Author Colin Wright reflects a lot of stoic principles in his writings, and in his book, Come Back Frayed, he echoes thoughts about the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection. He writes,
“Some people who take the time to explore who they are and what they want — not the stories they’ve been telling about themselves, to themselves, because it’s convenient socially and suits the image they’re trying to portray, but who they actually are and what they truly want — find that they return to their lives with a re-magnetized compass. The direction in which they’d long walked wasn’t their North after all. Perhaps they’ll need to do some backtracking, explore new territory, eschew the familiar path they’d become comfortable walking in favor of something unfamiliar. Something that takes them through sparsely lit, maybe even completely uncharted and uncarved wilderness.”
Self-reflection can be much deeper and much more involved than what we often imagine. Constant evaluation of our actions, thoughts, and desires is challenging, but ultimately more rewarding than simply moving from moment to moment reacting to the world around us. Wright’s quote shows that the type of reflection needed to truly understand our path and ourselves goes beyond simply stopping every now and then to briefly think about where we are and why we are doing something. The reflection he writes about is a deep and continual practice, baked into each moment of our life in a practiced awareness.
I recently listened to an episode of the Rationally Speaking Podcast where host Julia Galef interviewed Tim Urban about rational decision making. Urban described the problems we face focusing for the long term, and described the easily distractible part of our brain as our “instant gratification monkey”, to represent the idea that we constantly lose track of our focus by taking the easy rout and indulging our impulses. When Wright describes the importance of self reflection, he is in part explaining the importance of building a system of reflection that is not driven by our instant gratification monkey, but is instead driven by controlled mental processes. A practice of self reflection as described by Wright will help us learn more about who we are, and will also help us overcome the impulsive nature of our instant gratification monkey.
Ultimately, by continually focusing on who we are, who we are becoming, and what stories we tell ourselves and others, we can begin to ensure that our path and actions are in true alignment with the person we want to be. Focusing beyond ourselves and striving to become more aware of ourselves and how we interact with the world will help us find ways to better use our time, wrenching control back from our instant gratification monkey, and will help us navigate new waters on our journey.
Time is a resource that does not seem to be well understood or well used in society today. We spend a lot of time at jobs we do not fully enjoy, and when we are not working and have leisure time, we are afraid of boredom and don’t know how to use time to be present in the moment. Author Colin Wright has approached this problem head on, and found some solutions. Through his writing he has been able to reconnect with the present moment and direct his time according to his own desires. In his book, Come Back Frayed, he writes about his travels to the Philippines and what control over his time means to him. After explaining that in his life, his goals have been related to finding control in as many of his decisions and actions as possible, he writes about a feature in a Forbes article. He was profiled for the way he spends his time earning relatively little money. He writes,
“The response to such a story is a confused one, particularly amongst some of my entrepreneurial friends. When you’re part of that culture, a clever person dedicated to building something of value, something you believe will make the world a better place, will solve problems which plague humanity, will elevate you to a higher status, that of ‘successful entrepreneur,’ the yardstick you’ve been provided is a monetary one.”
Wright’s criticism is in the way that many successful entrepreneurs judge success. Financial success, bank account statements, company valuations, and access to funding become the indicators of success for most people. How we judge whether someone made an impact in the world becomes entangled with financial success. What Wright continues to explain is how he has chosen to measure success in his personal life differently. Rather than searching for greater sources of revenue and income, he focuses on freedom and expanding his ability to make his own choices.
When we decide that we will no longer allow financial success to be the true measure of how successful we are, we open our lives to a new realm of possibilities. Rather than continuing to spend more time focused on work and growth for the sake of financial gain, we can begin to align our lives with the things that truly matter to us, help us be present in the moment, and allow us to have a personal impact on the world. The financial yardstick we become accustom to does not do a good job of truly measuring the type of people we are or the quality of our actions. Our culture’s decision that success is equivalent to monetary wealth may help serve us well in terms of having many exciting things, but it also pushes us toward hedonism and lifestyles that can be unhealthy physically, mentally, and socially. I do not have the solution that Wright seems to have found for replacing the monetary yardstick, but I am able to recognize that a focus beyond money and beyond possessions can help us adopt a more well rounded life. The challenge is how to align life with the things that truly matter, and to find an appropriate place for money and success.
