Culture, Physics, Noise, & Thrawn

Culture, Physics, Noise, & Thrawn

I am a big fan of Timothy Zahn’s books about the Star Wars character Thrawn, but one critique I would offer is on the way that Thrawn derives insights about entire populations based on their artwork. It’s a fun part of the stories and I don’t mind suspending disbelief as I jump into the fiction worlds that Zahn has helped create, but culture is too turbulent for the ideas to really hold if you don’t work extra hard to suspend your disbelief. The reality is that culture is ever moving, shifting, and swirling, and drawling large conclusions about anyone and anything from artwork is probably not a good judgement practice.
 
 
In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari demonstrates this by contrasting culture with physics. He writes, “every culture has its typical beliefs, norms, and values, but these are in constant flux. … Unlike the laws of physics, which are free of inconsistencies, every man-made order is packed with internal contradictions.” Whether it is our political beliefs, the larger influencing factors that shape our media and artwork, or our individual opinions and mood, there is a lot of noise that influences our cultural products. We all see the world through unique perspectives influenced by where we happen to be at any given moment, what our past experiences have been, and factors that we are not even aware of. Drawing a single conclusion about anything is hardly ever possible, even for ideas and memes that are shared throughout a culture.
 
 
It is not just Thrawn who draws large overarching conclusions about entire groups of people based on their cultural outputs. Thrawn works because it is something we all do. It is easy to watch a sporting even where our favored team is losing and decide that the opposing team’s fans are savage animals. It is easy to see high school kids these days and decide that they are all degenerates based on seeing the way that a few of them dress and behave. It is easy to make broad assumptions and generalizations about people in another country after seeing a tourism advertisement. In each of these areas our own biases, the randomness of who we see and when, and even deliberate propaganda and framing influences the way we come to understand the world. But how people act and behave, how people dress, and what cultural outputs they create constantly change and are not the same between people or even within the same individual over time. Unlike physics, the culture of a people is constantly ebbing and flowing. It is constantly up for interpretation and debate, and constantly influenced by outside forces or appropriations. In a way we are all Thrawn, making grand pronouncements about others, without recognizing just how turbulent culture truly is and how much noise and variability is possible within a culture.
What is Deep Work

What is Deep Work?

Deep work is the opposite of the state of mind that many of us find ourselves in most of the time. One of the biggest challenges we face, is focusing on the important things. Our lives have become very busy, but not necessarily busy with more important work. Our lives have become busy with noise – in both the sense of unwanted sound, but also in the sense of the Merrian-Webster online dictionary definition of unwanted signals and disturbances.

 

At home, we often have the TV on for background noise, our phones have red notifications from multiple apps every time we open them, and we know that our social media feeds are constantly refreshing and offer us new things to see and look at. There is always something new, something distracting, and something to pull our attention away from the things which take substantial mental energy.

 

In his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport provides the following definition for Deep Work:

 

“Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

 

The focus needed for deep work cannot be developed when we are constantly distracted. When we allow ourselves to be taken over by our phones, when we allow ourselves to have a million things pulling at our attention, when we constantly have some type of stimulation coming in while we do our chores, drive to work, and walk the dog, we train our brain to jump from one thought to another. Our daily life encourages a brain that cannot focus, destroying our ability to do deep work.

 

I have seen this in my own life. For 2 years I was working full time and in grad school. To get my work done, I had to work on focus, and I had to dedicate a lot of time to reading and completing school work. Outside of my job, I spent a lot of time trying to focus. A lot of house chores were ignored, but I found academic success, and found myself continually doing better focus work on the job as well.

 

A year after grad school, and into a boring job which doesn’t keep me as engaged as I would like, I have found my brain more distracted and I have found it harder to focus when I need to. I often watch YouTube videos while doing dishes, I listen to podcasts while doing laundry, and I find myself pulling up twitter or various blogs when I get bored. I have allowed myself to be distracted when I don’t need to be doing any deep work, and that has reduced my brain’s capacity to focus when I need to. I’m working against this now (partially thanks to a mental refocusing from Ryan Holiday’s book Stillness is the Key),  but it is hard work and requires that I think about what I am doing at any given moment and why.

 

Deep work is mentally taxing, and when the brain gets tired it wants to be distracted and shift to a low value cognitively easy task. However, if we focus on deep work, and train like an athlete to improve our thinking and focus, we can get better at it. We can push ourselves to be better at focusing on important things, and in the long run we will find that we can do better work, accomplish more important things in shorter periods of time, and be more focused when we need to be.

Noise

In a letter of advice written to James Harmon for his book Take My Advice, Valerie Martin writes about the noise that we fill out days with and how we use that noise to fill our minds so that we do not have to think.  Through constant television and radio broadcasts everywhere we go, in the car, at home, waiting rooms, and even at the grocery store, we are fed small and often times unnoticeable advice on what our lives should be like, how we should live, and what happiness looks like. According to Martin, we need to turn off the noise and learn how to be happy when the atmosphere around us is empty, and our mind is overcome with only our thoughts.
To conclude her letter Martin writes, “My advice is simple. When possible, turn off the sound.  Don’t be overly concerned about being happy.  Try to need less, to find work that doesn’t demean you.  Read more, talk less. Try to raise your own children without television.  When despair sets in, as it will, sit quietly and wait it out in silence.”
I think that what Martin is saying is that there are plenty of opportunities for us to reflect on our lives and to really consider what it is that we desire or expect. Instead of using those moments to dive deeper into ourselves, we float along the surface of who we are while we let television or radio distract us.  She is critical of the message presented in those broadcasts because they give us a false sense of reality and show us someone else’s expectations and desires for life.
Learning to be comfortable without noise and with only my thoughts has been a difficult challenge for me.  However, thanks to my running I understand what Martin is trying to explain. Having a time where you are unplugged and left with only your thoughts can be a meditative moment. I do a lot of long distance running, and I have never enjoyed running with music. I love to be unplugged because it allows my mind to churn through the thoughts that build up in a day, and it gives me time to reflect on what I think, what I say, and how my actions align with who I want to be.