preparing to learn (issue 5)

This is The Ordinary, my attempt to notice the unexpected joy, value, and rigor of ordinary things. New subscribers, welcome!

What you can expect from me (almost) every Friday morning:

  1. A very ordinary quote

  2. A roundup of very ordinary reads

  3. A brief and very ordinary note

  4. A very ordinary visual

Also … Shoutout to the forever homie Mike Gelb, host of new podcast The Consumer VC. He’s got a great episode out now about building trust (featuring Jay Kapoor of Launch Capital).

- Ammar


An Ordinary Quote:

Upgrade your passion to an obsession.

Movement Culture, Ido Portal

Some Ordinary Reads:

“What We Mean By Self-Directed and Community Driven” (blog): Recurse Center is an unstructured sabbatical for technologists. I attended last year and it really shook my world in subtle, unexpected ways (someday I’ll write about my experience). In this blog post, one of the founders lays out how the program works.

“No Teachers, No Class, No Homework” (The Atlantic): What happens when class attendance is optional and the school is governed by the students?

“Teaching as a Subversive Activity” (book): Probably my favorite book. What is education beyond platitudes? “What passes for a curriculum in today's schools is little else than a strategy of distraction... It is largely defined to keep students from knowing themselves and their environment in any realistic sense.”

An Ordinary Note:

To play seriously (and to seriously play) is to begin to understand reality.

I have no clue beyond brief and blurry glimmers what reality is. I am limited by my own delusions and perceptions.

My optimism blinds me from certain dark realities, my skepticism blinds me from certain simple realities, my muddled vision blinds me from certain colored realities.

And the reality that I perceive is not quite the same as what others perceive. We’re constantly bargaining, negotiating, and trusting each other to co-construct a world we can all occupy together.

In the words of Philippe Rochat, we are caught in a unique and fateful reflective loop.

“We have the privilege as well as the curse of being able to reflect upon ourselves, as an object unto itself, but also through the eyes of others.”

Others in Mind: The Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, Philippe Rochat

But purely consensus-based reality is agreement, vulnerable to mass delusion. And purely self-determined reality is arrogance. I’m not gonna blindly go along with what others say. But I’m also not gonna blindly trust what I’m seeing.

So I poke. I play. I learn when and how I should trust my experience. This is how I learn. Things fall apart. So I poke and play and learn how to trust again.

As the drunken master Chogyam Trungpa would have put it, it is all quite ordinary and boring and heartbreaking and inspiring.

Learning, Play, and Atmosphere

Atmosphere is a stream of objects improvising their own meanings with each other. It is the ground upon which we play.

The coffee table becomes a foot rest, a dinner table, a cards game, a place to hide your weed.

Then I disassemble it, just like that, it is a single plank of wood, a slim sheet of metal, a handful of pegs. And so I have learned something about this coffee table.

A stack of shelves is a TV console when horizontal, a bookcase when vertical, or neither, or both. What it becomes depends on how I decide to play with it in the context of the rest of the room.

The world doesn’t present constraints or limits — it presents the raw materials you can use to understand how malleable and workable it all is.

The same can be said for You.

Learning about This Improvised Life

We clean the apartment, we keep it tidy, we take out the trash, we make the bed. Not because we are ignorant to the futility or the “inefficiency” — it will all grow out of sorts soon enough anyways.

We do it to learn how an atmosphere becomes what it is and how it becomes something else. The various objects I’ve improvised into position, their arrangements around me and my playful arrangement around them create a sense of home.

There is dignity and courage in this process. Every small thing contributes to the atmosphere, and it is teaching, and you are teaching, and it is learning, and you are learning.

Our relationship with our environment begins to change. It begins to work with us, not against us.

Nothing to transact with, everything to relate with. Falling out of balance and falling into balance. Because you created home somewhere, you can create home anywhere. Playing seriously and seriously playing.

This is the improvisational flow of life.

An Ordinary Visual:

From Ido Portal’s brief demonstration on play and balance: “Improper Alignment is a certainty, not a possibility. Devoting time to training and exploring this concept, in an appropriate and methodological way, is the smart thing to do.”