of which speak to one central theme: The power of logic is limitless. Let’s begin.

One: Hot Pot

One afternoon I checked myself into a restaurant serving buffet lunch. It’s a traditional-styled Chinese hot-pot. For those who have no idea what a hot pot is, it’s a traditional Asian cooking method. They call it huoguo in China, shabu-shabu in Japan, and suki in Thailand. The differences between these are not that noticeable and mostly due to the ingredients particular to the certain geographical location.

So, the one that I was eating was suki since it was in Bangkok. There’s a pot of simmering broth in the middle of the table, and around which are plates of meat and vegetables. All you have to do is to dip them into the broth and cook them. It’s the best meal to be consumed with a lot of people: Because of the sharing nature of the meal, the more people is the merrier. There’re many styles of hot-pot meals. My favorite is the Chongqing-styled, in which the broth consists mainly of Sichuan peppercorns and other mouth-numbing ingredients. It’s the spiciest of all (and yes, spicy food is good for you according to Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health).

Unfortunately, I was in Bangkok so the broth was not Chongqing-styled but rather typical chicken broth (which wasn’t the problem because I had a bowl of chili and pepper sauce in front of me).

I was at the restaurant alone that day.

It was on a weekday which might explain why there weren’t so many people there; hence, I was receiving all the attention from the waiters and waitresses who would have to do the work in bringing whatever I was ordering to my table so that I could dump them into my pot to cook and then eat.

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One of the first and finest hot pot meals I had in China. This picture was taken before the pot had arrived at the table. In this picture, the late Prof. Stanford Anderson, my mentor at MIT, and his wife Nancy Royal and my colleagues Li Xiangning, Ge Wengun, Jenn Tran, Stephe Hsu, and Tim Campos. Circa 2007.

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A typical Chongqing-styled hot pot, AKA my favorite food in the world!

Ok, enough about the hot-pot. What happened next was just overwhelmingly puzzling. Starting from around noon to 4pm I didn’t leave my seat at that restaurant. I was constantly eating, eating, and eating. The waiters and waitresses had to keep bringing me food.

“One more plate of squids, please,”

“More bok-choy (Chinese cabbage),”

“Yes, I would like more broth, please,”

“Can I have more chili sauce?”

“Two more plates of beef and lamp, please,”

“One more glass of Coke here,”

“A seafood platter followed by a bowl of udon (Japanese thick noodle).”

No matter how many plates were put in front of me, I would slowly but steadily take whatever were in those plates, dipped them slowly and gently in the boiling broth with my chopsticks, pulled them out of the boiling broth once cooked, dipped them gently in the super-spicy garlic pepper sauce that I had made for myself by mixing four types of sauces on top of a pile of minced garlic, and then put them in my mouth so that I could chew, swallow, and let them eventually run down my throat thanks to the force of gravity. The waiters and waitresses were amazed by how much I could consume, although I must not be the first customer whom they had seen to be eating this much given that the restaurant was, alas, serving a buffet lunch. After 4 hours had passed, I was still eating. Crossing into the 5th hour, I still felt as though I hadn’t had enough food. Because the waiters and waitresses had always taken the empty plates away right after I had finished them, I did not have a physical evidence of how much food I had consumed: By my own estimates, it must have been at least 10 kilograms already (more than 20 pounds). But I still felt as though I could eat more.

What happened to me?

That was when the logic kicked it. I stopped eating and started thinking. “Wait a minute, I have never eaten this much before….and why am I still not full after 4 hours of eating constantly, and alone?” It’s said to be true that you could eat much more when you’re eating with friends and family but that wasn’t the case there.

How much can a person really eat in a meal, especially someone with a normal Body Mass Index (BMI) like myself (which was 23.5 at the time; those whose BMI are over 25 are those considered heavy)?

I began to think deeply. The waiters and waitresses were not surprised after five minutes of my not pausing. They were, nonetheless, still there standing in the distance and in the corner looking at me, who was then the only customer in the restaurant. I suspected that they would like to be ready in the case I would like more food to be served, or to get a check. The deeper I think, the more I felt as though “nothing was making any sense” and for the following reasons:

  1. In general, I don’t eat that much. I like to eat, but I don’t eat that much. I am not a foodie. I just enjoy eating to live and not living to eat, which has always been the main reason why I don’t usually do well at a buffet. My body just can’t take that much food — and why was I eating so much today?;
  2. It didn’t make sense for a restaurant to allow me to stay and eat for as long as I pleased. Wouldn’t it be more sensible for the restaurant to restrict the amount of time one could sit down to consume food to 1-2 hours maximum? It’s been almost 5 hours and I must have eaten half of whatever they had in the entire restaurant already!;
  3. How did I get here? It’s a weekday and I had a job, what on earth was I doing in a buffet restaurant  in the middle of the day, by myself, eating like that?
  4. This doesn’t make any sense!!!!

That’s the moment I woke up.

Yes, I woke up from the dream. Surrounding me was nothing but a bunch of pillows my legs. The thickest pillow was lying on my stomach with my hands embracing it from below. I hadn’t had food for dinner the day before so I must have gone to bed with an empty stomach. It’s not logical to be a human who could eat without being full, and to continue to be in that state knowing that which is not real.

Hence, I woke up from my dream by the power of logic.

Two: Cigarettes

I had quit smoking almost 4 years ago now — after about 5 years of being a chain smoker.

I didn’t start smoking until I had finished my first master’s degree, during which I had been bombarded with many problems in love, life, and work. It’s to the point that I had decided to join the “smoking corner club” at work in order to find understanding friends with whom I could share my difficulties, and through our collective one-cigarette-every-hour rituals that I could spend time thinking more carefully about my situation thanks to the rhythmic breathing that the act of smoking gave me (if you don’t breath rhythmically when smoking you’ll choke). I was addicted to not only the taste of the cigarettes (“nicotine sort of helped clear my mind,” I felt then) but also the effect that whatever substances inside of the cigarettes had done to me, and, most importantly I think, the sense of community among the fellow chain smokers that I had acquired through becoming one of them.

Growing up, I had asthma. I remember well the instances during which my mother had to carry me to the emergency room because I had a hard time breathing. Smoking cigarettes, needless to say, only made it worse. My body, furthermore, simply absorbed every negative effect of smoking. I lost so much weight over those 5 years of smoking, to the point that everyone thought I was perpetually sick. I had bad breath. I had bad teeth. I lost a lot of hair and that small amount of hair that I still had left smelled bad almost all the time because of the smell from smoking. I caught a cold very easily and I had contracted flu quite frequently. When I got sick, my body recovered very slow. I also became an alcoholic because, as one European classmate at Oxford who introduced me to drinking and smoking said to me, “nothing feels better than when you’re drinkin’ and smokin’, mate.” I had become a very unattractive person because I would need to smoke almost every half an hour or less. I could not pay attention to a long lecture. A long meeting — and a long flight — from which I could not leave was nothing but a nightmare. What’s the worst? Well, my sexual pleasure also massively deteriorated. I might never have been a “superman” in terms of sex but after I became addicted to smoking I had become, simply, sloppy. I could feel that I had become much less, and almost zero, active in terms of sexuality. Although I didn’t have a complete erectile dysfunction (must have been close though), I recognized that my sexual pleasure was extremely short not matter how wonderful the woman with whom I was engaging in the intercourse was. With what was happening with my manhood of which I had always been proud, I felt that this wasn’t just the decay of the mind but the decay of the soul, altogether.

Was the only two pleasure I got from smoking? 

Funny enough, even after two master’s degrees from two of the world’s top universities in hand, I still thought that it was worth it.

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The year was 2009 and I was in the UK. I was holding a cigarette in my right hand and a lighter on the left. I got sick all the time because I wasn’t able to come to terms with myself on why I was still smoking. My weight was about 50 kilograms at the time and for someone my height, I could only look sick.

It wasn’t the case that I didn’t try to quit smoking. I had tried many times and I had used many methods, such as chewing both normal and nicotine gum, reducing the amount, exercising, etc. I tried every possible method. I even consulted a medical service at then my university to help me with the problem. I would quit for a day or two and I would return to smoking again in no time. The worst part of it was when my father unexpectedly passed away in 2010.

Even though I knew that what killed him, partly, was cigarettes that he smoked in a large amount during the first two quarters of his adulthood, I still couldn’t let go of cigarettes. Ironically, as a person who always told others that my father was the person I loved the most, I couldn’t let go of what killed him.

The year was 2012 and I was in Beijing then for a summer language program. I was smoking a local cigarette called Panda at the window of my room on the 13th floor of a foreign student dormitory. Cigarettes, of course, weren’t permitted anywhere in the building but I was smoking them every day anyway because I was a chain smoker.

Then I had a moment. I remember that I was sitting at the bottom frame of that small window to the large and open empty field below. I was reading a self-help book and was inspired by every word of it. As I was looking the ashes falling down to the ground below, I had an epiphany: “What am I doing?” It was that moment that I was able to come to terms with myself: I suddenly realized that in order to do those great things in the self-help book I was reading, I would first need a healthy body.

“And why am I smoking this thing?”

“It doesn’t even feel good.”

