Thoughts on creating a database of fundamental building blocks

I believe that many of the most unique ideas come at the cross-section of disciplines, often from those who have some level of depth across several areas. In my case, I recently had an idea at the intersection of movement-related activities, organization, and business/technology that I found quite interesting. I haven’t thought through this in great detail, but wanted to share my initial thoughts.

The idea was sparked a few months ago, when I was at a lyra (aerial hoop) private lesson, and I was working on flow, the smooth transition from one move to another. My instructor decided to try an exercise with me – she asked me to list all of the moves that I knew (which weren’t many, since I had only recently started taking lessons), wrote them down on a piece of paper, ripped the paper into tiny pieces with each move written on one, and placed them inside a bag. She then drew them out, one by one, and that was the order in which I was to do my newly-created sequence. The exercise brought me back to an concept that I had been thinking of for some time: building block categorization.

I. Fundamental building blocks

I believe that there is significant opportunity for further categorization of a variety of topics into the fundamental building blocks of what they are. When I was thinking through aerial silks combinations (another activity that I practice), I thought of the fact that although there are many options and variations, nothing really exists to break down the overall possibility of all moves that exist. I thought that there could be an opportunity to create a database of every single move, thus breaking down the art into its core building blocks, going down to the to the foundation of all combinations and sequences.

However, I think that this could be possible for many other areas, not just aerial, even though that is the first idea that came to mind because it is more physical and less widely-practiced, so there does not exist a widely-published body of knowledge on its fundamentals. Nonetheless, I could envision this being useful for all movement-related activities (i.e., ballet, contemporary dance, gym exercises, yoga, acroyoga, acrobatics, barre, figure skating, sailing, skiing, snowboarding, and more). Everything can be broken down into its component pieces.

Beyond this, I could also see this being useful for other disciplines, which may already be broken down – like principles of economics, biology, chemistry, psychology, languages, games (e.g., chess moves, poker plays), and more – but could at least be incorporated into this database of building blocks. Of course, for some of these, it would not be as simple as saying “this is a russian climb,” “this a footlock,” “this is a hipkey,” as it would be in aerial silks, but rather, it would likely be broken down into categories – for biology, it would be broken down into cell organelles, cells, physiology, ecology, etc, and within that, there would be sub-categories (i.e., cell processes, cell structures, etc), and it would go through the basic foundations of everything (or, at least, the goal would be “everything” – it would still have to be built up slowly). It could also be used in art and design, such as for architecture, fashion design, interior design, and more (e.g., in architecture, types of door designs, types of window designs, types of roofs, etc).

Of course, we could argue that for some of these disciplines, things like this already exist – Wikipedia, encyclopedias, textbooks, websites, etc. This may be true, but is there something in existence that has it all aggregated, broken down into categories, sub-categories, and pure fundamental building blocks? I’m sure there is some variation of this, but not fully consolidated like this. There are “databases” (consolidations of information) for certain disciplines, but not interlinked for all disciplines. And for arts and movement-related activities, which is where I first began with this train of thought, there exist many lists and sequences and performances and videos, but I especially don’t think that for all of these, there truly exists a database of core, fundamental building blocks.

II. Where this could be useful

Now, why would this be useful? I could envision several reasons why. To simplify, let’s go back to the core idea I had, a database of the fundamentals of aerial silks, lyra, and other movement-related activities.

