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Just Perfect

Content Warning: This email includes a fairly well-known but still-disturbing photo of a malnourished child, as well as some brief mention of suicide. If that is not your thing, you might want to skip this one.

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Is this Just Perfect?


I was scrolling through Twitter recently…

(you follow me on Twitter, don’t you?)

…and came across a tweet that made me stop and think.

A tweet claiming that Kevin Carter, who took a famous photo depicting a young person in the Sudan, was driven to suicide by the inherent cruelty of his act.
A famous photo of a child starving in the Sudan, shadowed by a waiting vulture.
The tweet and photo in question.

How incredible, I thought.

How sad, I thought.

What an ending, I thought. Lands like a ton of bricks.

I was about to scroll on, but instead I paused for a moment.

Something felt….

Wrong.

You may have this feeling yourself, as you scroll through the internet nowadays. It’s a very distinct sensation.

I felt like I was being played.

But I didn’t know why.

I went back and examined the tweet again. I thought about it for a bit.

I wasn’t familiar with the story, so that wasn’t it; I had no foreknowledge or background to pull on.

The story itself seemed almost…perfect.

Like a zen koan depicting man’s inhumanity to man, the callousness of modern media, and the devastating effects of success.

Suddenly, it struck me – and I knew why I felt like I was being played.

So I did what every good internet sleuth does:

I googled it.

The first result for the name “Kevin Carter” is Wikipedia:

“Carter shot an image of what appeared to be a little girl, fallen to the ground from hunger, while a vulture lurked on the ground nearby. He told Silva he was shocked by the situation he had just photographed, and had chased the vulture away. A few minutes later, Carter and Silva boarded a small UN plane and left Ayod for Kongor.

Sold to The New York Times, the photograph first appeared on 26 March 1993, and syndicated worldwide. Hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask the fate of the girl. The paper said that according to Carter, “she recovered enough to resume her trek after the vulture was chased away” but that it was unknown whether she reached the UN food center.

In April 1994, the photograph won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

In 2011, the child’s father revealed the child was actually a boy, Kong Nyong, and had been taken care of by the UN food aid station. Nyong had died four years prior, c. 2007, of “fevers”, according to his family.”

While Carter did commit suicide in 1994, his suicide note mainly spoke about money troubles and:

“…the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners”.

I moved on to Googling “Kevin Carter” and “Two Vultures” to try and source the quote that supposedly sent Carter into a depressive spiral.

But I could find no original source for this quote anywhere…

Only more tweets and a few blog posts repeating the same story, nearly verbatim.

All cited the source as a “call-in show,” but don’t bother to name it, or whether it was on TV or radio, the network, etc.

So, let’s recap:

  • Kevin Carter did, in fact, take this photo.
  • This is a picture of a little boy, not a little girl.
  • Carter reportedly scared the vulture away after taking the photo.
  • The child lived.
  • Carter DID kill himself, but over money troubles and accumulated stress from his job.
  • I could find no record of the “call-in show” or the “two vultures” comment, other than in various social media posts.

I think we can safely pronounce this story Complete and Utter Bullshit.

If the story itself is so easy to discredit after ten minutes of Googling, why is it being passed around?

Here’s the thing:

We are much less likely to give it the scrutiny it deserves when it reinforces our preconceived notions about how the world works.

This convenient little parable fits right into some of our current cultural narratives:

The actual callousness of “liberals” who proclaim to care…

The moral bankruptcy of the media…

But even if you somehow managed to never give in to your own biases…

(By the way, if you are nodding your head right now and thinking that, yes, “they” often fall prey to cognitive biases, I have bad news for you: you’re absolutely, 100% just as guilty of it as “they” are)

…You don’t have ten minutes to Google every cockamamie “fact” that crosses your Twitter feed.

There are people out there right now doing their damndest to get you riled up, angry, upset, to get you to tune out, or stay home, or shut off – and they couldn’t give two shits if a story isn’t exactly “true” or not.

I haven’t even mentioned the people that aren’t aware they’re doing this, the people blinded by their own incentives.

(After all, clicks on the internet mean dollars, and nothing gets clicks like strong emotional reactions.

All online content creators are incentivized to get you mad as hell, or sad, or horny, or some unholy combination of the three ).

Poor Kevin Carter – this man battled mental illness and put his life on the line to bring the plight of the poor and starving to the world…

Just to have his good name torn to pieces by internet trolls who can’t be bothered to spend five minutes on a simple Google search!

