Do not fear what you don't understand. Learn to understand what you fear.
I've been doing a lot of thinking lately. In between thoughts of becoming a father (only a few weeks away...!) and supporting my newly forming family (is my income stable enough? are we spending too much?), I'm also thinking about health and longevity (am I taking care of my health? are we eating healthy? is our environment healthy for raising a baby?).
On what seems like the opposite end of the spectrum, I find myself thinking about the emerging and constantly evolving world of digital publishing, WordPress, the Internet, and social media.
How can I design things better? What technical skills or programming languages should I acquire next? How can I use my writing and knowledge to share what I'm doing with the world in a way that makes the world a better place?
How these two tracks of thought can even live side-by-side, inside the same brain, I don't know. It almost seems wrong to be thinking about one when the other feels astronomically more important.
But there must be more to life than just survival and living good, more to life than just... happiness, right?
I've never been content with contentedness.
Every now and then I'll recall a moment on Cocoa Beach, in Florida, sometime in early 2012. It was during one of my many twice-daily walks.
I've lived in Florida several times over the past few years, usually for a few months at a time. Whenever I lived there I would have a routine of walking on the beach in the morning and then driving to Starbucks to spend the day working on my laptop. In the evening, I'd take another solo hour-plus walk before sundown, sometimes walking until the stars came out and the darkness made it too difficult to see in front of my face.
These twice-daily walks helped me learn how important regular walking and fresh air is for my health and spiritual wellbeing; the activity seems to cleanse my soul in ways that I cannot describe.
One sunny day on the beach I stopped walking, looked out at the flat ocean, took in a deep breath of fresh ocean air, and felt an absolute sense of calmness flood my body, a sense of contentment so strong that even to this day recalling the memory floods my body with a sliver of that peace.
I had the freedom to go anywhere in the world and yet I felt content right where I was.
But it wasn't enough. That refresher was great, but it wasn't enough. Something inside me wanted to do something, to grow, to move, and to continue evolving. (I wrote a bit about this last year in Travel Notes: Thoughts on Florida1.)
This desire to do something, to grow and evolve--to question--, seems fundamental to who I am.
For example, when I'm tweaking my website and thinking about web design and user interaction--which I've been doing a lot lately--I always find myself thrown into deep thoughts about the future of the web, the future of human connectivity, the future of communication and knowledge-transfer, and the future of... well, the future of everything.
For the first few years of publishing to raamdev.com, I had a message that said "Under Construction". One day I realized that my entire life is constantly "under construction" and as a result so would my 'personal' website. It's been more than 12 years since I began publishing to raamdev.com and it's still "under construction", just like me. The only difference is that I'm not constantly announcing it.
I feel a sense of responsibility to re-think the status quo, to question everything, whether that be the status quo of how we educate and raise our children or the status quo of how digital authors should publish their work and connect with their audience.
The driving force behind this re-thinking of the status quo stems, I believe, from a recognition that our world is changing. It stems from a deeply felt understanding that we're at the cusp of a new era.
The thread that seems to weave through everything my life, whether it's thinking about how I'm going to home school my daughter or thinking about the design of a commenting form on a website, is simplicity. I'm constantly asking myself, "how can this be made more simple? what things that are assumed can be taken away? how can we reduce this to its essence?"
As a digital writer and publisher, I want to publish thoughts and essays online and communicate with my audience through the comments on those thoughts and essays.
But what if I want to spend the day away from my computer, playing with my daughter, for example?
I don't want to be looking around for a WiFi connection or waiting for my website to load and then logging into the WordPress dashboard to publish essays or reply to comments. That's archaic.
Before writing and publishing went digital, writers could simply look up from their notebook and then look back down. That was it. That's all there was to the physical act of switching modes.
Sure, they didn't publish things regularly like we can and do today, but when publishing today really just involves pressing a button on a web page, why does the entire task have to be more complicated than looking up or down from a notebook?
Why can't digital writing, publishing, and communication with readers be as simple as, let's say, sending an email from my phone (which is generally always connected to the Internet and always on me, like an old-fashioned notebook)?
