Dunbar’s Law and Your Stuff

I was reading through Everett Bogue's old e-book The Art of Being Minimalist and stumbled into an interesting idea.

Dunbar's Law says that the maximum number of people you can genuinely, sincerely relate to in the real world is about 150 people. You can't really have 1,000 "friends" on Facebook unless you use the post-post-modern definition of the word "friend," which of course isn't a friend at all.

But what if you applied this concept to your stuff? To the amount of things you owned?

Thinking back to how we must have lived millennia ago, almost no one had the resources to own hundreds of books, dozens of pieces of furniture, hundreds of shirts, shoes, even (as much as I'd rather not admit it) pairs of underwear.

And as Bogue says, "Once you get past 150 things, you start to lose your glasses. You don't remember what is in that box anymore, unless it's labeled and you look at it. ...Imagine how many objects a hunter/gatherer in the bush has to deal with? A lot less. This leaves valuable brain power for getting the work done."

Running Towards Humps

Much of human behavior essentially amounts to comfort seeking. When we're hot, we seek air conditioning. When we're hungry, we eat without delay. When we want something, we buy it, even if we don't really have the money.

A few years ago, when I fortuitously stumbled onto William Irvine's brilliant book on Stoicism, I started embracing various types of "voluntary discomfort" as part of my halting efforts both to learn about Stoic philosophy and to try to learn how to appreciate life a little bit more. And as a quick reminder: Stoics don't "do" voluntary discomfort because they get off on suffering, that's just a snarky and condescending misreading of the practice. Rather, they do it to appreciate the comforts they already have, and to avoid taking them for granted.

At this point I'd also read Julien Smith's short and intriguing book The Flinch, which talked about how our "flinch" reaction often covertly produces avoidance behaviors that divert us from valuable life experiences. This book taught me to invert the flinch reaction and seek out experiences I'd normally flinch from. Finally, it was around this time that I'd begun exploring compound weightlifting in an effort to combat aging and get back some of my lost athletic footspeed and endurance.

Now, I'm awfully slow--window-lickingly slow--at learning things, but I'm finding surprising synergies, big ones, across almost all "domains of discomfort" in my life. Let me describe three examples:

1) Cold Showers
A crucial metaphor from The Flinch is the cold shower. And holy cow, the idea of taking a cold shower is something I definitely flinch from. It seems like such an incredibly awful experience that some days (uh, like today, the very day I'm working on a first draft of this post) I simply can't do it. I turn the water to a nice hot temperature and I wait like a wuss for the water to warm up.

But on the days I can do it, the actual experience of a cold shower isn't really all that bad.

Hahaha ...hahahahahaha... yes it IS that bad! That first shock of the cold water is hellish. I hate it.

Except... three minutes into that shower, the water oddly doesn't feel cold any more. More importantly, I always feel great after a cold shower. I feel refreshed, calm, replenished. Moreover, there's compelling evidence of both positive physiological and psychological effects of cold showers. For example, after difficult athletic training sessions, cold showers help your body recover. I've also found I get cognitive benefits from cold showers too: I feel sharper, mentally fresher afterwards.

The point here is that you've just got to get over the hump. And in the case of a cold shower, that hump is just three minutes long. That's it. And all these benefits are yours, in return for a minor exercise of voluntary discomfort and discipline.

2) Deadlifts
There's a lot to talk about in the domain of compound lifting, and most of this domain is still outside of my circle of competence. But I can speak to my experiences learning to do deadlifts, and one thing I can say confidently is that my road--the road between nervously picking up a deadlift bar with exactly zero pounds on it, and now doing a somewhat respectable 3x10 reps at one and a half times my body weight--was paved with humps. Lots of them.

In contrast to nautilus-type machines that work one or two muscles at a time under more limited conditions, compound lifting trains your entire body: your muscles, bones and connective tissue are all forced to work in concert. And this includes lots of minor muscles overlooked in most standard workout routines.

So, as I worked toward making my body deadlift-compliant, I tweaked parts of it I didn't even know about, and pulled muscles in places I didn't know I had muscles. In my first few months of deadlifting, I experienced intercostal muscle pulls throughout my rib cage area. I experienced strains in all kinds of random places in my abs and upper hips (the so-called "abdominal cuff" area is fertile soil for injuries for beginning deadlifters since most people are shockingly fragile there). I tweaked my elbows, wrists, collarbone, even my fingers.

It was kind of like a cold shower... except that it took me about a year to come out the other side. But once I got over the hump, I had a more robust and far less fragile body.

In how many other domains do we see a "hump" of discomfort between us and serious insights and opportunity? And where else do we lose out on longer-term gains because we flinch from (or fear) the upfront discomfort?

