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Ellipses

I’ve always believed in celebrating the accidental mispronunciation of a word rather than mocking or deriding it.

Such accidents are usually an indication of the mispronouncer having learned a new word in a book, and after determining its meaning, having decided to make it a proper part of their vocabulary. In some instances, it may even be an indication that they’re speaking an entirely new language, and all the subtleties of that language (of which there are many in English) have yet to become second-nature for them.

Both are examples of someone filling in gaps in their understanding and setting out beyond the familiar, beyond the comfortable, to experiment, iterate, and make mistakes. They’re planting flags, pitching tents, and weathering the sometimes unforgiving elements in hopes of someday making it familiar and friendly and less threatening to newcomers.

It’s no small task, forcing oneself into the unknown. And much of the world will forever remain beyond what we can point at and accurately name.

It strikes me that, although there’s not much that can be done about the difficulties surrounding such expeditions—difficulties which are, arguably, part of why we venture out beyond our familiar intellectual terrain to begin with—there is quite a lot of room for improvement in how we expand our collective understanding of the spaces we already occupy. Of ensuring that we have steady footing that makes us feel confident enough to explore further, because we’ve come to know our existing stomping grounds so thoroughly.

One barrier that I’ve noticed in all types of missive, particularly those created by people who know their stuff, is the use of what I’m going to refer to here as intellectual ellipses.

An ellipsis is the ‘…’ punctuation that we use as filler for words that, we assume, can be safely left out. The context of the sentence, we decide, remains intact even without that chunk of text that we replace with a trio of dots. These omissions, though often benign, can become malignant if we’re trying to communicate ideas outside of our existing circles.

Which is to say: if we assume knowledge in others that we ourselves consider to be obvious, we’ll regularly leave some people who might wish to listen to us, to consider our ideas, out in the cold. This effect is often unintentional, and even somewhat easily remedied by the intended recipient: the language we’re using, the history we’re referencing, and a more complete context could be Googled, and perhaps even understood, with a few minutes effort. But the friction of that absence can be all that it takes to make our ideas seem inaccessible to those who might wish to understand our perspective, or become more educated on a topic in which we have some expertise to share.

These ellipses, as I’m using the word, might take the shape of actual, literal gaps in conversations, left blank because we all surely know what’s meant so there’s no need to clarify. It might take the shape of lingo that’s understood within the field, but completely opaque to those on the outside. And perhaps most common in political discussions, we’ll often work presumptions into our thinking, expressing ideas and facts in the context of information that is perhaps completely unknown or known in a different way by an outsider.

If you’re telling a friend who watches a different news network why a particular international trade deal is a dreadful idea, but your explanation is predicated on the knowledge of what trade deals are, how they intersect with international politics and governmental spheres of influence, and why, therefore, a hit to exports may be a worthwhile short-term loss, then you’re unlikely to convince anyone of anything, much less understand why they don’t agree with you. The assumptions being made are too many, and potentially too biased, foundationally.

Ideally we all have perfect information and a common set of facts to work from, but that’s not the case in the real world. We have to assume that in every communication situation, the people on the other end of what we’re saying are coming from a different place than we are, and seeing the same things from a slightly, or radically different angle.

I’ve written before about how I think we’re going to need more bridges—publications, people, philosophical connective tissue—in the coming years, because our ability to isolate ourselves intellectually has become so great, and our capacity to speak past one another, working from completely different sets of data, and with completely different understandings of how the world works, has become such a monumental hurdle to leap every time we engage with someone who might teach us something, or whom we might teach.

The solutions we currently have to this are few and less impactful than we require, because many of the media entities and conversational modes we’ve adopted do seem to be predicated on speaking to someone who knows what we know, or who has access to the same on-the-fly facts that we do, and what’s more, who trust those facts.

We cannot assume this. And we cannot assume that even the most beautifully produced, wonderfully well-worded missives will be seen, consumed, understood, and taken seriously, because the conviction that we are worth paying attention to, spending time with, and trusted has to be earned. We have to communicate thoroughly in order to communicate at all.

