Material Science

In his book Stuff Matters Mark Miodownik explores the world of every day materials that shape our lives and understandings of the world.  He looks at steel, concrete, foam, and more to show us how complex our seemingly simple world is.  He continually reveals the misconceptions people have about the materials in our daily world by telling the backstory of materials and presenting them in an almost lifelike manner.  Miodownik writes, “materials are not static things: they respond to their environment, and especially to temperature.”


I think Miodownik’s quote is a great one for people outside of the general science or material science community because it begins to reveal and explain the complex nature of the built world.  We often are appalled when systems fail (think of a train wreck, the BP oil spill, or crumbling concrete infrastructure) but few of us understand just how those systems operate and what forces limit or strain our engineering.  It is easy to criticize a company or government when materials are not holding up to our demands, but simple criticism ignores the fact that our products face factors and variables that are sometimes impossible to know or predict.  Through science and testing we can develop systems that are more secure and sound, but we will never be able to account for 100% of the anomalies that any given bridge, airplane, or coffee table will face.


I recently read Joel Achenbach’s recount of the BP Deep Water Horizon Oil Spill A Hole at the Bottom of the Sea, and throughout his book he highlights the fact that our engineered planet has become so complex that it is nearly impossible for the average citizen (or even the President of the United States) to truly understand how everything is organized. What I have taken away from these two books is that we need to be more patient with the world around us. We can hold engineers, car companies, and manufacturers to very high standards, but we should also expect and be prepared for systems to fail.  Oftentimes a failure in our built world is not the result of a single overlooked, poorly built, or sloppily assembled unit, but rather the result of anomalous strains and individually inconsequential shortfalls.  Developing a better understanding of the built world around us will help us react and respond better to our materials and their potential failures.  The more we know about science and the current state of science the more likely we are to support development, and when things go wrong, the less likely we are to point fingers as opposed to aid the development of novel solutions.

Monotasking and Focus

A big part of author Colin Wright’s lifestyle is his minimalistic approach to life.  Wright travels across the world writing from wherever he finds himself living, and he typically does not settle in one place for more than a year or so at a time.  Without a truly permanent residence he has adopted a minimalist lifestyle, which he believes helps him focus.  In his book Considerations Wright addresses focus with a short essay about what focus is, what leads to greater focus, what distracts from focus, and how we benefit from greater focus.


Wright leads off with an explanation of minimalism expressing his ideas behind a life with less. Living with fewer things to worry about gives him more time and energy to focus on things he finds interesting as opposed to working on managing ‘things’.  He continues with his dialog on focus to explain that another type of minimalism can be very helpful for us on a daily basis,


“Focus can be about mono tasking: doing one thing at a time, and allowing your brain to process everything about what’s happening with that one thing.  Conversations become richer, work is easier, ideas present themselves with greater frequency and ease. This type of focus is momentary, but incredibly effective.”


I think  that we all realize that our multitasking has negative effects on our output, but we defend multitasking by explaining how busy we are and by creating excuses about the timelines and urgency of our products, phone calls, emails, and reports.  A constant pressure to accomplish more in less time forces us to push toward greater productivity, and drives us to perform multiple processes at the same time.  What Wright’s quote shows is that everything about our work becomes more robust when we can monotask and focus on a single thing.  To tie in with Paul Jun’s writing about focus, we can think of focus as a flashlight. If our flashlight of focus is shining at just one thing, then the beam of light directed in one direction will be very strong. But if we use mirror’s to split the beam to two things, the amount of light illuminating either thing will be lessened.  As we subsequently split the beams with more mirrors, we reach a point where the things we focus on become indiscernible because our focus is too fractured and weak.


The other aspect of Wright’s considerations about focus that I am drawn to is the way he explains on the rewards of monotasking and minimalism without attacking the person who is multitasking.  As a millennial I heard all the negative studies and stories about multitasking  and it’s negative effects on my brain.  The news stories and research presented in class always felt like a negative attack against my generation, and in many ways felt like a challenge for me and my peers to continue multitasking to prove the scientific community and the community of skeptic teachers wrong. Wright in his writing simply explains the peace of mind and the areas of life that a single focus strengthen. This is a much more effective way to invite the individual in to a life of monotasking and minimalism.


In his book Considerations Colin Wright borrows from Marcus Aurelius and the philosophy of stoicism when he writes about the way we respond to the world and the events that occur in our life on a daily basis.  “You can’t change the world around you.  Not easily, at least. And as a result, it’s far better to have control over how you respond to the outside world, rather than trying to adjust and manipulate and manage every other person (and thing) on the planet.” Wright’s statement is very similar to the idea of stoicism that Marcus Aurelius lays out in his book Meditations where he constantly explains that our opinions shape our reactions and emotions to given situations.  He urges the reader to better control their thoughts so that they can chose their response in a given situation, and choose their ideas and beliefs about people and situations around them. By increasing self awareness we can better understand our feelings and reactions, allowing us to be the best version of ourselves.


