Fail, fail, fail, fail, succeed

Monthly Archives: April 2017

First Principles vs Analogy

I came across the idea of “first principle reasoning” while reading a fascinating biography on Elon Musk. It sounds a bit abstract, but the underlying concept is really simple – and it’s quite useful when examining problems. Basically, it goes like this: when we are confronted with a problem the natural tendency of our brain is to compare it to something else (analogy), in an attempt to judge the feasibility of a possible solution. But what if, instead of comparing it to something else, we broke it down into the most basic components needed to solve the problem, and tested the feasibility of those? These fundamental, proven concepts are called “first principles.”

The problem with analogy is that it is based on what was possible in the past – “things have always been done this way.” The mistake here is – things change. And we are entering into an era where things are going to begin changing really, really fast. One of the examples Elon has used to illustrate this is the relative high cost of lithium batteries in the past. In order to build a Tesla, he needed massive amounts of battery power for each vehicle. So when the car was being developed, instead of accepting the current market price of lithium batteries (reasoning by analogy, i.e. lithium batteries have always been expensive), he broke down the current cost of manufacturing the individual components needed to make the batteries (first principle reasoning). By doing this, he was able to lower the cost tremendously, thus making the cost of a high performance electric car feasible.

We can use this type of reasoning in our everyday lives to answer questions and help us make informed decisions. We can expand our ideas of what is possible by looking at first principles instead of relying on analogy.


Neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain to form and reorganize synaptic connections, especially in response to learning or experience or following injury

I’m old enough to remember being taught that “the brain cells you are born with are all you are ever going to have.” This was the accepted paradigm until somewhere around the last quarter of the 20th century when neuroscientists began to realize several things – not only that this theory was not true, but that we actually had some control over this process. WTF?! How did the experts get this so wrong? Asking this question illustrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the scientific process – a theory is “a supposition or a system of ideas intended to explain something,” it is based on the best evidence available at the time, until it is proven untrue. And in this case, until the tools were invented that allowed us to prove otherwise, this was the accepted theory.

So what does this mean? It means that the more engaged we are in our thinking, and the more actively we use our brain to learn new things, the more robust and greater in number our neural connections. The more we learn, the smarter we become – not just from a cognitive perspective, but also from a physiological one. The more senses we engage with our learning, and the more focused and intense the repetition in our pursuit of new skills and knowledge, the stronger these connections become.

It also means that we must constantly question and challenge “accepted” beliefs. We must not become lost in a world where we are constantly seeking reaffirmation of things we already know. In fact, the more we can be thrown into situations where we are the dumbest person in the room, the better. Being the smartest person in the room means you aren’t going to learn much, but it feels good for your ego.

Always question and keep learning, and always use critical thinking when questioning. Our brains are either actively moving forward or passively falling behind. The choice is yours…

It’s Good to be Out of Your Comfort Zone

If you’re comfortable, you’re probably not growing. If you are trying to do something and you suck at it, you’re on the right track – because if you only do things you’re good at, you’re at best standing still & at worst going backwards…

Being shitty at something and working hard to get better is really kind of thrilling. It means you are actively growing, which means YOU’RE ALIVE!

Who’s Running This Show?

Here’s the tricky thing about technology – how do we use it to serve us, and not become a slave to it? Everyone with a smartphone knows this dilemma only too well. The world’s information is instantly available on your touchscreen, yet we can’t stop compulsively checking our social media feeds and falling down internet rabbit holes. Which of course becomes a black hole for your most precious commodity – time. The answer is to be disciplined in how we use this gift, which is a hell of a lot easier said than done.

The thing is, it’s not always clear how to utilize technology in a way that helps us self-actualize. It’s almost as we are in a partnership with it – it slowly reveals its secrets, but in the process of discovering them, we can become lost – hypnotized by the allure of possibilities we can’t begin to imagine.

Ray Johnson

If you’ve never heard of Ray Johnson, it’s definitely worth your while to check him out. I first heard of him from a film called “How to Draw a Bunny” that you can watch here. To say I was completely captivated by this man and his art would be a bit of an understatement. It’s really hard to put into words how deeply I was affected by seeing this documentary and then investigating his work – I am not an art expert, but I kept thinking “How have I never heard of this man?