  • Creating a “menu” of building block options: I think that, as the simplest step, this could help creators, choreographers, and anybody else wanting to create a series of movements, go to the database and just be reminded of all of the “building blocks” that exist. They could search by type (e.g., for silks, they could search “climbs,” “drops,” “inversions,” etc), and they could see the full possibility of all of the fundamentals (of course, this idea is contingent upon the database being as comprehensive as possible). This would not only spark ideas, because there may be building blocks that they simply hadn’t known about before, but beyond this, this would enable them to use this list of building blocks to develop new creations in ways that have not been done before.
  • Recommendations based on past success: If we take this further, imagine if there was an AI-based system underneath all of this that could actually analyze all that was in this database, as well as combinations that had been historically created from the database, and even past combination that already existed in the world (i.e., analyzing existing videos, films, and performances, breaking them down into their fundamentals, and storing the data as a combination), and provide recommendations. That is, the system could actually provide recommendations based on what has worked well together, what has been done many times before, and what has not – so that if someone were trying to create something, the system could recommend that “after move A, xx% of combinations have followed it with move B, and yy% of combinations have followed it with move C.” This could provide valuable data and recommendations on what to create, and people could also use it to get ideas on what may work well together.
  • Predictions of future success: I could envision that we now also overlay an additional layer of data onto this, such as past views, likes, or earnings – some measure of popularity or success. I could envision this then being used to actually determine and predict what may be popular based on what has been successful in the past. For example, the system could determine that certain combinations of moves, maybe at particular points in the overall performance (e.g., end, middle, beginning), and of certain lengths, are highly correlated with high number of views, likes, or earnings (earnings in the case of actual performances/films that sold per ticket or per view). This could then provide valuable information for choreographers to create new works that may have a high chance of popularity.
  • Specific optimizations: Alternatively, as more data is added and overlaid into the system, the creator would have the option to become even more specific in terms of what he or she is optimizing for (e.g., most popular combinations for certain age groups or countries, based on past views/likes/earnings data), or maybe optimize for something else, such as focusing on a certain type of move (e.g., a sequence optimized around most number of jumps, or certain types of turns, in the case of ballet).

III. Additional considerations

Of course, I could see some potential downsides to this as well – maybe, paradoxically, it could lead to a lack of creativity because the system is now recommending simply what has worked well in the past, rather than encouraging people to think for themselves and come up with their own creations. Nonetheless, even at its very core, I could still envision this being useful, simply as a database of fundamental building blocks of a variety of disciplines. 

Overall, I believe that there is significant opportunity to further organizing the world around us. This is simply one example and train of thought, but I think that there are many things that can be further broken down into their fundamentals or core ideas, which could then be used as data to analyze and reach conclusions or make predictions. I’ll explore this further in some of my future posts.

An exploration of why we feel lonely

As humans, we are inherently social beings, having developed a need for connection that is now encoded in our genes.

Early humans had higher chances of survival in the wild by being in groups rather than alone, which brought about an evolutionary desire to be social. They needed to cooperate, live together, hunt together, and move together in order to stay alive in the challenging environment that they faced. The humans who were best able to collaborate and find cohesion within the group had the greatest chances of survival, and thus, theirs were the genes that were passed on.

However, more than mere survival, we also achieve joy from feeling closely connected to others. In moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s book, Righteous Minds, he describes about what he calls “the hive mentality.” According to his findings, humans are partly selfish but also partly “hive-ish” creatures, writing that “we have the ability (under special conditions) to transcend and lose ourselves (temporarily and ecstatically) in something larger than ourselves.” This “something” is the group – as humans, we have the ability to feel innately connected to those around us. Haidt also pulls heavily from the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who writes that “the very act of congregating is an exceptionally powerful stimulant. Once the individuals are gathered together, a sort of electricity is generated from their closeness and quickly launches them to an extraordinary height of expectation.” This goes further to say that not only do we need connection for survival, but we also need it to reach higher levels of happiness and mental well-being.

This is closely echoed in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, in which love and belonging fall into the third-order level of needs, after physiological (i.e., food, water, shelter) and safety needs (i.e., security, employment, resources). That is, once our basic needs are met, a need for human connection, friendship, love are the next top priority. Of course, each of us has different levels of day-to-day social needs (i.e., some are extroverts and others are introverts, requiring different levels of social interaction to feel satisfied), but we all need connection to some extent.

