BRAINFOOD NEWSLETTER


Sunday Brain Food: a weekly newsletter full of timeless ideas and insights for life and business.

FS

Knowing about a cognitive bias isn’t usually enough to overcome it. Even people like Daniel Kahneman who have studied behavioral economics for many years sometimes struggle with the same irrational patterns. But being aware of the availability heuristic is helpful for the times when you need to make an important decision and can step back to make sure it isn’t distorting your view. Here are five ways of mitigating the availability heuristic.

— Overcoming a Common Cognitive Distortion

Explore Your Curiosity

★ “The biggest fear most of us have with learning to say NO is that we will miss an opportunity. An opportunity that would have catapulted us to success, or that will never come again. And most of the time*, that simply isn’t true. I’ve found that the first part of learning to say NO is learning to accept that offers and opportunities are merely an indication that you’re on the right path- not that you’ve arrived at a final destination you can never find again.’”

— Grace Bonney on saying no

★ “The big mistake in this pattern of failure is projecting your subjective lack of comprehension onto the object you are looking at, as “irrationality.” We make this mistake because we are tempted by a desire for legibility.”

— A Big Little Idea Called Legibility

Timeless Insight

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.”

— Sherlock Holmes, A Study in Scarlet

Tiny Thought

Waiting for the right time is seductive. Our mind tricks us into thinking that waiting is actually doing something.

It’s easy to land in a state where you’re always waiting … for the right moment, for things to be perfect, for everything to feel just right. It’s easy to convince yourself that you’re not ready and if you wait just a little longer than things will be easier.

Waiting rarely makes things easier. Most of the time, waiting makes things harder.

The right time is now.

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W.O.T.D.


WORD OF THE DAY
PiedpihydPart of speech: adjectiveOrigin: Latin and Middle English, 14th century
1Having two or more different colors
 
Examples of Pied in a sentence “The horse had a pied coat even though his mother’s coat was a solid brown.” “The pied scarf contained all the colors of the rainbow.”

Perfect is a trap. By Seth Godin


False equivalencies [ https://p.feedblitz.com/r3.asp?l=178838337&f=1081591&c=7735117&u=5102652 ]

It’s a pointless form of argument.

“This scientist made a careless error in their paper, therefore we need to excuse a con artist who falsified an entire career.”

Or, “that restaurant served fish that got someone sick, therefore, there’s no reason for there to be a health inspection at my restaurant or any other one for that matter.”

Or, “there was a typo in this book from a major publisher, so I’m not going to bother with an editor at all.”

The open-minded respond by trying to defend the original error or the intent behind it. But that simply amplifies the false equivalency argument and leads to a no-standards race to the bottom.

The false equivalency itself is the problem, not the unexpected error.

Perfect is a trap.

Ideas: Random Acts of Kindness


  1. Give coffee to people on their way to work in the morning
  2. Ask a teenager for their opinion… and then really listen to them
  3. Give the gift of your smile along with a small piece of paper with a smiley face and a note that says “pass it on”
  4. Be generous with compliments
  5. Organize a carpool

Five INteresting phrases


  1. Back To the Drawing Board Meaning: Starting over again on a new design from a previously failed attempt.
  2. Give a Man a Fish Meaning: It’s better to teach a person how to do something than to do that something for them.
  3. Dropping Like Flies Meaning: To fall down ill or to die in large numbers.
  4. Like Father Like Son Meaning: Resembling one’s parents in terms of appearance or behavior.
  5. Lovey Dovey Meaning: The affectionate stuff that people do when they are in love, such as kissing and hugging.

BRAINPICKINGS.ORG newsletter I like


This is the weekly email digest of the daily online journal Brain Pickings by Maria Popova. If you missed last week’s edition — music, matter, and the mind; how to get over rejection; the chemistry and culture of how we see color — you can catch up right here. If my labor of love enriches your life in any way, please consider supporting it with a donation – for a decade and a half, I have spent tens of thousands of hours, made many personal sacrifices, and invested tremendous resources in Brain Pickings, which remains free and ad-free and alive thanks to reader patronage. If you already donate: THANK YOU.

The Ocean and the Meaning of Life

This essay is adapted from Figuring.

In June of 1952, the United States Fish & Wildlife Service received a letter of resignation from its most famous marine biologist. On the line requesting the reason for resignation, she had stated plainly: “To devote my time to writing.” But she was also leaving for the freedom to use her public voice as an instrument of change, awakening the world’s ecological conscience with her bold open letters holding the government accountable for its exploitation of nature.

