Rituals, repetition, and how we build our lives

So this is something of a new format for writing that I want to try developing specifically for this blog; it's very new and I'm super open to feedback on it, so please let me know what you think!

I have a few different ideas in here that I'm going to try to tie together, so you'll have to bear with me.

Bach and stress

The first thing I wanted to talk about was something I noticed myself doing the other week at work, as we were all in crunch mode trying to get things ready for a major deadline. Things were stressful; I was sleep deprived; everything seemed like it was falling apart... But I knew I was really feeling that weight when all I could think to do was start listening to Bach's cello suites.

Yo-Yo Ma's 1983 recordings remain my favorite, even as he's put out subsequent interpretations.

It struck me as funny in retrospect, because I realized that this was an old habit that had become a self-reinforcing ritual for me.

I listen to Bach's cello suites as I work through high pressure situations. Then, when new challenges face me down the road, I feel this itch to listen to Bach again because I associate it with working through difficult times.

As far as coping mechanisms go, this feels pretty ideal:

  • It's sustainable—I've already bought the CD so it won't ever cost me another dime at this point
  • It's a discrete physical action—as long as I can press play I can kick off the ritual, and it's hard for me to be "too stressed" to do it
  • It has a track record of success that I've lived personally and keep adding to

So then I was thinking a bit about what are other rituals I could develop for when times are hard, or even if there was some framework for them that could be useful when mentoring. But that felt a bit silly, really, when I had just sort of stumbled into this one, and I think most of these things are sort of organically discovered.

There's no magic to the paint-by-numbers approach, and if there's no magic to the ritual then it's just a technology—and any new technology should be at least 10x better than the baseline, or you're really just fucking around. I didn't see good prospects in digging further into the "ritual" idea, but I could tell I found the thought interesting for some reason.

Magic and the improbable

The thing that struck me as I turned over my thoughts about ritual again was that organic discovery piece—the magic.

I mean, I say "magic", but it seems much more mundane than that, of course. I'm talking about listening to music while writing code, not the moment of inspiration the led me to curing cancer or something.

When I use a term like "magic" when I'm talking to people in real life, I'll frequently get a bit of an eye-roll in return, or people will think I'm embellishing my enthusiasm to be dramatic or otherwise make a point. I'm actually being perfectly sincere, though, and I think there's a kind of "nothing is special" attitude lurking behind people's reactions that they might find value in re-examining.

Something I think a lot about is how people will you a certain idea of science to try to squash uncertainty in an inherently uncertain world. An important note here is that this thinking is not, in fact, scientific, or really even rational; it's simply trying to use the appearance of being such.

The simple mathematics of it are that there are so many tiny pieces of random chance that go into so many different aspects of our lives that it's difficult for us to not encounter something completely new to the universe on any given day.

Now, most of these novelties are so banal that people have a hard time even noticing them, but that doesn't make them any less present. Almost everyone has fingerprints, for instance, but that doesn't make them any less unique—the reality of it is that there aren't actually that many people in the world, just too many for us to reason about with normal types of intuition. But in the same way that there aren't enough people in the world for anyone to share your exact fingerprints, there aren't enough people in the world for anyone to share your exact experiences, only the outlines—and sometimes not even those!

If we can accept as a matter of literal fact that many unique things enter and leave our lives on a recurring basis, then the real question is just what feelings we project onto them. I would say making some effort to cultivate a sense of wonder is fundamentally useful in a few different ways:

  • It makes it a lot easier to be happy, generally, as life is just more interesting that way
  • It trains us to look for changes and unusual events; whether we want to change our own lives or maintain them happily, the changes happening around us are what bring both opportunity and risk

That second point, in turn, led me to larger thoughts I was having about life and work that seemed more interesting.

Creativity and industry

One mental model you could have of most human activity is that we have a set of baseline habits and behaviors that we engage with routinely, and then unusual events that shift that baseline set.

A young professional might have a normal routine but grow frustrated with a lack of opportunities for advancement at their company, say; they start taking night classes and working for their MBA, and that then becomes a new addition to their routine. Graduating will free up time, shifting that routine again, and if they get promoted upon receiving their degree then their life changes once again.

Some of these shifts in routine are internally driven (choosing to go to night classes), and some are externally driven (getting promoted). In this mental model, however, most of these shifts that we set as goals for ourselves and feel like we can control could be thought of as accumulations of routine behaviors practiced over some period of time.

The challenge, then, is two fold:

  • Determining with confidence what set of routines will carry us to where we want to be
  • Finding ways to maintain that steady-state long enough that we reach our destination

Both of these are really hard problems; in a certain sense we spend our whole lives looking for answers to these two points.

Something I've found to be useful has been to broaden that sense of wonder I mentioned before. It is useful to notice changes and novelties, but it's also important to have awareness of ourselves and what we allow to become our daily routines. Examining our everyday actions and asking ourselves if they get us to where we want to go or hold us back is an important practice.

With each new day we build another tomorrow whether we realize it or not; we'd do well to make sure we're actually building the worlds we want to live in.

One thing I actually like about the software industry is that it embraces a lot of the cyclical nature of human existence—there are a lot of company booms and busts, development will be relaxed but turn frenzied as a deadline looms, etc. We get a lot of practice living all the different parts of these cycles, at both small and large scales.

Hopefully it leads us somewhere worthwhile.