He just seemed to personify everything I imagined a true artist is. It wasn’t just about his work – his whole life was an art piece. Everything, including his death, seemed to be imbued with mystery, creativity, and self-expression. He was interpreting the world and giving it back to us reconnected by his vision, as if to say “look – everything is not what it seems – there is hidden meaning everywhere…” And of course, his primary medium was collage – what better way of reassembling reality and reinterpreting the world around us than by literally taking bits and pieces of it and making something new. It’s the perfect metaphor for life…

Being creative and expressing your humanity exists on a continuum. In some people these traits don’t seem to exist at all (but of course, this isn’t really true – everyone is creative as a child). And then there are people like Ray Johnson. For them, it isn’t about “the work.” “The work” is them. They show us what is possible, that there are alternate realities all around us. It’s up to us to see and interpret them for ourselves. They show us that life is much richer than we imagine.

Brain – Machine Interface Part 1

Years ago I remember reading one of Ray Kurzweil’s books where he discussed the idea that our human,  organic, carbon-based life form was just an evolutionary stepping stone to a higher order, non-organic intelligence. In other words, our future would not be inhabited by humans and super intelligent machines – WE are in the process of evolving into super intelligent machines. 

Elon Musk makes the (pretty convincing) argument that this process is already well under way. Our smartphones are not physically attached to us – or are they? A pretty good argument could be made that having instant access to the worlds knowledge is already fundamentally changing the neurological functioning of our brain. He has started a new company called Neuralink that is discussed in Tim Urban’s wonderful blog here.

One of his core ideas that motivated the genesis of this venture is that our only protection against strong AI is to merge WITH strong AI…

Welcome to the future – it’s going to be a bumpy ride!


Part 1: When you are a nurse and someone who just had a stroke says to you “Thank you for taking care of me.” I can’t think of anything that makes me feel better than that.

Part 2: Intoxicated trauma patient with severe facial wound secondary to knife injury looks up at me on the trauma room stretcher and says “Thank you doc,” I reply that I’m a nurse, to which he responds “I’m sorry, thank you anyway doc…”

It’s a good day in the ER…

The Moment Is Now

What if this moment, right now, was all that you had? Would you be doing something different? Would you behave differently to the person you are with? Because, the reality is – this moment really is all that we have. Everything in the past is unchangeable and exists regardless of how we wish to interpret or understand it. And everything in the future is pure speculation – we can plan and dream and hope and wish – but we have a lot less control over it than we think we do. Especially the important stuff, like health and living and dying.

This moment is ours to experience as we choose. It is the one thing we do have control over, our gift of life. I hope you are enjoying yours…

I Love the Idea of Steve Lacy

A few days ago I came across this article in Wired, about a young musician named Steve Lacy. Before I even heard his music, I was in. He’s 18 years old and writes, records, and produces all of his music on his iPhone. Let me repeat that – he uses his iPhone as a tool for composing, a recording studio, a microphone, a DAW to mix his tracks, AND a distribution system (he uploads his work to SoundCloud). Welcome to the motherfucking future!

There are so many cool things about this… First of all, it drives home the importance that you don’t need much to make music. Just a burning desire to create and express yourself – armed with that, you WILL find a way. When you are young and driven, this is how it starts. Young Mr. Lacy may have hit the lottery with his current success, but I am not really interested in that. My money says that he would be creating and making music whether he was successful (in the traditional sense of recognition) or not. What is so cool about him is that he is just DOING IT. His drive to express himself in sound just gravitated to whatever tools were at his disposal, and that’s what he used.

Good fortune and the quality of his work led to a connection with Kendrick Lamar, which is a bit of a distraction to the point I am trying to make here. Make no mistake – there is no no viable music business anymore, so the moral of this story has nothing to do with his association with someone who might give the illusion that such a thing exists. But what is so interesting and inspiring about Steve Lacy is that he doesn’t see the limitations of any of this. He is just making cool shit, and for him (and for all of us) it is a glorious time to be alive.

When Your Best Isn’t Good Enough Part 1

Ok, let’s frame this and put it in perspective. You wanted to do something, and were unable to do it. So you failed to accomplish your mission.