Fifteen years earlier, at age twenty-nine, Rachel Carson (May 27, 1907–April 14, 1964) had gotten her start at the lowest rungs of the government agency as a field aide hired at $6.50 an hour. Wading through tide pools and annual marine census reports as a junior aquatic biologist, she had found her voice as a writer with an uncommon gift for walking the teeming shoreline between the scientific and the poetic. In an unexampled essay that eventually bloomed into The Sea Around Us, which won her the National Book Award, she had invited the human imagination undersea, into a world then more mysterious than the Moon. Now, forty-five and finally free from the day-job by which she had been supporting her mother, her sister, and the young nephew she adopted and raised as her son after her sister’s death, Carson set out to fulfill her childhood dream of living by the ocean.rachelcarson_undersea.jpg?resize=680%2C398

Rachel Carson

After searching along the New England coast, she fell in love with West Southport — a picturesque island in Maine, nestled among evergreens and oaks in the estuary of the Sheepscot River, where seals frequented the beach and whales billowed by as though torn from the pages of her beloved Melville. With her book royalties, she bought a plot of land on which to build a cottage. In a touching testament to her orientation to the natural world, she felt deeply uncomfortable thinking of herself as its “owner” — a “strange and inappropriate word” — of this “perfectly magnificent piece of Maine shoreline.” There, she would soon meet her soul mate, whose love would bolster Carson’s moral courage in catalyzing the environmental movement; there, she would compose her next book, dedicating it to her beloved Dorothy for having gone down with her “into the low-tide world” and “felt its beauty and its mystery.”

The Edge of the Sea was an ambitious guide to the seashore — the place where Carson found “a sense of the unhurried deliberation of earth processes that move with infinite leisure, with all eternity at their disposal”; the strange and wondrous boundary the ocean-loving Whitman had once extolled as “that suggesting, dividing line, contact, junction… blending the real and ideal, and each made portion of the other.”

The book was also an admonition against what we stand to lose — writing in the early 1950s, Carson noted the systematically documented and “well recognized” fact of global climate change. But was primarily a celebration, for that is always the most effective instrument of admonition — a celebration of what we have and what we are, an ode to “how that marvelous, tough, vital, and adaptable something we know as LIFE has come to occupy one part of the sea world and how it has adjusted itself and survived despite the immense, blind forces acting upon it from every side.”hasuikawase1.jpg?resize=680%2C1014

Spring Moon at Ninomiya Beach, 1931 — one of Hasui Kawase’s stunning vintage Japanese woodblocks. (Available as a print.)

Inevitably, in telling the story of life, the book takes on an existential undertone, rendered symphonic under Carson’s poetic pen. Watching the fog engulf the rocks beneath her study window as the night tide rolls in, she considers the totality of being, which the world’s oceans contour and connect:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngHearing the rising tide, I think how it is pressing also against other shores I know — rising on a southern beach where there is no fog, but a moon edging all the waves with silver and touching the wet sands with lambent sheen, and on a still more distant shore sending its streaming currents against the moonlit pinnacles and the dark caves of the coral rock.

Then in my thoughts these shores, so different in their nature and in the inhabitants they support, are made one by the unifying touch of the sea. For the differences I sense in this particular instant of time that is mine are but the differences of a moment, determined by our place in the stream of time and in the long rhythms of the sea. Once this rocky coast beneath me was a plain of sand; then the sea rose and found a new shore line. And again in some shadowy future the surf will have ground these rocks to sand and will have returned the coast to its earlier state. And so in my mind’s eye these coastal forms merge and blend in a shifting, kaleidoscopic pattern in which there is no finality, no ultimate and fixed reality — earth becoming fluid as the sea itself.

greatwave_hokusai.jpg?resize=680%2C457

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Japanese artist Hokusai, 1831. (Available as a print and as a face mask, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

The year of Carson’s death, as Dorothy scattered her ashes into the rocking bay, James Baldwin would echo these existential undertones in his poetic insistence that “nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever… the sea does not cease to grind down rock.” Carson — still alive, still islanded for a mortal moment in the ocean of ongoingness — adds:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngOn all these shores there are echoes of past and future: of the flow of time, obliterating yet containing all that has gone before; of the sea’s eternal rhythms — the tides, the beat of surf, the pressing rivers of the currents — shaping, changing, dominating; of the stream of life, flowing as inexorably as any ocean current, from past to unknown future.

