I often go into rabbit holes of my own content. The other day, I was tweeting why I am making the painstaking effort to add metadata to my online library, and I was reminded of the 20,000+ word post I made four years ago where I collated my social media content, journal entries and book highlights chronologically as an experiment.
I don’t remember that post consciously, the longer the time goes by the less it pops into my consciousness. So I scanned through it that day, and it made my skin crawl. I know it sounds narcissistic, but looking at personal data to make life adjustments is not unusual especially when it comes to medicine and fitness, just that it is more atypical to look at qualitative data, i.e. content and not metrics. That post took so much time and effort that I never did it again, thinking that I would one-day semi-automate the process but learning how to import my content automatically into a database, but I really wish I did this every year. Why? Our conscious memory can only hold so much information, and the passage of time often creates amnesia. Also, since time passes linearly, we are not able to see our lives as a whole or the patterns that repeat, being more predisposed to noticing either the newer events or the highlights.
I’ve learned, time and time again, it is the small, the daily, the stuff that goes in between the highs and lows that actually matters. I have a chronically depressed brain, so I notice mostly the lows. To me, my life is a pile of shit no matter what the objective data says, so it is important to have a place where I can acknowledge the richness of my mundane life – the realisation of this phenomenon is the primary motivating factor why I obsessively record my life.
2015 was a pivotal year for me, so if I were to make only one 20,000 word post that would be the year. Looking back at it four years later, I deeply empathised with my past self, even though these days it has become somewhat difficult to relate to that person. I have done so much work to distance myself from her. But it was that self that bore the brunt of what it took to be the self I am today. I still think I am a pile of shit, but I am a lot freer, more expansive, more aware and I learned to exercise a lot more agency in my life. The quality of life that I am leading now is vastly different.
Apart from reminiscing, it was also surprising how valuable that post is still to me now. I scrolled through the book highlights quickly, and I got to relearn things I’ve already forgotten. I even forgot that I read some of those books. The way we relate to the same content changes as we ourselves change too – the very same quote may mean different things and provoke different feelings. Or maybe we need to have these feelings provoked again because it has gradually lost its power on us. One of those forgotten books of that year was “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself“, an interview with David Foster Wallace. I didn’t remember it when I was adding important books to my online library the last few weeks. If I didn’t create that 20,000 word post in the first place, I would have forgotten how much it has given me at a time when I needed it the most, and I would have lost the opportunity to be consoled by it once again, today.
“if you can think of times in your life that you’ve treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself.”– David Foster Wallace
It is still stunning to me how the decision to move back from SF, and eventually, work really hard on myself wasn’t really a single triggering event but just these little, tiny thoughts I had everyday. Thoughts I don’t even remember the next week but put together in one document like that, it was clear to me how much my unconscious just surfaced, again and again.
Surprised that I was surprised before that I was surprised before…
Since I’d thought I’ve changed so much, a few weeks ago I re-read a post I’d written in 2013 and I was surprised to discover whatever I thought was my life’s work is still pretty much the same today. I am not sure if I buy the concept of life’s work these days, but my areas of interests – things I keep coming back to, still have the same themes: the expression/becoming of the self, mental health, and education. I could argue they are the same thing. The way I wish to execute them is very different, but themes remain.
So when I scanned that 20,000 word post, I was surprised again to discover I was already surprised then in 2015 that the selves between 2011, 2013, and 2015 were actually consistent in defining those areas.
I completely forgot about the entry in 2011, and it astounded me to see the overlap in both entries. That I knew this in 2011, still cared about it in 2013, and I still feel and think the same way in 2015. They look like three separate areas, but they are intrinsically interconnected.
Basically, in 2019 I thought I was freshly surprised at something I wrote in 2013, not knowing I was already surprised before in 2015. The bonus is I get to find out yet again that my 2013 self existed before in 2011. So I keep forgetting, and then getting surprised all over again. This is hilarious. This is just one example among the countless others of all the “new” discoveries I thought I had made.
Remembering is key to learning
Going back to why I painstakingly add metadata to the resources in my learning library: I think it is hilarious but very frustrating to keep forgetting things I’ve learned and being surprised years later that what I thought was a fresh epiphany was something I’ve already learned 10 years ago.
Recently I read “The Inflammed Mind” thinking that it is the first book that linked depression and inflammation, only to realise while adding books to this website’s library from my goodreads shelf that I’ve read another book in 2015 that had already done so:
“we can begin to understand why it is that many patients with inflammatory diseases may also experience depression at different times in their lives. Thus, the psychosomatic notion that inflammatory and allergic diseases originate in a disordered upbringing and repressed emotions can now be reexamined in more precise physiological terms.”
I am guilty for prioritising newness in learning when perhaps re-reading the highlights of what I’ve learned can potentially be more valuable.
Sometimes we put in the effort to learn something until we become familiar enough with it, but that effort may come to naught with the lack of use, and we have to put in extra effort to relearn everything again.
Once I am caught up with entering most of the data of my learning library, I can then design useful queries to resurface relevant content to the given context. For example, I can make my own timehop: what did I learn on this day seven years ago?
More importantly, hopefully I can use the data I have to surface connections between those resources. Neurologically in the brain, the more connections between neurons, the stronger the learning. I believe the same can apply for the material we use for learning. The stronger the connections we can make between disparate pieces of information, the stronger the recall, or the more it reinforces the concept, and the more it can represent a system, not just linear relationships.
Counterintuitively, research demonstrates that the higher the IQ, the less connections are found in the brain of the individual. Since IQ is a problematic and one-dimensional measure of intelligence, I would use this as a metaphor instead. We need a lot of effort and repetition to learn something, but once we reach a certain level, it becomes so deeply ingrained that it takes very little effort to remember it. This is where I am going with this website: I will lay the groundwork even though it is very time-consuming and tedious, but I hope thereafter it will be easy for me to create insightful manifestations of this content.
Reacquainting with old selves
Apart from learning about subjects I am interested in, I hope to learn gain more insight to myself. We gain and lose selves as we age. There are some selves I’m glad to have lost, but only upon re-reading some of my older posts or private journal entries that I realised I have forgotten some of the better parts of me too, or the important life lessons I have learned along the way. I appreciate reminders of why I chose to make certain difficult decisions, to strengthen my will to continue a lonely path.
I am not sure what is a good way to fix this yet from periodically letting timehop and dayone resurface memories. I also have a long-running private document that contains my personal philosophy and values. My friend buster has a wiki, someone else has an inter-connected list of twitter threads. What I really really wanted was an interactive dashboard of all the content I have, but because of my chronic pain I am not making much progress. I still hope to make something interesting with what wordpress and mysql can allow. I do think that careful manual curation does matter on top of dynamically queried data.
I look forward to seeing what this website can become, what the tedious effort of adding a little to it regularly can amount it. I guess you can say this is also a metaphor for growing my self/selves.