3) Learning to Cook
With my typical slowness, I've come to discover that cooking is yet another discipline of voluntary discomfort, with enormous benefits once you get over "humps" of various types.

The discomfort here is a bit more metaphorical, of course. In the very short run, learning to cook is way more of a pain in the ass than grabbing takeout or going out to dinner. So the voluntary discomfort at first involves deferring an easier solution in order to develop some basic cooking and shopping skills.

And then there are the dinners and recipes you screw up as you learn. You'll make mistakes, and ruin a few meals. More humps and discomfort, in other words. It's a necessary part of the road towards competence, and later, skill.

There are many more layers to the metaphor: you'll have to learn how to keep a stocked pantry, how to shop efficiently, how to avoid rookie errors like buying out of season fruits and veggies, and so on. These are all examples of humps to be overcome, but on the other side of those humps are enormous benefits.

I'd speculate that when it comes to cooking humps, most readers here at CK have long ago gotten over them, to the point where we can whip up several days' worth of laughably cheap food in less time than it takes to drive to the takeout place. Some humps used to be big, but as they recede into the rear-view mirror of life, it gets deceivingly easy to forget about all the work that went into getting over them. Don't forget to give yourself credit for this!

Once again, though, this is still more proof of the enormous value of what's on the other side of those humps. Which is why I'm trying to look at the various humps and sources of discomfort in my life in a different way. I am trying to think about what's on the other side of them--usually really good stuff--and I'm trying to train myself to run towards them rather than flinch from them.

Epistemic Humility

Today's post expands on some of the thoughts from last week's post. I'll start by offering a few more examples of those sneaky epistemically arrogant statements:

1) I can't run a marathon at my age.
2) Lose 50 pounds? Maybe I can do 20.
3) It's impossible for me at my age to deadlift twice my weight. No way.
4) You want to eat healthy? It's gonna cost you...
5) I think the stock market is rigged against the little guy.

Remember our conversational autist from last post, that imaginary person who tactlessly tells people what they're actually saying? Once again, let's imagine what she might say here in response to any (or all) of these statements:

Wait. What you're really saying is "I refuse to find a solution." You know that's pure ego protection, right? And it's kind of intellectually lazy too. Think about it: Is it really possible that you, limited you, just a tiny human being in the vast expanse of the universe, can "know" that there's no solution to something? Seriously, be honest: how can you *know* there's no solution?

Just to be extra-extra clear: do not say things like this out loud. Use your inside voice.

However, the oddly good thing about conversational autists is they tell you the truth when you don't want to hear it. Especially when you don't want to hear it.[1] And as we'll soon see, "I can't find a solution to X" and its even more disempowered cousin "There is no solution to X" are both statements of supreme epistemic arrogance. Both are false too.

Now, nobody likes to think of themselves as arrogant, certainly not epistemically so. Which is why, on the intellectual and abstract level, we're all fairly comfortable with the idea that we usually don't really know very much. Furthermore, we think we have an accurate assessment of the boundaries of our knowledge. "I know what I'm talking about when it comes to the stock market, but when it comes to neurosurgery, I'm definitely out of my depth. And by the way, Russia definitely interfered in our elections."

See how easy it is to leap blithely beyond our circle of knowledge? We simply do not know our boundaries: we overstate and understate[2] them, and we do so below the level of conscious awareness. Once again, the things we "know" just ain't so.

I realize I'm not going to go very far in life telling my readers that they're a bunch of epistemically arrogant fools who don't even know what they don't know. So, try not to remember that part. Instead, what I really want to convey in this post is the value of being humble about what you think you can't do.

To see what I'm getting at, let's take another look at those five confidently-stated, epistemically arrogant statements above, and let's consider them from a perspective of deep humility. Let's state those statements with a total lack of confidence. Try it.

You'll see that things get weird in a hurry, because the less confidently you state "that's impossible" type statements and the more humble you are about them, the more possible they become.

If you know you most likely don't know--which is the definition of epistemic humility by the way--you might as well choose thoughts, ideas, and possibilities that produce the best outcomes. This might invert how most people think about "truth" and "falsehood." But the truth is, when it comes to questions about our own personal agency, we almost always have profoundly incomplete knowledge of what's true, what's false and what's possible.

So assume you can do it, that you can find a solution, that it is possible, and that the solution is out there waiting for you to find it. To do so is not only more epistemically humble, it's the more empowering choice.

Readers, share your thoughts!

[1] Readers might wonder how I know so much about conversational autists. Let's just say I'm still learning to use my inside voice.

[2] I'll leave it to readers to guess which is the more common error.