Yes, I could just pick up an old-fashioned notebook and use that, but why should I have to create more work for myself transcribing those paper entries into digital entries? Besides, my handwriting skills are nonexistent so a paper notebook isn't an option.
There are certain tasks that are basic and fundamental to digital writers and publishers, but the tools and the processes don't yet exist to allow them to really live offline, the way pre-digital writers could.
Is it possible right now? Absolutely. But the processes we follow are largely dictated by the capabilities of the tools we use. Those tools are largely incomplete, designed with the online-world in mind instead of the offline world.
I'm going to start changing that by building tools and sharing systems that make sense for people who don't want to always be tied to a computer but still want to remain connected in a way that lets them communicate and share with the world.
I'm in a unique position to help bridge this gap because I understand how the technology works deeply enough to create new systems and build (or enhance, as is the case with open-source software like WordPress) tools to augment our offline life in a way that makes sense.
[I realize that there's an iPhone WordPress app that allows me to publish and reply to comments from my phone, but the app and the workflow has many flaws. Besides, I already use email for writing and communication; why should I need anything else?]
The status quo has never been more broken than it is today and that's a direct result of the fact that technology is changing our world faster than ever before. Part of what I feel responsible for is reflecting on those changes, challenging the status quo, and coming up with alternative solutions that make sense given the opportunities that technology makes possible.
Home schooling, for example, was far more difficult for parents just 30 years ago. If parents weren't already school teachers, they had limited resources and know-how to school their kids with. Their options were limited to the local library or paying for pre-designed courses that included all the books for schooling their kids at home (which is what my parents did).
Parents were lucky if they could even afford to home school their kids. If they didn't already have money set aside, or if one of the parents wasn't making enough income for the whole family, then finding the time to home school was nearly impossible, or at the very least extremely challenging: it meant that one or both of the parents spent the majority of their time working.
But today parents living in a modern society have almost unlimited access and opportunity by way of the Internet. They can learn new skills and put those skills to use by working online from home, or by building a business that allows them to work for themselves (as my parents did, except they did it without the Internet, the old-fashioned work-your-ass-off kind of way).
We now have amazing things like Google, Wikipedia, and KhanAcademy2. We have access to an international marketplace (eBay) from our bedroom. Every modern house has access to more knowledge than all humans of the past thousand years combined.
It's a home schooling dream-come-true. As a parent, you can sit in your house, make money at home, and you have access to everything. If your kid asks you a question and you don't know the answer, you can look it up on your phone and tell them. If you don't know Algebra, you can learn it yourself, for free, from home, and then help your kid learn.
The world is a different place today than it was yesterday, and it will be an even more different place tomorrow. The status quo today represents not just yesterday's old world, but that of hundreds of years of stagnation.
Conscious change is paramount to our evolution. If it's happiness that we seek, conscious evolution is the only way we'll attain happiness in a sustainable way.
I spent this past weekend learning a new language. Not a spoken language, but a programming language called Python. It was incredibly rewarding and it’s hard to believe that I almost paid someone to take that opportunity away.
A few weeks ago I came across a traveling programmer who had written some software to show a map of his travels on an embedded Google Map. He included a drop-down that allowed the selection of different maps, each map representing a different period of travel in his life.
After being thoroughly impressed—and perhaps a little bit jealous—by his extensive travels and the simplicity by which he displayed all this data, I began to envision how I could do something similar on my own website.
His software was fairly straightforward: It looked at the contents of several Google Earth KML files, parsed the map data inside them, and then displayed that data on an embeddable Google Map.
Straightforward? Perhaps. But I didn’t even know what KML files were, let alone how to use Google Earth. The last time I played around with Google Earth was years ago. I had no idea how to create maps with it.
But I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
I foresee myself traveling for years to come and I’ve been looking for a good way to track and display my travels for awhile now. I’m currently using the TravelMap plugin on my map page, but it has limited features and doesn’t scale for my nomadic lifestyle. This Google Earth solution seemed elegant, practical, and scalable.
