Monday, August 29, 2016

When is a mixture better than a middle?

We often optimize by looking for a nice middle partway along a spectrum:

  • Exercising means challenging your body enough to respond but not so much that you hurt yourself.
  • Astronomers look for potentially habitable planets in the"Goldilocks zones" around other stars, the bands where it's not too hot and not too cold.
  • It's appropriate to get to the airport not too late but also not too early.
  • Ordinary fruit juice tastes much better than straight-up concentrate does (oops), and also much better than plain water mixed with the tiny amount of juice left over from the last time you filled your glass.

This idea goes back at least to Aristotle, who claimed that virtues (like courage) are means between two opposite extreme vices (like cowardice and foolhardiness).

So when I read Nassim Taleb's The Black Swan, a book about how to prepare for the unexpectable, I was surprised to find that regarding the choice between high-risk high-growth investing and the low-risk low-growth options, he recommends not a middle ground, but a mixture: having some very dependable savings and some investments that are risky but full of potential. That way, you guard against catastrophe but stay open to good opportunities.

This got me wondering: When else is a mixture better than a middle? Another example would be a painting: a mixture of colors is much nicer than a canvas covered in a single average:

Pretend the left-hand side is a painting.
If I can spot the conditions that make a mixture better than a middle, maybe I can optimize in ways I'd never thought of before.

It certainly isn't always the case that a mixture of two extremes is preferable to a single middle: I'd rather be always courageous than sometimes cowardly and sometimes foolhardy. It's easy to see why a mean is better than the extremes in this case: the extremes are both bad! So that's one clue for when a middle is definitely better than a mixture: think whether the extremes are desirable or undesirable.

But just because the extremes are desirable doesn't mean a mixture of them will be. I like food either hot from the stove or cold from the fridge, but lose my desire to eat leftovers when I unevenly microwave them, leaving tongue-burning hot zones beside pockets of still-cold areas.

Or even worse, I like milk and I like orange juice, but mixing them produces a revolting curdled mess. (Thanks for that lesson, summer camp.) But orange cake with creamy icing is lovely, so sometimes it's the way you mix two things that makes the difference.

So a middle is better than a mixture of extremes when the extremes are both bad. And when the extremes are good, sometimes a mixture is worse than just sticking to one or the other. So when is a mixture the best way to go?

I think the answer resides in whether the extremes are alternatives or complements. Hot and cold are alternatives; you cannot heat and cool the same thing at the same time to enjoy the benefits of both. But opposite colors are complements: opposite colors can be sometimes be enjoyed even more side-by-side than alone. I caught on to this distinction a couple of weeks ago when my father-in-law mentioned growing morning glories and clematis on an arbor at their community garden. "Clematis takes longer to grow but is hardier, so it should be a good alternative—I mean complement—to the morning glories." Aha! A mixture can be better than a middle or extreme when you enjoy the extremes for qualities that aren't, in principle, mutually exclusive. Then you just have to find a way to combine them without destroying those qualities you like.

This explains Taleb's investing advice: the opposite approaches of high-risk/high-reward and low-risk/low-reward have complementary virtues, so a mixture makes more sense than a single medium.

Since I started working on this post, I've been thinking about what other areas of my life might benefit from mixtures as opposed to middles. For example, I like how personal tutoring is, and I love how many people an internet video can reach. I've often told myself that I'm aiming for a reasonable middle ground by teaching classes of 20 to 30 students, where I can interact with each one in some small way. But maybe it would be better if I instead worked more as a tutor and made more videos, to get more depth and breadth of interaction from a mixture of approaches than any single one would provide.

Here are my questions for you:

  • What are some more examples? What are some areas where you regularly use a mixture of more than one approach to get the best of multiple worlds? (Answers may involve food, exercise, relationships, chores, work, fun, finances—you name it!)
  • When is it hard to tell whether a mixture is better than a middle? I've mostly been focusing on cases where it's easy to tell, in order to try to get the principles down, but the next step would be to try to apply those principles to cases that are otherwise hard to analyze.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Dual Adverbs

Recently I discussed my new project for trying to benefit the people I talk to and make them feel more comfortable. One of the ways I've been trying to do this is to find two ways of saying the same thing (like "Have you taken out the trash yet?" and "Have you taken out the trash already?") and look for subtle differences in meaning.