….But.

Of course, that’s a narrative, too.

And this, my friend, leads us towards an incomplete solution – but perhaps a useful one.

Since we don’t have time to engage in endless internet sleuthing, let’s turn instead to heuristics:

Handy rules of thumb we can use to decide if something deserves a second pass or not.

I call this one the “Just Perfect” Rule:

If a story is “just perfect,” it almost certainly isn’t true.

When we a say a story is “perfect,” what do we really mean?

We mean it felt right.

We mean it worked out in a such a way that delighted us, or surprised us, or shocked us.

It means we enjoyed the narrative; that we got wrapped up in the story.

But reality isn’t a story.

Reality doesn’t follow a narrative structure.

Reality is messy, and complicated, and endless…

Without borders, without boundaries, full of ambiguities, chaos, noise…

Reality is natural.

Narratives are man-made.

Examine any historical event that you think you understand – the Boston Tea Party, the War of the Roses, the birth of Islam…

And the deeper you get, and the more you learn…

The less sense it will make.

You’ll discover countless counter-evidence and facts that don’t fit and confused timelines and people acting “out of character.”

This is because to create any narrative – be it historical, or social, or personal – we must first sand down the edges of reality.

Remove the chaos.

Turn down the noise.

Simplify the plot.

We remove some pieces that “don’t seem to fit.”

We add a few flourishes that “enhance the effect.”

Sand down enough edges…

Remove enough noise…

And sooner or later, you can fashion a story that “makes sense.”

That conforms to our expectations.

But behind every story, there is a guiding hand.

A playwright.

An author.

And every author writes with a purpose:

To persuade, or cajole, or to confuse.

The problem with the internet is that in all it’s chaos, it’s very easy to miss the narratives…

And mistake them for reality.

So the next time you find yourself immersed in something that seems too good to be true, too perfect, too chef’s kiss….

Ask yourself:

“Is this real?

Or is it Just Perfect?”

Yours,

Dan


Something Cool To Read:

A wonderful Twitter thread about Outsider Art (or “art brut”). This account (@PulpLibrarian) is great.

I’m enjoying Twitter very much – but trying to use it more as a search engine. Type in any question and it’s a fabulous way of finding any number of interesting jumping-off points.

How To Stay Informed About COVID-19 Without Stressing Out (As Much)

I’ve been trying to manage a kind of balance, lately.

For one, I believe I have a civic duty to stay informed, to stay updated on COVID-19, to know what’s going on so I can best act to protect myself, my family, and my community.

On the other hand, reading about COVID-19 all the time is stressing me the fuck out.

As in, deep-pit-of-despair, knot-in-your-stomach stress.

A while back I wrote an article about managing the “pulse” of your news and information – and even said some pretty smart things. Maybe.

But I haven’t been doing a good job of taking my own advice. The relentless drum beat of school closings, ventilator shortages, new cases, country-wise-shutdowns…it’s been too much to look away from.

But it isn’t healthy – either in the biological or psychological sense. At some point, it’s all just too much, and you can neither extract value from or appropriately act on the information you’re “processing.”

So today, I went live on Facebook with some tips on putting yourself in “information quarantine” – staying up to date and informed without driving yourself up a fucking wall.

Enjoy.

Corona Virus: The Decision Journal Challenge

Are you interested in becoming smarter, a deeper thinker, and making better predictions?

Then I have a challenge for you.

But most of you won’t do it.

It involves being brutally honest with yourself – opening yourself up to deep and lasting improvement in how you think.

If you can stand the discomfort that causes, the upside is massive.

It will positively affect every single aspect of your life…

…making you happier, wealthier, and wiser.

Here it is:

If you’ve made a post about the Coronavirus outbreak…

Or you’ve shared a post about it…

Or you just have an opinion about it…

Save it somewhere.

Screenshot the post, write down your opinion.

Ask yourself, “Why do I think this is true?”

Write down your reasons.

Then, ask yourself:

“In two weeks, how will I know if I was right or not?”

No ambiguity here. Make a prediction.

If you think COVID-19 is no big deal, what would that look like two weeks from now?

Maybe infections have dropped off by more than 50%.

Maybe mentions of the virus in the news have decreased by 75%.

Or maybe all travel-bans across the world have been lifted.