[…]

Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp. What is the message signaled by the hordes of diatoms, flashing their microscopic lights in the night sea? What truth is expressed by the legions of the barnacles, whitening the rocks with their habitations, each small creature within finding the necessities of its existence in the sweep of the surf? And what is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is a sea lace, existing for some reason inscrutable to us — a reason that demands its presence by the trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore? The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.

yaggi_nature_sm.jpg?resize=680%2C460

Art from Geographical Portfolio — Comprising Physical, Political, Geological, and Astronomical Geography by Levi Walter Yaggy, 1887. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

As The Edge of the Sea alighted in the world, critical praise and honors came cascading, trailed by invitations for lectures and acceptance speeches. Always uncomfortable with attention and public appearances, Carson became even more selective, prioritizing women’s associations and nonprofit cultural institutions over glamorous commercial stages. When she did speak, her words became almost a consecration, as in a speech she delivered before a convocation of librarians:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngWhen we go down to the lowest of the low tide lines and look down into the shallow waters, there’s all the excitement of discovering a new world. Once you have entered such a world, its fascination grows and somehow you find your mind has gained a new dimension, a new perspective — and always thereafter you find yourself remember[ing] the beauty and strangeness and wonder of that world — a world that is as real, as much a part of the universe, as our own.

rachelcarson_1951.jpg?resize=680%2C338

Rachel Carson, 1951

Savor more of Carson’s lyrical reverence for the sea and the strange wonder of life in Figuring. Couple this fragment with a stunning illustrated celebration of our water world based on Indian mythology, then revisit Carson’s life-tested wisdom on writing and the loneliness of creative work, the story of how her writing sparked the environmental movement, and Neil Gaiman’s poetic tribute to her legacy.

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/
donating=lovingFor 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.monthly donationYou can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch. one-time donationOr you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

James Baldwin on Love, the Illusion of Choice, and the Paradox of Freedom

baldwin_giovannisroom.jpg?fit=320%2C491

We, none of us, choose the century we are born in, or the skin we are born in, or the chromosomes we are born with. We don’t choose the incredibly narrow band of homeostasis within which we can be alive at all — in bodies that die when their temperature rises above 40 degrees Celsius or drops below 20, living on a planet that would be the volcanic inferno of Venus or the frigid desert of Mars if it were just a little closer to or farther from its star.

And yet, within these narrow parameters of being, nothing appeals to us more than the notion of freedom — the feeling that we are free, that intoxicating illusion with which we blunt the hard fact that we are not. The more abstract and ideological the realm, the more vehemently we can insist that moral choice in specific situations within narrow parameters proves a totality of freedom. But the closer the question moves to the core of our being, the more clearly and catastrophically the illusion crumbles — nowhere more helplessly than in the most intimate realm of experience: love. Try to will yourself into — or out of — loving someone, try to will someone into loving you, and you collide with the fundamental fact that we do not choose whom we love. We could not choose, because we do not choose who and what we are, and in any love that is truly love, we love with everything we are.

James Baldwin (August 2, 1924–December 1, 1987) was a young man — young and brilliant and aflame with life, blazing against society’s illusion of stability and control — when he composed his stunning semi-autobiographical novel Giovanni’s Room (public library), making the paradox of freedom its animating theme.jamesbaldwin.jpg?resize=680%2C425

James Baldwin

Baldwin writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngNothing is more unbearable, once one has it, than freedom.

To bear the unbearable, Baldwin intimates, we construct and cling to artificial structures of choice, personal and social — habits, routines, the contractual commitment of marriage, the moralistic frameworks that indict one kind of love as good and another as bad. Today, Giovanni’s Room is celebrated as a pioneering liberation and representation of LGBTQ+ love — a term that did not exist in Baldwin’s day, for it speaks to a cultural silence so deep then that there was no adequate language for it. (The language we use today is hardly adequate — but language is always a placeholder for a culture’s evolving understanding of itself, the space in which we work out our concepts as we learn how to think about them in learning how to speak of them.) Baldwin rose against a tidal force of cowardice from publishers at a time when the Bible of psychiatry — the Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders — classified love as so many of us know it as a “sociopathic personality disturbance.” At the center of his act of courage and resistance is the recognition that the experience of love is our most primal confrontation with the illusion of freedom.downadownderry_dorothylathrop17.jpg?resize=680%2C801

Art by Dorothy Lathrop, 1922. (Available as a print.)