That was the moment that the power of logic kicked in which helped me realized that the reasons I had been coughing every since I landed in Beijing might due to both my excessive smoking and the rising level of air pollution. “Yes, I have been coughing every day — in the class and outside of the class — I am feeling so disgusted by myself!” Finally, “I couldn’t even breath properly because of the air pollution, why am I smoking this shit??”

It’s simply not logical for me to still be smoking.

And that was it. I stopped smoking half way and threw that cigarette away — together with the rest of the pack. In that moment, I didn’t think about the future (as in, I wouldn’t have a healthy life 10 years from now I’d still be smoking then) or the past (as in, it’s what killed my father). I was just thinking about the present: “Why am I doing this illogical thing?” I never return to smoking ever again after that incident. That was the moment I realized that I must have been a rational thinker. The power of will didn’t help me quit smoking (I tried and failed) but the power of reason and logic did.

It’s not logical to want to live a good life and continue to smoke.

That said, am I missing smoking? Yes, I always have a dream about myself smoking with friends. So, if dreams represent my subconscious as Sigmund Freud believes, I must not have been so happy with quitting cigarettes. That said, I wouldn’t mind my dreams being my “smoking room.”

So, what’s the moral of these two stories?

I believe that it has to do with the way we human beings need to think for ourselves, in the present, about how we would like to live our life. We have the gift (or the curse depending on how you look at it) to be able to exercise our ability to think, rationalize, reason, and make a logical decision. The key is to use that ability. The power of logic has changed my life. These two stories are just examples of many stories that I have regarding how I had removed bad habits from my life, how I restrained myself from plunging into the wilderness of auto-piloting attitude (especially when it comes to sexual desire), how I turned problems into critical tests for myself, and how I saw opportunities in the challenges with which I had faced, to name just a few. If I can do it, you can do it too. Believe it or not, we all have the ability to use logic to live a better life.

Here’re the 4 key takeaways:

  1. Sometimes the will alone cannot save you from yourself, but the power of logically will;

  2. “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

  3. One encountering a problem that gives you sense that there is a deeply embedded sense of cognitive dissonance (i.e., you know that it is not right but you’d still want to do it), do take a step back, instead of move forward, and carefully scrutinize the problem. This is along the same line as Malcolm Gladwell’s suggestion when facing a problem of auto-acceleration when driving in his podcast which I highly recommend to everyone;

  4. As mentioned in my last post on communication, the attempt to change the world must begin with ourselves. We can do it by putting the dignity of being a human being at the center of your logical processing, as in, we are thinking human beings who possess the ability to think for ourselves  — hence, use logic to think for ourselves.

In the first story, I got out of my dream by exercising my logical thinking. In the second story, I use the same logic to confine my self-destructive behavior to the dream so that it would not affect my corporeal life.

 

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Upon a suggestion of a wonderful person I recently had the pleasure of getting to know from the land where its hot pot is most delicious, I tried this personality test and found out that I am indeed a logician! (surprise, surprise!)

 

Day 71: How to Change the World Part 1

I know. I know. It’s been a while since my last post. Apologies for those who may have been waiting for a new post. It hasn’t been easy moving from one place to the other, leaving an old job for a new job, and so on. But I am back! Although I can’t promise (not even to myself) that I would be updating my blog as frequently as I may want, I will try my best to keep up with the requests on the topics and ideas about which you would like to see my writing. More than anything else, it’s embarrassing that I have not been able to complete the “100 days of writing” mission in a year as planned.

Well, that’s life. One thing that I know for sure is my own writing style and pace: It’s difficult for me to stick to a weekly schedule (although I will try to make it a habit) but whenever I have good ideas to write something about I could go 6-7 hours in a roll just writing one post after another. So, do bare with me.

This morning, I got up with some thoughts about what make me who I am. It could have a been a result of a difficult conversation I had with someone about whom I cared so dearly. That thought, though begun with how a seemingly caring conversation could go so wrong, had eventually led me to my thinking about what could I have done to change the situation.

About a decade ago, I have set the goal in life to not chase after money or fame, but after things that would give me the total feeling of contentment with my life. I had come to the realization that I could live a good anonymous life with subsistent-leveled income (seriously, I have tried it). The possession of too much money and fame violates both the principles of minimalism and  nonism (about which I had discussed also in this blog). One of the way to feel content with my life, to me, is to thinking constantly  about a social engineering program that would make everyone turn inward to introspect the need of their inner self, rather than what they “think they need” as a result of the society’s telling them what to do through peer pressure.

I have, then, come to realize that two of the root causes of the problems we have in the world today are miscommunication and illogical thinking. These two factors constitute about 50% each for all the problems we have in the world today. My argument is simple: we could live in a much better world if we can solve these two problems. I am determined to dedicate the rest of my life of solving these two problems. This blog post, however, is dedicated to discussing the first problem only. I promise that I’ll write more in my next post about the power of logic as the way to combat logical thinking.

Why do people fail to communicate?

As many philosophers, linguists, and thinkers have reminded us, our thought process is often both intertwined and non-linear. The problem we have with the verbal language is, then, that it forces us to communicate our thoughts through the non-intertwined and linear system. In other words, language always simplifies our thoughts. And it’s also true that language constraints thoughts (i.e., what linguists call Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis): We cannot possibly conceive any complicated matters without having the language as a system to connect the strings of words to make sense of our own thoughts, as a lens through which one could see the layout of our own idea, and finally as a tool by which one can construct a meaningful thought process. For example, when we think of anything that we may want, the essential pronoun “I” appears in your thought process, e.g., “I want that,” and “I need that.” The verbs that follow — want and need — are essential elements in the process of putting words in a string so that you could communicate your idea , first to yourself, and then to others by demanding or requesting that they’d provide you with what you “need” or “want.”In other words, we need the “I” to be there as a conscious marker of our desire to construct a meaning that underpins our egotistical and, even, our biological needs. Most of the time, the subject + verb construction is followed either by an object or a conjunction; for instance, “I want water because I am thirsty.” Can you give me an answer of why you’re reading this blog post right now without thinking in terms of language? Can you answer me this question without using any nouns, pronouns, verbs, and adjectives? We think with words. We need words to think. Your brain is always going and it’s estimated that we say between 300 – 1,000 words to ourselves per minute. That is, we need language to think, and the limitation of our vocabulary is also the limitation on how effective we are in putting our thoughts into comprehensible strings of words.

The trouble with language is no picnic. You may have witnessed people who were talking about the same things but could not come to a conclusion that they did. You may have seen people who loved each other to death but their relationship ceases to continue to exist because they were not able to communicate their love in the way acceptable to the other person. A classic case: You may have heard how people get upset about how they think the other person has a view on things that were “too simplistic.” True, it’s may often the case that “that someone” may have a simplistic view on things. But most of the time, I believe, it’s not just that. To me, nothing is that simplistic. Even when we want it to be so, unfortunately, what constitutes our “view on things” are our experience, upbringing, education, and so on. So, even on things about which we feel absolutely sure, they are often, if not always, an exception.

Why is that? — Because our thoughts are way more complicated than the ability of languages to communicate them (well, some languages may do a better job in conveying the subtlety of the ideas, but that’s a topic for another post). First, the language we know doesn’t do justice to our thoughts. Second, we think that something sounds “simplistic to us” owing to the fact that our brains, for the same reason as in why we couldn’t put complicated thoughts into words, are often hostile toward strings of words that are too complicated. So, we tend to be more receptive, rather, to simple prose. But we are also hostile to simplicity because we are living in the world in which simplicity as such could induce misunderstanding, violence, racism, and other forms of discrimination; hence, we human beings are often caught in the middle: While we may want to communicate our true ideas, we are also not very receptive to complicated strings of words. The result is that we don’t get the full meaning of other’s ideas because the corporeal limit to how much a non-intertwined and linear expression of the strings of words could make you absorb all the meanings.

A classic case: You may have heard how people get upset about how they think the other person has a view on things that were “too simplistic.” True, it’s may often the case that “that someone” may have a simplistic view on things. But most of the time, I believe, it’s not just that. To me, nothing is that simplistic. Even when we want it to be so, unfortunately, what constitutes our “view on things” are our experience, upbringing, education, and so on. So, even on things about which we feel absolutely sure, they are often, if not always, an exception, as in “I hate XXX but I would accept it if there’s YYY involved.” What’s the meaning of “hate” (a dictionary definition: feel intense or passionate dislike for someone or something) then if an exception can be hate?

I used to think that many people have simplistic ideas because they’re incapable of seeing all dimensions of the problems or situations. But most of the time, as I have been taught in my training as a linguistic anthropologist, we tend to think that something sounds simplistic simply because the message that we receive is linear and non-intertwined, hence leaving out many of the important messages. The absence of those messages that did not make the cut is what make us feel as though such message is not as comprehensible as it should or could be. So, as an anthropologist, I have learned to overcome this particular prejudice against something that may sound, when I first hear them, simplistic. Over time, I have become much more sensitive to those “messages that did not make the cut.” What are the core ideas of those messages that have been intentionally left out owing to the inability of the language to convey all of them and still stay meaningful and understandable?

Our brains are hostile toward something that is too complicated and tend to be more receptive, rather, to simplicity. But we wouldn’t need language if we are only to communicate simplicity. We need language because we need to communicate with other human beings more than just the information regarding our biological needs. We think something is simplistic because of language, by nature, suppresses the full thought to convey. The linear and non-intertwined nature expressed through a string of words that we utter to communicate ideas often fails to convey our comprehensive ideas to others. People usually either hear what they want to hear (because our brains love to take the meaning simplistically) or do not have the patience for complicated thoughts carried through the lumping together of a complicated set of strings of words put together. What we have left here is miscommunication.

