Itchy and Scratchy

Turns out dopamine isn’t what I thought it was… I thought I was a simple lab rat seeking sugar solution with my many pastimes.

But it turns out dopamine is a motivator not a reward… Dopamine is the itch not the scratch; and that’s why it’s so motivating.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say:

In popular culture and media, dopamine is usually seen as the main chemical of pleasure, but the current opinion in pharmacology is that dopamine instead confers motivational salience; in other words, dopamine signals the perceived motivational prominence (i.e., the desirability or aversiveness) of an outcome, which in turn propels the organism’s behavior toward or away from achieving that outcome.

And thus dopamine doesn’t bring satisfaction. In fact, I’ve discovered, the opposite – the more you scratch the more it itches. Dopamine powers learning and curiosity; and seems to reward it. But once you’re in a dopamine cycle it just itches and itches and itches.

It’s dopamine which powers all addictions: drugs, gambling and alcohol most notably. But it also fuels any form of compulsive behaviour; wherever your subconscious tells you you need to “feed your need” from marathon running to marathon eating, dopamine is urging you on.

So now I’m starting to understand why my jockey is forever lost

I’ve been chasing dopamine; instead of letting life be its own reward.

William of Ockham

A nice piece I read this morning in Philosophy Now, contains a quote which largely summarises my endeavours at work this week:

It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer.

Ascribed to William of Ockham, who lived from c1285 to 1348 – it is as true in the modern world of work as it no doubt was in a medieval monastery.

Here’s a little of what writer Terence Green has to say about Ockham in Philosophy Now [which at just £17 for a year’s subscription would comfortably pass Green’s excise the excess Ockham test]:

William from Ockham (or Occam), an otherwise obscure village in Surrey, England, was the greatest philosopher of the fourteenth century. Known as the Doctor Invincibilis, he didn’t care whom he offended, and with his rough and ready style of argument, he offended plenty of people – which eventually got him into big trouble.

He became a Franciscan monk, an order famous for its commitment to poverty. But this meant he was at risk of having idle hands (one of poverty’s unacknowledged benefits), and so doing the Devil’s work. To avoid this calamity, he wrote widely on logic, physics, and theology.

Today he is most often associated with ‘Ockham’s Razor’, his idea that explanations should be as simple as possible; alternative formulations of this principle include ‘Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity’ and ‘It is futile to do with more things that which can be done with fewer’. Frankly, this is a good rule of thumb whatever you’re thinking about.

Having already been condemned as a heretic in 1326 for having unorthodox views, since he argued against Aquinas’s philosophy, he didn’t help himself when in 1328 he sided with those who argued against the Pope that Jesus and his disciples didn’t own any property. This was obviously a matter of considerable importance to the Pope, who owned a lot of property.

Seeing what was coming (imprisonment and execution), William took refuge with the Holy Roman Emperor in Bavaria. Excommunicated, but feeling a bit safer, he wrote polemics against the Pope’s claim to temporal power, thus emulating Dante.

The invincible teacher was finally beaten around 1347/48, probably by the Black Death. The Pope had died earlier, in 1334, still owning lots of property.

© Terence Green 2019

Always?

I have a reminder on my iPhone which pops up every Monday at 8am:

But today not so.

I feel fine. Changing the clocks back must have helped… The sun is shining and despite travelling up and down the motorway for 14 in 36 hours; and a highly unappealing day ahead – I do feel fine!

Why? Here’s a clue…

I just have to go back to this post to find out. In the words of the meerkats: “simples”.

Enjoy what’s on your plate…

Plenty of bother at work this week; and I mean plenty… At one point on Friday afternoon I kinda wondered if it was a really well organised prank. People problems, building problems, legal problems, a bereavement – and a taxi outside waiting to take me for another meeting while I was supposed to instantly sort them.

But my new mantra got me through with at least half a smile:

Enjoy what’s on your plate

Once again I’ve turned to Chris Croft for inspiration here – if you look at things the right way they’re all potentially enjoyable…

Here’s what Chris has to say:

This month’s tip is taken from The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey which is a great little book, and only 50% about tennis. The bit that I really liked went as follows:

There are three reasons why you might play tennis (or do anything else in life)

Competition: to beat other people. But Tim Gallwey says that this is pointless because there will always be someone better than you so it’s a futile objective. Unless you pick weak opponents so you beat them, but what’s the point of that. So being competitive, trying to prove yourself by being better than other people, is not the right path to go down.

I completely agree with Chris and Tim on this – even in my sporting heyday I often couldn’t see the point. So what’s next?

Mastery: to master the game (or to master selling or management or traffic planning or heart surgery or physiotherapy or growing pumpkins or whatever it is that you do). Again, TG says this is futile – you’ll never master it. Ask anyone who plays golf! Though I did once meet Eddie Lockjaw Davis, one of the best jazz saxophonists in the world, and talk to him, and he said he’d mastered the sax and was bored with it. He’d taken up snooker at the age of 80 to give himself a challenge! So even if you did master it you’d be bored, but anyway, you won’t, (even Federer misses some shots) so forget that!