Wright’s quote provides a dose of reality in addition to self awareness.  We like to think that we control the world around us and influence the people we interact with on a daily basis, but in many ways we have little impact on what happens around us.  As we enter a presidential election year we will likely forget this at many points as we think of the value of our vote and the impact that national policy may have on our lives.  If we start to think more deeply we may notice that national policy will not have the great impact on our lives that we imagine, and our vote may not be as consequential as we wish.  We should not be filled with despair at these realizations, but rather, we should recognize that we can choose our response and and find a way to react more positively and more aligned with reality.


Writing about our responses to the world around us, Wright argues that we should build our awareness of our thoughts and reactions so we can recognize how we think about the world so that we can act in a way that better serves ourselves and others.  Rather than believing we can control and manipulate others, we should allow ourselves to understand our lack of control so that we see more value in cooperation.  Reacting positively to our lack of control will give us more control in the long run since we will not be locked into a system of micromanagement.  Wright’s quote does not change the world, but it shows that we can change how we see and react to the world.

Handling Life’s Challenges

Another benefit of the rigorous self awareness that Colin Wright lays out in his book Considerations is a sense of preparedness which builds our self confidence as we face hurdles along our journey through life.  “If you’r healthy, strong, knowledgeable, sociable, and capable of coping with discomfort, there’s little you can’t handle”  the author writes.  What Wright is explaining in this quote is that we can build our confidence through self awareness which will help us avoid becoming overwhelmed and filled with fear when we face challenges.  What is required is the ability to profoundly understand ourselves and an ability to view situations from multiple perspectives to fully understand the scope of the situation we face.  Without developing these practices then the hard work we apply to our obstacles is not as effective or efficient as it could be for us to derive a real benefit.


Wright’s quote shows that taking self awareness and combining it with hard work and a willingness to be a  uncomfortable creates a resilient mindset. Gaining a deeper understanding of our skills and weaknesses helps us see the best ways to approach challenges or areas where we need to grow. This can help us anticipate ways in which we plan to maneuver through life when the going gets tough.  We can develop a better mindset for our day to day life through our reflection, and this mindset can help us better prepare for our challenges.


Wright continues, “Why would you worry about something you know you can handle if you need to?”  The final part of his quote shows how our self awareness practice and the increased confidence that comes with it help us face our challenges in a better light. Rather than worrying all day about hard work and obstacles, we prepare ourselves for them with the understanding that we can overcome anything because we have prepared ourselves and know our strengths and weaknesses.

Overcoming Fear and Finding Growth

Today’s quote from Colin Wright comes at a truly perfect time for me.  I have a terrific job which offers me a lot of flexibility, opportunities to grow, and time away from work to be involved in things that interest me.  However, I am still interested in moving forward and growing in new directions.  I enjoy the work I do, and feel well supported at work, but I can see areas that interest me more and may offer me a greater sense of fulfillment. What holds me back from pursuing the visions I have had is fear, and the desire to maintain my comfortable success as opposed to taking the more risky yet more rewarding path forward.

Wright, in his book Considerations, writes, “We could spend our entire lives trying to figure out the optimal use for the time we have, but I think the best approach is to always be pivoting and changing course: to be introspective enough to recognize when your needs change, and to be prepared to recalibrate your internal compass any time you detect that you might be happier and more fulfilled taking another course.”  His quote shows the importance of not trying to have every aspect of our lives planned out ahead of us.  As we grow we will begin to see that our interests and passions change over time, and if we couple this change with self awareness and reflection we can better understand what aligns with the person we truly are, and what is out of order with our inner self.  Wright, who has a personal philosophy of always providing himself with the greatest number of opportunities, is arguing that we should never lock ourselves into a particular course without allowing ourselves to pursue other opportunities.

Wright continues, “The fear of accidentally working hard to get someplace we don’t want to be can be paralyzing, but it’s an irrational fear.” When combined with the quote above this quote helps me understand life’s journey in a more benevolent and comprehensive manner.  We are never completely locked in to the life we live, and we are always able to recalibrate our lives to move in new directions if we allow ourselves the chance to change.  Understanding that our consequences won’t define us and won’t last forever, can help us overcome the fear that prevents us from moving in the directions we dream of.  By creating big goals, understanding that we will have to work hard, and envisioning the challenges which await us, we can prepare ourselves to move in a direction that will provide greater growth and ultimately greater fulfillment.

Fear of Consequences

“It doesn’t actually matter where our fear of consequences originates.  What’s important is acknowledging that it’s there,” Colin Wright states in his book Considerations. What Wright is addressing in his chapter about consequences is the way we tend to think about the repercussions of our actions. He lays out the idea that very few of the negative consequences we fear are permanent. Throughout the chapter he dives into our fear of consequences, where that fear originates, and ways to bypass that fear.


