“You will lose points if you make too many mistakes”

The instructions on my online Japanese homework read: “you will lose points if you make too many mistakes.”

I’m sorry?

Isn’t that how we learn?

By making mistakes?

And how many mistakes is too many? It doesn’t matter if a kid falls off his bike 500 times. Give them the chance to get back on 512 times, if that’s what it takes to teach him how to ride a bike.

I understand that this is to discourage students from doing badly on purpose. That’s called brute-force cheating, and it doesn’t teach students anything besides how to cheat.

But what if instead of penalizing students for making mistakes, we encouraged them to make as many mistakes as they need?

This problem wouldn’t exist if we designed courses that were impossible to cheat. As long, of course, as we also encourage them to understand why it matters to make mistakes.

Just like in the movies

In the movies, actors take a beat before saying their next line. Pick any of your favorites, and you’ll see this trick in action. You can see this even in movies with complicated dialogue.

This works, one hundred percent of the time, because it breathes life into empty space. This works because you cannot help but use split-second silence to project what you think will happen next.

How do you direct a great movie? By creating a tension that makes everything else in the audience’s life irrelevant. Sorry grandma, I can’t answer your call. Bill Murray and Scarlet Johansson are having a moment.

But we don’t speak like this. We don’t like empty space. We don’t like silence. Silence is scary. Silence is awkward. We don’t like awkward. Awkward is a signal that who we’re speaking to doesn’t find us interesting. And so we hardly give the other person enough time to finish speaking before we chime in with our half-baked brilliant insight.

So are the actors trying to imitate how people actually speak?

Or are we trying to imitate actors?

Music and the Myth of Genres

Genres exist to make it easier for customers to find what they’re looking for.

Genres are like a map with labels, arrows, and a legend. Thanks to genres, we can expect a country song to sound this way and a jazz piece to sound that way.

But what about the bands that don’t easily fit into a genre? What do we do with them? What do we do with all the Mammal Hands, Radioheads, and Dirty Projectors?

One solution is that we can put a band like Mammal Hands into a subgenre. What kind of music do they play? They play jazz music. But they sometimes play their jazz music slowly. So we can put them into the “ambient jazz” subgenre. But once we start talking about subgenres, things get complicated.

Here’s a detail of the list of electronic music subgenres from Wikipedia.

Free Tekno? Bouncy Techno? Skweee? Intelligent dance music? Yeah, intelligent dance music. We can look no further than Richard D. James, the father figure of “intelligent” dance music, to understand how silly things get when we worry too much about categories. He says,

It’s basically saying ‘this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.’ It’s really nasty to everyone else’s music.

Richard D. James on Perfect Sound Forever

So what kind of music is Aphex Twin actually making, if it’s not what the Board of Genres says it is?

It’s music.

Richard D. James is making music.

Daniel Handler is writing novels.

And Sofia Coppola is directing movies.

Genres are categories. Categories make it easier for us to put things into boxes and bins so that it’s easier for us to find what we’re looking for. So what’s the problem, then?

The problem is that we rely on genres to tell us what we should look for.

Country music has a style that puts people like me off from listening to it. But Fleet Foxes is a band that you could sort of call a “country” band. But if someone were to tell me that it’s sort of like a “country” band, they’d convince me to listen to anything but.

And so this brings me to the idea of motifs. I can’t give you the textbook definition because I’m not classically trained in music. I’m trained in my own taste. I know what kind of music I like, and why. So a motif, to me, is a theme – kind of diction – expressed through the music no matter what genre. I like music that’s dramatic, powerful, simple in category, but technically complicated and difficult to appreciate. Kind of like a Dostoyevsky novel.

We like genres because they’re useful. Genres point us in a direction. But motifs are what bring our souls into an ephemeral trance when the players hit that orgasmic key and tempo change. A motif is how music invites our senses, in the words of Nietzsche, “to enjoy themselves.”

Genres organize.

Motifs materialize.

Speed shaving

This morning I caught myself trying to shave as fast as possible. My rationale: this bodily regulation is unnecessary and detrimental to my goals of being successful; shaving is a waste of time, and so I need to shave as fast as I can.

What’s a bigger waste of time? Boring stuff you have to do because you’re an animal with hair? Or a project with too many oversights because you were in a frenzy?

