The Hacker Mind - A.L.T.E.R. #2 - Link

Easy to confound A.L.T.E.R. for one of these 5-step-something acronym for a self helpy series. Unfortunately, though an acronym, and a 5 step process, it won't help you in anything. This is a careful observation of the development, maintenance and improvement of a hacker mind. A.L.T.E.R. = Amplify, Link, Transform, Endure and Rise.






How can I be more creative ? A lot has been written, even more has been stipulated. A single conclusion stands out: Learn how to connect the dots. And it's down to 3 steps:

  • Collect. Obviously you need dots prior to that. Reading, traveling and meeting new people can create a rich soil. Take notes.
  • Connect. Then you need a routine. A time and an activity especially focused on sifting through the dots you've found or the notes you've written down.
  • Challenge. Try to connect dots that are un-related and distant. Up the game and the ante. What does Wen Chu have to do with photography ?

The collision of multiple, different, disciplines has shown efficient, time and again, in bringing about new insight and creative outcome. It's similar to creative dot connection and the reason why metaphors - the ability to draw similarity between two distant concepts - are the main ingredient behind all our stories. Mythology is essentially one over-sized metaphor. But only efficient metaphors survive our imaginary and time to become traditions or millennial stories. They are linkages and lattices our minds remember best. Quality is king when it comes to dot connection.

  Dots Connect , an additive game... seriously

Dots Connect, an additive game... seriously


This inherent ability to appreciate good stories might be ingrained in our very nature. Philippa Perry in "how to stay sane" from 'the school of life' series writes:

As we get older it is our short-term memory that fades rather than our long-term memory. Perhaps we have evolved like this so that we are able to tell the younger generation about the stories and experiences that have formed us which may be important to subsequent generations if they are to thrive




It doesn't come as a surprise then that our understanding of our selves also hinges on story building. Peter Shallard writes about "Why the stories you tell yourself decide your success". In his article, he draws a Maslow-like pyramid of the self:

Environment -> Behaviour -> Capabilities -> Beliefs -> Identity

Identity is at the top of the pyramid and it's a deeply connected to the stories we tell ourselves. Call it perception, self-branding, persuasion or even mumbo-jumbo-who's-the-man but let me call it personal story for now. Turning mistakes and hardships into challenges rather than obstacles and opportunities rather than roadblocks goes a long way. Dramatising and / or building a narrative around your choices and actions is the equivalent of big brand framing. In building and acquiring new skills, this can be a very valuable technique.


I remember playing Final Fantasy X back in the time and 'unlocking' extra-powers only after I had acquired some other powers:


One's story can be a tale of personal evolution and a step-by-step journey to a better self. Mostly however, the trick is in finding new story patches that complement the current story a person is running. Paulo Coelho calls it the 'personal legend'. I like to call it OS 4 Life. The story we run to progress on a personal level.

This equates personal evolution to how evolution actually happens through "proximal development" i.e. the adjacent possible. This reminds me of Gary Marcus who wrote about Gregory Bateson and the term deutero-learning he coined in the 1940s to refer to the organisation of learning, or learning to learn:

[The 'zone of proximal development' is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.



You need to reach for a level just beyond your current level. You do that by "downloading" a new mental story. This concept of "proximal development" is also reminiscent of "flow" in that the task at hand matches our level of skill (not too hard, not too easy). One can write the following equation which the creators of FFX probably had in mind:



Proximal development = Flow + Adjacent Possible





There is a risk however. If one is following a given path, reaching for superior levels, building on his current capabilities and choosing challenges different but not too far from his current zone of development, it's likely that mental blinders will end up clouding hi judgement. His choices will try to pre-fit his mould and self-criticism will fade away. With no attempts to question every single though, the big picture is forgotten and soon one forgets why what is being done is being done.


There's a fine line between dot connection and mould fitting. The latter is an unconscious attempt to fit every single new idea into an existing paradigm. NN Taleb refers to this y using Procrustes bed metaphor. Dot connection, as a skill, should be a way out of vertical thinking and paradigm fitting. It should be a window opener. a way to bring fresh air into the room of one's thoughts.

In all honesty, reading brain pickings, one has the impression there's an attempt to stick and relate every new idea or author's input or book into an existing paradigm such as the importance of routines, the hedonic treadmill ... and it feels new paradigms struggle to come about.

I love Brain-pickings. But this is an mad argument here. The second element of A.L.T.E.R. is Link. And it's not just a synonym of connect. It's a manifesto in defence of irrational logic. Some might find it dumb to spend an hour figuring out how Banksy's work and Einstein's ideas might be connected. But it is a form of lateral thinking. Irrational logic is a form of meta-thinking. It means you've gotten to a level of thinking mature enough to question your own thinking. David Byrne's "Arboretum" is a crazy application of that. Brain-pickings features the following work:

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 It's the equivalent of self-ridiculing oneself. It's the greatest sign of confidence. There's no fear putting yourself down because you understand that this in itself holds strength. The power of your Self lies in its resilience, not its resistance, to change. Practically, this means: The application of logical scientific rigour and form to basically irrational premises. To proceed, carefully and deliberately, from nonsense with a a straight face, often arriving at a new kind of sense.