Reflections on Aphorisms #23

I had some spontaneous thoughts earlier about the Good Samaritan, but I’m also going to keep up the reflections on aphorisms.

I’m finding this to be a very meaningful process, and I’d encourage anyone to do the same. I’m using a fair amount of time on it, but since I’m now a semi-professional writer I don’t think that’s too much of a sacrifice.

Aphorism #38

Regular minds find similarities in stories (and situations); finer minds detect differences.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Maslow’s axiom is truer than most people realize.

People like things to be easily understood and explained away. When we understand the universe, we are confident. When it surprises us, we are lost to perdition. One of the best ways that you can make yourself feel certain his to relate what is currently important things that had importance in the past. I’m not just referring to tradition here. Rather, the way that we view the world tends to become unyielding over time.

We have an intuitive understanding that our worldview hardens and becomes brittle. In his book Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief (Amazon affiliate link), Jordan Peterson uses the example of a businessman who is called into his boss’s office to discuss his performance. At first, he expects great praise and is already prepared to negotiate with his boss for a raise.

However, his boss tells him to pack his stuff and prepare to leave the company, as his service will no longer be required. What the businessman saw as positive contributions to the company were instead overbearing, and his co-workers developed resentment towards him that he had earned with his hypocritical criticism of other people and his inability to be a member of the team.

This is the sort of realization about ourselves that we have a hard time coming to.

Carl Jung describes it as the Shadow, truths about ourselves that are not consciously recognized. They are not obvious to us without intentional searching, sometimes because they are so painful that we choose not to think about them and sometimes because we are less self-aware than we believe ourselves to be.

When everything in the current is similar to everything in the past, we can ignore self-examination. Assuming that we are already marginally successful, the logical assumption is that we will continue to be successful. However, the world is a changing and chaotic place.

It is better that we put our fingers to the pulse of the universe, to be aware of the changes that it brings our way. It requires more effort than staying blindly with tradition (not to be rude to tradition; what has worked typically continues to work), but since we will enter into territory that no one else can help us through, at least not that we know of, it is important to reach that level of self-awareness.

This is the goal of philosophy. It is the art–it is worth noting that an art is not less dignified than a science–of attempting to understand the universe. Of course, the first good philosophical assumption is usually that one knows nothing, or at least that one can be certain of only a very little part of the universe.

This is not to surrender to chaos. Philosophers still expect the sun to rise every day, they simply admit that it would be foolish to assume that everything will always be as it has been.

My Life

I’m not honestly sure how this applies to my life. I like to think that I’m pretty productive, and that I’m aware of what goes on around me and how it changes from the previous things. I certainly make a conscious effort to keep an eye on it. However, this is one of those things where you can’t really know how good you are at something. Even others may be fooled in the short-term by how they perceive you to be, so that what they tell you does not match what you really are. They may assume based on their perceptions of you something which is not fully based on truth, but rather on how they value you.

When I say value here, I do not necessarily refer to basic idea of appreciation, but rather the role that you play in someone else’s life. People have sometimes told me that I seem quite intelligent. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, since I have simply devoted more time to the art of the word than most other people my age have. Since we typically consider communication a sign of intelligence, they are naturally predisposed to assume that I am smart.

Lest I seem overly humble, I have come to the conclusion that I may be up above average, I simply do not believe that I am so smart as to be exceptionally intelligent. I consider it good fortune on my part, and the product of a good education. Occasional spurts of self-discipline contribute to this as well.

Resolution

Don’t fall into a rut.

Do not fear chaos, but seek to master it.

Make every day a chance to grow.

Aphorism #39

It is far easier to act under conditions of tyranny than to think.

Hannah Arendt, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

In an ideal world, thought and action are linked. However, there is nothing natural about this. There is no rule that one must think before they act, and that their actions will follow what they have thought about.

In extreme circumstances, where order or chaos becomes predominant, it becomes difficult to think. The prevailing mode becomes an overriding fashion. For chaos, we often see this reflected in the mob mentality, I didn’t order we see the abandonment of personal responsibility and the complete submission to authority.

In both extreme chaos and extreme order, the tendencies to forego moral responsibility–to abandon contemplation and examination–lead to terrible outcomes. We return to the primal fallen state, guided by instinct instead of morality.

If people think while in these states, they tend to focus on rationalization, making sense of an untenable situation. Life, that is to say the true life of meaning, cannot exist in either extreme. They are machines which consume, not environments which nurture. People excel in the middle ground, though it is not necessarily easier to live there. It is only there that they can pursue heroism (without great sacrifice).

It is worth noting that while Arendt writes about the totalitarianism of the 20th century, it is not necessary to have such extremes in governance to achieve similar disorders in an individual’s life. We are capable of creating our own tyranny in our spirits. The same goes for chaos that extends beyond that which is useful for nurturing growth.

My Life

I have always felt drawn to philosophy, but I have not always been good at living life. Not only is it difficult to appreciate one’s circumstances, but it also requires language with which to discuss greater things. Despite my desire to live a life of wisdom, I rarely had terms in which to consider the success of such an endeavor.