So I downloaded Google Earth and learned how to create lines and points. I watched tutorial videos on YouTube and read documentation. I exported one of the test maps to a KML file and opened it in a text editor to learn about its format.
I discovered that KML files were simply XML files (very similar to HTML). The locations of the points that I added in Google Earth were identified using its GPS coordinates; the lines that I drew between two points were represented by a series of coordinates: start-coordinates, end-coordinates, start-coordinates, end-coordinates, and so on.
With my newly acquired knowledge I set out building several Google Earth maps, each representing all my travels for the past two years, starting with my trip to India in 2010 and ending with my present location in Australia in 2012.
It was around this point where I began to think about what the process of updating my current location with this system would look like on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis.
I realized it would require opening Google Earth on my computer, editing the map with my new travels and adding new points and new lines, then exporting the file to KML and uploading it to the web server.
That seemed like a lot of work, especially when I was already recording my travels to some degree using geotagging on social networks like Twitter and Foursquare.
I’m very suspicious of repetitive things when it comes to my time. (It all started when I calculated how much of my life each year was being spent simply looking at various notifications on my computer: 15 hours! I no longer use notifications for anything.) If I’m already recording my location online, why should I spend time recording it again in Google Earth?
How could I automatically update the Google Earth KML file with my latest location without spending any additional time?
After a bit of research, I discovered that Foursquare provides a KML feed for all my check-in data. So, I just needed to create a program that would automate copying the data from one KML file to the other and then updating the path line to show that I traveled from the old check-in to the new check-in.
With my limited knowledge of programming languages, I knew that Python was the best language for this job. The problem was, I knew practically nothing about Python. I was a PHP programmer and I knew that solving this problem with PHP would be both messy and time-consuming.
At this point I’d already spent a lot of time learning about KML files and creating maps in Google Earth. The thought of learning a whole new programming language just to get a travel map on my site was pushing the limits of what I expected to invest in this project in terms of time.
Wouldn’t it be easier to just hire someone else to do this final part?
Never before had I hired someone to write a program for me, but for the first time I found myself taking the thought seriously. Was I getting lazy? Was this laziness the result of being able to afford to hire someone?
I posted the job on Elance with a maximum budget of $250— that’s what this program was worth to me. Within a few hours I began receiving bids, but with each bid I felt myself more and more disinterested with this idea.
Why was I paying someone to take away my opportunity to learn and grow?
That’s when I realized something important: It wasn’t that I was being lazy. It’s that I wanted to pay someone to take away the discomfort of learning and growing.
That one realization changed my whole thinking and instead of succumbing to the discomfort of learning something new, I decided to push into the discomfort and find out what’s on the other side.
On Friday night I found a free Python tutorial online and began learning. I started with the very basics and ignored what I already knew about programming. I completed every exercise, from the very basic to the more advanced.
At first it was repetitive and boring, but as the hours passed I found myself muttering over and over, “that’s interesting”, every time I learned a new concept or understood how something worked.
This learning and exploration became so fun that I spent nearly the entire weekend indoors, peeling myself away from the computer only to eat, fulfill my running commitment, and watch the sunset.
By Sunday morning I began exploring beyond the Python tutorial and started searching the Internet for examples of using Python to handle XML files. There were very few examples specific to KML files and I couldn’t find anything that did what I wanted, but I continued experimenting.
By that evening I had finished a 248-line program in Python that did exactly what I wanted. It’s certainly not the prettiest code but the sense of empowerment and elation that I experienced upon finishing it was worth far more than $250.
The lesson? When it comes to spending time or spending money, always spend the time if you’ll learn something that will save you both money and time in the long-run.
And more importantly, when it comes to learning new things, don’t pay someone to take away the discomfort for you: lean into that discomfort.
On the other side of that discomfort exists a world where you live with more knowledge and understanding than the present version of yourself. It may be hard to imagine that world right now, but push through the discomfort and you’ll get there.