This explains why, in prolonged periods of social isolation, we often develop feelings of sadness, loneliness, and maybe even depression. When we have a real or perceived lack of social connection, we begin to feel lonely. This desire for connection is a very deep-seated need that is encoded in our genes, and without it, we feel that something is lacking. We need to be around people in order to feel okay and alive, to continue getting ideas and inspiration, and to feel connected to others around us. Otherwise, we feel separated and increasingly vulnerable.

Unfortunately, once we start feeling lonely, our natural reaction is often to distance ourselves from others, the opposite of what we should actually do. By drifting away from others, we increase our own isolation and feelings of loneliness. In those moments, it is even more important that we continue talking to and engaging with others, in order to retain the feeling of social cohesiveness and connection that is built into our psychology as humans. It is important to remain connected and in contact with friends and others, even when we may, paradoxically, feel least like doing that.

In the current situation with COVID-19, slipping into loneliness can be easy and sometimes even inevitable – I have certainly felt it. However, this is something of which it is important to remain vigilant, a constant balance to maintain, in order to avoid going too far into the wrong direction.

Taking an emergent strategy

Sometimes it’s hard to start, and we’ve just got to start somewhere, even if the direction is not yet clear – that’s how it is for me to start writing sometimes. In those moments, I just write, see what comes, and where it leads – and it usually does lead somewhere. It makes me think of a couple of books that I read over the past year, How will you measure your life? by Clayton Christiansen, and Range by David Epstein. In both of them, the authors talk about the importance and benefit of exploration and having a wide range of experiences as we find (and continue to find) our path.

In particular, I like what Christiansen referred to as “deliberate” and “emergent” strategies. If we are absolutely certain that a certain path is the right one, then of course, we should go ahead and follow it – that’s a deliberate strategy. However, as often is the case, we simply don’t know. What to study, where to live, what job to take, and so on – the options are in front of us, but sometimes we don’t know where to start, or even what the full range of options may be (because as is often the case, if we look further and harder, we uncover or create more options). That’s when an emergent strategy works well. Instead of following a clear path, we can try different things. If nothing draws us in, then we can keep moving until something does. Once we find it and finally do feel that something is right, that is when we can follow a deliberate strategy of pursuing it wholeheartedly.

In Range, David Epstein echoes a similar sentiment, writing about the benefits of exploration – and stopping pursuits quickly when we realize that they aren’t a match for what we are looking for. He argues for pivoting quickly until we do find that which is better-suited for us, and he also talks about the benefits of gaining the wide range of experience that is developed precisely through this process of exploration, with which I agree. It is often the case that as we go through a set of experiences, it is sometimes unclear how they all connect. Yet somehow, eventually things come together and become clear. Recall Steve Jobs’ famous Stanford commencement quote about connecting the dots – “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” He was referring to the fact that he had a varied, often jumpy path, for example taking calligraphy classes at Reed College before dropping out – and yet that interest in design is partially what led to his future Apple computers being so well-designed and aesthetically appealing.

Sometimes having this wide range of experience actually proves to be helpful in unexpected ways. In Range, Epstein gives myriad examples, including those of astronomer Johannes Kepler coming up with discoveries in the astronomical laws of gravity because he was able to apply experiences far outside of astronomy to make analogies, and academic teams finding certain discoveries when they had more interdisciplinary team members who brought experiences far beyond the traditional specialist views. Through the process of exploration that we must often go through to find that which we want to pursue, we gain valuable insights and ways of looking at the world, which may then prove to be useful as we face other challenging problems and situations in the future. Our varied experience proves to be a unique perspective, composed of the many elements that we picked up on our distinctly individual path.

There is, of course, much more that the authors mentioned in these books, but the main point that I wanted to highlight is that sometimes things feel unclear, and we are not certain what path to take or even in which direction to turn. In those moments, it is okay to just try going down a path and see what emerges. Sometimes it is better to just try something, go somewhere, rather than waiting and going nowhere. In the end, we only gain knowledge and information through experience, and we only gain that experience by actually trying something. And that information may be that we like something or that we absolutely hate it, but that is far more than we would have known if we had not tried at all. Therefore, making a choice and trying something is actually a step forward, even if the answer is that this is a path that we absolutely do not want to pursue. There should not be fear of emergent strategies. Emergent strategies will lead us somewhere. As Epstein said “We learn who we are in practice, not in theory.”