And sometimes I get distracted by patterns.

There are several pairs of words like "always" and "sometimes" that I've been calling dual adverbs, because "not always" means the same thing as "sometimes not":

  • "Strangers are not always nice." = "Strangers are sometimes not nice."

"Everywhere" and "somewhere" work the same way, in that "not everywhere" means the same as "somewhere not":

  • "It's not messy everywhere." = "Somewhere it's not messy."

(These are reminiscent of the dual quantifiers "for all" and "there exists" from logic: If it's not true that all cars are red, there must exist a car that is not red, so "not for all" = "there exists (such that) not." That's why I'm calling these pairs of adverbs dual.)

Another example with a similar flavor is "totally" and "partially": not totally = partially not.

But here are some examples that surprise me, where it's not so easy to see it as an instance of "for all" versus "there exists":

not often = usually not

  • "It's not often raining" = "It usually isn't raining."

not yet = still not

  • "It's not ready yet" = "It still isn't ready."

My pattern-collecting self wants to keep on looking for more pairs of dual adverbs, but let me ask you: what do you think are some of the subtle differences between the meanings of these sentences? What does one suggest that the other doesn't? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, August 15, 2016

On not exuding confidence

I'm what you could call shy. Here's what happens when I am in a conversation with people I don't know very well.

  1. My joints start to feel stiff and my breath gets shallow. Everything feels hard to move and I have to concentrate on breathing normally and not clutching one arm with the other.
  2. When I have something to say, I run it through my mind several times to see if someone could misunderstand it. But by then the moment will have passed and I keep it to myself. The result is that I sit around for a long time feeling like I've been working hard at the conversation, but without actually saying anything.
  3. Eventually I realize that if I want to speak up I'll have to forgo the review process and just say something as it occurs to me. Often what comes out is indeed insensitive or ungracious in a way I didn't mean, but apologizing feels like it would just make the whole situation even more awkward (and would mean looking for another moment to interject), so I clam up again.
  4. Finally, I retreat into my own world for the rest of the conversation.

Guess which alpaca I am.

I know that this is something I should work on if I want to make new friends more easily. The internet advice on becoming more self-confident in social situations generally falls into three categories, and I can see how they would be helpful:

Get comfortable being uncomfortable

  • Practice coping with discomfort by trying new things regularly. Do something daily that's a little scary. Accept that meeting someone new may always be uncomfortable but resolve not to let it stop you.

I'm 100% on board with this idea, especially since trying new things is something I already approve of, although I'm not systematic about it in any way yet.

Fake it 'til you make it

  • Smile, adopt an open and expansive posture, and generally do what you think someone who feels at ease would do. Eventually, you'll feel genuine self-confidence.

I do sometimes "fake it" in this way—I have yet to "make it," but it does make the process less awkward for the other person.

Think positive

  • Tell yourself that people will be happy to get to know the real you. Imagine yourself interacting with people and it going smoothly and easily.

I don't do this so much, because it feels silly, but I imagine it would help.

So I have this problem, I've known for a while what I should be doing about it, but I haven't made much of an effort. Why not? If you're being charitable, you could say that I just haven't gotten around to it yet, but after some introspection I realized there is another reason:

I don't want to be confident.

Here's why: when I think about people I've met who seem to exude confidence, I have no desire to be like them: they take up too much space, they talk over me when I try to get a word in edgewise, and in general they make me feel even more like retreating into myself. I don't want to do that to other people. So I may not enjoy being shy, but I don't approve of the alternative.

Or rather, I don't approve of what I have perceived as the alternative. But here's what I realized next: Self-confidence doesn't mean being the "alpha male" in the room, someone who gets a boost by being superior to everyone else. No, it is the opposite; self-confidence is freedom from needing anyone else's approval. That led me to my third realization:

If I learn self-confidence, and feel free from trying to earn others' approval, it frees me up to pursue other outcomes for my conversations. In particular, if I value making other people feel comfortable, then I can spend my self-confidence on that, thinking about how I can help people feel at ease and safe. I can aim to have the people I meet leave feeling good about themselves if I'm not worried about whether they feel good about me.

