The Much Consequence of Parallel Processing
In line to be seated at a restaurant the other night, I couldn’t see but could hear a band—a guitar, drums, harmonica, and vocals. Then we made our way to a table and on stage, there was just one guy. He had a mic stand in front of him, guitar in hands, harmonica around his neck, his left foot on a pedal kicking a bass drum and a his right foot kicked a snare drum. Debunked, I thought. In their book The Distracted Mind, Adam Gazzaley and Larry Rosen write about how the brain can’t simultaneously maintain multiple attention targets. “When we simultaneously pursue multiple goals that compete for cognitive control resources,” they write, “our brains switch between tasks—they do not parallel process.” The musician took a break and sat close enough for me to ask him, are you subconsciously kicking the drums? “It’s funny you ask,” he said, “I am at this point, but still, if I think about the drums for even a second, it all goes haywire.” He told the story of the first time he brought the drums on stage. In all the years he played just the guitar and harmonica, people rarely got up and started dancing. The first song he played with the drums, a women got up and started dancing. “It really threw me off,” he said. “I completely blew it. I had to start the song over.” I went back through The Distracted Mind and found I’d underlined, “If one or more tasks are capable of being automated as reflexes, then they can easily be engaged simultaneously with another task without much consequence.” But if you try to process the women up and dancing, much consequence.
It’s Amazing How Quickly You Adapt
Two friends are approaching significant life changes: changing jobs, moving to a new city, moving on from a longtime relationship. Both feel they are, by and large, making the right moves. But both (separately) expressed nervousness and doubts. And both used the word weird—it feels weird, it’s going to be weird, and so on. I thought of the Fleetwood Mac song (I’ve been afraid of changin’ / ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you) and then of the astronaut Michael Collins. What keeps us in a job we don’t like or a relationship we’re not sure is working, perhaps more than anything, is it’s hard to imagine alternate realities. Entering uncharted territory feels weird and overwhelming. Michael Collins was one of the three-member crew aboard the Apollo 11 mission to space. As Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to walk on another celestial body, Collins piloted the spacecraft Columbia in orbit. As he hovered over the moon, he said, “It’s amazing how quickly you adapt. It doesn’t seem weird at all to me to look out there and see the Moon going by, you know?” “This prompted general laughter,” David Harland writes in The First Men on the Moon. So too with my friends.
Bank On Never Getting To Space
Speaking of astronauts and something amazing: most astronauts never go to space. “I took this job,” astronaut Chris Hadfield writes in An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth, “knowing that I might be one of them.” I picked up a copy of this book after hearing Hadfield respond to the question of what the life of an astronaut is like, “Here’s a quick snapshot: I served as an astronaut for twenty-one years, and I was in space for six months.” It brought to mind Ben Gibbard’s advice to “get to boring” and its broader application: find the thing where you like even the boring parts. That’s exactly what Hadfield emphasizes throughout An Astronaut’s Guide. “If the only thing you really enjoyed was whipping around Earth in a spaceship, you’d hate being an astronaut.” The ratio of prep time to time on orbit is years to single day in space, at best. Many of the variables and circumstances dictating who gets selected for a mission are beyond the astronaut’s control. For instance, after thirty years in service, The Shuttle was retired and replaced with The Soyuz, a much smaller vehicle. “Some astronauts hired during Shuttle era are simply too tall to fly in the tiny Soyuz. The possibility that they’ll leave Earth is currently zero.” So Hadfield viewed getting to space merely as a potential bonus, and like any potential bonus, “it would be foolhardy to bank on it.” And this “pessimistic view of my own prospects,” Hadfield writes, “helped me love my job…throughout the long, unheralded journey that may or may not wind up at the launch pad.” There’s a line in The Book of Awakening: “the closer we get to the core of all being, the more synonymous the effort and its reward.”
You Can Make An Art of Anything
Hadfield fits the description of how I’ve come to think of what it means to be a craftsman. In their book All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly conclude with an exploration of craftsmanship. For most of human history, you didn’t have a job, you had a craft or a trade. You were a carpenter or a blacksmith or a mason or a potter or a sculptor or a shoemaker. To the craftsman, meaning/happiness/purpose—these elements are agnostic to the specific type of work their trade required. As Dreyfus and Kelly put it, “the fact of the matter is out in the world…The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there.” My interpretation of that was influenced by something I before had heard Robert Pirsig say. Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, was saying that the pushback to his book when it came out in the early 70s was that motorcycle maintenance is not a worthy subject of art. “When you see a really good one,” he said, “you know right away there’s such a thing as an art of motorcycle maintenance. Art is anything you can do well, anything you can with quality. Anything where there are options for doing it well or poorly. And there are very few things in this world that don’t have options for doing it well or poorly, so you can make an art out of anything.”
Train Your Brain To Tolerate Boredom
Every morning, when we get back from a walk, before I say “food” or grab his bowl, my dog starts drooling. Drool is a reflex—he can’t control it. I’ve conditioned him to create a connection: walking through the door after a walk means food is coming soon. This is what’s known as Pavlovian Conditioning, named after Ivan Pavlov and his experiments with dogs, which illuminated the mechanics of the human brain. As Pavlov told a journalist after winning the 1904 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, “That which I see in dogs, I immediately transfer to myself, since, you know, the basics are identical.” If you’ve ever reflexively reached for your phone for relief from even a moment of boredom or cognitive challenge, you’ve created a Pavlovian connection: the absence of novel stimuli (one definition of boring) means novel stimuli (one definition for much of what is on your phone) is coming soon. In the way I’ve rewired my dog’s brain by relieving his drool with food every time we get back from a walk, Cal Newport writes in Deep Work, “If every moment of potential boredom in your life—say, having to wait five minutes in line or sit alone in a restaurant until a friend arrives—is relieved with a quick glance at your smartphone, then your brain has likely been rewired.” You are Pavlovian Conditioned to not tolerate the absence of stimuli or novelty (one definition of deep work). You are cognitively conditioned to not do deep work. To help your brain’s ability to concentrate at a high level, you must train it to tolerate boredom. You must rewire it to be OK in the absence of novel stimuli. Sometimes, when you start to reach for your phone, before you relieve that mental drool, you must catch yourself and say, as I daily do, “No, the absence of novel stimuli does not always mean novel stimuli is coming soon.” “Minimizing the number of times you give in to distraction,” Cal writes, “can be understood analogously as [strengthening] the mental muscles.”
The Hidden And Ultimate Skill of the Master
I can’t seem to find it, but there was a profile on Lorne Michaels that memorably opened by saying Lorne Michaels needs no superlatives. And then it listed twenty to thirty names—some of the biggest in show business. The point being that Lorne Michaels has discovered and developed many of the biggest names in show business. In a more recent profile, Jerry Seinfeld said “taste and discernment” are Lorne’s ultimate skills. “It’s one thing to create. The other is you have to choose,” Seinfeld said. “‘What are we going to do, and what are we not going to do?’ This is a gigantic aspect of show-business survival. It’s kind of unseen, what’s picked and what is discarded, but mastering that is how you stay alive.”