Imagine that an all-knowing genie manifests in your bedroom.
The genie tells you that sometime in the next ten years, you will have a chance to save a total stranger from dying by performing CPR.
But you don’t know when it will happen, and there’s no guarantee you’ll succeed when the time comes.
How would you respond? How would your life change, from that moment?
I don’t get cold anymore.
I’ve been keeping a journal for the last eight years.
This is one of my best habits: The journal compensates for my awful memory and helps me feel like a complete person with a deep and meaningful history. It reminds me that I’ve spent the last 24 years actually existing, 24 hours at a time. It shows me all the friends I’ve ever had, and all the bad days I’ve put behind me. It’s also fun to read (once enough time has passed, and transient emotions like embarrassment are mostly gone).
Until recently, it was also a pain in the ass.
The Microsoft Word file that stores one-sixth of all the words I’ve ever written is called “Daily Journal”. But it’s been a long time since I’ve really kept a daily journal.
Why? It’s not that my life is boring. Well, it is — objectively speaking — but I find it exciting.
One problem is Microsoft Word, which doesn’t perform well with 750,000-word, 1000-page documents, at least on my old machine.
The bigger problem is motivation. Without some kind of external prompt, I found myself forgetting the journal, or skipping it in favor of something more fun — sometimes for weeks at a time.
Last year, I switched to an email system. This eliminates the loading times and makes it very easy to finish daily entries. I’ve also begun to ask myself questions, to mitigate the menace of the blank page.
If you’ve ever wanted to journal, or to resume journaling, you can set up this hyper-efficient, automatic system yourself. In ten minutes.
Sometimes, I do a good thing. Not a great act of heroism, but a simple, fundamentally decent thing that helps someone else.
When that happens, I congratulate myself for doing the right.
Then I criticize myself, since I don’t deserve congratulation for doing the “right thing”. After all, everyone should do the right thing.
Then I congratulate myself for being so humble and morally strict.
Then I criticize myself for bragging about my own humility.
My record for this is four cycles. I almost always stop on self-criticism.
Perhaps there are two kinds of people in the world: People who usually stop at self-congratulation, and people who usually stop at self-criticism.
Which kind of person are you?
Adapted from something I wrote in Yale’s “Daily Themes” class. (Great class, by the way!)
Write twelve possible first lines to twelve different stories (fictional, non-fictional, or some combination of both). For a real challenge, let those lines start to feel like they hold together by juxtaposition. See the work of David Markson for a model.
These aren’t good sentences, but I wrote them hoping they could become first lines for first drafts of good stories.
I haven’t written those stories yet, but if you’d like me to write one, let me know and I will do that, just for you.*
- Our god is cruel and jealous, and we wish we had a better one.
- Today my Anti-Procrastination Friend saw me on Facebook and…
- We know that our island is an experiment, run by someone we don’t understand.
- The main character of this story was hit by a car just after you finished this sentence.
- “This has been my favorite funeral of the year.”
- Gambling is for suckers, he thought, and pushed the button again.
- There he was, waving his sign like a madman and shouting the true heights of various mountains.
- This is my history of the world, factual and proportionate, slave to neither narrative nor…
- We abandoned the Earth in our ships, but we left the Amish behind.
- You might think that even a very intelligent cloud could never kill a person, but…
- According to the actuary table, one of us was dead by now.
- They were looking for souls all along!
- “This week, life was just one long fire alarm.”
- She’d learned to run on water, but that wouldn’t save her when she came back to shore.
- You do not fuck with Liz when she’s delivering a pizza.
*With the exception of #9, because the Amish deserve an entire novel. And #8, because it’s the friggin’ history of the world.
(To see all 60+ prompts from Daily Themes, click here.)
Are You Smarter Than a Coin-Flipping Monkey?
30 years ago, a man named Philip Tetlock decided to figure out whether the people we pay to make predictions about politics were actually good at predicting things.
He picked two hundred and eighty-four people who made their living “commenting or offering advice on political and economic trends,” and he started asking them to assess the probability that various things would or would not come to pass, both in the areas of the world in which they specialized and in areas about which they were not expert. Would there be a nonviolent end to apartheid in South Africa? Would Gorbachev be ousted in a coup? Would the United States go to war in the Persian Gulf?
–Louis Menand, Everybody’s An Expert
Tetlock’s discovery: On average, the commentators were slightly less accurate than a monkey flipping a coin with “yes” printed on one face and “no” on the other. They’d have been better off if they’d made completely random predictions!
What’s more, being an expert on a topic didn’t help much. At some point, more expertise even led to more faulty predictions.
Can We Do Any Better?
There are lots of reasons we make bad guesses about the future. But Philip Tetlock’s particular interest was in figuring out how to do better.
Prediction, after all, is one of the most important things a person can ever do: Will I divorce this person if I marry them? Will I be happy in a year if I accept this job offer? It’s also an important skill for governments: How much will the Iraq War cost? Will this gun-control bill really lower the crime rate?
But if political experts aren’t good at prediction, who is?
I have a Tumblr now! I’m still experimenting with using the platform for short essays and thought nuggets. Here’s an essay cross-posted from that Tumblr:
The Melancholy of Retrievers
(Wandering philosophy. Not attached to most of these opinions.)
I’m staying for a few weeks in the home of relatives who own a Labrador Retriever. I’ve spent a lot of time around this dog in the last few weeks, after many years of not living with a pet. As a result, everything about the notion of “owning a dog” – or the very existence of domesticated dogs – has become strange to me.
The dog, Jasper, lives to play fetch. When he isn’t sleeping or eating or drinking, he picks up anything he can find and brings it to you so that you can throw it. If you don’t throw it, he’ll try another person. If no one else is around, he’ll pant and whine at you and shove his head between your legs to stare sadly into your eyes until you give up and play fetch.
I’m sure this is normal dog behavior, and it’s the sort of silly thing that people love about dogs. But it makes me wonder how it feels to be Jasper.
My friend Jack Newsham, a reporter on The Boston Globe, asked a good question on Facebook the other day:
Question for my non-journalist friends: why don’t you trust us? (“Us” being journalists in general. Because poll after poll shows that the overwhelming majority of you don’t.)
My answer turned out long enough for a blog post.
I trust journalists. That is, I trust most people, and I don’t see journalists as being very different from most people on average. I would trust a journalist to watch my laptop in a cafe while I used the bathroom or water my plants when I went on vacation.
Journalism isn’t a person. It is a product, produced by journalists. And as it is practiced, I only half-trust journalism.
Update: Charity Science, an organization whose work I admire, has added my thesis to their page on charitable giving research. I highly recommend their site for more information on the topics discussed here.
* * * * *
I haven’t written a blog post for nearly a full season.
One-third of this phenomenon is the fault of my senior thesis:
Charitable Fundraising and Smart Giving: How can charities use behavioral science to drive donations?
It’s a very long thesis, and you probably shouldn’t read the whole thing. I conducted my final round of editing over the course of 38 hours in late April, during which I did not sleep. It’s kind of a slog.
Here’s a PDF of the five pages where I summarize everything I learned and make recommendations to charities:
The Part of the Thesis You Should Actually Read
In the rest of this post, I’ve explained my motivation for actually writing this thing, and squeezed my key findings into a pair of summaries: One that’s a hundred words long, one that’s quite a bit longer.