Building your mind, one brick at a time

“Reading and experience train your model of the world. And even if you forget the experience or what you read, its effect on your model of the world persists. Your mind is like a compiled program you’ve lost the source of. It works, but you don’t know why.” — Paul Graham

I have been reflecting on this topic a lot recently. I loved Sam Harris’ recent book Waking Up and it once again got me into a trance of:

  • I don’t remember anything. Ask me to recount events from when I was 24. Holy crap. An entire year, yet how many events can you bring to mind?
  • What I do remember is edited.
  • Well, what am “I” then? If you took away my memories what do I become? If you sever the hemispheres via a callostomy then you see a view of the world where there are two consciousnesses


Time is rushing by and I am trying to do better by being mindfully aware of the now vs. the past or future. The decisions that I make in the now will compound over time. When you see the effects of compound interest in money, think about what that could mean to the compounding of events and how you spend your time?

This lead me to the analogy of building a house.

Your actions every moment build the house, and at the end of the time you have one ready for you to start occupying. When building that house, ask yourself some questions:

  • Do you want to cut corners? If so, which ones? (Are you looking to save time? Are you looking to find the right balance where the foundation is still more than sound, but the savings are meaningful?)
  • Are you proud of your craft?
  • Do you focus on building a strong foundation and understand where you get leverage?

While you are at your house warming you realize that you don’t remember brick number 20345. You don’t remember its details, or the details of how you placed it. But the sum of the actions and your experience ended up creating what you now stand in. Each brick kinda matters.

With this in mind I try to use my time wisely. I want to lay that brick down correctly so it can be built on for the future. I won’t take the short cut and have that candy bar. I won’t skip the gym. I won’t sit in front of the TV because it is the easy option and I am tired.

Fun balance

Then I started to wonder. Do I want to be just a foundation? Where is the room for the innovation in the house? For trying things? Why are our schools like grey boring cells vs. more like creative spaces from Dr. Seuss?

alphabet schoolio

While I am building I need some time to let loose and to try something new. It is OK and expected that it won’t always work, so try to give it space and measure to know if it is sound after the fact.

It is a really bad idea though to be in one mode while thinking that you are in another. I try to combat that by allowing myself explicit time to let of steam. I have a “cheat day” for food every week. I will have a glass of wine with friends to de stress and have some fun. I will have free time to do whatever I want with (which could include seeing that gratuitous movie!). These release valves can allow me to be focused when I need it.

I hope to get better at this over time, and then the house continues to strengthen its foundation while becoming more interesting. I have always loved how software is malleable and can be improved after the fact. The mind is the same.

The age excuse

One mantra I have for myself is to not use age as an excuse. I don’t want to stop working out because “I am getting old”. I don’t want to stop working as “It is time to retire”. These are cop outs. The brain is trying to force you into the path of least resistance. We are built that way and need to keep fighting it.

As we learn how important it is to always be pushing the brain to learn new things, I often wonder about the role of experience vs. learning. How can you best optimize for the outcome that you are going after? For example, if you learn a language there are a slew of ways to do it. Tim Ferris is the king of the 20/80 rule here: 20% of the effort for 80% of the reward. There are ways to do a more efficient job of learning and you should fight to find them.

That brings me back to where we began with Paul Graham and reading. I have such a backlog of books that I sometimes start to feel stress. I then want to rush to read faster, which results in less absorption of the material and learning less. Instead I fight to read slower, take notes, and let things really sink in. I want to pack away the knowledge so it can be used in the future (both in my brain and also via tools).

I am trying very hard to lay the bricks with precision, but also not losing sight of the fact that I want to have a joyful, original life journey.

After all, you don’t want your running program to be easily reversed back to any old source code do you?

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