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#8: Unlocking mental clarity
The therapeutic power of free writing
This weekend, I felt stressed out. Then on an afternoon, I decided to spend four hours in my apartment lobby jotting thoughts into my iPad. I took a deep breath and started typing every thought in my brain. One topic led to another, and I got into writing about my fears. I wrote down my every fear and listed almost a hundred bullet points.
Here are some:
I fear driving. I’m afraid of the dangerous accidents that can happen on the road, either because of me or because of other people. I had a traumatic event where I was rushed into the emergency room.
When things get tough in the workplace, I fear letting down my team members. I’m afraid they think working at other companies is better.
I fear I am too stressed and not living a healthy life. I worry that I will have a severe health issue and become a family burden later in life.
I kept those thoughts in my head. Never put them down anywhere else, let alone share them with others. But I now can see it with my bare eye.
When I am stressed, I can't think and do problem-solving. My decision-making quality will deteriorate, and I will be less productive. This is not good for my life and career.
When the exercise ended, I left nothing unexpressed. I feel light, sane, and happy, similar to how I feel after a massage or a meditation session.
In her memoir about insomnia, The Shapeless Unease, Samantha Harvey wrote:
Writing has saved my life. In the last year, writing has been the next best thing to sleep. Sometimes a better thing than sleep. I am sane when I write, my nerves settle. I am sane, sane. I become happy. Nothing else matters when I write, even if what I write turns out to be bad. I proceed from some open and elusive subconscious formlessness roughly called 'me', definable only by being nothing and nowhere, just the silence in which shapes move. Then words. Words harnessing things. There is the comfort of organisation, of shepherding chaos, not trying to abolish it but shepherding it towards borders, taking away the problem of infinity and entropy. Proffering the illusion of completeness. And somehow, I start to see myself out there in the words I've made, out in their many worlds, scattered and free.
A phrase came to me one night from nowhere: _proliferations of love_. It keeps echoing through me and I don't know why, but it feels like a definition of writing. The mind throws out thoughts and beliefs in so many permutations and configurations and we are enslaved by it, by the output of our own minds. The mind is a prison. And when we write the noise is distilled and alchemised, and the self can find a way out, which I think is what love is—the escape of the self from the self.
What Samantha feels about writing resonates with me. Free writing can be a therapeutic activity. I can pour formless worry, confusion, and anxiety stuck in my head somewhere else. What’s left in my mind is clarity and ease.
If we look at the works of prominent Stoic thinkers, we will notice the candidness of their writing. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations feel personal. He wrote to himself and shared his most intimate thoughts. Seneca's most enduring works are reflective letters to his close friends.
While journaling focuses on how our day is going and reflecting focuses on introspection, free writing can be anything. We can shape abstract thoughts in our head, then write them down, whatever they are about. When what we write is fuzzy, we can continually morph them into something that represents what we think.
This exercise makes our thinking sharper and our writing more precise. And in the process, an enormous mental burden can be lifted.
Knowing how powerful writing is, I want to share more about writing in future issues. I will touch on topics such as:
The benefits of personal retrospectives
Effective written communication at work
Learning to write for engineers
Writing better in English as a foreigner
This is one of the best pieces I have read on writing. Ava shares how to write more. When we don't have anything to write about, it means we aren't digging into ourselves deep enough. Writing should be a continuous excavation. To write more, write about what means the most to us, then write about something that means more.
A very relevant reading. I'm halfway in my second year of building my startup, and there are some symptoms of burnout. The founder's ability to progress and not give up will make or break the startup. We won't be able to make progress, and we will give up easier if we are close to burnout.
So let’s maintain a good pace, take a break, and not let our energy run out while the journey is still long. Stamina matters.
The Johari Window is a cognitive psychology tool to help people understand their relationship with themselves and others. It contains four windows represented by four quadrants in a 2x2 matrix. Window one is the part of ourselves that we and others see. Window two has aspects that others see, but we are unaware of. Window three is the private space we know but hide from others. Window four is the unconscious part of us that neither ourselves nor others see.
Marc Andreessen is one of my favorite thinkers on the internet. He was a key figure contributing to the development of modern web browsers and is an active investor at various tech companies. His past essays, such as Software is Eating The World and It’s Time To Build, have shaken the internet and inspired generations of entrepreneurs. This essay might be the next one, albeit polarizing. As an investor, he has incentives for more researchers to innovate and more entrepreneurs to build. However, demeaning the people who try to help make AI safer can have dire consequences. It will alienate people to care less about AI risks and go full power on building amidst uncharted territories.
AI risk has become an intellectual religious war in the past few months. When talking about AI risk, usually they are referring to AGI or Artificial General Intelligence, AI that surpasses human capabilities in every task.
Both sides of the argument, the doomer (AGI will kill us all) and the savior (AGI will 100x human productivity), present compelling reasons, yet they are all unproven theories. AGI is not here yet. Either of the argument can be wrong. As a realist, I tend to be more pragmatic.
Grateful for 200 subs
To close off, this newsletter you read now has 220 subscribers. It would be close to a crowd this size if I visualize it.
When I started this small hobby eight editions ago, I wouldn’t expect that there would be this many audiences.
Most of the first hundred subscribers are my IRL friends and readers of my old blog. And the next hundred subscribers are people I have yet to meet. If you don't know me in real life, thank you for subscribing, and I hope what I write is worth your time.
Reintroducing myself, I am the founder and CTO of a YC-backed startup. This is the second year in my entrepreneurship journey. Before that, I spent many years working in engineering, product, and leadership.
I am still experimenting with the content of this newsletter. As the name suggests, it will blend technology, startups, and Stoic philosophy; mixing the modern with the ancient. Some topics I might write about are:
Transitioning into a leadership role
Building engineering teams
Mentorship and coaching
Building a startup
Cutting-edge topics in AI
Stoicism and life philosophy
Growing up in poverty
Useful principles and mental models
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