So that's my new goal for developing my social skills: learn to feel sufficiently at ease in social situations that I can stop thinking about myself and focus on how to benefit other people.

Care to help me with this project? I have some questions for you.

  • Have you had a history of social anxiety or awkwardness? What has helped you?
  • What are some times you have really felt comfortable around someone you didn't know very well yet? What did they do to make you feel safe or understood?

Let me know in the comments!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Enjoying Leiden on foot

We did a lot of walking around on the last few days we were in Leiden, for a couple reasons:

  • We had to transport several large objects (including four suitcases and a couch) across the city, which meant lots of walking to and fro.
  • On our last day, we sold our bikes as one of our earlier errands, so everywhere else we went that day (Hortus Botanicus, De Valk, etc.) we visited on foot.

These were reasons of necessity, but I really appreciated having the opportunity to notice new things about Leiden that I never had before. For example, over many front doors there there are rectangles of glass spanned by arcing dividers, and I made it a project during these walking adventures to photograph as many as I could spot. Here are a few of my favorites:

I love the way every one is different, but they are all stylistically unified. And all so beautiful.

How about you? Have you ever made a happy discovery because you were forced to go at a slower pace than you were used to?

Monday, August 1, 2016

Habits of Variety

I noticed recently that I've been trying to live my life according to two conflicting principles. On the one hand, I am always trying to give my life the structure of good habits. I journal every day, I write a blog post once a week, and I am currently working on the habit of washing my glasses every morning. I like not having to make the decision every day; instead, I made the decision once and act on it again and again, preferably without having to think about it.

On the other hand, I want to fill my life with a variety of different experiences. I suspect that life seems to go by faster the more each day is filled with familiar things one can experience without noticing: unlike our first few months here in Leiden, when everything was new, the last year has flown by at a terrifying rate. And sometimes a lack of variety can be dangerous: eating the same thing all the time can lead to vitamin deficiencies, and exercising only some muscle groups can lead to imbalances.

I haven't yet fully sorted through how much I want to do intentionally and how much I would like to mentally automate. But it occurred to me that it's also possible for a habit to promote variety in one's life. For example, a friend of Clara's planned her meals around whatever organic produce was on sale that week. That simple rule allowed her to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables from week to week without having to specifically plan out a rotation.

photo by Carol Moshier
Then I realized that I had developed some habits of variety myself without realizing it. There are several ways to bike from our apartment to the opposite side of Leiden, and instead of going the same way every time, I fell into the rhythm of going one way when on my way to work, another way on my way to Dutch class, and a third way for Bible Study, even though it didn't make much difference to the travel time. That way I'd keep visiting different parts of our beautiful city without having to plan it.

I also exercise using an ipad app that takes you through a different combination of exercises every time you use it, and which is designed to gradually ramp up in overall difficulty as you get stronger. In the past I've gotten bored by exercise routines that are basically the same week after week, but this method has let me practice both consistency and variety in my physical fitness.

In each case, the habit is tied to a regular trigger that varies: which produce is on sale, or what day of the week it is, or what exercise the app tells me to do next. I think that's the key to making the behavior both habitual and varied.

Here are some other areas of my life into which I'm thinking of incorporating more habitual variety. Suggestions are welcome!

Fun spending:

It's inefficient to spend money on the same fun activities every week if the fun gradually diminishes. What are some ways I can make sure my money goes toward a variety of experiences, while still keeping to a tight budget?


I would love for chores to be one of those habits I do without thinking. I wash the dishes every day, but how often am I supposed to dust behind the refrigerator or clean out the junk drawer? It's hard to make a habit out of things that are only necessary once in a while, so how can I make sure I'm getting to everything regularly without thinking about it too hard?


At this point in my life I've accrued a lot of friends from all over the world, but it takes more effort to keep in touch with the ones who are farther away. (This is especially relevant to me now, as I prepare to move to a new home over four thousand miles away.) What are some ways to habitually reach out to more of my friends, and not just the ones it's easiest to talk to?

What are your ideas? Do you have any habits of variety you've found helpful?