If you think the virus is a HUGE deal, a catastrophe…

How will you know you were right in two weeks?

Maybe hospitals in the U.S. are rationing care.

Maybe the world death toll has risen by 100%.

It’s up to you to pick the conditions – just go with what you think will happen.

Write it down.

Then, go to your calendar, or your reminder app on your phone, and set a reminder for two weeks from now.

14 days from now, go back and read what you wrote –

What you believed, why you believed it, and how you would be proven right.

Then go find out if what you predicted came true.

If you were wrong, why?

What caused you to be wrong – were you off by degrees? Or were you completely off base?

If you were right, why? Did you have better sources than other people?

In both cases: How can you improve your thinking process the next time?

What you are creating here is called a Decision Journal.

My original decision journal, in Evernote, from 2016.
My original decision journal, in Evernote, from 2016.

It is one of the most powerful tools that exists for:

– improving your reasoning
– making better predictions
– making better decisions

…And almost no one uses one.

Because it can be painful.

We don’t like to be wrong…

And we all are. Most of the time.

It requires courage to see our flaws (which are universal) and work to improve them…

Rather than trying to explain them away.

Hell, most of the time, we don’t even REMEMBER what we believed…

We paper over our mistakes and tell ourselves we were really right all along.

If you can avoid that trap…

You will teach yourself to think, and reason, and predict at a much higher level.

The ultimate advantage.

Your true potential.

Try it. Let me know how it goes.

In Defense of The News: Information Pulse and Content Overload

(Photo credit – http://www.cubebreaker.com/1950s-hong-kong-street-photography-fan-ho/)

It’s become very fashionable, in business/productivity circles, to hate the news.

And with good reason: the news can feel cheap, trite, designed for a brief spike of rage or indignation or fear…and not much else.

I don’t watch the news” is up there as a humble-brag along with “I don’t even own a TV.”

“Your life will be the same no matter who’s president,” is another line I hear quite a bit, perhaps a cousin of “I don’t even watch the news.”

All these statements can feel right because, in fact, the news is quite unpleasant. And being too tied into the news does have negative effects.

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, distressed, and helpless – constantly bombarded by bad news you can do nothing about.

We all have enough stress in our lives already.

But I would argue that the smug dismissal of “the news” as something that only rubes pay attention to has its own risks.

For one, so much smugness can hardly be good for your health.

More seriously, “the news” is really code for “engagement with society at large”…a responsibility that is dangerous to abdicate.

Why do we need news, anyway? What purpose does it serve?

Primarily, it does one thing:


It lets us know about events/things we would not have otherwise known about.

(After all, you don’t need the news to tell you what you had for breakfast this morning…you need it to tell you about things that happened outside your immediate sphere of influence).

That may sound really obvious, but think for a moment about what things are generally outside your sphere of influence:

  • People who are unlike you
  • People in situations unlike yours
  • People in power

The news, then, is one of our primary channels for developing empathy – since it’s hard to feel empathy for people you neither know about nor understand.

It’s also our primary channel for accountability – it’s hard to hold those in power to task when you have no idea what they’re doing.

The news is one of the few ways we have of reliably seeing others – and without truly seeing others, we are often unable to truly empathize with them.

The mind’s eye is where empathy is born.

Skip the news, and you skip the ability to develop this empathy over time.

The “no matter who’s president, your life will be completely the same!” is a great example of this lack of empathy problem. People’s lives DO change significantly depending on who’s in power…just, perhaps, not the people in your immediate sphere of influence.

Migrant children outside the U.S. Border Patrol McAllen Station in a makeshift encampment in McAllen, Texas – 2019. Photo Credit

As just the most blatantly obvious example – the kids pictured above would have wildly different experiences, depending on the immigration laws in place.

You might think that’s good or bad – but the point is that their lives would be different.

The same goes for people of lower socio-economic status in general, and people for whom policing policies have a strong impact, and people for whom health care policy have a strong impact.

That you are not affected by political changes does not mean people are not affected.

They just don’t tend to be people you know about.

And because you don’t know about them, you don’t care about them.

This is not a moral failing – we’re just terrible at extending sympathy and empathy to those we can’t picture.

Call it a vestige of our more tribal days, where we operated in a limited sphere of moral concern. Back in the day, if I didn’t know you, if I didn’t depending on you for food, or resources, or companionship, then I didn’t care about you.

