Tag Archives: toothbrush

Meta-systems and writing-poorly block

I heard Seth Godin say on writer’s block that, “Well, you don’t have writing-poorly block.” He suggested that if you run into a case of writer’s block, then you probably instead have a case of perfectionism – a case of waiting for the perfect something to appear before writing.

Perfectionism means procrastination. Procrastination means failing by simply not starting or by quitting too soon. It doesn’t count as a swing-and-a-miss when you don’t take a swing.


When I was about 6 or 7, mid-1980s, California, I remember once noticing how my toothbrush didn’t remove food stuck between my teeth. Also, I didn’t like flossing; I only flossed back then when a toothpick didn’t work.

I looked at my toothbrush and wondered why. I hypothesized that the flat-headedness of the bristles couldn’t reach far enough between my teeth. I figured maybe other people were having the same problem with their toothbrushes.

So, I decided to grab the pair of hair clippers in one of our drawers to add grooves or ridges into the bristles to get between my teeth, just like how toothbrushes today look.

Back then, my family lived in a one-bed/one-bath apartment unit in Los Angeles. The hair clippers needed to plug into the wall, they were noisy, and my parents were either still sleeping or about to get up.

They normally didn’t approve of my tinkering. (Many times, I’d disassemble and reassemble toys or other gadgets. They never worked the same way again, if they worked again at all.)

My memory falls short on what happens after I thought of using the hair clippers. I think my dad woke up and entered the room. I tried to talk to my dad about the idea, and he either got it but didn’t care or he didn’t get it because I sounded like gibberish to him.

My dad and I rarely spoke with each other. Honestly though, as a kid, I probably didn’t make much sense anyway.

When the 1990s arrived, and especially in California, the internet began to take off. My dad is both a computer programmer and an accountant. I remember having a dial-up modem and my dad booking travel once through Prodigy, an online service started in the 1980s.

I first started using the internet in the early-1990s, downloading updates for games through the worldwide web. My dad told me that website domain names worked the same way 800-numbers do. So, I suggested dad that we register popular domain names and wait for buyers (i.e., cybersquatting). I was about 10 or 11.

I reasoned that if domain names were like 800-numbers, then business buyers would eventually want them like they do 800-numbers. He wasn’t convinced. And, registering a domain name in the early-1990s wasn’t as cheap as it is today.

He remembered my suggestion some years later, toward the end of the 1990s with the dot-com bubble, and asked me what I thought about cybersquatting then. I said that it probably wouldn’t be as big a deal anymore.

I don’t blame my dad. I just didn’t think hard enough. I didn’t ask the right questions. I didn’t do enough to really persuade anyone to work with me; I had countless other ideas that remained only ideas. Creativity wasn’t an issue for me. Procrastination was. Is.


Between 9th and 10th grade, I signed up for a Psychology 101 class at East Los Angeles Community College (ELACC). That was in the summer of 1996.

I did it for this girl, María, who ended up sitting at the back of the class while I sat at the front. Our paths never crossed. Not only did we sit at different parts of the room, she preferred to arrive late and leave early, while I showed up early and left after asking plenty of questions.

Anyway, I’d take the public bus system to get to ELACC. Once, an elderly gentleman sat next to me. He introduced himself as a retired math teacher. He noticed I was carrying a textbook and asked:

“Did they ever teach you how to write a formula?”

He went on to explain that when he taught math, he memorized plenty of formulas and discovered plenty of patterns in the math world for which he didn’t yet have a formula.

He said that it would’ve made teaching a lot easier if he just taught a way to create formulas, both to relieve students of having to memorize them and to capture future patterns not yet captured in a formula.

I thought about that discussion for years. He wasn’t asking just any question. He was asking the question of questions, which of course begged the answer of answers. The formula of formulas. The system of systems.

The meta-system. The theory of everything. Years of philosophy later, I’ve come to the conclusion…

It doesn’t exist.

If it does, it’s not knowable. But that’s irrelevant. Like the limit of a function, the direction of movement matters more.

He was asking the right question, which works much like a keystone habit (one good habit that triggers multiple other good habits and replaces the practice of multiple bad habits). In a way, it was a keystone question.

In eliminating writer’s block (and in everything else), I believe asking the right question means looking for the better questions. Finding the better questions involves looking for keystone questions, questions that point to systems of systems.

One type of keystone question I call the meta-question: What questions should I be asking?