Mastery has always trapped me more than competition – secretly wanting to be really good (and maybe even wanting other people to see I was really good) at things. But as Chris has written very persuasively in his Big Book of Happiness the more you seek mastery the less you get back from it; it’s the law of diminishing marginal returns.

So what’s left? Just the good stuff:

Enjoyment: to get pleasure from the good shots, even if there aren’t very many! Who cares if you’re not the best, or that you aren’t perfect; every now and then you do a great shot, and that makes it all worthwhile. I must say that as I got better at squash (and I was quite good once!) I found it less and less enjoyable, because I took most shots for granted, I was just irritated by the really hard ones that I couldn’t quite get, on those key points in the game against really tough opponents. Gone were the fun knock-abouts with friends where we just took delight in hitting the ball.

To play for enjoyment means that your self-worth doesn’t come from being really good, or from being better than other people. Playing is not about self-worth at all. Your self worth should be totally independent of how good you are at tennis – or anything else. You can be rubbish at tennis and still be a good person.

And this was the sentence that helped me the most:

So the question is, could you get enjoyment from selling or managing or nursing or refusing planning permission or whatever your job involves?

I think this is the key to enjoying what’s on your plate; stop resenting it, or trying to master it and start enjoying it – even when you’re not very good at it.

As Chris says:

Many people’s plan is to just survive and get through the working days, to earn enough money to live, and then to get happiness from their time outside work – but of course, ideally we would get happiness from both parts of our lives. And happiness at work comes from having both a sense of achievement AND enjoying the process.

So I’m working on savouring my daily plateful of Brussels sprouts; and maybe even starting to like the taste!

Beyond Treachery

An old friend sent me this card for my birthday last week; he asked me what I thought of it…

Here’s what I said:

Age and kindness will triumph over youth and ambition old friend.

I’m up to my neck in my new job, but strangely have come to realise I have lost my fear.

Many years ago you helped me; with an exercise which taught me I had treachery in me but also had compassion, care and kindness. You helped me tip over the right way (and I’ve seen so many who haven’t) and for that I owe you everything.

And I do.

Listening

Having spent some quality time with several good people in their late fifties and sixties this last week; I think I’ve noticed something…

1) They were each either fearing or dealing with the end of their working lives.

2) They were each ostensibly ok about it, but seemed subtly troubled none the less.

3) They all hoped in one way or another that either dramatically changing their lives or throwing themselves into their relationships would make it ok…

I’m not so sure. I think what they were wrestling was irrelevance, loss of status and fear of terminal decline. Who can blame them?

For my part, I just wanted to be where they are – so I could imagine a life without work as the constant metronome.

A few weeks off seems to tell me I’ll cope just fine with a life of leisure; but I’m sure when my time comes I’ll be wrestling my demons as they are.

Hope however springs from something each of these encounters (and several others with younger folk) have reinforced… Everyone wants just two things in the end: to be noticed, and to be listened to.

I reckon if you can stop and properly listen to people, you’ll always be in demand.

Time will tell; but I think a couple of my older friends were fearing people wouldn’t be so interested in what they have to say any more. I think they’re right.

All people want is for you to listen to them.

Crystallised Fruits

A rather marvellous angle on life came by email a few weeks ago…

Click image for original article

I’ve shared it with half a dozen people; and in passing nice to remember (even as the world seems to barrel towards hell in a handcart) at no other time in history could you have got this knowledge – via a friend of a friend, across an ocean and the English Channel, and then on to me – in but a handful of days….

There is still much to be thankful for in the modern world.

So what’s the story?

In 1999, Carole Holahan and Charles Holahan, psychologists at the University of Texas, published an influential paper that looked at hundreds of older adults who early in life had been identified as highly gifted.

The Holahans’ conclusion: “Learning at a younger age of intellectual giftedness was related to … less favorable psychological well-being at age eighty.”

But why?

The Holahans surmise that the children identified as gifted might have made intellectual ability more central to their self-appraisal, creating “unrealistic expectations for success” and causing them to fail to “take into account the many other life influences on success and recognition.”

And this is compounded by:

…abundant evidence [which] suggests that the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically.

Just think of professional sportspeople….

Consider professional athletes, many of whom struggle profoundly after their sports career ends.

Tragic examples abound, involving depression, addiction, or suicide; unhappiness in retired athletes may even be the norm, at least temporarily.

This is nicely summed up by Alex Dias Ribeiro, a former Formula 1 driver:

“Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,”

This is sooo right…

“For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line.”

“His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead.”

“In this case, there will not be life after success.”