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Epistemic Arrogance

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
--Mark Twain

When someone makes a statement like "I'm too busy to do X" or "I don't have time to do X" what they're really saying "I've chosen to not make X a priority in my life."

Long time Casual Kitchen readers know this already. In fact, readers--especially those familiar with various other articles here on excuse-making--might go even further and say that these statements say even more: something along the lines of "I've chosen to not make X a priority in my life, and my ego wants to protect me from true responsibility for this choice, so it concocted an authoritative-sounding statement about my not having time."

Thus we can see this genre of excuse scripts for what it is: an interesting mix of virtue-signalling (I'm busy! I've got a lot going on!) and passivity (I don't have time so it's not my fault!) all rolled into one quick sentence.

Okay. Now, imagine if you were talking to someone and they made one of the following two scripts:

1) You know, I really should cook some of CK's laughably cheap and easy recipes, but I don't have time.

2) I ought to open up a brokerage account and start learning how to invest, but I'm just too busy.

Further, imagine that instead of smiling and nodding and changing the subject like a normal person, you went full autist on that person and actually told them what they were really saying:

"You know, when I hear that pitiful excuse for an excuse, I hear a interesting mixture of passivity and virtue-signalling. Your ego is getting off on feeling busy, while at the same time it disavows agency in making an important and helpful change in your life."

Assuming the person doesn't slap you, most likely they'd instantly disagree. They'd completely deny they were being passive, they'd deny they were disavowing their agency. And certainly they'd deny they were virtue-signalling. After all, nobody ever thinks they're virtue-signalling when they virtue-signal. It's circular like that.

In other words, people don't really understand their own minds, and they often don't understand the full meaning of what they're saying.

A quick tangent before I go any further. Yes, I know, it is possible for someone to literally not have time to do something. It's not always an excuse. Note, however, that the more fragile our egos are, the more desperately we want this to be true in our case! What's also deeply interesting about verbal scripts like these is how quickly and autonomically our brain spits them out, and how little we really know about the various implicit and explicit assumptions underlying those statements.

And now, finally, two-thirds of the way through this post, we get to the concept of epistemic arrogance.

We "know" we don't have time to do something. And yet by virtue of the way our ego structures this very statement, it cannot be true. Yet we really think we know! We declare it, we state it, and we vigorously defend against it if somebody questions it. We don't doubt ourselves for a second.

That is what epistemic arrogance is in a nutshell. It's knowing we know when we really don't know.

Now, wouldn't it be interesting to take the excuse scripts above and "un-know" them, and articulate the exact opposite instead? If only to see what it feels like?

1) I have time to cook some of CK's laughably cheap and easy recipes.
2) I am not too busy to open up a brokerage account and start learning how to invest.

Hmmmmm. Interesting.

Of course, these are epistemically arrogant statements too! You don't know that these statements are true either... that is, until you attempt them and succeed or fail. But note: there are substantial elements of self-fulfilling prophecy in both the negative statements and the affirmative statements, isn't there? Which makes it pretty obvious which sets of statements are worth stating, and which aren't.

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The Best Food Is Peasant Food

Any intermediate-level home cook knows about the concept of deglazing. And if you're a student of French cuisine, you'll also know that the idea of deglazing was an insight from French peasantry: it was a way take very little meat--or meat of not the greatest quality--and get a lot of flavor impact out of it.

Likewise, dishes like Coq au Vin also reveal the brilliance of a resourceful peasantry: take a not-particularly-prized type of meat (in this case an old, tough rooster who, uh, can't quite do his job any more), cook it for a long time in cheap red wine, et voila: a delicious, hearty and healthy meal with amazing flavors. A meal like this didn't cost a lot to cook a few centuries ago in rural France, and it doesn't cost much today.

Consider the lowly catfish: a perceived low-end fish that Cajun cuisine adapted to produce astonishingly delicious meals. See, for example, Paul Prudhomme-Style Fried Catfish, an easy and out-of-this world delicious recipe we featured here two years ago during our 30 Days of New Recipes trial. Rich people a century or two ago would never eat catfish. Today, they line up for it at the finest Cajun restaurants.

When I spent three weeks in Medellin, Colombia earlier this year, I sampled morcilla, an incredibly delicious sausage made with rice, spices and various unmentionable parts of a pig. I couldn't get enough of it--it was the best sausage I'd ever had. Which is why morcilla is popular all over Colombia by all classes of people. Once again, a food made by peasants, and made from inexpensive ingredients, becomes a delicious and culturally prized dish.

These are all simple examples, but they illustrate a truth we often state here at Casual Kitchen, a truth easily forgotten in our always-striving, always-craving culture: Really good food does not have to be expensive. It never was true, and it's not true now.

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