Humans to Rocket Scientists

Humans to Rocket Scientists

Mary Roach opens her book Packing for Mars with the following:
“To the rocket scientists, you are a problem. You are the most irritating piece of machinery he or she will ever have to deal with. You and your fluctuating metabolism, your puny memory, your frame that comes in a million different configurations. You are unpredictable. You’re inconstant. You take weeks to fix.”
Packing for Mars is all about the science of space that doesn’t get talked about. The news covers rocket launches, successful missions, journey’s to asteroids, and space vehicles on other planets or beyond the solar system entirely. Popular culture celebrates astronauts, sometimes asks about the food they eat, but rarely addresses the end products of that food. Roach dives into the particulars, asking the difficult and sometimes gross questions that someone has had to ask in order for human beings to become a spacefaring civilization. As the quote above shows, the most difficult aspect of this journey into space, at least for the engineers, has been figuring out how the challenges of navigating space when you take people along for the journey.
Humans, and living creatures in general, are amazing. We are incredibly adaptable to almost any situation we find ourselves within. Space is no different. We can live in a tiny hunk of metal floating without the effects of gravity thanks to our incredible adaptability skills. However, that adaptation and the effects of our environment on our living bodies has created incredible challenges for engineers who need to keep people (and mice and plants) alive. Throughout the book Roach shows not just how adaptable humans are, but how challenging it is to keep a living being alive in a reasonable way in space, and all the miraculous, and sometimes gross, innovations that have been developed along the way.
On Travel as a Cure for Discontent - Joe Abittan

On Travel as a Cure for Discontent

Does travel help us be more happy? Seneca did not think it did. In Letters From a Stoic, he included a quote from Socrates, “Why do you wonder that glob-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels.”

 

Seneca writes that escapism is not a path toward happiness. We must focus on ourselves and use self-awareness, Seneca would argue, to become happy with ourselves and our situations wherever we may be. If we cannot be happy as ourselves and with one given situation, then how can physically moving ourselves from one place to another increase our happiness? We will still be ourselves, with all the same troubles that created our discontent where we initially were. On travel as a cure for discontent, Seneca saw little promise.

 

His letter continued, “What pleasure is there in seeing new lands? Or surveying cities and spots of interest? All your bustle is useless. Do you ask why such flight does not help you? it is because you flee along with yourself.”

 

In a narrow sense, Seneca is correct. We bring baggage with us when we travel. We bring baggage in the form of our actual luggage, the stuff we bring to present ourselves to the outside world and to make the environment we find ourselves in a little more familiar. Simultaneously, we bring mental baggage in the form of thoughts, fears, expectations, and anything in our mind when we left the place we were at. We are still ourselves and a simple transplantation cannot solve deeply held fears, anxieties, habits, or behaviors.

 

But even before a global pandemic (I originally highlighted and read these quotes in June of 2019), I recognized that Seneca’s thinking on travel is too narrow and misses an important point. Travel changes our perspectives, disrupts the routine thoughts that occupy our minds, and can serve as a temporal break to allow us to make a change in who we are and what we do. Colin Wright describes it this way in his book Come Back Frayed, “Travel frays. Not just our stuff, but us. It pushes us, rubs us against uncomfortable realities, the friction creating gaps in our self-identity, loosening and then tightening our structure over and over and over again.”

 

It doesn’t matter what (or who) we bring with us when we travel. The journey changes us, alters us physically and mentally, shifts perspectives, and interrupts our experience of the passage of time. Our voyage is not useless if we can use the self-awareness that Seneca prescribes to help us see how travel is changing us and to take away important lessons from where we go. Happiness can be found in travel because we don’t just take ourselves with us, we don’t just flee and escape ourselves and our spot on earth, we literally fray apart who we were, and loosen and tighten the structures which bind ourselves over and over. In the end, travel changes us, and that can help us find new avenues toward happiness.

Growth from Friction

I’m very good at traveling, but I am terrible at planning and setting up trips. I wish I was better at scheduling, coordinating, and getting out on trips, but I am not very good at thinking long ahead and planning out a vacation with another person. On my own, I can travel easily and I am comfortable almost anywhere with almost anything, but traveling with others is never quite so easy.

 

In his book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright talks about travel and how traveling pushes and influences us. Wright has spent a lot of time traveling and moving about the world at the suggestion of his fans and readers. He has been in many different places where he did not know the customs, traditions, or cuisines, and has had to learn things quickly in unfamiliar places in order to get by. When it comes to travel he writes, “Travel Frays. not just our stuff, but us. It pushes us, rubs us against uncomfortable realities, the friction creating gaps in our self-identity, loosening and then tightening our structure over and over again.”

 

When we are at home in the routine of everyday life, things is stable and clear. We organize our day, our home, and our actions to be predictable, comfortable, and desirable. We become what we do and what our life is organized around. Our identity is clearly tied to the things we do and the places we go. When we travel, however, curve balls are thrown at us and we are placing our trust, our time, and our physical location in the hands of strangers. Where we are, what we are doing, and how we interact with the world is influenced by forces beyond our control, and this, according to Wright, is what frays us.

