ūü§ĮUnknown Unknowns #41 - The Pursuit of Abstract Ideas
5 min read

ūü§ĮUnknown Unknowns #41 - The Pursuit of Abstract Ideas

I went skiing with my brother and his family for the first time in years.  To someone who's never skied, there doesn't seem to be a point.  It's cold and windy, you go up just to go down.  But for those of us who love skiing, it's hard to describe why we enjoy it so much.

Image Description

When you first start off, you learn essential skills.  Later on, you learn skills for particular situations.  When you master those, you start applying them without thinking.  You feel the mountain and you respond automatically, and you don't even realize you're doing it.  You can feel your body responding to different conditions, but you're not conscious of making the hundreds of minute adjustments.  It doesn't matter if it's icy, steep, powder, or any other condition, you adapt seamlessly to whatever is happening.  You don't try to control the mountain, you're part of the mountain.

There's apps that track your day, recording how many runs, how fast and how far you've gone.  When I've used these trackers, the magic's gone.  Instead of feeling each turn, each moment, I'm focused on maximizing these stats.  The pursuit of these abstract ideas ruined the moment.

Image Description


What is enough?  Can you have enough?  I had a conversation with a friend who said you could never have enough.  And I agree, if you are pursuing an abstract idea.  You can never have enough money because it's a number.  Likewise, you can never have enough time -you can always be more productive.  But you can have enough food.  You can eat so much food that seeing a drumstick makes you want to puke.  You can have enough houses because you can only live in one a day.

If you optimize for abstract concepts you will believe that you can never have enough.  And that belief will inevitably lead to dissatisfaction.


One of Tom Morgan's favorite concepts is Moloch, an ancient god of Babylon. I first saw this concept through Slate Star Codex.  Moloch is the personification of pursuing abstract concepts.  It's fixating on a number, metric, goal.  The personification of Goodhart's Law.  Tom speaks with Frederik Gieschen on the Neckar Podcast:

Moloch is what happens when any system targets something abstract...if you're tweeting for the purposes of getting engagement often that that can backfire as a, as a business model and as a way to live. Because you're targeting the abstract thing. And I think that concept is applicable to sort of everything, right? Because the reason why people get stuck in these, these holes is because they've targeted something abstract and there's never any life in the abstract thing,

In contrast, when you have intrinsic motivation you will find satisfaction.

It's very unlikely that you will live a fulfilled life as a by-product of
pursuit of money, but it is very likely that you will get money as a by-product of the pursuit of a meaningful life. And it doesn't really matter how much money you get. If your life is, is truly meaningful, right? As long as you have a certain amount. And now I know that can sound a little bit idealistic and I'm not saying the balance is easy. In fact, the balance is probably the hardest thing you can ever do.
When you're chasing something intrinsic, you'll never get bored of it because you're on the path. You'll never get bored and you'll get rewarded for it one way or another. But again, like it's the nuance that it has to be something that the world needs.

=> Podcast Here


What happens when abstract goals take over our lives?  Lawrence Yeo writes about the concept of enough and how we approach it.

Ambition is largely driven by self-actualization, or the desire to become a more capable person. And when this happens, it’s only natural that good outcomes arise. You’ll witness bumps in your reputation, be offered higher salaries, and so on. But these things happen as a byproduct of your ambition, and not because these outcomes were your primary desires.
Greed, however, is when those outcomes become your primary desires.
You’ve entered the domain of greed when you no longer pursue an endeavor because you’re curious about it. It’s when the coldness of utility replaces the warmth of curiosity. Ambition morphs into greed when you stop listening to your inner compass, and start paying attention to what your actions may do for external things like your reputation.
Enough is what remains when you remove these desires for approval or praise. It’s when you conduct an honest audit of your needs, and understand what has been conditioned into you, and what is true to who you are.

=> Article Here


Austin Kleon has two examples of not getting attached to an abstract principle.

Forget the noun, do the verb.

Don't be a title, do the work.  Don't be a chef, cook.  Don't be an author, write.  Don't constricting yourself by tying yourself into an identity.

everyone who's turned their passion into their breadwinning knows this dangerous territory - you take that thing that keeps you alive spiritually and you turn into the thing that keeps you alive literally

This is one of the clearest examples.  Pursuing the abstract idea of money can ruin what you actually like to do.

Advertiser's, marketers, politicians.  It is in their best interests for us to be plugged into our phones or watching TV because then they can sell us their vision of the world.  If we don't get outside, if we do not walk
around in the fresh air, meet our neighbors.  If we do not experience our
everyday world using our own senses, we will have no vision of our own that we can combat that misinformation with when we're glued to our screens.

=> Video Here

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is one of the classiest actors in the world (you may have seen him in Shang-Chi) and his character, Mr. Chow, in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love is the epitome of debonair sophistication.  Mr. Chow always ends his conversations with "I'll leave you in peace."  That phrase has stuck with me, it feels like the perfect way to end a conversation.

Questions, suggestions, complaints? ¬†Email me me at [email protected]. ¬†Feedback welcome.

If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share it with a friend or two.  And feel free to send anything you find interesting to me!

Leaving you in peace,