I haven’t finished integrating the new travel map into my site, but here’s a working sneak peak of the Journey Map.
The 'sustainable model' that I try to gauge myself against is that of equality for humanity. If it’s not sustainable for everyone, then it’s not sustainable.
When I find myself doing something on a regular basis, I ask myself the question, "Is this sustainable for humanity?" I try to imagine, to the best of my ability, replicating what I'm doing across all humans on earth and then I try to decide if that’s sustainable.
"Is this particular food I'm eating sustainable enough for all 7 billion humans to sit and eat the same meal with me today?"
"Is this method of transportation that I'm using sustainable enough for all 7 billion humans to ride it with me today?"
"Is this project or job or career that I'm pursuing sustainable enough for all 7 billion humans to pursue the same project, job, or career with me?"
"Is buying a brand new paperback book at the bookstore sustainable enough for all 7 billion humans to buy one with me?”
“Is what I’m creating or producing on a regular basis something that 7 billion others could create or produce alongside me?”
I keep asking myself this question, over and over: "Is this sustainable for humanity?"
It's almost impossible for me to know with accuracy what’s sustainable for everyone, but at least by asking the question and framing it in context of all humans I gain a better understanding and perspective around my lifestyle choices.
Can 7 billion humans consume meat while still maintaining a sustainable ecosystem for the planet? Nope. So clearly non-meat diets are the way to move forward.
Can 7 billion humans drive their own combustion-engine vehicle while still maintaining a clean environment and healthy planet? Nope. So clearly public and mass-transit systems are the better, more sustainable option.
I don’t know how all the pieces fit together. There are so many variables that go into answering such big questions. But that shouldn’t stop us from asking them. Simply asking the question always yields a feeling in one direction or another.
Applying a little knowledge and commonsense goes a long way towards guiding those feelings in the right direction. By asking the big questions and allowing their answers to shape our decisions, we’re far more likely to do things that make sense on a global scale.
A little over a year ago I began asking this question on a regular basis. It all started when I was purchasing a pair of minimalist running shoes online.
As I contemplated the $112 price tag, I began to wonder if such a choice made sense on a global scale.
Assuming everybody on Earth could afford such a purchase, could the Earth itself support the manufacture of that many shoes made of those same materials?
It quickly became obvious that given a scenario where all humans had to wear the same shoes, we would collectively find a much cheaper solution using materials that were already in abundance and which already needed to be reused.
This solution would maximize durability, allow everyone to make repairs and alterations to their footwear with the most basic tools, and ensure maximum ergonomic compatibility with the human body.
Did such a solution already exist? Certainly after thousands of years something as basic as footwear must have evolved to the point where it was sustainable, right?
I used the greatest resource of knowledge humankind has ever created and did a little research online. I learned about the Tarahumara, the native American people of northern Mexico who run hundreds of miles a week using sandals fabricated from old rubber tires.
I’ve been wearing and running in my own handmade pair of huaraches for over a year now, making repairs and alterations as necessary and being quietly reminded with each step of that decision I made after asking the question, “Is this sustainable for humanity?”
If we all gauge our decisions against a backdrop of equality for humanity, then we will recognize the significance of our individual actions and those actions will naturally gravitate towards what makes sense for everyone.
It used to be that we were so disconnected from each other that it wasn’t possible to find globally harmonious solutions. It used to be that everybody would make decisions based on their local knowledge and access to resources.
But now, in a ever-growing global society where an increasing number of us have access to resources from anywhere on the planet and the collective knowledge of humanity, our individual choices matter more than ever.
How we choose to live, what we choose to do, the things we choose to buy and eat and consume, all of it has an ever-increasing impact on the rest of humanity and those of us affecting things on that global scale have a new responsibility to work towards what is sustainable for everyone.
To work towards a future of global social equality, we must start by making decisions that reflect a respect for that equality and we can start by asking the question, “Is this sustainable for humanity?”
What do I know? I know so little. I don't even know how to breathe. I simply think "breathe" and my body choreographs a beautifully synchronized series of events that results in my chest expanding and air being sucked in to fill the vacuum. What do I know? I know so little. I don't even know how to breathe.