We need ellipses. They’re necessary, and often wildly beneficial. The shorthand and symbols used in mathematics are required because expressing the same ideas without those symbols, using other language, would be even more cumbersome then attempting to thoroughly and completely explain the Portuguese word saudade—which means something like an immense, nostalgic or even remorseful longing for someone or something that is long gone, and perhaps will not, or cannot, ever return, and which as a result makes one feel both happy and sad, tearful that they are not with you or you are not there, and softly smiling because they exist, and you have experienced them—in another language, every time you wish to express that feeling.

The ability to shorthand allows us to go deeper into subjects that matter and increase our perception of the world. Communicating more clearly and accessibly allows us to share the fundamentals with others, so that they, then, might also explore those deeper levels with you.

I think we’ll see a lot of solutions to this issue in the coming years. Many of them will no doubt be based on new combinations of technologies and trends that already exist, while others will emerge from entirely new inventions and inclinations.

Are you reaching anyone beyond those who already agree with you? Who already think like you? If not, is that what you hope to accomplish? Is there a way to project your voice farther, to more people, to a wider variety of people? Is it possible to expound on what you’re doing, what you’re making, in some new way that hasn’t seemed worth the effort in the past, because surely everyone already knows where you’re coming from, what facts you’re working from, who you are and what you represent?

These are questions worth asking, I think, whether or not you plan on expanding beyond your existing circle. We’re more connected now than ever before, for better and for worse. I think the potential for self-awareness and personal growth alone makes considering (and if warranted, adjusting) one’s ellipses a worthwhile exercise.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

Blog

The Subjectivity of Time

Time has passed differently for me since I arrived in Kansas.

That’s not a statement about Kansas, but rather about how the way we live warps how we perceive the passing of time. For seven years, I’ve organized my memories according to locations, and in some cases, my projects. This event happened while I was writing that book, I met this person when I was living in that city.

This is something we all do: we bracket our experiences based on the structures underlying our lives in those moments. Sometimes it’s school, sometimes it’s a particular relationship. We attach our experiences to more foundational experiences because it helps us open up the right mental folder and rifle through its contents when we hope to revisit it. “When did I meet this person?” I might ask myself. “Oh yes, I was living in Prague.” I now have context for the relationship, and as such am more capable of aligning the face of the person in front of me with the buildings I saw daily, the food I enjoyed, the other people I knew, and so on.

What’s been interesting about living in Kansas is that, because I decided to hunker down here for longer than I usually stay in a given location, I’ve also been more capable of establishing rituals and routines. I’ve developed habits. I’ve allowed myself to install more of a framework than I usually have in my day-to-day, which in turn has allowed me to see things in a new way. It’s warped my perception of time.

I woke up this morning and couldn’t believe it was Friday. Where did the week go? What did I do with all that time?

I spent the same number of hours as I would usually spend, moving from Monday to Friday. But my experience of those hours was different.

When in-transit, when everything around you is new, your brain is turned on and clocked-up at all times. It’s exhausting, but it causes you to soak up everything around you: your brain doesn’t know what’s an opportunity and what’s a threat, because the environment is new. As such, you take in a lot more data about every moment of every day; which is amazing, if you can become accustomed to the discomfort and overwhelm.

When stationary, however, there are generally far fewer variables to keep track of all day long. I’m enjoying the novelty of having morning and nightly routines, and can see the benefits of having them. But I also notice that a lot more of my time seems to disappear. I can look back and see what I accomplished in that time, and recall individual moments of mental check-in, but the spaces in between those snapshots are usually not sticky enough to have made an impression. I lived through that time, but have no defined, lasting record of it.

This could be seen as a feature, not a bug. Especially when you’re working on a tedious or difficult project or ambition, having time fly by without any memory of the drudgery and discomfort might be construed as your brain doing you a solid. Why would you want to remember all those dull moments of sitting, thinking, accomplishing little, or accomplishing a lot of boring things that will eventually, hopefully add up to something less boring?

For me, though, it’s shocking. Seven years of experience on the road has trained me to expect to remember everything, and to feel that each day is an endless opportunity to explore, internally and externally. Those moments in between, the connective tissue between visible mind-muscles, are valuable to me. Waking up and realizing that a whole week has gone by with relatively few memorable moments to show for it is incredibly disconcerting.

Time is relative. Brilliant scientists are still debating whether it’s even a thing. But we do know that our measurement of it is subjective. The metrics we use are consistent, but they are not, themselves, relevant beyond the fact that we’ve agreed that these are the units we’ll use. There’s nothing meaningful about a second, or a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, except that they refer to the rough movement of our planet in relation to our star. These are useful units of time only because we all agreed to abide by them a long time ago.

