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Pedro Lopes Notes


Einstein’s rambles

I’ve been listening to the “Einstein: His Life and Universe” audiobook, from Walter Isaacson, which recounts a series of curious stories of how he carried himself through his life.

Einstein was often known to be aloof and lost in this thoughts, so much so that when sailing his clunky 15-foot sailboat named Tinef (Yiddish for “worthless” or “junk”), he often found himself to being rescued more than once by locals near to his rented a summer cottage overlooking Cutchogue Harbor.

Another delightful story was when he lived in Princeton, where occasionally, he would take rambling walks on his own. One day, called into the Institute for Advanced Study, where he worked, and asked to speak to a particular dean. When the secretary said that the dean wasn’t available, he hesitantly asked for Einstein’s home address. That was not possible to give out, he was informed. His voice then dropped to a whisper. “Please don’t tell anybody,” he said, “but I am Dr. Einstein, I’m on my way home, and I’ve forgotten where my house is.”

Thinking, in safety

Over the past years, I’ve made a habit of having at least one long walk / hike every weekend. I take immense joy - if I happen to go by myself and I’m not actively listening to an audio book or am concentrating on some task - to just wander around and immerse myself in random thoughts, think about hard problems, strategise, and attempt to arrive at sound conclusions. This mental wandering, almost like a meditation, I am sure that happens for most of us, in several instances. Maybe when waking up, during the shower, during a walk, during a boring talk, when contemplating art or nature, etc.

Since we are not omniscient and omnipresent, we have several limitations in knowing how a given action will translate into a set of consequences, so we use probabilistic models and heuristics in our thought processes to discern which are the most likely actions that will help us arrive at a desirable outcome. And the more relevant information and time we have to process our thoughts, the better our results will be.

In all of these, I believe there is one common denominator that is fundamental for that process to happen: safety.

The influence of one’s environment

Let’s assume you live with access to information and resources (food, money, shelter, etc), but are living in a situation where your surrounding environment requires you to keep alert and attentive to hazard to your physical / mental wellbeing, or you are in a situation where your social stability is dependent on incapacitating amounts of your energy and time. This could be due to living in a dangerous neighborhood, having overly demanding peers, an abusive household, etc.

Even though there might be a series of limited actions one could take to improve their situation, the constant fight-or-flight severely restricts the opportunities where these action plans can be considered, which eventually leads to reactive actions that could have a number of possible outcomes (good or bad), rather than surgical long term actions that would pave the path towards positive outcomes.

The takeaway

While many many situations are not under our control, such as our initial conditions, birth place, etc, which place a default upper bound on any possible outcomes, we do have agency over some parts of our life, and that is what we can focus on. The path to unwanted consequences is a slippery slope made of several small decisions, some under our control, others not. But for the ones we have the opportunity to control, we should.

For example, the peers one choses to have around, the choice to avoid short term pleasures that have a high long term cost, the choice of which country or neighborhood to live in, the choice of which job offer to strive for, etc.

Do notice that the italics are intentional. The choices above assume that those are options you have under your control to pick, which I am conscious that is not always the case.