In the perfect world, each of us would take, as the most important goal in life, the learning of how to communicate with others with precision, brevity, and respect, holding to heart the sincere goal of benefitting everyone engaging in the conversation. In the perfect world, intentional ridiculing of others and the failure to listen would be considered impolite and outlawed. In the perfect world, we would have all the time and patience to pay attention to each other. Unfortunately, we are not living in that world. We’re living in the world full of strangers (especially those living in cities). We’re living in the world in which we deal with different sets of interest. We’re living in the world that urges us to protect our own right to be individual and egotistical rather than give other people the benefit of the doubt. The problem gets worse when we also deal with translation from the one language to the other. You get the point.

This was the whole premise of my writing about the Herzfeld’s Rules (both Part 1 and Part 2 are available on this blog). I believe that changing the world isn’t that difficult — as we can eliminate almost 50% of the problems we have in the world today by our becoming better communicators who communicate to get the true points across and not to ridicule your counterpart or to show off that you happen to know what they do not know.

Even if becoming a better communicator doesn’t change the world, it would change your life. It would make your life easier and better. The conversation I had with this person that I care so much about broke down half way because this person did not understand any of the “logical processes” behind the norm of communication as I have described here. This person got mad at me by the message this person had heard only half-way, misunderstood my message by this person’s own problem with the comprehension of the nuances of language (as, unfortunately, English was neither of ours mother tongue although I had written elsewhere that this shouldn’t matter much), and got disappointed by this person’s own ability to understand my intention altogether. I could only feel sorry for this person, and this is why I would like to address  the second factor through which we could change the world — logical thinking — by the power of logic, which is the topic of my next post.

Day 70: A Nonism Dictionary

General abstention from activities and substances regarded as damaging to one’s health or well-being.

The above is a dictionary definition of the term “non-ism.” I, in fact, did not know about the existence of this term until a few years back when my colleague asked me whether or not my name had anything to do with the doctrine. Well, it’s a surprise so I looked it up and found that the etymology of term had to do with the Latin word “non,” meaning not (surprise, surprise). So, non-ism is, in essence, minimalism (those who have read my post on minimalism would probably understand this right away).

I like the term “non-ism” for two reasons: My name is in it (duh), and that I think it’s the way of life by which from this very day I would like to live my life. Let me be “super” honest with you here (despite the fact that I am always honest with you), the original idea of this post is simply to lay out some of my thoughts in an aphoristic way (for those who may have forgotten what aphorism means; it means an expressive and poetic observation that contains a general truth).

But then as I’d gotten myself on the plane my seatbelt fasten, I had felt as though, physically and emotionally, I was not going anywhere for a while; hence, something in the back of my head was pushing me to think beyond writing a few aphorisms to writing a post that lays out, in its entirely, concepts that matter to me.

I then thought to myself, these concepts, then, should have an umbrella; and what would be a better conceptual container of the many different concepts I was about to write than an “-ism?”

So, here you are, a lite version of my conceptual dictionary.

A sketch of my portrait wearing Harvard Ph.D. gown by one of Thailand’s most respected architects Dr. Khiensak Saengkrieng. I can’t thank him enough for this wonderful sketch which I will definitely frame and put on my wall.

Architecture: A profession whose primary concern lies in the thinking, planning, and building of humanistic built environment for all, or an edifice that combines such humanistic sense with the understanding of the laws of nature and their phenomenon.

Anthropology: A useless field of study if one is to study it with the sole purpose of preaching it to others, but the most useful form of liberal knowledge if one is to study to enhance “how to be a human” in a society all thanks to its primary concern on how we human beings are more similar than we think.

Anthropology#2: “A comparative study of common sense.” — Michael Herzfeld

Argument: An exchange of diverging or opposite views that could end with an agreement to disagree.

Anxiety: What you cannot avoid when coming to terms with yourself.

Be: The marker of existence that should — and must always — precedes essence.

Belief: An unfortunate result of an often irrational thought process commonly known as a “leap of faith.”

City: A physical place where strangers have to try to live together without killing each other.

Communication: The only thing that which must be effective because the failure to do so is the true cause of almost all problems we have in the world.

Critical Thinking: Often an oxymoron since the only acceptable form of thinking is that of critical (also see Thinking).

Culture: A practice of everyday life that has been repeated so much by a community that it has become both a sensible norm by which the members of such community would like to live their life and sensuality of which those same members would like to make sense of their life — regardless of whether or not they know the origins (often multiple) of such practice.

Design: The process with which all great works and everything that is truly meaningful to our existence begin.

Education: One highly flawed way of getting anyone to learn anything, but, alas, is still one of the few reliable solutions to the problems that we are facing in the world today.

English: The language that one should pretend to use when getting any forms of services in China to avoid being treated like shit.

Enlightenment: “Man and mankind emerge from their own self-imposed immaturity.” — Immanuel Kant

Expectation: The one and only true cause of disappointment.

Existentialism: An admirable way of life focusing on being aware of the strange nature of “conventions” around us and true to oneself by letting your existence precedes the socially-prescribed “conventional” essence.

Freedom: The ability to act by your own moral codes.

God: Often a symbolic entity we human beings create to conveniently explain things for which we do not necessarily want to go through the difficulty to find out the answer.

Grammar: “The difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.” — Anonymous.

Humility: Often the best mechanism in protecting yourself against senseless attacks.

Harvard: A for-profit company in Massachusetts that is authorized by law to act as a single entity that thinks of itself as an educational institution designed for learning named after a square in the city in which it is located.

Idiosyncrasy: A mode of behavior seen by the society as peculiar to an individual but is not, in any ways, harmful to the society.

Joke: A thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter because there is some truth in it.

Knowledge: A body of ideas that personally matter to you. If it doesn’t matter to you that way, it’s just data.

Law: A form of distant control mechanism that has the aura of actuality in preventing human beings from directly killing each other but does not necessarily prevent them from doing so indirectly.

Liberalism: An ideology building on the false belief that human beings can be good to one another if each of them is driven solely by his or her own (broadly and vaguely defined) self-interests.

Life: A biological process that is a reverse of hiccup that, spoiler alert, always end in death and for which there is no cure. Life is like a reverse of a hiccup because, while a hiccup only goes away when you stop thinking about it, you will never get to live a life if you keep thinking about how to live it.

Life#2: “What we live when you are not busy doing something else.” — John Lennon

Love: “Something I would do anything for except THAT (whatever that is).” — Meat Loaf.

Men: Often used as a euphemism for jerks who misleadingly believe in the false sense of masculinity expressed through violence. 

Money: What we want to think is a means of happiness when most of the time it leads to the opposite.

Marriage: The one and only true cause of divorce, and “the main cause for two people to be disgusted by each other.” — Arthur Schopenhauer

Minimalism: The way of life whose underlining idea is to cut the lost cost concerning how we human beings tend to be easily distracted to spend time on things that do not really matter to the productive development of our existence.

Morality: The one thing about which none of us should try to too hard to be creative or unique.

Nation: A community whose members must, in order to survive, remind themselves to believe in the constructed sense of unity despite the obvious differences among them.

Neoliberalism: An idea based on the belief that removing “as long as you don’t hurt other people” from the idea of “you can do whatever you want” would lead to a better society. In other words, it’s a system of belief of sociopaths (Also see Sociopaths).

Non-Action: The way of life preached in the Taoist doctrine in which the practitioners believe in doing nothing in order to leave nothing undone.

Old: In humans, it refers to having the characteristics or showing the signs of age because of the consumption of food and water, and the breathing of the air.

Passion: “The driver of reason; without which there would be nothing to drive the reason alone to act.” — David Hume

Ph.D.: An academic degree that consumes years of life and often ends in unemployment.

Philosophy: The practice of, through careful and rigorous reasoning, not taking everything around you as “had been that way, is that way, and will always be that way.”

PQRST: Not an acronym and simply a string of consecutive alphabets that means nothing to no one else but Michael Herzfeld and Cristina Paul.

Poetics: Something that so dearly resonates with our inner consciousness — to the point that we would break rules to achieve.

Pollution: “A substance or thing that understood to be harmful or having poisonous effects because they are understood as not belonging there — rather than their actual harmful or poisonous effects.” — Mary Douglas

Power: What we human beings want to possess in order to compensate for the lack of sex.

Property: A burden that is often being misunderstood as a possession.

Rights: Something morally intrinsic to an individual that I would fight to the death to protect even if it’s not my own.

Ritual: The process by which meanings are systematically ascribed to the meaningless so that some people could feel as though their lives actually have a meaning.

Religion: A system of faith believed by many to provide normative guidances for those who want to live in the world with a purpose, and a pathological treatment for which rationality as such cannot provide.

Religion#2: “What distracts the poor from the real cause of the problems and therefore keeps the poor from mass murdering that cause, which is the rich.” — (a paraphrase of) Napoleon Bonaparte and Karl Marx

Research: An excuse that by saying you have done it prior to taking an action may help in preventing yourself from being  blamed if the consequence of such action is not the undeniable one.