But off-planet, these units would be meaningless. If we colonize Mars, we’ll need to artificially provide night and day, forever, or evolve and adjust to a new measurement of time more connected to the local conditions. In science fiction they often bypass this issue by inventing things like the Basic Solar Year, which humans in space still adhere to, even when living around far-off stars or on ships far from any planets. This is useful in explaining how much time has elapsed to Earth-bound people reading about it, but wouldn’t make much sense for those spacefaring humans whose new realities, whose new priorities, were no longer served by that particular method of measurement.

There are good, practical reasons to maintain a grasp on how everyone else is measuring time. But especially in terms of our own memories and how we recall them, it seems prudent to stay flexible, and to allow ourselves to experiment and play.

It’s worth noting that novelty and learning seems to break us free from mind-blanking time-loops. Take a new route to work, and you’ll be more likely to remember your commute. Try preparing a new recipe for dinner, and you’ll be more likely to remember your evening. Have a challenging discussion about uncomfortable topics with a friend or willing stranger, and you’ll be more likely to remember that conversation, and the time you spend ruminating about it days later.

Think about what units you currently use to mark time, and how relevant those units are to what you value, and what you hope to measure.

Ideally, we tether our memories to things that are integral to our happiness, rather than things that simply happen regularly, predictably, and without adding much flavor to our day. It’s not easy to realign this foundation once it’s been poured, but if you’re able to do so, you stand a decent chance of reclaiming and annotating moments of your life that might otherwise be lost to the passing of time.

Blog

Aware

It’s hard to know what to think sometimes.

Perhaps the news seems unreliable, and you’re not sure what sources to trust. Perhaps your own ideologies are beginning to fray at the edges, and you’re not certain which of your own heuristics to follow anymore. Maybe you’ve been exposed to new ideas, new data, new people who invalidate your biases, new foods that indicate you may, in fact, not hate cumin as much as you thought you did.

In such moments, I find that focusing on being aware, rather than being right, can help. Seeking out knowledge instead of affirmation. Being open to information of all kinds, rather than seeking out data-points to confirm a stance already taken. Not having an opinion about something other than, “I’m not sure, but doing my best to learn and understand.”

You can, of course, be aware and act in alignment with your beliefs at the same time. But when your beliefs and the narratives that inform your beliefs are themselves evolving, rerouting your energies toward new information, toward accurate self-perception, toward connecting the dots into a more well-rounded context allows you to keep growing without limiting your growth to any particular direction. It increases the scope and span of your view, without requiring you to first define exactly what it is you’re looking at.

We needn’t have an opinion about the Peloponnesian War to learn about it. We needn’t decide how we feel about a particular author before reading a book they’ve written. We needn’t bend the information that we encounter through a lens we’ve spend years grinding into the proper shape. A shape, by the way, that is determined by how we subjectively see the world, and through which we have decided to interpret all new information in the future (despite not knowing what that information might be, and who we might be when we encounter it).

We are, in fact, better off—in a better position to achieve a purer intake of information—when we’re acquiring it moments of increased malleability. It’s not easy to wriggle free of our preconceptions every time we encounter new data about the world. As such, it’s when we’re at pivot points, when we’re feeling most confused and listless, that’s it’s best to soak up more of the world, to meet new people, to read and listen and watch and interact broadly.

There’s a reason we’re predisposed to go out and travel or seek out new groups of friends when we’re at our most disoriented or discontented. We want to fill in the gaps, certainly, but we also want to create new ones. We want to figure out what other challenges are out there, and what other filters we might apply to those we encounter moving forward. We want to know how best to interpret all this raw data we’re taking in, how to understand it, and hopefully, how to most ideally shape who we are, inwardly and outwardly, so that we’re regularly rearranging our internal furniture and becoming increasingly refined versions of ourselves.

Sometimes these moments are foisted upon us by the world, by other people, by our own biologies. Sometimes we seek them out in moments of clarity, or moments of muddle, or moments of boredom or outrage or rebellion.

However you got there, these are not moments to be wasted. Embrace them for what they are: opportunities.

Take a step outside your norms, take a deep breath, and take in as much of the world beyond the familiar as you dare.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.