We live in a democratic society – a social construct that asks us to think deeply about not just our own needs, but the needs of those around us. That’s hard. It’s really, really, really fucking hard, and we’re all bad at it.

But the news – our window into what happens elsewhere – is one way we counteract this tendency.

If The News Is So Great, Why Does It Make Me Miserable?

Here’s the thing:

Information has a pulse.

You can think of “pulse” as the speed at which information is delivered and consumed.

On Instagram, I might scroll through a hundred different posts and stories in a few minutes – it has a high pulse.

On Facebook, I might consume less than that, since I have to slow down to read more/the content is less visual – it has a lower pulse.

And of course, reading a book that was written 100 years ago has a very low pulse – not only is it slow to consume, it took time to get to me.

What’s important to note is that information is filtered over time – so information with a higher pulse will, by necessity, be less filtered and more “noisy.”

It takes a few seconds to tweet something – so misinformation travels fast, and is both consumed and regurgitated at a rate that makes adequate vetting of information impossible.

High pulse = immediate, but with a much higher chance of being wrong.

Books, on the other hand, tend to be more valuable, on average, the older they are. You can relatively sure that there’s something of value in anything that has survived a century of criticism.

What makes us miserable about the news is not the news itself, but the pulse of the channels from which we receive the news.

Twitter is a great social network for conversation, but it’s terrible for news – consisting mostly of “hot takes” that are forgotten as quickly as they are consumed.

TV is a great entertainment medium, but it’s a terrible place for news – focused on attracting eyeballs at any cost, with all incentives structured for rewarding speed and immediacy over impact and accuracy.

So, how can we consume the news – and develop empathy, and hold those in power accountable, and deepen our understanding of the world – without making ourselves miserable?

Lower the pulse of the news.

Slow News Day

For my money, the two best ways to consume the news are:

  • Newspapers
  • Long form journalism

My personal preference is the Sunday New York Times; that’s just my opinion, of course, but the “Sunday” part is no accident.

By Sunday, the big stories of the week tend to have been established, and “summary” articles are included. Most of the “noise” has had time to filter out – the false starts, the outright lies, the mistakes, tend to have been more or less ironed out by Sunday.

Is that always the case? Of course not. But the signal to noise ratio is significantly higher over the weekend, so you end up getting a more balanced picture of the week by skipping the news entirely and just catching up on Sunday.

In terms of long form journalism, I’ve been partial to magazines like Harper’s or The New Yorker because I’m an East Coast Liberal Elitist – but pick any magazine of similar bent.

These periodicals tend to address timely issues, but to do so in a non-time-crunched, more in-depth way.

Are they as low-noise as, say, books? No.
Are they anywhere near as low-noise as, say, books published over the previous 50 years that are still in print? No.

But the pulse is significantly lower than trying to “stay on top of” the news each day.

And because the pulse is lower, the effect of the news is very different.

Rather than feeling stressed out about fires half the world a way…

You can start to learn about the effect those fires have had.

Rather than reading tweets about the continued villainy of those on the other side of the aisle…

You can start to get a deeper understanding of how their policies are affecting communities outside your own.

Empathy starts with awareness.

Accountability starts with awareness.

And we need both to be responsible citizens – to be the kind of people that engage with the world around us, rather than simply shutting our eyes as tightly as possible while we “optimize” our lifestyles and bank accounts.

So.
Read the news.
Pick out what’s interesting to you.
Slow the pulse.

I think you’ll find the benefits to be substantial…
And the rest of the world needs you.

Practical Notes on Depression From a Semi-Famously Depressed Person

Depending on how you know me, this may or may not come as a bit of a surprise:

Most people I meet expect me to be depressed.

This is because I am, perhaps, most famous for releasing a few albums of very, very depressing music.

For some strange algorithmic reason, this song I wrote somehow has 2.5 million views on YouTube.

People who know me through non-musical contexts are typically surprised by this.

And they are generally more surprised by the fact that I receive about 1-2 messages a week from depressed people asking for advice.

I don’t claim to have any special expertise on the subject at all – clearly, I’m neither a doctor, nor a therapist, nor even remotely qualified to be one.

But I’ve been very open, creatively, about my struggles with depression – and public vulnerability is often in very short supply.

Recently, while responding to someone on Instagram I realized I should put some thoughts down on the blog and hash them out a bit.

So, here you are: My thoughts on depression, from a semi-famously depressed person.