Self: What we would like to think that we have in order to have an excuse to possess other things (if you don’t even have the self, why would you want to possess anything else?)

Sex: The most overrated mundane activity that most of us human beings cannot suppress the need to engage therefore want to learn more about how to better engage, but at the same time always feel pressured to pretend to not wanting to.

Society: An epitome of a structure in which individuals are contained.

Shanghai: A city known as the largest training ground for neoliberalism (also see Neoliberalism).

Sleep: The state to which we exhaust our body to get back daily.

Sociopaths: What most of us are when we do not think or think but not care about the consequences of our action that we will not directly feel.

Suicide: The most preventable form of death.

Suicide#2: “The most important philosophical question: To exist or to not exist in the world.” — Albert Camus

STDs: Sexually transmitted diseases, among which life itself is the most preventable.

Time: The solution of 99% of the non-physical problems.

Thinking: Where skepticism and open-mindedness overlap.

Utopia: My place because it means, in Greek, a “non-place.” Get it?

Women: The one true cause of tears — as in the song “No Women No Cry” by the reggae legend Bob Marley.

Xenophobia: A symptom expressed in the intense dislike or fear of people from other places often as a result of a problematic anxiety that one is having with oneself.

Yet: An adverb that I always add to the end of the sentence when responding to a question concerning my current inability to do things that I see benefitting to my personal improvement and therefore want to happen in the future, such as “I don’t speak Japanese — yet.”

Zen: The way of life focusing on the inner health by reducing worries brought about by the external possessions and desires that are extraneous to us.

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Writing this post while eating hotpot in Chengdu. Photo credit: Professor Yang (杨青娟) at Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu.

We should have another celebration for reaching, alas, Day 70!

Day 69: The Herzfeld’s Rules Part 2

In this post, I’d like to introduce some more titbits of the Herzfeld’s Rules. I have learned over the years from the man himself that some of these mistakes do have an impact on how you are perceived by your colleagues and superiors. As one anonymous person once said: “Grammar is what about knowing the difference between your shit and you’re shit.” I could not agree more. In fact, also over the years, I have learned the joy of learning about grammar, especially syntax or the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. Syntax, a topic elaborated in beautiful and great detail by the linguist Noam Chomsky in the classic Syntactic Structure (published in 1957), is definitely a topic that I would like to write more about, but it’s a topic for another time. I’d like to suggest, in this post, an additional 12 easy-to-remember and easy-to-practice rules.

Now, let’s get right into it. 

First (and just that, not Firstly) when you feel the urge of using “scare quotes,” (or “air quotes” when you make a gesture with your fingers in the air as though there’s a pair of quotation marks around the word you’re saying) ask yourself: do you really “need” it? Scare quotes could mislead your readers to think that you are being sarcastic when you might just well be honest. Over the years, I have seen excessive uses of scare quotes. #It’s #almost #as #annoying #as #seeing #excessive #use #of #hastags (#). Only use scare quotes when you want to draw attention to an inaccurate use of a word, or when you are quoting someone directly. Scare quotes, in these two cases, indicates the idea that you are being sarcastic, or that which is not your words. You’d absolutely need it when you are quoting an offensive term used by others to tell your audience that it isn’t you who had said it. The misuse of scare quotes could easily lead to your audience thinking of you as being uncertain about the complexity of the meaning of the world around which you put the scare quotes,  and, the worst of all, being “simple-minded” for not knowing that doing so could lessen the credential of your claim. By the way, you should know by now that the scare quotes around “simple-minded” aren’t actually needed. 

Second, use “due to” only as an adjective and not as a conjunction. So, “it was due to the rain that I come late” and not “it came late due to the rain.” In the second example, use “because” (a beautiful and probably the most useful conjunction) or “owing to.” This is not a matter only obsessed with by a grammarian, but a matter that those with the astute logic of the sequence of actions could make use of in making their expression clearer and, usually, more meaningful.

Third: This is one of my favorite: Fewer/less. Although many grammarians have all agreed that we could be chilled out  about this — both works as long as the core of the message about the quantity  is clear — it’s still good to be able to know the distinction between these two adjectives. Why? Because it had made Stannis Baratheon “the One True King”! Yes, I am talking about (***spoiler alert for those who have not seen but planned to see Game of Thrones — skip this part immediately; knowing the difference between fewer and less doesn’t worth being spoiled of the joy of watching the show uncontaminated).

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Stannis Baratheon was one great fighters who was deprived of the supreme position as the King of the Seven Kingdoms in Westeros by trickery. In an episode of the fifth season of the series, Stannis Baratheon was caught on camera for wanting to secretly correct a part of the speech given by a member of the council of  Night’s Watch. Othell Yarwyck, that A council member, said “Kill the Wildlings. Let them die. Less enemies for us.” Yarwyck was arguing against Jon Snow’s unimaginable (to most of the Night Watch’s at the time) proposal to travel outside of the wall toward the north in order to warn the Wildlings of the dangers that were coming their way. Upon hearing this speech, Stannis whispered almost immediately to himself (but loud enough for his Hand of King Sir Davos Seaworth to hear): “Fewer.”

What’s the fuzz here? Educated people (like Stannis) would know that we must use the determiner fewer, not less, with numbers of individual items or people. So, yes, he’s right to correct Yarwyck that the correct locution was “fewer enemies” and not “less enemies” — because it’s about the numbers of the individuals to be killed rather than a group of an uncountable noun for which less is appropriate. For instance, “less than £200,” “less than 700 tonnes of oil,” “less than a third,” and “less than 5 minutes,” because, according to The Economist’s Style Guide, “these are measured quantities or proportions, not individual items.”

Fourth, avoid saying “of course” and “needless to say” when you are not sure that everyone would agree with that you that there’s no other way of thinking about it. It’s better to not use them altogether. Usually, the proper use of them is when you need to occasionally give your prose a personal tone.

Fifth, indecisive singular gendered pronouns are ugly. In the words of the great anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach writes in his classic Social Anthropology published in 1982:

Humankind is male/female, betwixt and between. However, the English language faily consistently treats “unmarked” nouns as male rather than female. Ordinarily this does not matter but a male anthropologist, writing in the 1980, risks his neck with feminist colleagues if he implies, even by oversight, that either the anthropological observer or the individual who is observed is more likely to be male than female. But I must risk it A text whch is excessively literred with “he(she),” “him(her),” expressions becomes unreable. And anyway, why not “she(he)?” I fairly stick to male pronouncs for unmarked category nouns. I should not on that account be rated as a male chauvinist pig.

It’s also violating Bill Strunk’s “omit needless words” rule. I am talking about the use of “he or she,” “him or her” and “his or hers” in a sentence. Turn them into a plural pronoun. So, instead of “each student needs to think about his or her need,” instead say “students need to think about their needs.” If you absolutely need to use a gendered pronoun, the rule of thumb is to use the male pronoun for a neutral matter (or whatever you are not sure of whether or not it is a good or bad thing), so “each student needs to think independently about his individual and personal need.” And use a female pronoun for the matter that is absolutely more good than bad; for instance, “a great philosopher is consistent with her own words.” It has recently been acceptable to use “they” as a singular generic personal pronoun, although it may seem a bit counterintuitive as “they,” as we all know, is a plural pronoun. So, the advice given by Grammar Girl (my frequent source of knowledge about the topic and one of my favorite podcasts) is to use”he or she” if you want to play it safe, or use “they” — if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself.

Sixth, try to not putting anything between the “to” and the verb that follows. The fancy name for this verb form is “infinitive.” We use this kind of verb form all the time, such as “to go,” “to play,” “to drink,” and so on. If you have an adverb that you would like to put before the verb (which, commonsensically, is the most appropriate place to place an adverb) put them after the verb instead. So, instead of “to actively play soccer,” instead say “to play soccer actively.” Many grammarians and language specialists have debunked that this act of “splitting infinitive” is not a crime and the original of the myth that infinitive shall never be splitter comes from the mistranslation of a Latin grammar rule into that of the English language, i.e., verbs in Latin are all one word so by default one can never split an infinite in Latin. Avoiding placing anything before the verb helps to remind the reader what is it that they are being told, as sometimes the adverb can be very long, such as, “I like to occasionally and sometimes thoughtlessly though not that intentionally play soccer.” By the time one gets to the verb play, the meaning of this sentence has already been lost. 

Seventh, avoid using a foreign word when an English word can do the job — and 99% of the time that which is the case. It just gives the sense of pomposity. So, say “blank slate” instead of “a tabula rasa.” Say “masterpiece,” and not “magnum opus.” Say “existing condition,” and not “status quo.”

Eighth, avoid using idioms that you do not know the origin of — because sometimes people can be sensitive about it. It’s easy to hear something that sounds “kind of cool” from the television and want to use it in real life right away. Look it up first, and make sure that you really know what it means. I have met a number of people who use “lo and behold” in lieu of “surprisingly,” which is the opposite meaning of it. Someone I happen to know use “if you’re up for it” as lieu of “if you would like to” without knowing that the former implies, also, a challenging tone which is not her intention. 

