On Living Deliberately: A Short Passage from Henry David Thoreau

If you know about Henry David Thoreau, then you probably know him for his most famous book, WaldenWalden contains many insights into human nature, both in terms of individual and collective action. And it was written during two years that Thoreau lived in a cabin, by himself, in the woods.

But why would such a luminary choose to live away from other people? In truth, he wasn’t actually completely isolated – that was never the primary goal, although peace and quiet sure must’ve been nice considering how loud the Thoreau household was!

No, Thoreau did go into town often to chum around with his friends. There was something more important he wanted to discover:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

My father has always been of the opinion that people go a little more nuts when they’re far away from the land. As time has gone on, I have seen evidence of this in action, in little cracks in society’s well-maintained pavement. Overcoming Bias reports that agricultural engineers are among the lowest divorce-prone jobs. Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan is hilariously neurotic, which is why so many people seem to find a bit of themselves in it (including me!).

This is just a short aside, but it’s something to think about in your day-to-day activities: Am I living deliberately? Do I understand the hardships that have been undertaken to give me this product – be it food, furniture, technology, whatever? And do I really believe that I am living if I cannot make at least some of these products with my own two hands, if I were to choose to?

In short: Could front the essential facts of life?

It’s food for thought. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to cook some steak for my family – a good way to start living the deliberate life, by making yourself a little part of the cycle.

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The Learning Feedback Loop, Part 1 :: The Mind as Experimental Guitar+ist

I recall when I was fourteen and purchased my first electric guitar and amplifier secondhand from Guitar Center. Most of my time went into trying (unsuccessfully) to imitate the improvisational solos of Frank Zappa, track by track, album by album … Or when that got too frustrating, I just liked moving the guitar back and forth near the amp to make it scream out for some reason.
I was fascinated by the sound. Why would the amp suddenly turn into a blaring wall of noise, if I just hold the guitar too close to it? What’s happening here?

The Concept of Feedback Loops

The sound from the amp was travelling into the guitar and making the strings vibrate … thus causing more noise from the guitar … thus making more noise come from the amp again!
This is an example of a feedback loop. A feedback loop is formed when one thing affects the other and vice-versa, so that over a period of time they start building on top of one another.
You can also imagine the feedback loop of a plant taking in carbon dioxide and providing oxygen for a human to breathe in and produce more carbon dioxide, or – more abstractly – an architect working closely with a structural engineer to design a house, each giving pointers to the other as the basic plans are laid and ultimately creating a stronger plan than either of them could do alone.
Physically, feedback is an important thing to control for in all aspects of engineering. More recently however it has taken a foothold in the “new” sciences of bioinformatics, cognitive science, control theory, etc., as a central concept – a powerful learning mechanism in its own right.
But how can this be used in everyday life? As it turns out, when you think about it, almost all learning occcurs in a feedback loop – with reality itself.
 
(Pretty expansive comment, huh?)

A Little More Detail

Philosophers since John Locke have noted that all initial learning in children occurs as they take in the results of their actions with their senses, and adjust their actions to make the effect that they want occur.
For example, if a kindergartener wants to draw the Sun, they’ll walk through everything step-by-step, like:
  • Let’s try this crayon on the paper.
  • No, that’s blue. The Sun isn’t blue!
    • I guess the way the crayon looks matches how what I draw will look.
    • Alright, let’s try the yellow crayon.
  • Yeah, that’s right! But this sun looks more like an egg than a circle.
    • How can I make it a circle? I don’t want to have to go back and draw another Sun!
      • What if I just fill in the flatter parts to make it more round? Let’s try that…

Of course a kid isn’t consciously saying all of this to himself, and the actual details vary as much as different people do.

Most kids probably wouldn’t mind the egg-shaped Sun and leave it at that, as “good enough,” either out of boredom or out of not realizing their Sun could be made better. The feedback loop between the child’s ideas and the work of their hands closes, their learning-by-doing finished.

The Experts of Any Field Are the Experts of Feedback Usage

But some rare kids don’t want to stop. Whatever the reason, they find themselves engrossed in the activity. They keep going… and going… and going! (I think of Mozart and Tori Amos, two (very different) musicians who both had to be pulled away from the piano as kids because they would rather play than sleep.)Coincidentally, these child prodigies may go on to become true experts in whatever it is they have been doing. But, as has been noted before, for everyone in any field, it takes roughly 10 years of sustained, deliberate practice to reach a level of competitiveness on par with that of the world’s best.

Even the Beatles were putting out their first album 10 years before Sgt. Pepper, and Bill Gates spent his school years obsessively hacking on the computer provided. To ape a famous quote: Experience trumps essence.
The best part of all of this is that, the mind can direct its own actions. In that sense, then, the mind is both guitar and guitarist, with only the amp being held constant. The guitarist controls the whole feedback loop. At the same time, the guitar is inside the feedback loop, and will change itself accordingly. It’s a pretty trippy idea.

I bet you can guess my next point: What is the key feature of deliberate practice?Our post next week: Bridging the gap between deliberate practice, feedback loops, and the development of expertise.

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A Brief Introduction

Things didn’t go as planned.

I’m not sure what motivated me to leave college on February 11, 2014 – at the time it felt like a spontaneous decision. But looking back on it, in hindsight, the reason is clear: My college experience up to there sucked!

Sure, I enjoy a nice drink every now and then, but my idea of happiness isn’t getting wasted on the daily or other-daily and then stumbling into class the next day.

My reason isn’t moralistic, mind you: I get much more enjoyment out of making things – music, art, blogs. I guess I’m a little more serious-minded than the average college student, but hey, who’s saying that’s a bad thing?

Some time off did me well.

After a month or so out of the place, it started to dawn on me that I had to go back. And I am going back – in fact, my next classes start in two weeks.

I’ve got some work ahead of me to make up for the semester lost, but (as you probably can guess) I’m not upset by this – I’m wildly enthused!

Still, I spent my time out rebuilding my life from the ground up on new precepts: Honesty, for one; a stronger family life; and the idea that with all great things, one must build momentum slowly.

Hence this site: How to build the momentum you need to be the best you, you can be.

Updates are on Wednesdays. I’ll try to be diligent with cross-posting on Medium.com (https://medium.com/@A_Quinn_USA) and Twitter (@A_Quinn_USA). Feel free to reach out to me on any of these services!

-Andrew Quinn, founder

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