This is a Mindf*ck Monthly newsletter from August 9, 2021. Every month, I send out big ideas I’ve been chewing on and stuff I’ve enjoyed reading that month in the hopes that it makes you less of a shitty person.
Let’s dive right in.
The Benefits of Time
After a month off, I’m back. Thank you to those of you who reached out wondering where I was or whether I was okay. I’m doing great. The time off was just what I needed.
I’ve long written about the importance of taking time away from something to improve its outcome. It’s one of those counterintuitive truths that we rarely consider—that doing less of something can create more results—but it’s always been a secret weapon in my work life.
Think about it, sometimes you need to spend a week or two away from your partner to reignite your appreciation for them. Sometimes you need to leave your hometown to gain perspective on where you came from. Sometimes you need to take a break from a project to see how to move it forward.
Time away from something or someone gives us perspective on that something or someone.
I started this newsletter in the fall of 2019. Over many years, I had accumulated tons of clever little ideas and interesting factoids that had never found their way into a book or justified their own article. But with the newsletter, I found an outlet for them. I could venture into subjects that I normally wouldn’t write much about—science and technology, politics, history, etc.—talk about funny little psychology studies that were interesting, and generally just be a fucking weirdo. And I could do all this while having that immediate interactivity and feedback with my audience, directly through email.
It was great. I had a blast. But after a year, a couple things happened.
The first was that my reservoir of clever ideas and interesting factoids began to run dry. In some cases, I found myself relegated to repeating something I had written in a newsletter months prior. In others, I scrambled to find something interesting to write about the afternoon before, desperate to find something interesting to publish.
Not only was this not fun, but it had the unfortunate side effect of causing me to become short-term focused. What was funny today? What was interesting today? What seemed important today? As many of you know, one of my consistent criticisms of news media is its constant short-term focus. It’s largely why so much of what is published online these days is garbage. And I felt myself being sucked in by the gravitational pull of that garbage.
But the other issue was simply the newsletter’s success. Over the course of the first year, the newsletter’s audience grew by over 50%. Enough people receive this email to populate a mid-sized city. And any time you expand your audience, you invite a wider range of responses to your inbox, both good and bad.
Throw on top of that the pandemic, and the past year has been an email shitshow. I have seen my inbox fill up with more trolls, haters, right-wing/left-wing psychos and conspiracy theorists. Don’t get me wrong, 90%+ of the emails I receive are still respectful and positive. But when you’re flooded by thousands of emails each week, even 5-10% being crazy people can still wear you down.
Therefore, what started out as a fun weekly exercise in publishing and corresponding with my biggest fans had, by this summer, morphed into a stressful weekly task, usually met by a deluge of angry nonsense and bullshit, and to top it off, I no longer felt like I was producing my best work.
Not so fun anymore.
A couple years ago, I wrote a highly popular article called The Attention Diet. The main argument was that the same way we must monitor our food intake to take care of our physical health, we must monitor our informational intake to take care of our mental health.
One way I’ve recommended doing this is by creating filters for what information you expose yourself to. Much in the same way that “you are what you eat,” your thoughts are very much a product of who you read and listen to.
Here are some filters I’ve created for myself over the years:
- Find a handful of experts in major fields (economics, psychology, etc.) and focus primarily on information that they recommend.
- As a rule, never read social media comments.
- As a rule, never watch cable news.
- If a piece of news is based on a study or data, look up that study or data myself, and skip the news article.
This has largely kept me safe and sane over the past few years. But this past month, while taking time away and deeply enjoying it, it occurred to me that there is another incredibly important filter that most of us do not think about:
Anyone who spends any amount of time online has noticed a recurring pattern: A Big Outrage goes mega-viral, spreading everywhere. Then the Backlash to the Big Outrage goes viral. Then the Backlash to the Backlash of the Big Outrage goes viral. And so on…
Then, two weeks later, something else goes viral and everyone forgets that The Big Outrage ever happened.
Ninety percent of what passes as “important” information online or in the news is basically gone and forgotten a month later.
Therefore, the same way picking and choosing who you listen to for your information can be a filter, simply waiting a certain amount of time to see if something still matters can be a useful filter as well. If people are still talking about it a month or a year later, then it probably matters. If they aren’t, then it probably doesn’t.
This is also true for many areas of life, not just information:
- The longer you’ve trusted someone, the more likely they are to be trustworthy.
- The longer an idea excites you, the more likely you are to enjoy doing it.
- The longer you wait before making a major life decision (marriage, career, etc.), the more likely that decision is to be good.
I’d like to introduce time as a filter into my life a bit more, including into this newsletter. To try to only place importance on things that happened at least a month ago. To try to only have strong opinions on things that continue to be true for extended periods of time. And to try to only share with you all things that I’ve thought long and hard about and have a certain amount of conviction in.
Therefore, this is no longer the “Mindf*ck Monday” newsletter, but the “Mindf*ck Monthly” newsletter. Each month, I will send out a longer, more thoughtful newsletter about a particular topic. It will be something I have sat and considered for a while. It will be about something that is a long-term issue, with long-term repercussions. And it will never be about whatever the big news story is that week.
This will also help you because it will save you time. Many readers over the years have said that they had trouble keeping up with the weekly emails, as they had so much stuff to read in their inbox that they just ended up skipping it half the time. Moving to monthly newsletters will increase the signal/noise ratio of what you receive from me, and therefore, make it more worth your time to read each month.
Stuff Worth Reading
Each month, I’ll also wrap up this newsletter with some book and article recommendations for further reading.
In books, last month I finally got around to reading Bessel van der Kolk’s popular The Body Keeps the Score. It’s become somewhat of the definitive book on trauma and rightly so. Van der Kolk has been involved in trauma research since the early 1970s and his work is largely responsible for our popular understanding of how it works and how to heal it.
And for some mindless fun, I picked up Shogun, the historical fiction classic by James Clavell about Japan. I’m absolutely glued to it and can’t put it down. It’s like a 1,200-page action movie interspersed with Japanese history and interesting interplay between eastern and western cultures.
In terms of articles, Scott Alexander wrote an insanely in-depth piece aptly titled, “Lockdown Effectiveness: Much More Than You Wanted To Know.” It’s as long as a short book and has enough data to put you into a light coma. But it’s probably the best and most detailed non-political discussion of pandemic lockdown data I’ve ever seen. And, spoiler alert, like most great information sources, his conclusion is some messy combination of, “It depends,” and “We don’t really know yet.”
Finally, just another reminder that I co-authored Will Smith’s book and it’s coming out in November. It’s an uncharacteristically candid look at his life and the lessons he’s picked up throughout his career. Obviously, I think it’s amazing. But I may be biased. You can pre-order it now.
Until next month,