Ninth, “like,” in addition to being a verb (as in “I like soccer”) and a noun (as in “the like”) is a preposition and not a conjunction. So, “I feel like having a drink now” is wrong because a proposition can only govern (be followed by) a noun; hence, instead, say “I feel like drinking” (or “I feel as though I’d like to have a drink now”). “Drinking” here is a grammatical element that looks like a participle (a word formed from a verb, such as running, jumping, standing) but is actually a noun (surprise), so “drinking” — and an act concerning how a person take a liquid into the mouth and swallow) is a noun and therefore can be governed by the preposition “like.” Most of the time “as though” and “as if” are interchangeable, so you could substitute them to give your prose a variety. That said, “I want to have a drink now” might also do the trick. Many are saying “like” all the time these days without knowing what its linguistic function is (especially teenagers). We would call this wrong use of “like” a verbal tic. (if you don’t remember what it is anymore, please visit the Herzfeld’s Rule Part 1). 

Tenth, still on the common mistake with gerunds. “Gerunds are nouns” — say this mantra as many as times as it’d take for it to wrap around your nervous system — and therefore should never be preceded by a personal pronoun. For instance, “I was awoken by him snoring” is wrong, and it should be “I was awoken by his snoring.”

Eleventh, think twice before using “zombie nouns.” The linguist Helen Sword has coined the term to explain the kind of nouns formed from other parts of speech. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Stephen Pinker explains: “The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ment, –ation, or –ing.” For instance, instead of “he intensifies the situation,” writers who use zombie nouns would instead write “there is a manifestation of the intensification of the situation. “This way of turning parts of speech into nouns has a linguistic jargon: the nominalization. Helen Sword writes:

Academics love using zombie nouns; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.

That’s pretty damn harsh! In The Sense of Style (again, one of my favorite book): Stephen Pinker is no less harsh:

Zombie nouns lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.21 They can turn prose into a night of the living dead.

Don’t let nouns like that sucking lifeblood from adjectives! So, instead of thinking nominalized nouns, think what exactly you would like to say. It may seem cooler to say “my current introspection of my physicality is imposing a sanction on the optimization of my verbalization of contestation, than simply “I’m too hungry to say anything now,” but we all know which one better convey the message. As Bill Strunk (again) has reminded us: “Write with nouns and verbs.”

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A witty example that Pinker uses in The Sense of Style.

Finally, Restrain yourself from the temptation to write long sentences and from using “weak verbs”: Think of Ernest Hemingway and his writing style. What makes it so profound is that, first, his sentences are always short. And how do you make short sentences meaningful? Hemingway also has an answer for you: Think active verbs that connect the subject with the rest of the sentence. Is/am/are is a weak verb because it doesn’t say much about the action that the subject is engaging let alone how such an action affects the situation. Psychological speaking, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, we have a limited cognitive capacity to understand the linearity of the contents provided to us in a form of verbal communication. The more you remove the main idea from the subject, the less likely your audience will get the gist of what you are trying to convey. The weaker the verb that you use, the more likely your audience will misinterpret your meaning. For instance, “an old man lives by the sea” is better than “there is an old man whose life and livelihood is depending on his residing by the seaside, therefore he is living close to the sea.”

All for now, have a great (for some, the rest of the) weekend, guys!

Day 68: A Minimalist (or -ism) Manifesto 

Lately, I have been throwing things out of my life. People who do not respond whether that be emails, text messages, or verbal communication, who do not reciprocate greetings, and especially those who take the intensity of personal relationship for granted. These are people that I no longer want in my life.

These are both things — as in objects — and relationships that somehow had long been parts of my life without any true purposes. I have also been cutting down on talking to people and on writing nonsense. I only want to write and talk about things that matter — not to me but to others. The rationale is simple: If what I want to talk about only matters to me, it’s easier for me just to introspect and keep it to myself. I have been deleting people from my social networks and phone contacts. I have been deleting emails and messages from people whom I no longer would like to be associated and recycling things that I have kept for them. I have been forgiving and forgetting those who have done mean things to me, in that order. I have also been donating my belongings to those who are in need of. I’m hoping that by the end of this highly rewarding process I’ll have fewer than 100 “true friends” and fewer than 150 objects to take with me wherever I’d end up after this year.

Those of you who have been following me on this blog may have seen this coming. I have been writing about the economy of words, the Herzfeld’s Rules for effective communication, and so on. All of these posts, needless to say, are leading to this epic post (like every ninth episode of every season of Game of Thrones): A Minimalism Manifesto.

Why all the sudden am I becoming a minimalist? (At least I’m hoping to become one). For one I am moving out of the city that I have been living in for three years and I cannot possibly take all my belongings that I have mindlessly accumulated over the past three years with me. So, I am becoming a minimalist not only to manage my expectations and objects that I own but also to keep track of what “realistically” and practically matters to me. The real reason, however, is that I have recently realized, thanks to many of the failed relationship I have had with people, that the more doesn’t mean the better. The more expectations you have, often, the more disappointments to which they lead.

There is a cost for maintaining everything, whether that be the financial cost or the cost of opportunity; say, how many great opportunities you have missed by keeping an unworthy person in your life? I have stuff kept in a storage that I have been paying money to rent, and I have never gone back to take them out and use them. I’m sure I’m not the only one who is doing this. But since I have accumulated so much in that storage room, it’s impossible to go there and to spend days sorting out what are there and what are there that are worth keeping and what are not. It’s like a lost and sunk cost which I will have to continue to pay until that one day (when I don’t have a full-time job anymore, perhaps) during which I could and would have the time to go through my stuff and find the way to throw some of them away, once and for all.

The same principle also applies to talking. Most of the problems we have, make no mistake about it, are results of ineffective communication. Hence, the more we talk, the more we tend to make some kinds of mistakes that would make other misinterpret your intention, your point, your stance and things and therefore misunderstand you. So, it’s better to keep everything in life to just a “bare minimum.” Identifying what are not meaningful to your life, and what kinds of people are too selfish, sociopathic, and superficial will help you make a decision.

This blog post is timely one because the trend of being a minimalist is picking up steam, especially in Japan where not being a minimalist can cost you your life. In the country constantly hit by an earthquake, the more stuff that you own, you riskier for you to be buried under them when your house collapses because of when the earthquake strikes. Take this Japanese minimalist for example:

Take Fumio Sasaki, for example (pictured below). The 36-year-old book editor lives in a single-room apartment in Tokyo with three shirts, four pairs of pants, four pairs of socks, and a few other belongings. He wasn’t always like this. The transformation to minimalism occurred two years ago, when Sasaki grew tired of trying to keep up with trends and maintaining his collections of books, CDs, and DVDs. He got rid of it all, which he says isn’t as difficult as it seems, thanks to the sharing economy.

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A minimalist room is also easy to clean.

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A minimalist lifestyle is the best form of education for your children. You can teach them how to be appreciative of what they have, how not to expect more than they should, and how to humble, thankful, and respectful for what they have. All of these notions are both materialistic and philosophical. It doesn’t hurt to get started early, does it?

My suggestion is: Think minimalist; do it now and do it fast. You can’t afford to wait to be a minimalist. Once you have started to look around you, carefully, you’ll see that there are so many things, people, and matters that are extraneous to you life.

They not only weighing you down but also holding you back. The sooner you can get rid of them, the faster your emotional engine will work at full speed. I will get to the philosophy behind it at some point in this post, along with some indirect philosophical idea such as Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. What I want to say right now is that after having done so, quite rigorously, I have never felt better with my life.

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One of my favorite books of all time, in which “KonMari” (AKA Marie Kondo) walks the readers through the nuts and bolts of tidying up and the psychological effect that it could have on you once you know exactly 1) how many things that you have; 2) how important they are to you and why you have chosen to keep them; and 3) the reason for their existance. Think about these three questions clearly: They’re the underpinning reason, also, for your own existence: What do you really have? Why are they important? And what’s the reason for the existence of yourself — your body and your soul.

The trend of “minimalistic living” is not new. In fact, it’s quite old and this blog post is to give the best reasoning (ever, yes, ever) to convince us that going back to those ancient wisdom might be the way to get out of the troubles we have in the modern era. While the Japanese and the Daoist are among the best known for this type of living in the east, the famous Cynics in Ancient Greek are the epitome of the so-called “bare minimum life.” The Cynics, in fact, have taken the bare life idea to the extreme by famously living in a pot, and only wrapping themselves with used clots that other people did not need.

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Diogenes of Sinope (there’re many philosophers with the same name so “of Sinope” is like his last name here) was a Greek philosopher and one founder of Cynic philosophy. He lived between 412 or 404 BCE and 323 BCE.

The Theravada Buddhist monks, in essence, are supposed to have done the same. These monks, in fact, are supposed to reuse the cloths wrapped around corpses in preparing for the cremation (once the bodies are unwrapped for the preparation for the cremation, the monks can take the clothes and re-use them as their clothing fabric), as, that way the monks are truly re-using both of form and essence of life. The idea behind it is simple: The more things, relationships, and commitments that are floating around your life without any purposes, the more you’re likely to be drawn away from understanding your true needs. The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes has made these belonging essential to his doctrine.

According to Hobbes, we “lock our door at night” because we are afraid of people coming to you house and taking your properties, and hurting you in order to take your belongings. Well, if you live like a Cynics, a Daoist, or a Buddhist monk, the chances that you won’t have anything valuable that anyone would ever want to take from you is probably quite high. So, you’ll a much better sense of your life and a peace of mind. As I have discussed, also, in my previous post, we don’t need a lot of things to have a decent life. All these desires — for the tasty, beautiful, and lustful things — are temptations to divert our attention from the reality; to make us not living in the moment. When you are not living in the moment, it might be sound to say that you might not be living at all. In the words of the talented John Lennon, “life is what we live when we are not busy doing other things.”