I traveled 1,300 miles by foot, car, subway, and two airplanes to watch a spaceship blast off into space. Was it fun? Absolutely. But was my decision to spend time, money, and resources to watch a machine carry humans into space really just another small vote for poverty?
A child is painfully aware, if only subconsciously, that it knows very little. The young brain does not see the world and say, "I know everything; I don't need to learn that." It doesn't make assumptions. A young brain is infinitely curious. Always exploring, always learning, always expanding its horizons and converting the unknown into something that makes sense.
Scientists call this brain plasticity, our brains' ability to evolve, change, and grow based on the experiences and the environments we're exposed to. As we age, our brain becomes less plastic and begins to harden as we convince ourselves that we know. We know how language works. We know how people work. We know how the world works.
But when we expose our brain to something new -- a different set of people, an awkward social situation, a reality that was previously deemed science fiction -- our brain is forced to cope with this new truth. It's forced to grow. It's forced to return to its plasticity and expand. Continue reading
I started writing this as a comment in reply to Adam Bossy's post The Paradox of Self-Education. The comment became so long that I decided to turn it into a post here on my blog.
I grew up wanting to "be everything", from astronomer, to musician, to entomologist, to geneticist, to Navy SEAL, to writer, to geologist, to computer scientist. Hell, even meteorology (the study of weather, i.e., what the weather man does) fascinated me! I was home schooled through high school and never spent a single day in public or private school. (I actually ended up teaching myself through high school because my parents were busy teaching my younger brother and sister.) This gave me great freedom to study anything that happened to interest me. Over the course of a year, I probably switched between being totally engrossed in a dozen different fields. But in my teens, I realized that "being everything" wasn't a career path and just knowing a little bit about many different fields wasn't going to pay the bills. So I picked the most developed of my skills and went into IT.
Now at 26 and no college degree, I'm working for a software start-up doing a whole variety of things (programming, sysadmin, tech support, editor, you name it) and I run my own small but successful web hosting company. My interest in many other fields has not changed or decreased in any way. The only thing that has changed is my ability to spend ANY amount of time exploring them.
While pondering many of the same points as Adam does in his post, I came to the conclusion that it's our bills and our standards of living that are holding us down. By living paycheck to paycheck we make it impossible to take six months or a year off from work to explore some new thing that has peaked our interest. Socially, we're expected to follow the same routine advancement in our current field from one position to another, making a bigger paycheck and being able to raise our standard of living that much higher (thereby putting us back to where we started and resulting in yet another desire for a raise and advancement).
I went from spending upwards of $2,500 a month down to $800 a month by making lifestyle adjustments. "Do I need cable TV?" No, I have the Internet. "Do I need this two-bedroom, 1,500 sqft apartment?" No, I'm a single guy and the rent is a huge part of my paycheck -- 400 sqft will do. "Do I need to drive into work?" No, I can take public transportation. "Do I need this $5 coffee every day?" No, a $.50 green tea will suffice and it will be healthier.
My goal now is to continue living frugally so I can set aside a big enough bucket of money to get me through one year without work. Then, when the time is right, I'll spend a year learning something of interest, possibly making small amounts of money on the side. When needed, I'll start working and hopefully keep repeating this process. If something I do makes me tons of money, great. If not... well it's not about the money.
The pursuit of knowledge is to me more important than all the money in the world. Sure, money would make that pursuit easier, but life isn't easy. This is where I feel society gets it wrong. We put money and status first and education and knowledge second, using the latter to obtain the former. Imagine a society where the pursuit of knowledge defined our standards of living. (Oh no, what would happen to all the ads?!)
If we're willing to sacrifice our high-strung lifestyle for the ability to spend time learning and increasing knowledge, then we can accomplish amazing things, both individually and as a society. A world pursuing money and status has all the reason to fight amongst themselves and start wars, but a world pursuing knowledge and advancement has all the reason to maintain peace.