For Wright, pretending that we do not have any fears does not help us move forward. He believes it is important for us to open up about our fears and identify them through processes of self awareness. When we begin to look at what we are afraid of and what keeps us from acting, we begin to see ways to overcome the obstacles that scare us.  When we let go of the consequences of our actions and examine ways in which we can overcome negative reactions we are preparing ourselves to have courage and handle the negative in a respectable manner.  This idea is similar to those of Richard Wiseman in his book 59 Seconds, where he identified studies which suggested that journaling about the obstacles we will face and how we will overcome those obstacles can better prepare us for our journey and help us feel better about our journey.


Wright also explains the ways in which we take small consequences and magnify them beyond their true scope. When we imagine that small consequences carry more weight than what they actually do, we begin making decisions as if they precede life or death consequences. This puts an unreasonable amount of stress on our lives, and complicates our decision making process.  When we begin to understand our fear and thoroughly think through the consequences of our actions, we can begin to enjoy more freedom in our life without being paralyzed by the ‘what if’ mindset of life.

The Impermanence of Failure

Throughout much of his writing, author Colin Wright tends to focus on our thoughts and the ways in which we react to things.  He frequently writes about self awareness and the ways in which our interpretations of our situations affects our thoughts and reactions. By becoming a more aware person and being able to control our thoughts we are able to have more positive reactions to the world around us.  In his book Considerations he writes, “Very seldom does failure have permanent repercussions. Unless you allow it to that is.  Many of the negative consequences of an action tend to result not from outside forces, but from our own negative thinking.”


I think this quote shows the power of self awareness and the power of controlling our thoughts. When we are able to recognize how we are thinking and feeling about any given event, we are better able to control our thoughts and shift them in a positive direction. When we are able to do this, we are in many ways able to chose our reactions and the ways in which we act.


To me the part that stand out the most from this quote is the last few words about negative thinking. By building self awareness and focusing in on our thoughts we can reduce the amount of negative thinking in our lives in all situations. Recognizing how your are thinking and acting allows us to see when we are over emphasizing small problems. For me, being able to recognize when I am letting something unimportant impact me in a negative way has helped me feel better about myself and my situations on a daily basis.


When it comes to failure, recognizing what Wright is discussing can be huge, especially in our professional careers.  We tend to fixate on things we have not done well, and we do not remember the positive parts of our workday.  When we dial in on the negative we build self doubt and cling to fears. What Wright is showing when with this quote is that others won’t remember those failures as long as we will, so it is not worth lamenting over those failures. If we do not learn to control our emotions and thoughts then all we gain from failure is a negative self impression and fear. Practicing self awareness can help us shift those thoughts so that we do not hang on to a past failure and allow it to become  a roadblock as we move forward.

Acknowledging our True Selves

Colin Wright is a huge proponent of self awareness and ideas relating to self awareness. He advocates for recognizing ways in which our actions and ideas are shaped by our limited perspectives, draws attention to the parts of us we hide from ourselves and others, and he challenges us to rethink our goals and desires to become more aligned with our true personalities.  Throughout his book Considerations Wright brings all of these ideas into focus in ways which are very novel and were very new to me as I read Considerations.  Regarding self awareness and understanding our true selves he writes, “Reach deep and acknowledge the dark parts of who you are, then sand smooth or sharpen those aspects of yourself, just as you would with any bad habit or misfit trait.  It seldom serves us to conceal any part of ourselves, especially from ourselves.”


For me, Wright’s quote speaks about the importance of being honest with ourselves about the thoughts we have and the actions that result both explicitly or implicitly from those actions.  When we are able to accept that we have feelings, thoughts, or tendencies that run counter to our ideal self image, we are able to shift our focus to address those issues and make changes in our lives to grow for the better.


I think a fantastic example of this which I had to address myself deals with racism. I don’t think the majority of people in the United States would consider themselves to be racist or to discriminate against minorities, but unfortunately many people have an implicit bias that skews their behavior towards minority groups or individuals in a negative direction.  Within the first split second we meet another person we make judgements as to whether that individual can be trusted, is a good person, is successful, and whether or not they are someone we should interact with.  These thoughts and ideas race through our mind faster than we can recognize, and if we leave those thoughts unchecked, we may react negatively to another person, and those thoughts can materialize in small actions through body language, facial expressions, and through cordial or not so cordial greetings.  Without realizing it we may inadvertently frown at a member from a group to which we do not identify, or we may quickly advert our eyes, or possibly just not say hi or even acknowledge their presence.  None of these actions are explicitly negative or enough to classify any individual as a racist, but nevertheless, the person on the receiving end does pick up on the fact that they are not welcomed into your social circle.


What Wright in his quote above is advocating for is an understanding that we all have our dark spots like the situation I described. If we turn our attention inwards and focus a light on those dark spots we may not completely overcome them, but at least we can control them and manage the way they manifest in our lives.  Without accepting that we have these dark spots we live in an illusion where we have placed ourselves on a false pedestal. From our perch we risk inadvertently harming those around us by creating a blindspot in our actions. When we accept our shortfalls, we can identify new ways to move forward and become more egalitarian.