Please don’t hurt the frogs: an answer to the fear of running out of stuff to do

The ambitious snag, grasp, and capture opportunities like a Pokémon trainer hunting a shiny Charizard. This could be their last moment. This could be their final chance to make an impact in the world. Gotta catch em all, right?

But all this snatching and hunting leaves the ambitious heart exhausted and fearful. As successful as they appear, a phobia of irrelevancy is always loitering in the parking lot of their todo list.

Christopher Ryan in his conversation with Monk Yun Rou speaks of a universal metaphor. It’s a metaphor that symbolizes the antidote to the fear of running out of stuff to do. If you try to grab a frog out of a pond (and you happen to be high on LSD), you might end up hurting it. Instead, open up your hands and let the frog see no danger.

In plainer words: do you have an open-door policy that encourages lasting relationships and meaningful work?

“The sacrificial pancake”

The Rule of Suck: the first one is going to be very, very, embarrassingly not so good.

What to do?

Do the next one. And the next one after that. On and on, serving up hundreds of works to an audience who trusts that you’ll get it right — eventually.

Here’s Paul McGrath (great name), on pancakes and what they teach us about creativity. I told him on Thursday that this was my favorite read of the week. It’s now Saturday, and I’m still standing by that statement.

300 is based on a true story

I’ve never seen 300. All I know is that there’s a Spartan king who sacrifices himself and his men for what they believe. Wikipedia says it’s loaded with historical inaccuracies (few movies are historically accurate). But whether 300 portrays history exactly as it happened is besides the point. 300 was so successful at the box office partly because it’s true mythologically.

We sacrifice for what we believe in. Constantly. Always. Period. You cannot escape this truth because even right now, you’re sacrificing your time (you can’t get it back, hence, sacrifice) because you believe that my writing is worth reading. (Thanks, by the way.)

What we believe to be true informs how we act. Time is what all of us place on the sacrificial altar of our conscious and unconscious habits. And yes, we could choose not to believe in this, that, or anything at all. There’s nobody stopping you from doing that. It’s entirely up to you to decide what you want to believe in. Just know that you’re free to choose what you believe. If you don’t like the consequences of what you believe, you’re free to change the ideas that inform how you act.

A wide variety of beliefs to pick and choose from — that’s freedom.

How I meditate

When I sit down to meditate I imagine what would have happened if I won that argument with my old boss while soaring through the sky after having jumped off of a clip to escape a situation I didn’t want to be in because I’d rather be doing anything but this since having sex sounds great right now but I can’t do that because I’m meditating for an hour so that I can see through my bullshit excuses for getting upset at people who piss me off for what I now know is no good reason to have gotten pissed off but in that moment I had all the reason to get pissed off at them for cutting me off on the freeway or for even just talking too loudly while I’m trying to write a blog post that no more than 20 people will read because I’m not that good at writing which is why I’m meditating so that I can write at least one original sentence before I die an untimely death by distracting phone notifications trying to tell me that I have a new email I must read while I’m driving my car just a few blocks away so it’s fine I can get away with this it’s not like my whole life is dependent on the quality of my thoughts like all those self-help books try to preach at me.


0.0001%* Of Your Life

If you’re learning something new, ask yourself:

How much of my life have I spent not doing this?

26 years of not speaking in Japanese.

37 years of not surfing.

81 years of not writing a memoir.

Of course it’s hard. Of course you’re forgetting steps, falling off your board, and faltering up the stairs. Of course you want to quit. But do you realize that you’ve only spent a miniscule fraction of your life trying to improve at this? And that you’ve spent the other 99.99something% doing other stuff?

The time you haven’t spent improving at this will always outnumber the time you’ve spent working hard to get better.

There’s a fight going on inside of you between an archetypal David and Goliath. In one corner of the ring we have You With Experience. And in the other corner, we have You With No Experience.

You With Experience has 4 days of Japanese grammar tutorials fresh in his head. This is you. You are David. You are naïve. Undisciplined. Untrained. Nobody expects you to win. The odds are against you.

You With No Experience has 26 years of Not-Knowing-Jack-About-Japanese Grammar Experience under his belt. This is also you. You are your own Goliath. You’ve been training your entire life in the ways of not knowing jack about the が particle.

Who do you think will win?

* Guesswork with a very rough ballpark estimate, maybe, perhaps.