 

I am good at traveling on my own because when I have no agenda, no demands, no expectations on myself, and no deep desires for a certain outcome, I can adjust to these fraying experiences and let go of my routine and plans. When I travel with other people however, I must be dependable and consistent through the changes. Traveling on my own I am content to simply walk and experience a new place. To try a new restaurant, to see something different, and to just be in an unfamiliar place. But traveling with others pushes me to do these same things and have these same experiences while also accommodating people who may not be as open and flexible as myself. This is the greater challenge for me, pushing me to give in some areas while remaining firm and foresighted in others. Independent travel reminds me of the variety of the world and human experience, travel with others pushes me to be more thoughtful about who I move through the world with. Ultimately, traveling with others is a changing experience because it drives me to be more mindful of time, my position in the world, and how my actions and the actions of those around me impact the person I travel with. It is a great shifting puzzle in which I must not only think about my own reaction to the world, but also how the person next to me will react to the world. This great challenge is fraying and sometimes a bit painful, but ultimately builds our relationships with other people and with an often unpredictable world.

Change for the Better

In his book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright echoes some of the sentiments and ideas that Ryan Holiday puts forward in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. Speaking about the challenges of travel and the new experiences and situations that travel forces us into, Wright focuses on the growth that is possible from getting outside what we are comfortable with and challenging our expectations. He writes,

 

“The energy produced when we struggle, when we grow, gives us the torque we need in order to climb. Seeing these frictions as fuel, as substance to burn so that we might achieve greater heights, means that every discomfort, peril, and concern is valuable. The environmental influences which cause us to change become tools we can use to guide our own evolution and ensure the changes are for the better.”

 

What Wright expresses is the same idea that Holiday focused on in his book: using our struggles and turning the impediment to action into the catalyst for action. Both authors follow stoic traditions, and the common theme between the two of them runs back to Marcus Aurelius who focused on how perception and struggle are pair together to either hold us down or create new opportunities for us.

 

Wright’s quote specifically looks at how the environment around us either pushes us toward growth, or allows us to slide backwards into predictability, comfort, and stagnation. What Wright explains is that travel puts us in new places where we experience friction and are unable to move forward using our standard rules and must develop new rules and strategies for advancing. Leaning into these experiences and working hard to better understand where our model of the world fails to meet the new culture around us is what fuels our growth. Looking at the small friction points as learning blocks gives us a chance to grow in ways that we never would have imagined had we not put ourselves in unfamiliar situations. Simply being in a new place where things are not familiar causes us to think more deeply and turn off the auto-pilot that usually guides our direction along pre-set paths in our day to day lives.

Routines in Life

In Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright explains why he is such a fan of travel and of putting ourselves in difficult situations. He is focused on growth in all that he does, and he argues that the challenges of travel push him to growth he would never reach without traveling to new and unique places, and without being introduced to so many different cultures. In his book, he writes, “There can be joy in rote living, but there probably won’t be growth.”

Wright acknowledges our human desire to maintain consistency in our lives and the predictability that routines can give us, but living the same comfortable life style does not give us room to explore, learn, grow, and better understand the world. Rote living may help us feel secure and comfortable, but it does not challenge us as human beings to think beyond ourselves and our bubbles that filter the world. Maintaining a routine in some way limits us and others as it prevents us from meeting new people and engaging with new people in the world. By pushing back and striving to find something different in our lives and routines, we will begin to have opportunities to impact new people and participate in more collaborative activities.

I struggle with expanding beyond a routine lifestyle. I find that I crave routines to be able to accomplish what I want and avoid challenging situations where I have to make decisions about my time. I have never been good at planning ahead to have fun and enjoy my time with others, and as a result I find that I fall back on routines to keep me engaged yet less social. I have recognized on my own what Wright wrote, but his explanation of the importance of avoiding rote living shook me to be more active in my quest to experience new situations, people, and places.

I have also heard of the danger of being stuck in routines from a couple of recent podcasts. Tyler Cowen was interviewed for the Ezra Klein Show recently, and he talked about our human default that he calls the Status Quo Bias. Avoiding this bias and pushing ourselves to experience new thing, to adapt, and to change is the only way that humans as a species can find ways to move forward. Senator Corey Booker recently did an interview with Tim Ferris for his podcast, and discussed the risk adverse nature of politicians, and he discussed the benefits of running personal experiments in our lives to help us have new experiences and learn more about the world around us. I don’t know how to introduce this idea in my own life directly, but I want to push back against the Status Quo Bias that I have developed, to experiment and learn more about my life, and to find new ways to grow rather than be trapped without growth by my life routines.

Horizons You Didn’t Know Existed

In his recent interview with Ezra Klein on the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen continually referred back to what he called “the status quo bias” which he defined as the preference to continue and default to do what we are already doing and comfortable with. Making changes in our routines, starting new businesses, introducing public policy, and even our every day thoughts fall into the trap of the status quo bias where we prefer what is familiar over what is new and different. Over the course of the interview, Cowen referred to an idea he suggested is the best possible way to overcome status quo bias, and it aligns with a quote I read from Colin Wright last year:

 

“Travel provides the chance to think, to work, to learn, to experience, to process, to spread one’s wings, to relax, to be pushed up against one’s limitations, to work every muscle in one’s body and mind, to feel uncomfortable and grow accustomed to the feeling. It’s the chance to see horizons you didn’t know existed, and to crest those horizons.”