This has been on my mind recently as I have thought about my path and life in general. In the midst of the COVID-19 situation and the uncertainty in the world, staying inside has both provided time for reflection, but also been demotivating in some ways. I have found myself thinking at times, “What am I doing? Why? What comes next? What if I don’t succeed?” Despite sometimes not knowing the answers, I am trying to remember that taking an emergent strategy is often okay, and will lead farther than if I were to stay still and wonder, paralyzed by lack of choice. In the end, the feedback from our decisions is what leads us to where we need to go.

Starting with the hard things: Anxiety

I. Sometimes it’s easiest to start with the hardest things

A few days ago, a friend and I decided to start a blog. I personally had been planning to start for some time, but given the busy nature of my work and minimal level of free time, I figured that I would do it “later on,” and hadn’t planned for something so quickly. However, after speaking last week and given current events (i.e., COVID-19 quarantine), it felt like we both actually had a lot that we wanted to say – both in terms of our own lives, but also in terms of our thoughts and reflections of what was going on and the impacts that we were seeing. In asking ourselves what we could do, we decided that if nothing else, at least we could share our thoughts and experiences.

We decided to start this weekend. We each agreed to write one article, which I thought would be easy, considering that I have many thoughts, and also that I already spend so much time writing down my thoughts privately for myself. However, it wasn’t. Every time I sat down to write this week, I felt somewhat blocked. I started thinking, “What should I write? What would people care about reading? What tone should I write it in? How open or private should I be?” And I would start writing, talking about topics that I thought people might want to hear about, in a somewhat more “distant” tone that wasn’t my own that I thought would be more “professional.” And it didn’t work. The posts made even me bored.

Today, the deadline that I set for myself to write this, I still hadn’t written anything that I was satisfied with, and I decided to just go to the very core of some things on my mind. I’ve always believed that when you are truly open and share what you really have to share, your fear dissipates, because you have nothing to hide, because you’ve already said that which you’re afraid of saying. You have even said it out loud (or at least written it publicly) – so there’s nothing worse that can happen.

On top of that, I guess the good thing about a blog is that it is not really a one-shot thing. You can have many efforts and attempts over the course of time, and every single time, you improve and it feels that you’re slowly beginning to open up to say the things that you’ve always needed to say.

I decided to start with something that I don’t share with many people, but is a very real part of my life.

II. High energy + perfectionism can sometimes lead to anxiety

I’m highly perfectionist and determined, and I’ve always had a lot of energy, but with high amounts of positive energy can also come high amounts of the opposite – negative, debilitating, destructive energy. For me, that comes in the form of stress, impatience, and worry. However, sometimes no matter how hard I try, things just don’t go the way that I want them to go. In the high desire that I have for control, for things to go the way I want them to go, and with the high level of energy that I do put in to make them happen that way, that can sometimes make me really stressed out.

When that happens, sometimes that energy turns inward. Instead of being used to do the things that I want and need to do, it turns, instead, to make me think and overthink and wonder what I could have done, what I could still do, what I should do, whether I should do it, whether it makes sense, whether it’s the right decision, what the other options are, and on and on, running circles inside my mind. And instead of taking action, I get stuck wondering, thinking, replaying in my mind over and over. Usually I can control it, but in particularly bad moments, I’m sometimes unable to sleep and even unable to eat because I’m so busy thinking about that which is bothering me and what I can do about it. I sometimes get stuck in anxiety loops.