The author Arthur C Brooks calls this the ‘Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation’:

The idea that the agony of professional oblivion is directly related to the height of professional prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige. 

I think I suffered a bit of this in my current job… From self-appointed ‘brain of Britain’ to hard pressed General Factotum in one simple apparently duff career move.

Still the great advantage of life is time.

There’s lots of time if you use it well. Time to think and time to learn. I’ve learnt a lot; and finally – having left my rather unhappy job last week – I’ve had some time to think on a happy family holiday.

And I return to this article again…

One thing I’ve learned working at a top university, is everyone is constantly competing to demonstrate what the article says British psychologist Raymond Cattell defined (in the early 1940s) as fluid intelligence:

The ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower.

It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s.

Cattell’s work suggests a smarter focus for the second half of one’s working (and actual) life is ‘crystallised intelligence’:

Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past.

Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom.

Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.

And herein lies the answer to the later career – let go of being the sharpest, smartest and fastest; and develop wisdom instead.

Brooks continues:

The antidote to worldly temptations is Vanaprastha whose name comes from two Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest.”

This is the stage, usually starting around age 50, in which we purposefully focus less on professional ambition, and become more and more devoted to spirituality, service, and wisdom.

This doesn’t mean that you need to stop working when you turn 50—something few people can afford to do—only that your life goals should adjust.

And how?

Vanaprastha is a time for study and training for the last stage of life, Sannyasa, which should be totally dedicated to the fruits of enlightenment.

As we age, we should resist the conventional lures of success in order to focus on more transcendentally important things.

This suggests leaving behind:

Résumé virtues which are professional and oriented toward earthly success. They require comparison with others.

And making the benchmark ‘Eulogy virtues’ which…

…are ethical and spiritual, and require no comparison.

Your eulogy virtues are what you would want people to talk about at your funeral.

As in:

“He was kind and deeply spiritual”

not 

“He made senior vice president at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles

And if this is the goal of the third phase of lifeI’ve made some progress.

In my leaving dos from the end of the 1990s through the 2000s people might well have said: ‘He made Director at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles.’

But at my most recent leaving do last Thursday, I signed off by thanking a wonderfully diverse audience (which wholly represented the community I am proud to have been part of) for helping me to become: “a kinder, gentler and better person.”

And thanks to them; I have.

These are the crystallised fruits of the challenging but ultimately rewarding last three and a half years.

I’m now happy to turn the page.

AirPods or Albatrosses

They’re kinda wonderful; but as vice.com point out

They’re plastic, made of some combination of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, chlorine, and sulfur. They’re tungsten, tin, tantalum, lithium, and cobalt.

The particles that make up these elements were created 13.8 billion years ago, during the Big Bang. Humans extract these elements from the earth, heat them, refine them. As they work, humans breathe in airborne particles, which deposit in their lungs. The materials are shipped from places like Vietnam, South Africa, Kazakhstan, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, and India, to factories in China. A literal city of workers creates four tiny computing chips and assembles them into a logic board. Sensors, microphones, grilles, and an antenna are glued together and packaged into a white, strange-looking plastic exoskeleton.

These are AirPods. They’re a collection of atoms born at the dawn of the universe, churned beneath the surface of the earth, and condensed in an anthropogenic parallel to the Big Crunch—a proposed version of the death of the universe where all matter shrinks and condenses together. Workers are paid unlivable wages in more than a dozen countries to make this product possible. Then it’s sold by Apple, the world’s first trillion-dollar company, for $159 USD. 

For roughly 18 months, AirPods play music, or podcasts, or make phone calls. Then the lithium-ion batteries will stop holding much of a charge, and the AirPods will slowly become unusable. They can’t be repaired because they’re glued together. They can’t be thrown out, or else the lithium-ion battery may start a fire in the garbage compactor. They can’t be easily recycled, because there’s no safe way to separatethe lithium-ion battery from the plastic shell. Instead, the AirPods sit in your drawer forever.

But more than a pair of headphones, AirPods are an un-erasable product of culture and class. People in working or impoverished economic classes are responsible for the life-threatening, exhaustive, violent work of removing their parts from the ground and assembling them. Meanwhile, people in the global upper class design and purchase AirPods.

Even if you only own AirPods for a few years, the earth owns them forever. When you die, your bones will decompose in less than a century, but the plastic shell of AirPods won’t decompose for at least a millennia. Thousands of years in the future, if human life or sentient beings exist on earth, maybe archaeologists will find AirPods in the forgotten corners of homes. They’ll probably wonder why they were ever made, and why so many people bought them. But we can also ask ourselves those same questions right now.

Why did we make technology that will live for 18 months, die, and never rot?

I have mixed feelings about Extinction Rebellion; but thanks to Sir David Attenborough, having seen albatrosses feeding plastic to their chicks – you have to think we need to change our ways.