 

Cowen discussed the importance of travel, at one point saying that he did not know a better way to gain new perspective and to push back against the status quo bias. In Wright’s book Come Back Frayed the same ideas are presented. The title of the book represents the stresses, fractures, and strains of travel, as your normally well woven world is shifted and pulled apart to be viewed from new perspectives.  Wright explains that travel makes you think and consider new possibilities and ways of life, and in his interview with Ezra Klein, Cowen expressed the same ideas. Seeing new cultures lets you see what is common among humanity, but more importantly, what is different and what could be applied in your own life to find new growth.

The Traveling Experience

I am not good at traveling. I find it difficult to begin planning far enough in advance to travel and I don’t know how to put together and organize a travel budget. Colin Wright on  the other hand, is an excellent traveler and has lived across the world based on the suggested locations of his fans and audience. His most recent book, Come Back Frayed, is a reflection of his time in the Philippines where he explored the worlds we build for ourselves and looks at his experiences moving through different cultures. Looking specifically at travel, he writes, “A key part of the traveling experience is leaving yourself open to possibilities you can’t imagine yet and recognizing that there are many unknowns you’ll likely never know. But you still scramble to find as many of them as possible, despite that knowledge.”

 

I really enjoy what Wright has to say about travel, experiencing new places, and being in unfamiliar surroundings. I am truly motivated by his work to become a better traveler and to have a chance to learn about and experience new cultures, but I am still challenged by my own lack of planning. I recognize how much I simply don’t know about other people and cultures just within the United States, and I have a great desire to go to new places and meet new people.

 

I love the idea seeing new possibilities through travel. Engaging with new people and seeing the ways that different areas of the world interact gives us a sense of what is truly possible, beyond the existing realities of the place we currently live. Having a chance to simply walk and experience a new place is something I greatly enjoy, and Wright highlights the benefits that come from exploration.

 

For me, routines are powerful drivers to help me achieve my goals of fitness, surviving graduate school, and performing well at work, but they do limit my ability to plan for exploration through travel. I become so comfortable and feel successful within my routines here in Reno, Nevada that I don’t remember to explore and venture into the world beyond. Wright’s quote, especially for someone who strives to be genuinely curious about the world, is a great reminder of the importance of travel and spontaneity. His writing helps explain the benefit of changing our perspective through changing our actual physical and cultural place in the world.

Participating in Life

Colin Wright’s recent book Come Back Frayed, is the story of his experiences living in Mayoyao and Boracay in the Philippines. Mayoyao is an agrarian region of the country with a small population and many rice fields, and Boracay is a small island and a popular tourism spot. Throughout his book Wright takes a critical look at culture, comparing the lifestyles of many in the United States to those in the Philippines who live with considerably less. Beyond a simple comparison of American and Philippine citizens and lifestyles, Wright dives into his own perceptions of himself and what traveling and experiencing new cultures has meant to him.

An idea expressed by Wright is that travel forces us into situations where we are no longer in the kind of control we become comfortable with in our daily lives. He discusses the importance of flexibility and adaption in travel, and I think his metaphor can be easily adapted to life in general.

He writes, “The best you can hope for is a little deck-stacking here and there, and a carefully sharpened ability to play whatever cards you’re dealt. Sometimes that means playing another game for a while. Sometimes it means you’re handed some dice instead, or a random handful of obscure game paraphernalia with purposes you haven’t yet discovered. In such cases all you can do is plaster a confident expression across your face, watch those around you for clues, and hope to hell you figure out the rules before it’s your turn to play.”

This idea of travel and life more generally being a game in which you don’t have all the pieces is a useful idea for me. I don’t think it is helpful to look at life as a game that you either win or lose, but as an activity you participate in with those around you to build relationships and community. Being engaged in the game means that we will have new experiences and find ourselves in unfamiliar places. Flexibility will always be a central part of advancing as far as possible. The more we can adjust and the more we can look to those around us to learn, the better we will be at participating and contributing.

The game idea breaks down around thoughts of winning and losing, since that may push us to act in ways that are not helpful for building the type of experiences we actually desire in our lives. When we focus on winning the game (life) we risk placing value on goals that can be hallow or self serving. We isolate ourselves and possibly push away those who are closest to us. Instead, we should look at success in the game as full participation, achieved by constantly learning and better understanding the  connections the game builds.

Returning to Wright’s quote, learning how to take disparate pieces and tie them together to play the game is a major skill worth developing. Adjusting to the needs and demands of our environment helps us not just in traveling and in moving from physical space to physical space, but it helps us throughout life as our daily experiences, possibilities, and demands shift. I believe a major skill that is not discussed enough is learning from those around us to find new growth. Rather than criticizing people for the cards they are dealt and the hands we play, we are always much better off learning from the actions of others, so that we can better use the pieces we have available to us.