III. My recent experience with anxiety

A few weeks ago, that is exactly what happened. A confluence of unexpected events took place that led me to feel out of control. I won’t get too much into the specifics here, but I’ll just say that in the span of a week, I felt like I lost two close friends — one with whom I had previously been romantically involved (a long time ago) – I’ll call him Friend 1 – and the other, who was one of my closest and longest-standing friends from when we were much younger — I’ll call her Friend 2. I introduced them to each other in the context of them being my two close friends, but somehow it quickly turned into more than that between them. As much as I didn’t want it to bother me and wanted to be happy for them, it did bother me, and it actually bothered me a lot.

In the span of several days, I went from feeling okay, to beginning to wonder what was happening, what I had done by introducing them, and why I had ever thought that had been a good idea. I was open about it – I told them that it bothered me, but although they both said that I shouldn’t feel that way, neither did anything about it. For Friend 1, I kind of accepted that, because it hadn’t worked out between us and he had a right to see whomever he wanted, but I guess Friend 2’s reaction was the one that bothered me the most. Despite being clear with her that this really bothered me (once I’d had a couple of days to think about what was happening and how I felt about it), she essentially said “I don’t mean to hurt you, but given that you’re not with him any longer and I got along with him…well…I think I’ll explore it further, even though I’m aware it bothers you.” Coming from someone I had considered my best friend, it really upset me, even though I could also see her perspective.

That conversation happened on a Friday night, kicking off a weekend of stress. As much as I tried to be calm, I couldn’t help but wonder – “what was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I just be happy for them?” But those gave way to other thoughts – “Why is this happening? Why had I been stupid enough to introduce them in the first place? Why hadn’t I made sure to be there when they met? Why? What should I do about it now? Should I continue talking to them and wait to feel okay? Or stop talking to them? How should I distract myself?” And instead of being calm, I felt like the stress and anxiety were eating me alive. I couldn’t sleep that night, or the next night, or the night after. When I lay down and closed my eyes, countless horrible thoughts and questions continued running through my mind for hours. When I finally did drift into sleep, as soon as I opened my eyes a few hours later, the reality set in and the racing thoughts immediately started once again. I felt like my mind couldn’t rest and I couldn’t escape, no matter what I did.

I tried to focus elsewhere – reading books, going to the gym, talking to friends, but no matter what I did, it was a temporary distraction that soon gave way to the same horrible, racing thoughts. I couldn’t seem to get away from them.

IV. My examination of the situation

At some point, I decided to just accept the situation and learn more about what was happening. I looked up “anxiety,” “anxiety loops,” “panic attack,” and other variants, coming upon and reading a variety of articles. It was comforting to see that there was so much written on the topic, because it reminded me that others had felt the same way and had gone through the same things, making me feel slightly less like I was going through this alone.

In particular, I focused on learning about what was actually happening biologically and why. As humans, we are wired to have a level of worry and alertness, because it is what protects us from physical danger. As ancient people living in nature, we needed to experience stress and anxiety, which took the form of our fight or flight response (through adrenaline rushes), because they are what protected us from wild animals and other forms of danger.

Today, we still have the same brain wiring and instincts, but we actually do not face nearly the same level or type of danger that we did back then. Instead, we still feel stress and anxiety – but now, the causes of that stress are things that cannot actually physically harm us – work and emails, notification overloads, people being rude, getting bad feedback at work or school, and in my case, an emotional issue with two close friends. Although all of these things are unpleasant, they cannot actually physically hurt us, which is what our fight or flight response was actually programmed to help us do – avoid physical danger.

In my particular situation, although there was something psychological bothering me, that is all it was – psychological. It was in my head. As much as it stressed me out and caused me to feel bad, there was nothing to truly feel anxious about. What made me feel better was this reminder that there was nothing wrong – rather, it was that everything was right – it’s just that my biological and physiological reactions to danger were acting up in a situation where there actually wasn’t any physical danger.