The word that hurts, the thing we all will do anything to avoid. If you’re like me, “I failed…” is like a psychic punch to your soul.

So what does this mean? Does it mean that because you failed to accomplish your goal, YOU are a failure? I would argue no, it most definitely does not. It means you stepped up to try, and you didn’t succeed. You could have done nothing and protected yourself from failure, but instead you chose to try.

There is no shame in that, although in the moment it sure can feel like it. This is how we learn and grow in life. Fail, fail, fail, fail, SUCCEED. Failure keeps us honest and humble, and if we keep trying, we demonstrate that although we are an imperfect human, we have the strength, resilience and tenacity to eventually succeed. We do not fold like a cheap suit. Failure is not about us, it is not personal. It is not a reflection on who we are as humans.

But how we handle failure is a reflection of who we are, failure is our chance to pick ourselves up, learn from our mistakes and grow. Dare to fail, and don’t beat yourself up when you do. OWN IT and move on…

Everything Is Connected Part 1

I used to feel like I had to compartmentalize my life. There was my “work” life, and my life as a musician. I thought they were completely separate – and, at least in my mind, there should be no overlap between the two.

Even in music, I would separate my involvement in jazz from my life as a rock musician. In my day to day interaction with people, I still tend to do this to some degree, although I’m less rigid about it than I used to be. But in the last few years, something interesting has happened.

I’ve started to see things as being inter-connected, as if everything somehow adds up to a single entity. In my own mind, the boxes are breaking apart and morphing into a cohesive whole. Things that I thought were separate turn out to be connected in mysterious ways…

Don’t Be Afraid

I remember hearing an interview once with the author Judy Blume, and she made this statement, which immediately became indelibly etched in my brain:

I didn’t know what I was doing, but I wasn’t afraid to do it.”

As humans we are wired to be afraid when we don’t know what we’re doing. But when you are expressing yourself through whatever medium you’ve chosen, you have to make that leap. Sometimes we have to make that leap in our day to day life. When I’m in doubt about something, I like to imagine that I’m as fearless as her…

It’s A Beautiful Day On Planet Earth

It’s 84 degrees with a nice breeze – the sun is up and the sky is clear with humidity at 32%. A beautiful early spring day, with the Dogwood trees in full bloom. I’m not hungry and I’ve got someone who loves me. I have a nice place to live, a good job, and my health. I survived cancer and came out of it feeling great. I’m not broke and I have enough money to live comfortably. I have a few close friends, and I like the people I work with.

I have my mind fully intact and engaged and I have no physical pain. Life is good, and I am grateful. I do not now, nor have I ever, believed in a higher power. I am somehow missing the gene that might compel me to do so. But I believe in respecting life and the world I live in. I believe in appreciating what I have and trying to give back. I treat everyone equally until they show me otherwise. I try to have empathy for my fellow humans. I am flawed like everyone else, but I am trying to do the right thing. I am actively attempting to grow and become more fully realized in my humanity.

In light of all that I have, the question I ask myself is this: How can I make the world a better place for those who aren’t so fortunate?

Meditation Part 1

I started meditating about five years ago, and have practiced it every day since. Like many positive life-changing events for me, the impetus came from my wife. At the time, I had been diagnosed with cancer, and was undergoing treatment. It was that period where I didn’t know how things were going to turn out, and I was consumed with both obsessing over what I could do to enhance my chances for a “good” outcome (i.e. surviving), and preparing for the worst (illness and death.) My doctor had prescribed benzos for me to “quiet my brain,” which helped a little, but had obvious side effects. So she suggested we both go to a course on Transcendental Meditation, which we did. I was very open to the idea, but had never really investigated it. I had a vague preconception of the process, but entered into the experience with an open mind.

I immediately took to it, but I wasn’t sure I was doing it right. I also wasn’t certain anything was happening – T.M. requires two 20 minute sessions a day, which seemed like a lot of time. But the process wasn’t a chore, and it seemed vaguely enjoyable, so I stuck with it. Within a few days, maybe a week, I suddenly realized that I wasn’t taking my anti-anxiety medication AT ALL. My obsessive thoughts were just gone. I was stunned – it was obvious that meditating was responsible for the abatement of my symptoms, but it happened so transparently that I almost didn’t notice it.