Exactly half a century after the Spanish-American poet, philosopher, and novelist George Santayana considered why we like what we like and a decade after the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl made his hard-earned case for saying yes to life in the most unfree of circumstances, Baldwin writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngPeople can’t, unhappily, invent their mooring posts, their lovers and their friends, anymore than they can invent their parents. Life gives these and also takes them away and the great difficulty is to say Yes to life.

margaretcook_leavesofgrass13.jpg?resize=680%2C854

Art by Margaret C. Cook from a rare 1913 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Four years later, Baldwin would develop these ideas in his immensely insightful speech-turned-essay on freedom and how we imprison ourselves.

In the final years of his life, he would look back on the crucible of these ideas, describing Giovanni’s Room as a book not about one kind of love or another but “about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody.” In his most intimate interview, he would recount the best advice he ever received on the transcendent, terrifying choicelessness of love and the implicit, seemingly paradoxical demand for choice within it — advice given him by an old friend:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngYou have to go the way your blood beats. If you don’t live the only life you have, you won’t live some other life, you won’t live any life at all.

margaretcook_leavesofgrass22.jpg?resize=680%2C861

Art by Margaret C. Cook from Leaves of Grass. (Available as a print.)

Complement with Toni Morrison on the deepest meaning of freedom and Simone de Beauvoir on how chance and choice converge to make us who we are, then revisit Baldwin on the doom and glory of knowing who you are.

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/

The Mirror of Enigmas: Chance, the Universe, and the Pale Blues of Knowing Who We Are

borges_labyrinths-1.jpg?fit=320%2C516

It takes a great sobriety of spirit to know your own depths — and your limits. It takes a special grandeur of spirit to know the limits of your self-knowledge.

A recent brush with those limits reminded me of a short, stunning essay by Jorge Luis Borges (August 24, 1899–June 14, 1986) titled “The Mirror of Enigmas,” found in his Labyrinths (public library) — the 1962 collection of stories, essays, and parables that gave us his timeless parable of the divided self and his classic refutation of time.

Titling the essay after St. Paul’s famous cryptic statement Videmus nunc per speculum in aenigmate — loosely translated as We now see through a mirror, enigmatically — Borges considers the tribe of thinkers who have perched their efforts to reconcile knowledge and mystery, the scientific and the spiritual, on the assumption that “the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — has an incalculable, symbolical value.” With his characteristic poetic precision, he condenses this common and somewhat tired hypothesis:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngThe outer world — forms, temperatures, the moon — is a language humans have forgotten or which we can scarcely distinguish.

No one, Borges argues, has taken this precarious hypothesis to more surefooted ground than the French novelist, poet, and philosophical pamphleteer Léon Bloy (July 11, 1846–November 3, 1917).

Digging through the surviving fragments of Bloy’s written thought, he surfaces a passage emblematic of Bloy’s uncommon physics of the metaphysical — an 1894 passage fomented by his interest in the teachings of St. Paul. Translated by Borges himself, Bloy writes:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.png[St. Paul’s statement] would be a skylight through which one might submerge himself in the true Abyss, which is the soul of man. The terrifying immensity of the firmament’s abyss is an illusion, an external reflection of our own abysses, perceived “in a mirror.” We should invert our eyes and practice a sublime astronomy in the infinitude of our heart… If we see the Milky Way, it is because it actually exists in our souls.

thomaswright_galaxies3.jpg?resize=680%2C977

Art from Thomas Wright’s An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750 — the first book to describe the spiral shape of the Milky Way. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

A century before Milan Kundera considered the eternal challenge of knowing what we really want in his classic novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Bloy shines a sidewise gleam on the elemental self-opacity with and within which we live:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngEverything is a symbol, even the most piercing pain. We are dreamers who shout in our sleep. We do not know whether the things afflicting us are the secret beginning of our ulterior happiness or not.