Colin Wright reflects on his place in the world in his book Come Back Frayed, which is about his time living in the Philippines at the requests of his fans and readers. During his time outside the United States, he commented on the technology he used to document his experiences, the changes he has seen in information technology over his life time, and the uneven distribution of technology between places like the United States and the Philippines. Regarding technical change, Wright writes, “The internet revolution happened when a technology was made common, cheap, and widely available to people of the world.”
Wright focuses on the last part of his quote and highlights the fact that not everyone is operating with equal tools, “Which brings me back to the smartphone,” continued Wright, “Science fiction author William Gibson famously said, “The future is here already, it’s just not evenly distributed.” So what happens when it is?”
I really enjoy the way that Wright introduces technology, technological change, society, and social change. In the United States we tend to be so focused on our technology that we forget how much of the world goes without the basic necessities we take for granted. Much has been written and many have made better comments than I can on the inequalities that exist between countries, but Wright brings up a point not often considered. When the rest of the world is in possession of game changing technology, what will we think of the technology? How will societies react? What will it mean for political regimes in rich countries? The United States has seen debates about how information is handled on public versus private email servers over the last two years, and currently has a president who often has a questionable use of direct social media platforms. How could these same technologies impact less developed and less wealthy countries?
Wright’s thoughts aline with a passage I recently read in a public administration class at the University of Nevada. Joseph Nye Jr. in 2002 wrote for the Brookings Institute a piece titled Information Technology and Democratic Governance and he highlighted the role of technology as an agent of social and political change. Nye wrote that social and political change often lag behind the technological change, with political change falling in behind social changes. Combining his thoughts with Wright’s, we get a sense that the large changes that seem to dominate American life, are still building toward their greater impact. Once the technology we enjoy in the United States has become more commonplace around the world, we will begin to see more social change, which will be slowly followed by political change.
I was recently listening to an episode of Smart People Podcast where host Chris Stemp interviewed Jennifer Mueller to discuss creativity. One of the ideas that Mueller shared was that there is never truly a best way to do something, and that we can be creative to look beyond what has been tried in the past and find new ideas, approaches, and solutions. Her views align with thoughts from Colin Wright’s book, Come Back Frayed where he writes, “There’s no simple answer to the questions of bests, or even betters. Each and ever stand taken on this subject is loaded with context and subtext and pretext. If a firm position is taken there is also pretense, because deciding that one’s own point of view trumps anyone else’s is, well, pretentious.”
Wright focuses on the ways we adopt and become set in our perspectives of the world around us. When we decide that our vantage point is the only correct perspective for interpreting the world, we limit ourselves and what we see as possible. From our point of view something may be clear, but we may miss very important aspects of what is truly taking place. Our perspective will always be influenced by our experiences of both big and small life events. Anything as small as a smile from a stranger to events as large as promotions or marriage shape the background understanding we have of the world, influencing the perspectives we take. Recognizing that our experiences are unique allows us to understand ways in which others think of the world differently, and may see different realities and possibilities. The key is to avoid bunkering down in our own point of view and surrounding ourselves with people with similar views.
When we do make an effort to expand beyond our own point of view we allow ourselves to be creative in new ways. We expand our perspective and create new connections when we recognize that our best way may not be another person’s best way to approach a given situation. From our vantage point something may be clear, but taking a step beyond ourselves to view the world from new perspectives will help us see that our best way is just one option. The more this skill is cultivated the more we can develop creativity in our lives to find not just the single best way to live, to work, or to eat, and we can find interesting ways in which our reality interacts with others based on each choice that we make.
Author Colin Wright discusses the ways in which our unconscious brain picks up on small cues and differences about people that we meet before we are able to form complete judgements of others as human beings. These small cues and differences shape the way we think about other people and influence our behavior, often times without us ever realizing. In his book, Come Back Frayed, Wright explains this phenomenon by writing the following:
“It’s remarkable how our peculiarities can set us apart so dramatically and rapidly. Even before we truly recognize each other as humans, as complete people with depth and density, we recognize things about strangers that help us categorize the world. These biases, and sometimes prejudices, color the world around us with tones that guide our actions and opinions.”
Before we have met someone we are already preparing ourselves for what we expect our interactions with them to be like. These biases are huge because they prevent us from treating everyone as openly and fairly as we would like, and they exist within ourselves and within the other person at the same time. The way we frame the other person and the types of expectations we bring to a conversation shape the actions and behaviors that we will have. If we instantly feel negative feelings at the sight of another, it is unlikely that our interactions with them will be positive.
