DRMacIver's Notebook

Studying the mundane

Studying the mundane

One of the things that you might notice about the things that I write is that they're often about really mundane topics.

Here are some examples:

I do not write about mundane topics because they are sources of deep philosophical insight. I write about them because I am actually trying to solve mundane problems. I said in No shortage of things to write about that "in order to run out of things to write, I'd have to basically have life solved. I'm uh a little ways away from that". This is true. But necessarily a significant number of the problems I have not solved in my life are mundane, because most of life is mundane, and I still think these problems are worth writing about.

This isn't to say that I'm only interested in mundane problems, but mundane problems are important, and often life complete in interesting ways, and by their very mundanity will often have high impact. I don't know if my writing has ever made anyone blissfully happy, but I do know multiple people who have improved the way they cleaned their bathroom and had a slightly less annoying rice opening experience as a result, and that too is part of the good life.

A particular reason I study and think about mundane things is that I think that there's often a lot of low hanging fruit available for improving them. People don't spend much time thinking about mundane problems, and even less time on how to communicate improvements in them.

To a large degree this is rational: You essentially improve until what you've got is "good enough" and it's not worth figuring out how to improve further. Importantly though, the effort that isn't worth it is that of figuring out how to improve further. Often doing better is lower effort than what you're doing now, or very high benefit. Once you know how to do something the better way, it's clearly worth doing it that way (if it weren't, it wouldn't be a better way, it would be a way with a different set of trade offs), but that doesn't mean it's worth inventing that better way.

(It may also still not be worth learning that better way, or you may not want to, and that's fine. I'm both not that great at tying my shoes and know full well I could fix this with a couple of hours spent studying Ian Fieggen's Shoe Lace website, but have I done that? I absolutely have not)

I on the other hand am perfectly happy to put in that effort, because I find it interesting, and I have time to spend, and also there's a lot of stuff that other people seem to be "naturally" good at that I've had to figure out the hard way, so once I've invested all that mental infrastructure in learning this stuff I might as well keep going.

And... it turns out it's not that hard. There are some core skills that it's worth developing, but they're generally useful core skills for life, mundane or otherwise. Mostly you just need to learn to break out of habits, spot patterns, and identify where you've taken problems as immutable when they're actually easily fixable things. I'm not claiming this is easy, but it's not rocket surgery or anything, and almost by definition it's a skillset for making most parts of your life better.

It does take time and energy, and I'm aware those are both often in short supply, so I don't expect too many people to do as much thinking about this as I do, but that's fine. I don't mind having a niche, and I expect I'll keep it. After all, literally nobody else is ever going to explain how to keep your flat clean in terms of the work of James C. Scott on the early development of agrarian states.

(Although I could totally see Meekaale doing this with Hubert Dreyfus and Alasdair MacIntyre instead)