I’ll tell you what helped me. 

1: For one, realize it is all chemical.

Your body is a highly complex system, and depression is a physical negative feedback loop.

Don’t give it any moral weight – it’s like throwing your back out. It hurts like hell, but it means literally nothing about your worth as a person, or your future, or your character. It’s an emotional knee injury, nothing more. 

2: Healing is primarily about time.

Lives go in cycles, systems work in cycles, everything happens in cycles.

All cycles have down periods, by definition. Can’t have an “up” without a corresponding “down”, otherwise it wouldn’t be an “up.” Part of the added pain of depression is thinking we shouldn’t experience it – but it’s part of the package.

Many “depression hacks” are placebo + good timing (“I started feeling slightly better, so I started exercising. Then my depression lifted!”) Sometimes you need to just do your best, embrace the suck, and release the expectation that you need to “fight” to “get better.”

Time everything. It’s really just a matter of sticking around to see the far end of the tunnel.

3: Once you let go of the guilt and blame – might as well spend your time working on your quality of life.

Quality of life improvement, like many things, is best accomplished with a barbell strategy.

Imagine a barbell. On the left, you have risk avoidance. On the right, you have high risk, high potential reward behaviors. In the middle, you have balance. 

People instinctively go for the middle. “The golden mean,” and all that. But really, the middle brings the boredom of safety without the rewards of risk. It’s safe but it’s boring and it doesn’t get you very far. 

Instead, focus your attention sequentially – first on the left side of the barbell, then the right.

Meaning:

Cap your downsides first. Take care of the basics – avoid the big risks.

What’s the big risk with depression? Fucking killing yourself. So take care of that first. How can you insure that won’t happen?

Be around other people. Get a therapist. Meditate or medicate if you need to. Check yourself into a hospital if it’s bad.

Always ask for help if you need it. If you can’t handle the above, I guarantee you can find someone who will do it for you. Really have no one? Walk into the nearest emergency room.

No messing around with the worst-case scenario.

There’s a reason they take your shoelaces in the hospital. Take all your shoelaces away.

Once that’s taken care of, move on to the next thing. Depends on your situation, but what’re the major contributing factors to everyday depressive episodes?

  • Poor sleep
  • Screen exposure past sundown
  • Poor hydration
  • Poor diet
  • Lack of exercise

The BASICS.

I’m not saying these things cause depression; they just make it harder to get out.

Take them one at a time. Focus on small behaviors and habits that slowly build positive momentum. Make your foundation solid.

Can’t do great things if you can’t sleep and you’re strung out. 

(By the way, you don’t need to be perfect – you just need to not be operating a deficit. I don’t always get a perfect night’s sleep, but I’m not consistently sleep-deprived, either. We’re not optimizing, here…just making sure we’re covering our bases).

4: Once our basics are taken care of – and not before – we move a small amount of our attention to the right side of the barbell. 

Risk. Risk is our friend, in small quantities.

Too much and we’re overstretched, with too much downside.

Too little, and we’re bored of ourselves with nothing to look back on with pride. 

Take one thing that entails a risk – personal, emotional, financial, whatever – risk that’s important to you.

And put some time – say 20% of your time – towards it.

  • Start a business.
  • Learn to attract the romantic partner of your choosing.
  • Learn Jiu Jitsu.
  • Travel to Ireland.
  • Start a podcast.

Whatever. 

Put yourself in a position where you can fail, and where you must struggle to grow. 

The great secret to everything is that we die in the absence of struggle.

Growth is what sustains happiness – growth and service to others.

But…

It’s hard to serve if we can’t do anything. 

The more you focus on growth, the more you learn to validate yourself – the scale for success is internal, not based on what others think, but on what YOU think.

Relative growth is all about where you came from, not where you are

This is the core of true freedom, both of action and of expression: internal validation.

Once you got your first thing, you start a new thing.

It never ends.

Constant growth begets constant change, which brings interesting people into your life, which begets more change. 

Sooner or later, you will look back and not even recognize your own life.

So. 

1. Strip depression of its meaning
2. Realize that it’s time more than anything that helps, so take the pressure off. 
3. Take care of the basics and cap your downside
4. Risk wisely

That’s all I got.
It isn’t much, and everyone’s different –

But I hope if you’re feeling depressed, this gives you some context.

Sincerely,

Your Semi-Famously Depressed Friend

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