According to the articles that I read, the best way to let yourself get over these situations was to really understand how you felt and make your mind tired of thinking about it. Examine the situation, think about the worst case scenario, and play that in your mind, asking yourself “what is actually so bad about that? And if it were to happen, what would I do?” At first it’ll be stressful to think about, but soon, you’ll realize that the worst case scenario that you’re so stressed out about is actually not that bad. Your brain will get tired of thinking about it and playing it over and over in your head, slowly the anxiety will dissipate, and you’ll begin to be able to eat and get more sleep at night, and eventually move on.

In my situation, that is, indeed, what happened. Although the initial shock and stress took away my appetite and led to trouble sleeping, I soon started to feel better. I tried to ensure that I stuck to routines I had in place, continued talking to other friends about how I was feeling, and in moments when I felt like my thoughts were going out of control, I just asked myself “what is really the the worst that can happen?” I wrote it down, thought about it, and when I worried, I went back and re-read it. I also tried to remind myself to focus on the present moment, and in those particularly stressful moments, I took deep breaths, forced myself to look around, focus on each individual element in my surroundings one by one, and remind myself that there was no real danger – it was all in my head, and it was something that would go away. As much as I never thought it would happen, within a few days, I started feeling better, and was back to normal within 1-2 weeks.

V. What worked for me

I’m sharing this because while going through this, I really felt like the world was falling apart. Although of course other people had gone through similar things, I still know that this is something that most people don’t share – even though it’s a very normal human state of being that most of us have been in, at some point or another. I wanted to write down how I felt and what worked for me, both as a record for myself, and so as to potentially be helpful to others, if relevant.

As a re-cap, what worked for me was:

  1. Allowing myself to accept and understand how I felt: Reminding myself that the way I was feeling is okay, normal, and natural allowed me to accept how I was feeling without questioning what was wrong with me or trying to tell myself to just “be okay.” Understanding the biological and evolutionary reasons underlying this made me feel more grounded in the fact that this was a normal human reaction to a perceived danger, even though there was no real danger in my case.
  2. Being open with my honest reflection of the situation: Taking time to reflect on the actual root cause of the stress, writing it down, and analyzing why it made me feel the way it did felt very cathartic – like letting go of a weight that I had been holding on to. I also let myself be open about it with close friends, which made made me feel support and made it feel like it was no longer my own burden to bear all alone.
  3. Worst-case scenario acceptance: I asked myself “what is really the worst thing that can happen? What am I really afraid of?” and answered the questions. I wrote these answers down as well, and re-read them when I was feeling particularly down, slowly getting used to this “worst case scenario” and reminding myself that the worst wasn’t really that bad, thus tiring my mind of thinking about this topic and eventually letting it move on.
  4. Living in the physical moment: In particularly bad moments, I found it helpful to ground myself by looking around at my surroundings and examine each object one-by-one in detail, thus slowing down my racing thoughts and reminding myself that I am okay and in a safe place.
  5. Continuing routines: Both at the beginning and as I started to feel better, I found it helpful to force myself to continue my normal routines because it grounded me and reminded me that despite what was happening, things were still normal, and my life would continue.
  6. Experiencing laughter: As part of continuing my routines and letting life go on, I made sure to continue talking to and seeing friends. As much as I felt like staying in and hiding in my apartment at times, I found that seeing someone (or even talking on the phone), made me feel much better and brought about much-needed moments of laughter, which worked remarkably well in dissipating my feelings of anxiety, even if temporarily.

I think the key point here is that many people, at times, experience stress and anxiety, however much it sometimes feels like we are the only ones. We are wired that way – we all have the biological fight or flight response built into us, which sometimes gets triggered and, if we aren’t careful, can bring us into a mental state of prolonged anxiety and stress. I know that I definitely experience it sometimes, but it is important to remember that when it does happen, it’s normal and natural, and we can get out of it. It is just about giving yourself the space to feel that way for a little bit, allowing yourself to fully reflect and think through what is actually scaring you, and slowly, once you truly work through it for yourself, your mind will grow tired of the perceived threat, and time will bring you back to your normal steady-state.