Wright would encourage us to become more self-aware and to develop processes of self-recognition so that we can acknowledge those moments when we have immediate reactions to another person. We can develop skills to notice when the tribal part of our brain labels someone as an outsider, and drives us to act in ways that push the other person away. Becoming self-aware helps us see the ways in which these small cues influence much of the way we interact with the world, and gives us the power to better control the world around us.
If we fail to gain perspective over our instant reactions to other people, then we will never allow people who are different from us to truly participate in society. Our actions will be colored by the reactionary perceptions of our brain, and we will never develop the empathy needed to improve the world for all of those around us. Accepting that we judge others before ever meeting them, and before we ever consider who they are as human beings, give us the ability to overcome biases, and to help society become more connected and unified regardless of race, ideology, age, or gender.
In his recent interview with Ezra Klein on the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen continually referred back to what he called “the status quo bias” which he defined as the preference to continue and default to do what we are already doing and comfortable with. Making changes in our routines, starting new businesses, introducing public policy, and even our every day thoughts fall into the trap of the status quo bias where we prefer what is familiar over what is new and different. Over the course of the interview, Cowen referred to an idea he suggested is the best possible way to overcome status quo bias, and it aligns with a quote I read from Colin Wright last year:
“Travel provides the chance to think, to work, to learn, to experience, to process, to spread one’s wings, to relax, to be pushed up against one’s limitations, to work every muscle in one’s body and mind, to feel uncomfortable and grow accustomed to the feeling. It’s the chance to see horizons you didn’t know existed, and to crest those horizons.”
Cowen discussed the importance of travel, at one point saying that he did not know a better way to gain new perspective and to push back against the status quo bias. In Wright’s book Come Back Frayed the same ideas are presented. The title of the book represents the stresses, fractures, and strains of travel, as your normally well woven world is shifted and pulled apart to be viewed from new perspectives. Wright explains that travel makes you think and consider new possibilities and ways of life, and in his interview with Ezra Klein, Cowen expressed the same ideas. Seeing new cultures lets you see what is common among humanity, but more importantly, what is different and what could be applied in your own life to find new growth.
Come Back Frayed is Colin Wright’s book about his time in the Philippines and his evaluations of the way that people exist within and between cultures. He focuses on his personal reactions to changing environments and life in an area of the world that sounds amazing, but can actually be quite inhospitable for long stretches of time. Addressing how we react to the places we live and the order in our lives, he writes, “We all have a different level of tolerance for unpredictability and incomprehension. Some of us have a tolerance that is almost a need: we require novelty and a regular dollop of confusion and disorientation to feel complete. We need to have our world set spinning so that we can ever so slowly bring it back to a more regular rotation on a sturdy axis.”
The quote above seems to very accurately describe Wright himself, and it resonates strongly with me despite the fact that I am incredibly routine focused. I do not do well when it comes to planning long term for vacations and I feel that I really perform well when I can build a set schedule that incorporates the things I love like, running, reading, writing, and listening to podcasts. But despite my love for routines and the benefits of performance and success that routines bring, I also recognize the human need to get away from what Tyler Cowen calls “the status quo bias”, and wright is an excellent example of how manage such a feat, and why shaking up our worlds can be so important.
Wright explains that he also thrives with strong routines, particularly in regards to health and writing practices, but by traveling consistently and exploring the world, Wright has been able to incorporate vastly different perspectives of the world into the frames from which he understands the universe. He has allowed his travel destinations and living places to be directed for him by his fans, and it was actually his fans’ suggestions that sent him to the Philippines. Along the way, Wright has been able to expand his thought processes and tolerance for change while also recognizing how routine actions, such as simple exercise and writing habits, can allow one to stay grounded, disciplined, healthy, and proficient during times of change in wildly different social and cultural environments.
My life in Reno, Nevada is not the most exciting of all time, although in a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen
argues that boring environments can push one to explore in greater depth the online world (for example blogging), but I enjoy the region and the routines afforded to me. Learning to incorporate Wright’s strategy for travel would help me shake up my world in a way that would give me new perspectives. Wright would argue that changing my routine and challenging the comforts and consistency it offers would push me to grow and discover new parts of myself, creating engaging and exciting experiences to help me feel more connected to myself, society, and perhaps all of humanity. From the interview I listened to I think Cowen would agree that efforts to avoid status quo bias can pay off in the long run and satisfy some part of our humanity that craves change, even if we have a small tolerance for the novelty and uncertainty it brings.