I still don’t understand how it works, and quite honestly, I don’t really care. I just accept it. The whole experience is very mysterious to me – it seems to affect every part of my life in a powerfully positive way. It’s hard to define, but I’m very aware that it has somehow changed me. I still sometimes wonder if “I am doing it right,” but the effects are unmistakable. I was always resilient, but now I seem to have a vastly larger reservoir of personal power and self control available to me. I seem to be able to step back and put things in a much clearer perspective, as though I can observe life from a detached viewpoint. I seem to be both more sensitive and empathetic and yet somehow less affected by the negative aspects of life at the same time. It’s really weird.

I just feel like I am a better person, and yet I am not quite sure how. I just let go and let life happen.

No Regrets

Can there be a more useless emotion than regret? Trust me, I’ve made plenty of stupid mistakes and bad decisions in my life, but I don’t regret any of them. They were what I chose to do at the time, and represented the best decision I was capable of making in whatever state of mind I happened to be in at the time.

I mean, seriously – what does regretting do that serves any purpose at all? Reflection, on the other hand – very useful. Regret – a total waste of time and energy. Apologize if needed and move the fuck on…

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

The basic idea is this: the dumber you are, and the less you actually know about any given subject, the more certain your belief that you are actually an expert who is quite smart. Somehow your lack of understanding actually increases your conviction that you are right in any given situation, and that you are indeed a high performer. Conversely, the smarter you are, the less certain you become that you are right, and the more aware you become of what you don’t know. Dumb people overestimate themselves; smart people tend to overestimate everyone else.

I had heard of this concept before, but I just listened to an fascinating NPR podcast where Seth Cole interviewed psychologist David Dunning, one of the researchers for whom the effect is named. You can read a transcript here (scroll down to Act Two: Ignorance for Dummies). My first thought was “well that certainly explains a lot.” Here are a few excerpts from Seth Cole:

  • “In short, there seemed to be a direct correlation between incompetence and an overweening sense of self-confidence.”
  • He further states “It’s not that you’re ignorant and also happen to be overconfident. You’re ignorant, and it makes you overconfident. On the other hand, students who scored well, who really were in the higher percentiles, they tended to guess that they scored a little worse than they actually did… They figured most of the kids around them knew as much as they did. They simply misjudged other people, thinking, well, they’re probably as smart as I am.” (Cole, 2017)

So what are we to make of this phenomenon? Well, before anyone gets too smug here, let’s remember that all humans have a tendency to overestimate their abilities. So there’s that. I’ve always inherently felt that the more absolute someone was in their beliefs, the more they saw the world in black and white terms – the more likely they were to be at best unimaginative and at worst not that bright. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less certain of my ability to judge these things. The world and everything in it is too nuanced and complex to make any overarching conclusions and sweeping generalizations.

But it would certainly serve all of us well to always question our abilities and consistently try to improve – both in our jobs, in our art, and in our humanity. We have to be humble and open to what we don’t know.

Cole, S. (2017). Ignorance for dummies. Retrieved from

When To Say Yes – And When To Say No

Hmm… This one can be a bit tricky. I’m inclined to say that one should say yes to any opportunity that is consistent with your vision of where you want to go in your life, but I’m not sure that really covers this topic appropriately. It’s kind of a judgement call based on what is being asked and what your resources are at that time. But this also seems like a weak answer, because…

Sometimes an opportunity can come completely unexpected – it wasn’t something you were looking for, or even something you would have sought out. Perhaps someone saw something in you that you didn’t even see in yourself, and they are in a position to encourage you to develop whatever potential they see. These kinds of decisions require you to be open to possibilities you may never have considered. They require a sort of bravery, a willingness to consider alternative paths that were never on your radar. Sometimes in life you just have to be willing to take a leap and not be afraid.

Knowing when to say no is equally important – it allows you to protect your time for the things that are meaningful to you. But always carefully consider your options and think clearly about what is being offered. There is no penalty for saying yes except finding out that you made the wrong decision, in which case you graciously back out and admit your mistake. Just don’t turn down opportunities because you have never considered them