That is to say, these unnecessary things are, essentially, distractions. Tasty food distracts you from the essence of food which is nutrition. Beauty distracts you from the essence of relationship which is compassion. Money distracts you from what you really want which is a healthy life that provides you with the ample ground to thrive for the betterment th society. You get the idea. I personally disdain the sweet desert, beautiful faces and bodies (especially cosmetic), and money, for that reason.

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Wouldn’t it be nice if these are all you have? The most comfortable clothes and dresses to wear — none of them has a higher quality than others. They’re all the same: Classy, comfortable, and fitting.

Think of yourself, for instance, opening a closet just to find out that you have more than ten sets of dresses of shirts from which to choose. You’re likely to spend a lot it time finding the right match for the day. Sometimes, you might even antagonize over the abundance of choices. Most of the time, that is to say, the more doesn’t lead to better time management. Truth be told: the more sometimes doesn’t lead to the effective pairing of clothes neither. This conundrum is precisely what leads many people living in the contemporary society to think, “wouldn’t it be nice if there is only one ‘perfect’ dress or shirt in the closet instead of ten?” This notion of, what the renowned psychologist Barry Schwartz calls, “the paradox of choice” is the emotional underpinning of the real need to cut down on unnecessary consumption.

This very idea can be related to the notion of constructed desire that I have discussed in the previous post (just to recap here: we have so many desires that are given to us by the society). The idea of having “a closet full of dresses or shirts,” for example, is also one of those constructed desires. The society, by ways of consumerism, wants us to consume, consume, and consume, by shaming us to believe that wearing the same dress or shirt every day is a symbol of economic lack, anachronism, and the shortage of financial capital to pursue a variety of available forms of aesthetic representations. But why should that matter?

Even in the innovation field, the idea of going out there to learn to live like the “not have” could essentially become a true source of innovation. In the book The Ten Faces of Innovation, Tom Kelly of IDEO, a world-renowned creative consultancy, writes about how IDEO has been able to come up with so many cutting edge ideas simply by taking away the luxury of life. It’s easy to not seeing any problems when you are surrounded by objects that are providing you with convenience. “Try to live without a computer for one day and you’ll realize that there’re many other ways to receiving news,” Kelly writes. That’s true. It’s very unlikely for anyone to be able to think about anything creative if being surrounded only be convenience. There would no discontents to think about, no problems to solve, and no design questions to tackle. Innovation is about creating something that is new and effective — and innovators usually think about something new and innovative when they have to live with the old objects/ideas/services by which they feel discontent.

In my own experience of working as an architect, the best way to learn what is needed to be built is to live like the people for whom we’re building. For instance, when we’re building a housing community in a remote area, we’d decided to spend two weeks with the local, living like them to understand their basic needs. In that community, the locals didn’t have running water and electricity, so they’re living a very different kind of life to which I wax acquainted. It’s a minimalism from a different perspective. The locals got up in the morning when the sun came up and did everything for which they needed the power of the sun to do before going to bed once the sun had come down. This way of life got me thinking about the design that would fit their needs and benefit them rather than me because, at the end of the day, they’re the ones who would be living in the architecture that I would create. “Scarcity is the mother of all innovation,” Tom Kelly has provided an example:

To create something new, you may have to take something away. For example, MTV does what they call “deprivation studies,” where they get their most frequent viewers to go “cold turkey” (the abrupt and complete stopping) for thirty days of no MTV, just to see what clever alternatives they come up with. So try your own version of scarcity.

That is, want to learn about sustainable food consumption? Try to limit yourself to a small budget per day for food and you’ll realize your physical need and the value of money that could fulfill such need.Want to learn about the importance of physical communication? Try to live without a cellphone for a week would do the trick. “Not having enough makes you realize not only the beauty of what you already have, but also the problems that you can use design thinking to tackle,” Kelly writes. He calls those who are good at “doing more with less” (whom I’d call “minimalists”) “hurdlers,” as they love to turn lemons into lemonade. “Give them a constraint, a tight deadline, a small budget, and they’re likely to excel,” Kelly also writes.

I am determined, in the next 3 weeks, to get rid of 90% of “stuff” in my current room, and two-thirds of people with whom I no longer want to be in touch. I am also determined to let go of the collections of feelings that are hurting my soul — the feeling of having a burden of having to care for others who do not care about me, as well as the weight of having to maintain relationships with are no longer fruitful. I believe that this would be a solid step toward a “bare minimum life,” in which I could eventually get to live it.

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Here is how I write my blog. I don’t need anything else: Just a smartphone that can do thumb typing. I can write anywhere. A good writing doesn’t require a supercomputer. It only requires a clear mind and the will to make the writing accessible to others.

 

Day 67: On Disappointment

Why, lately, I have felt so beaten up? It’s almost as though a number of people have sandbagged me and then put me in a bag before throwing me into the river with a large piece of steel attached to it to make sure that no way I would escape the death penalty. Why? The best method to answer this question, needless to say, is to ask myself and then look inside my own mind, trying aggressively to find out what has happened in the past few days, weeks, or months. We have a name for this method: introspection. It was the political philosophy Thomas Hobbes who popularized the term. In Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, Thomas Hobbes argues that the only way to arrive at the best system of governance is by introspecting: What is it that we want the most from the government? Is it wealth or happiness? Or, it is a constant pleasure? Hobbes argues that it’s none of these. What we want the most — which is the reason, as he has famously said, “why else would we lock our doors at night?” — is safety. Therefore, for Hobbes, the role of the government is to provide safety at all cost.

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The cover of Hobbes’ Leviathan — the image that all of us who cares about the society should have seen and known of.

What about ourselves, then?

The key to introspection is to be reflexive and objective. Being honest about oneself is the only way. When you’re looking inside your own mind, you don’t need to pretend that other people are watching. You can honestly ask yourself what exactly has made you feel the way you feel. Often, those things are not the things conventionally acceptable by the society. It could be your excessive (and most of the time illicit) sexual drive; it could be your aggression against the religious establishment. Or, it could be how you feel so uncomfortable about something simply because we’re lacking in words to describe all the discomforts. Most of the time, it’s easy to tell ourselves a lie when we feel this kind of discomfort. It’s even easier to blame your emotional discomfort on others: that it isn’t you where the problem lies. Once and for all, let’s get this right: there is only one cause of an emotional discomfort, and that is our expectation. 

I like reading Hobbes but I must also accept that I have not read him thoroughly enough to discuss with rigor how he frames his use of the term introspection. The way I see it is that it has to do with the mismatch between what we expect and what we are getting. You might say, at this point, though, that “sometimes I didn’t even expect anything but I’d still feel the emotional discomfort.” That’s true; yet, what is likely to be the case is that we “subconsciously” something without even knowing it. We might subconsciously expect a bigger or a more expensive gift from someone because the gift we have given to that someone earlier was big. But once you’ve found that what’s in the box is small, it’s hard to think of such a disappointment as simply the encounter with an unexpected. It’s a disappointment, and it usually shows, because you have an expectation of what you would like to get whether or not such expectation was clear to you.  I felt deeply sad when my father, someone so important to me and someone who I didn’t expect to leave me so quickly, passed away. Did I consciously not wantibg him to die? Of course I didn’t want him to die. It’s because he’s important to me.

Love is another thing — maybe the worst thing out there to talk about expectation and most of us’ failure to deal with our inability to arrive at a good compromise when the expectation is not met. Heartbreaking, that is to say, is nothing less than a solid mismatch of expectation. We usually think of a divorce, or a falling out between two people, as a state of incompatibility. It’s not and it’s never about incompatibility. It only is the state of incompatibility only when you think of yourself as having done everything right, and other  having done everything wrong.

Love dies when your expectation is not met. For instance, Tony, a friend whose life story I had mentioned in a couple of posts ago, had fallen out of love with his partner because his expectation was not met. He expected her to be understanding, to give him an unconditional support and love, and to be there when he wanted her. Tony had framed these expectations as “minimal” for a relationship and he could well be right, but the fact that matter was that his way of understanding of unconditional support and love was different from those of his ex-partner. She also had her own understanding of these; so, it’s not possible for them to be together which was not because they were compatible, but because they expected someone else totally different and they could not discuss  those differences in their expectations.

Tony was disappointed because he had expected too much. I think he was a perfect match with his ex-partner. They liked similar things. They shared the same interest in many activities. The only thing that was “incompatible” between them was their expectations. I was disappointed too, about love, because I used to expect too much. I wanted

I was disappointed too, about love, because I used to expect too much. Once upon a time, I thought I had met the love of my life, but that relationship did not last long at all. Here’re the reasons. I used to want someone to want me unconditionally — but that wasn’t her goal in being in a relationship with me. All she wanted was someone to love her unconditionally — but only when she needed it. She didn’t want me to love her to the point that I would try to protect her from herself. Also, while I wanted her to reciprocate my unconditional love by giving me the benefit of the doubt whenever something might not seem right to her urgent emotionality in the moment, she saw my expectation as unrealistic because she did not think I wanted that. I thought she liked me because I was critical, but it turned out that was not the case at all: She didn’t want anything critical from me but a pat in the back, always. These were unfortunate mismatches in our expectations.