These ideas haunted Bloy, animated his pamphlets, his poems, his novels, then culminated in his 1912 book-length essay The Soul of Napoleon — a philosophical prose poem that sets out, as Borges puts it, “to decipher the symbol Napoleon, considered as the precursor of another hero — man and symbol as well — who is hidden in the future.” Bloy, translated again by Borges, writes in this uncommon work:

2e292385-dc1c-4cfe-b95e-845f6f98c2ec.pngEvery man* is on earth to symbolize something he is ignorant of and to realize a particle or a mountain of the invisible materials that will serve to build the City of God.

[…]

There is no human being on earth capable of declaring with certitude who he is. No one knows what he has come into this world to do, what his acts correspond to, his sentiments, his ideas, or what his real name is, his enduring Name in the register of Light… History is an immense liturgical text where the iotas and the dots are worth no less than the entire verses or chapters, but the importance of one and the other is indeterminable and profoundly hidden.

But as you contemplate these existential immensities, you face the limits of contemplation — the limits of meaning-making in relation to elemental truth.

Borges recognized this, closing the essay with by acknowledging “it is doubtful that the world has a meaning… even more doubtful that it has a double or triple meaning.”

I recognized this upon sitting down in for morning meditation in my garden after a nightlong storm and watching an almost otherworldly deposit roll onto the cushion: a tiny, perfect robin egg, improbable and sorrowful in its displaced blue beauty.SingingOnlyIs_by_MariaPopova.jpg?resize=680%2C907

Singing Only Is by Maria Popova. (Available as a print.)

I considered climbing the neighbor’s colossal tree to find the storm-shaken nest and reinstate the egg. (Perfectly, the tree is an Ailanthus altissima, known as “tree-of-heaven” in its native China — a migrant now rooted in Brooklyn, like me.)

But then I considered this chance-event as the product of the same impartial forces that deposited the exact spermatozoid of my father’s onto my mother’s ovum at the exact moment to produce the chance-event of my particular configuration of atoms animated by this particular consciousness that just is, the consciousness mourning the robin that will never be. To call one expression of chance good and another bad is mere human hubris — the hubris of narrative and interpretation superimposed on an impartial universe devoid of why, awash in is.

No one knows the meaning of why anything comes to be, or doesn’t. Here is this pale blue orb, dropped from the tree-of-heaven onto a tiny Brooklyn point on the face of this Pale Blue Dot, itself a “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” within an immense and impartial universe, conceived in the creation myths and early scientific theories of our meaning-hungry ancestors as a great cosmic egg.thomaswright7.jpg?resize=680%2C1033

Art from An Original Theory or New Hypothesis of the Universe, 1750, illustrating Thomas Wright’s model of the cosmos as an egg-like structure of nested infinities. (Available as a print and as a face mask.)

Here I am, and here you are, and here is the robin’s egg in its near-life collision with chance. To ask for its meaning is as meaningless a question as to demand the meaning of a color or the meaning of a bird. On this particular day, at this particular moment — the only locus of aliveness we ever have — the contour of meaning comes in shades of blue, singing only is.

FORWARD TO A FRIEND/READ ONLINE/
donating=lovingFor 15 years, I have been spending hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars each month to keep Brain Pickings going. It has remained free and ad-free and alive thanks to patronage from readers. I have no staff, no interns, no assistant — a thoroughly one-woman labor of love that is also my life and my livelihood. If this labor makes your life more livable in any way, please consider aiding its sustenance with a donation. Your support makes all the difference.monthly donationYou can become a Sustaining Patron with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a Brooklyn lunch. one-time donationOr you can become a Spontaneous Supporter with a one-time donation in any amount.Partial to Bitcoin? You can beam some bit-love my way: 197usDS6AsL9wDKxtGM6xaWjmR5ejgqem7

A SMALL, DELIGHTFUL SIDE PROJECT:

Vintage Science Face Masks Benefiting the Nature Conservancy (New Designs Added)

vintagesciencefacemasks.jpg

ALSO, I WROTE A CHILDREN’S BOOK:

The Snail with the Right Heart: A True Story

thesnailwiththerightheart_0000.jpg

ROSE GARDEN WEDDING DAY


Did you know…

… that today is Rose Garden Wedding Day? In 1971, Tricia Nixon, daughter of President Richard Nixon, married Edward Cox in the first wedding ever held in the White House Rose Garden.

~~~

Today’s Inspirational Quote:

“We cannot learn from one another until we stop shouting at one another – until we speak quietly enough so that our words can be heard as well as our voices.”

— Richard M. Nixon