Real Talk 03/09/18: Guess Who’s Back

It’s Labor Day in the States and Labour Day in Canada, but in Mexico it’s just another lunes like any other. If you didn’t know, lunes means Monday, and Monday means Real Talk!

The Rap God Returns

Eminem dropped a surprise album, Kamikaze, and it should be no surprise to anyone that it’s one of the best albums of all time. Eminem is kind of like Hemingway in that it feels kind of ridiculous to point out how good he is. I’m not exactly saying anything new. Then again, I noticed over the weekend that Eminem is like Hemingway in other way: it’s becoming increasingly cool to hate him.

That’s how you know he really is a Rap God. It’s what realtor’s call the Second Opinion Effect: when potential buyers really like a property, the worst thing that can happen is for them to invite a friend to a showing to get their opinion. Human beings are hardwired to want to matter. If we’re invited to give an opinion and we just agree with the current opinion, we don’t matter–or that’s how our lizard brain perceives it.

It’s become so accepted that people like Eminem and Hemingway are at the height of their craft that saying they’re at the height of their craft triggers the same response: we don’t matter. Criticizing them fills that void and makes us feel like we really are contributing something to the conversation. It’s a perfectly human impulse, but not a healthy one. Tearing down what’s popular triggers a chemical reaction in the brain that makes you temporarily feel like you matter but does not actually make you matter. It’s the equivalent of setting up a billboard on the highway with your picture on it and the caption “I matter.” A lot of people will notice you and acknowledge your attempt to matter, but doesn’t help you matter to any of them.

Not to say you can’t legitimately dislike Eminem or Hemingway, but if you can’t explain why without resorting to “he’s overrated” or any argument that involves the word “bandwagon”, there’s something else going on.

Paging Dr. Faust

One of my current jobs involves social media marketing. At its most innocuous, this job involves me lying in bed using Instagram on my phone, liking and commenting on photos so other users will notice the account of the business I’m logged in as. Lately I’ve reached a more advanced level and am learning the ins and outs of Facebook advertising. It’s fascinating, terrifying, and morally ambiguous stuff.

I talked a little with Alaric about this on the Crossroads podcast, and said it feels like a deal with the devil. Facebook’s ad platform, fueled by inconceivable quantities of data and cutting edge machine learning technology, can do wonders for anyone trying to get a project off the ground. As I continue to expand Desdenada, I’ll probably be grateful for the knowledge I’ve gained and use Facebook ads to reach people who might be interested in what I have to say.

While learning to ride this monster, I’m also feeding it, contributing more and more data to a diabolical machine that is already capable of swinging elections, psychologically manipulating its users, and framing the conversation of the entire internet. Am I evil, or at the very least a Faustian rube, for participating in this system, as insignificant as my contribution might be in the grand scheme of things?

I can’t deny big data can and has been used for some terrible purposes, but it’s still a tool like any other. Tools aren’t good or evil–see the tired aphorism about using a hammer either to build a house or commit murder. Big data might be pioneered and primarily wielded by certain individuals or corporations, but I tend to see innovation as inevitable. Big data was going to be discovered/invented/understood. Any knowledge that can be learned eventually will be. We can delay the inevitable, but that is only foisting the problem off on future generations.

Maybe this is my guilty mind trying to rationalize what I’m doing, but if it’s inevitable that big data will be used and abused, then the responsible thing for anybody who has concerns to do would be to understand it. You can rail against the way Facebook uses questionable methods to get what it wants, or you can do your best to understand the methods, understand what Facebook wants, and discover benign methods for Facebook to get what it wants. They must exist, when you think about it: Facebook wants to make money by connecting consumers with people who want to sell them things they want to buy. I have no problem being connected to people who will show me things I want to buy, although I do have problems with the process as it exists now.

I don’t have the answers, but ignorance of and resistance to change are decidedly not the answers.

Diminishing Binary

If you do ten push-ups each day, adding ten more push-ups will make a world of difference. If you do ten-thousand push-ups each day, adding ten more won’t do much.

The concept of diminishing returns applies to fitness, economics, creativity, self-improvement, and most other areas of life. The more effort you put in to something, the less reward you get for each unit of effort.

What diminishing returns means to you depends on your goals. If you are competing at the top of a field, you disregard them. When two people who can consistently do ten-thousand push-ups enter face off in a push-up contest, whoever can squeeze out one more push-up than their opponent will win. If your goal is just to be in good shape, though, you’ll be wasting your time and effort long before you reach ten-thousand.

When do diminishing returns begin? I’ve been thinking about that a lot this past week. I have a lot of goals, many of which have little synergy with one another. The effort I put into training to run a marathon has a limited effect on my goal of writing a book. To make a much progress as possible toward all of my goals, I should invest effort in each of them only up until the point where I experience diminishing returns and my effort would be better spent working toward a different goal.

But the more I thought of it, the more I came to the conclusion that the biggest drop off in the ratio of effort to reward occurs when you make the binary leap from zero to one.

This has to do with my belief in the overwhelming power of habit. The main part of achieving any long-term goal is building an effective habit of working toward it. You begin establishing a habit when you do anything at all, so the rewards of building a habit are allotted to the very first unit of effort you expend.

To put it plainly: writing one word a day is infinitely more productive than writing zero words a day, and the reward of writing each additional word pales in comparison.

That’s not to say, of course, that you should limit yourself to one unit of effort in everything you do. You’ll never get anywhere that way. Then again, you’d get infinitely closer to your goals doing that than you would expending zero units of effort.

If I know I don’t have the time or energy to write a significant portion of my novel, I’ll just write one word. If I’m not up to going to the gym, I’ll do one push-up. It makes all the difference.

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