So, here is the takeaway message: If you don’t want to be disappointed, don’t expect too much from anyone (including yourself) and from anything.

Lord Buddha had said this more than two millennia ago. The only way to be content with life is to not expecting life to give you what you “think” you need. Some of what people “think” they need, as Lord Buddha had pointed out, are unrealistic, such as wanting someone to be with you all the time, to love you no matter what, to have the best of everything and anything, and to live a fulfilling life without any efforts to fulfil it meaningfully. Lord Buddha’s suggestion may be too radical and too difficult to implement in real life. The French Enlightenment thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau, meanwhile, has a better suggestion that is, in fact, along the same line as Lord Buddha’s. Rousseau’s idea is that the root of our desire for external objects (e.g., clothes, cars, jewelry) is the creation of an artificial superstructure that the people in power produce to keep those in a socio-economically inferior position in a perpetual stage of poverty. We don’t and never ever need any of these, Rousseau has argued centuries ago (I’ll return to this point in my next post on my take on the new — and the only way of a good life — thinking about life: minimalism).

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Rousseau — the critic as well as the father of romanticism.

The same goes with the notion of romantic love and family. Karl Marx, adding to Rousseau’s claim, argues that we “love” because the powerful and economically superior people want us to think that it’s a “good thing to love.” By “wanting to love,” we are reproducing more and more laborers to serve the economically powerful (God damn bastards, aren’t they) — and therefore chaining ourselves to the perpetual chains of inescapable slavery. We are worse than slaves, Marx argues, because we can’t emancipate from this slavery. As waged laborers, we have to get up to work  — because of our love for our spouse, parents, and kids. We work long hours to pay bills because we feel as though there’s an aura of actuality that makes us feel that we do so because we are responsible for other the lives of those whom we think we love. According to Rousseau, those whom he calls the “noble savages” are the ones who are free from all of these superstructures. They’re freer than we are, and they’re happier than we are, claims Rousseau. This superstructure makes the inferior class desire what they do not need. By constantly creating a series of unnecessary desires, the superior class is essentially putting the inferior class to work in pursuing desires that can never be completely fulfilled. Members of the inferior class are made slaves to the superfluous needs that the rich have created to keep them in check. We have too much and too high expectations and that is not natural. It’s by design.

So, the takeaway, again, here: Don’t expect too much from anyone and about anything. Most of our desires are not that necessary anyway, so why expect them? Why want them? 

Day 66: The Herzfeld’s Rules

The topic today is about effective communication, which, I would like to define, is the effective conveying of ideas from one person to another. The conveying of ideas that is not effective is not communication. Then, I should make it clear that the use of the apostrophe  (the punctuation mark ‘) in the title of this post does not indicate the authorship. In other words, it’s not Herzfeld who has come up with the “Herzfeld’s Rules” (as in, the rule of Herzfeld‘s), but it’s his way of thinking about the effective conveying of ideas makes me want to refer to him when I think about the most essential rules governing the conveying of ideas.

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The eminent Harvard Professor Michael Herzfeld after whom the Herzfeld’s Rules is named but has nothing direct to do with these rules. Photo credit: Yu Hua.

So, the Harvard Professor of Social Sciences Michael Herzfeld, who is like a father to me, is a social anthropologist, activist, teacher, writer, etc., who has composed more than a hundred of high impact academic papers and ten books. He is a master of storytelling and a true embodiment of the art of communication. Unlike many famous professors, Prof. Herzfeld always has time to listen to everyone. I have come to realize that which is not only how he collects social data (and to him, all social data are equally important) so that he can write a book about them afterward, but also how he maintain his culturally intimate relationship with his colleagues, students, friends, and informants. Although, in most cases, the line between the last two categories is often unclear since he treats everyone with respect in the “everything is professional; everything is personal” fashion. What I have learned from him over the year includes:

“One often needs a glass of wine to overcome writer’s block.”

“Coffee is not only the morning’s cure, but also the best companion to put you to sleep.”

“We are who we are owing to how we express ourselves linguistically; hence, always respect rules and observe grammatical integrity, but break all of them for the poetic effect.”

To name a few. But the most important that I have learned from him is nothing else but the undergirding idea of how to communicate itself. To get a polymath like Prof. Herzfeld to pay attention to me, I must cut right to the chase so that I would not waste his time telling him what he already knows. Also, because he has many stories ready to pour onto his audience — and most of the time his stories are much more interesting than anything that the audience may have to share with him anyway — he does not give his audience a lot of time to grab his attention. Personally, as I have learned over the years, the more I speak, the more I’d be likely to bore him and the more I’d be likely to make mistakes (either verbally or idiomatically). So the key is to be concise,  to  the point, and get the main ideas or whatever that might have the ability to grab his attention out there within the first 15 seconds, or 30 words. The story of how the Herzfeld’s Rules came about has to do with how I wanted so much to get him to help me with my research proposal.

At the time, I had suffered greatly from  the symptom called “the lack of ability to get to the point.” Alright, frankly, I was just really bad at getting words out in the right order and in the right tone. Every time I went to see Prof. Herzfeld, with the hope of getting him to help me craft some particular points that were mine and mine alone, I came back with more of his ideas owing to the fact that I was not capable to addressing my points in the way that would make him “think with me,” rather than, simply, “help me.” So, over the course of my first three years as his student, I had worked hard to develop a set of guidelines that would help me get my message across to him in the way that would give him no other choice but to respond to me in the way that I would like him to. These guidelines — the so-called “a general rule governing any forms of effective communication that those who follow will achieve the goal standard of communication and not be wasting other’s time as much as they might have been” — were a combination of philosophical ideas, elements of communicative style, and common sense. I stand by Herzfeld’s Rules in all forms of verbal communication. I write this way. I speak this way. I get annoyed when I hear people violate these rules. Why? Because we only have so much time in the world, we might as well get right to the chase so that we can learn from the core message and then live our lives.  As John Lennon once said, “life is what we live when we aren’t busy doing other things.” I believe that the Herzfeld’s Rules will make you like your life better. It’s the art of cutting down to the very core of social relations: communication that works. When you are economical in the way that you express yourself, you are optimizing your time to enjoy every lesson that life has to offer.

I would like to summarize these in 15 points, here:

  1. Don’t worry about chronology. Think about the most important idea that you would like to express, and start there. Not many people have time to listen or read through the chronology no matter how important it is.
  2. The technique, then, is to swing back to the chronology (if it’s so important) after you have gotten the attention from your audience and not before;
  3. Try to start with something related to the subject matter that precedes the conversation. In other words, try to make the narrative relevant to the previous conversation. You don’t want to look like a narcissist who only wants to talk about yourself!;
  4. The first 15 seconds are the key. If you can’t get your audience to be interested, your communication is no longer effective;
  5. “Omit needless words.” This is probably William Strunk’s most famous lesson to all of us. Words that can be omitted are not words — they’re redundancies which have no room in an effective conveying of ideas;
  6. Be witty but do not overdo it;
  7. Don’t state the obvious, e.g., “the housing bubble is about to bust — and if that is the case an economic disaster would seem unavoidable.” The idea of an economic disaster is already built into the analytical meaning of “housing bubble”;
  8. Don’t repeat yourself. Whenever you need to say “in other words,” or “that is to say,” you are about to repeat yourself. That said, do repeat yourself to get your message across when you realize that you may not have been as clear as you could have been with the sentence previous uttered;
  9. Avoid using idioms of which you are not sure. Idioms may make you look cool but if you don’t use them correctly, or at the right moment, or in the right situation, they can be confusing. Be direct. Try to be clever somewhere else (your chance to do so will come!);
  10. Avoid needless adjectives, such as “very,” “completely,” “awesomely.” Use them only when you know your purpose in using them, e.g., when you want to be strategically sarcastic;
  11. Avoid using “actually” — and never again saying “honestly.” Be actual and be honest all the time if you can;
  12. Never say “no” right away, even if you think that what you have just heard is not true. Give it some thorough thoughts. It’s both polite and courteous to make sure that your audience know that you are “actually” listening carefully;
  13. Avoid, as much as you can, the use of verbal tics — some single nonsensical words added at the end or the middle of sentences — such as “like,” “sort of,” “kind of,” “you know,” “hmmm,” and so on. These verbal tics not only impede your communication but also makes you look like a boring person to listen to;
  14. Never, ever, use a rhetorical question. Be direct. Ask a question whose answer you would like to know;
  15. Avoid using metaphors. Again, be direct. Say whatever you want to say. Not everyone has the same understanding of the same metaphor. Use metaphors, though, but only when they are the best way through which you could make your abstract ideas more concrete for the audience to understand.

Day 65: On a Failed Relationship

It’s good to be back on my blog, writing again. Thank you all for all of the kind words of congratulation. It’s good to have a Ph.D., although I wish I hadn’t done it. It’s good, still, to have accomplished something in life no matter how trivial it may be or may sound in the infinite universe of things, people, and knowledge of which I am a tiny part.

Now, let me ask you a question: Have you ever felt that you were so lucky — because you’d won something, met someone, and achieved something — and then later, after a while, felt that which was more a curse rather than a gift?

There’re many philosophers in the history of thoughts. The most famous among whom were Pyrrho (c. 360 BC – c. 270 BC), an Ancient Greek philosopher who was a big fan of Eastern philosophy. In the podcast that my favorite podcaster Steven West had done on his teaching, the basic principles of Pyrrhonism could out described as follows:

Something that seems good is not always good. Something that seems bad is not always bad, and even if it is bad, adversity is what strengthens you to better navigate future problems in your life. Your level of success is not determined by whether there are hurdles in your path, but by how well you jump over them.

Like Lord Buddha, Pyrrho wants to tell us to try not control our mind. If we’re to be too happy, we’re deemed to be hit by sadness when such happiness is not longer with us. In fact, Pyrrho is making a point in a very rational way (so is Buddha) by saying that everything that can be evaluated, can only be evaluated with time as the main variable. West uses an example of a man who had won a lottery (which, by the way, was a true a story) who wished he had never won it. I have a tendency, as usual, to enhance the dramatic effect of a particular story so I will do so a bit here just to make my point a little bit clearer. Of course, he thought he was the luckiest man in the world when the hundreds of millions of cash were given to him as a result of him randomly buying the winning Power Ball lottery ticket. A few years later when his life was bombarded by requests from those who had thought were “his” friends, “his” relatives,” and, saddest of all, “his “family members. All of them, once they knew what he had won, wanted a piece of him, and any decision that he had made would result in some kinds of conflict either between him and his counterparts, or among the different parties, and so on. The story ended tragically: suicide. Before he died, he had said, “Winning the lottery was the worst thing that ever happened to me.”

There’s nothing new about how winning lottery isn’t a good thing. In “The Tragic Stories of the Lottery’s Unluckiest Winners,” Time Magazine succinctly summarizes what had happened with the previous winners that the Magazine had previously reported:

Distant relatives and fair-weather friends can come clamoring for their share; spouse can turn on a spouse; kidnapping and murder can suddenly become very real threats. And sometimes, the greatest danger to the newly well-off can be the winners themselves.

So, let’s go back to think about the wisdom with which Pyrrho has provided us. What is, then, things that would make us lucky? I believe that all of us have had the moment of regret, as in, “Jeez, I wish I had never met that person.” In the case of my very close friend who had just divorced his wife, my friend Tony had shared with me, and in multiple occasions, how he thought he had met the love of his life when they met each other, and the love and the romance were aptly maintained by two two’s willingness to make it work during the honeymoon period and then over to the next two years of their marriage. “But something wasn’t right,” said Tony. She was so negative — just about everything,” Tony said. “She would come home feeling sad; she would be thinking back and forth about what had gone wrong with her life; she would muse over things in the past that had made her unhappy

She was so negative — just about everything,” Tony said. “She would come home feeling sad; she would be thinking back and forth about what had gone wrong with her life; she would muse over things in the past that had made her unhappy; she would be telling me about how her parents had raised her inappropriately; she would be procrastinating so that the problems at hand did not have to be taken care of by her, and with the hope that someone (me) would take care of it for her so that she would not have to do anything at all. It’s a series of blaming, finger-pointing, senseless skepticism, and the denial of the most important elements in the life for the couple, at least to me, which are respect and the ability of giving to each other the benefit of the doubt. Love is not as important as these two.

Sooner of later, as I could tell, Tony had become an aggressive person. He got easily upset and agitated by things around him. He was less productive (before his marriage he was a production powerhouse of his company). His lack of sensibility and his negativity were felt by all of his friends around him. It’s unbearable to us to the point that we had to pull him aside and ask him what had happened. That’s when he burst into tears — the first and the only time I saw him crying — and shared with me how his marriage was a failed one, and that had to do with the fact that he could not longer go home to expect his wife’s negative narratives, passive aggressiveness, and the senseless urge to argue with him in just about everything without wanting to listen. “The worst part is that she’s lying to herself, all the time, that she has a job while she’s basically spending the seed fund from her family’s estate just to stay afloat,” said Tony. “Which reminds me that which isn’t yet the worst — the worst is that she is money-conscious, so she’d get upset when she’s spending money, while, again, while, she’s so passionate about making her parents suffer by spending their money, which, according to her, they were obligated to give her, on senseless items, trips, meals, and so on, just, simply, to sub it on their face showing how much she’s unhappy about how she’s raised by them.”

Tony was also aware of that some of the problems also came from him. He said that he could listen to her more, and be more sympathetic to her problems although, he also said, “I don’t see where her problems are?” So, I was inclined to believe that both were guilty of this failed relationship. Tony was wrong to place so much expectation on his wife, and his wife, needless to say, was wrong to not letting him know from the start her true self. Having met his wife and learned about her charming personality, I could not see her being abusive. Yet, this story was common among many couples that many social research papers have shown, couples undergoing problematic phrases of life tend to result from how they treat each other with less respect than they would to outsiders. To outsiders, each of the two tends to want to maintain his or her social position; hence, wearing a frontality that shows only the kind side of the personality. I didn’t get to see how Tony and his then-wife dealt with each other at home, but given that the neighbors had complained about their chronic and pathological shouting at one another, it wasn’t surprised that neither of them had treated one another the same way that they’d treat an outsider. According to the psychology professor John Gottman who was made famous in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, here’re the “four horsemen” that kill marriage:

Criticism – Complaints are fine. Criticism is more global — it attacks the person, not their behavior. They didn’t take out the garbage because they forgot, but because they’re a bad person.

Contempt – “…name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt – the worst of the four horsemen – is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It’s virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you’re disgusted with him or her.”

Defensiveness – “…defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner. You’re saying, in effect, ‘The problem isn’t me, it’s you.’ Defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it’s so deadly.”

Stonewalling – Tuning out. Disengaging. This doesn’t just remove the person from the conflict, it ends up removing them, emotionally, from the relationship.

I asked Tony whether any of these four appeared in his marriage. His response was not that surprising: “all four of them.” He then continued, “She is defensive to my criticism, and I am stonewalling whenever her contempt seems to rise.” According, also, to Gottman, once these four things are at play, there’s no going back.

I was also in tears when hearing Tony’s story. This was the man, who, less than a few months ago, had told me that he felt as thought he was “the luckiest man in the world” for having met and gotten to know the love of his life at a casual outing that many people had also been invited to join and it just happened to be the case that the two were the ones standing closest to one another and therefore had gotten the opportunity, before anyone else, to get to know each other, first superficially, and then formally, and then socially, and then, needless to say, intimately. Tony was a man who was obviously in love throughout those first few months. It must have been at least 4-5 times a day that he’d sent me photos of him and his then-girlfriend just to share with me how happy he was as a person. But only a few months afterward, after he realized that his wife had the chronic negativity symptom. I helped Tony by getting him to meet with a counselor, Kevin, who had shared with Tony and me the following:

How your partner grew up, and the environment in which she grew up, is incredibly important. If someone has spent their whole lives being resentful of their parents, it isn’t that they want to be that way. But they don’t know of any other way she wants to be different. She simply doesn’t know how. Like kids growing up with alcoholic and abusive parents, they tend to be abusive too, even if they want to be exactly the opposite. My childhood was too simple.

This advice is by no means cutting edge of extra special. We tend to know and believe that one’s upbringing could affect one’s ways of looking at oneself and the people around oneself. The problem with this relationship is that Tony did think that he was in the right place and the right time — the same way the guy who won the lottery was — and that was destiny, faith, and beyond that all wanted him to meet the then-love-of-his-wife so that they would be together. He didn’t realize that which would then become something of a deep regret and resentment. “I can’t stand negativity — I just can’t,” said Tony with tears in his eyes while pounding heavily on the table on which our glasses of red wine were placed. The pounding was so hard that I thought I heard the sound of his fingerbones being cracked. I have never seen someone that angry before, especially on someone whom he thought was a “gift from God,” and especially from an atheist such as Tony, pronouncing God’s name there was no picnic. The advice from Kevin, the counselor, continues
The solution is actually quite simple. I realize in your mind it seems muddled, but really, this is just like an investment. You want to put your life savings in an investment, and that will determine how well you live in the future every investment is a risk-reward balance.
In this case, you know what the risk is you are going to have to work hard and long with her to understand how to develop a trusting, loving relationship. that is going to be very hard for her to do, and she may never learn to do it. So you will have to be incredibly patient, tolerant, and understanding.
But you need to assess, what is the reward? For you? Is the reward of trying to keep her worth the risk you will be putting in, knowing you may never see the payoff? If the reward is great enough, then yes. if not, then no.

Well, as you might have guessed, Tony didn’t want to continue. Who would want to? This was the toxic relationship that could turn the happiest man alive into the miserable man in the universe in a blink of an eye. This was the state of the unbearable lightness of being a couple in which one always tried very hard to make sure that the other one would feel bad about his life, small about himself, regretful about his family, and resentful about his love for her.

This was, all in all, an uncommunicative relationship that everything got misinterpreted thanks to the feeling of wanting to let the negative feeling rule.

So, was Tony lucky — at least to have spent those honeymoon period with the woman of his dream, even though it only lasted for a very short time? I think it wasn’t worth the pain that he had to endure afterward. I just wish that I would never be in his position.

I just wish that I would never have to be in his position.