I think the single greatest success with my adult has been coming to an understanding what’s the balance between things. This has moderated the oft-fiery temperament of my youth, I think it helps me live in accordance with my values. I’m not perfect, of course, but I feel like I can honestly say that I continue to improve, which is really the best humans can hope for.

At various points in my life, I have felt myself sinking into either exceptional order or exceptional chaos to the point of dysfunction. Only recently have I had the understanding to see those for what they are. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, haven’t really had any situations that put my new convictions to test as significantly as those events tried me.

Some of this may be my newfound stoicism, and increased degree to which I can philosophically appreciate the world, but I do feel blessed and fortunate that is the part of life that I find myself in is one without any raging storms.

I follow politics, and in my youth I would allow myself to be consumed by fervor. I was convinced that my way of seeing things was correct. I believed that anyone who disagreed with my views must have simply been idiotic, because they could not appreciate the true nature of existence. While I remain convinced that most of my beliefs are correct, because if I feel they are incorrect I change them, I have gained more empathy.

I appreciate more of myself as well, since I now have a conscious understanding of why I believe what I believe, and I understand why others disagree with me when they do disagree with me. This has been a humbling process, not because of any failure on my behalf (I was merely young and naive), but because it has been an awakening to how much more complex the universe is.

Resolution

Stand outside the mainstream when the mainstream becomes extreme. (This is Montaigne’s great achievement)

Don’t be afraid of the unknown; don’t be attached to the known.

Be always at the start of an adventure.

Reflections on Aphorisms #22

Aphorism 36

It’s much harder to write a book review for a book you’ve read than for a book you haven’t read.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

I chose this aphorism because of Taleb’s trademark acerbic style and its clear, bold point. It’s also relevant to a lot of what I do in my life, since I have been a reviewer for years.

I don’t believe in simplicity. Or, rather, I am skeptical about it. There may actually be simple things in the universe, but I have rarely found them. Even something whose significance to us is relatively straightforward may itself be quite complex.

Take, for example, a pure chemical element. It still has all sorts of qualities and traits, and the process of purifying it is not simple. Just because it can be classified neatly does not mean that we understand everything about it immediately; only through exploration have we come to the knowledge that we have, and it is deeper than any immediate explanation can convey.

When someone writes about something and evaluates it, they are trying to answer a very difficult question.

In the American education system, evaluation is considered to be the highest level of achievement, and the deepest level of the depth of knowledge breakdown. To actually assesse the quality of something requires clear communication skills, enough experience to draw a comparison, and the guts to speak earnestly.

I’m frequently struck by the inauthenticity of others’ praise. Often when I see something reviewed, I can the trademarks of someone who has no idea what they are talking about. Such a person is not evaluating anything, as they do not really have an opinion and cannot draw a meaningful conclusion.

What I have found is that once you develop an opinion that’s actually meaningful it becomes difficult to communicate.

I do not know how many reviews I have written in my life, but it’s probably around five hundred or so, in various places and fields.

Even with that much experience, I often struggle to make my opinions meaningful to the reader. It is also difficult to explain who the target market of a particular product or book is. Hyperbolic praise, that is, saying that something is tremendous, is much easier than nuanced discussion of merits and virtue.

Tak literary awards. I would be lying if I said that I never want to win an award for something that I write. However, I think that awards are a poor metric for whether or not I will like a book. This doesn’t that awards are bad. We do celebrate things for the sake of their quality. Rather, it would be like trying to describe a whole day with a single word. You may be able to get the gist and say that something is great if it is great, but simply giving it an award does not explain why it is great. Preferences are diverse enough that it’s too simple a premise.

I think Taleb’s point here is profound, because we have entered an age where we live in a society of so-called experts. We need specialists to help us make decisions, and that’s a testament to the near-infinite opportunity we have grown to as a society. People have more knowledge than I do in all sorts of fields, so I do not let this bother me.

The problem is that experts require training, time, and practice to do their work well. Much of our exposure to writing comes in the form of what could be charitably described as inexpert. For whatever reason, whether it’s a lack of self-awareness, apathy, or just failure in the short-term due to one reason or another, a lot of writing is bad. At the very least, it may hold limited value for its target audience.

I think reviews are particularly prone to this. This is one of the reasons why we often encourage people give numbers alongside their reviews, a practice that I personally despise except in certain cases, where a number can help communicate factors that are difficult to express in words and permits a comparison between different things of the same sort (like restaurants).

I think there’s also a hidden meaning to this quote. It’s often easier to make decisions with less knowledge. We fall victim to analysis paralysis. We have trouble describing what is familiar to us precisely because it is familiar to us. There are significant difficulties that arise when we cannot put our words in an order that describes our experiences. However, the process is actually very similar to evaluating something.

One of the reasons why we read memoirs is that they provide us with a vision of someone else’s life, one in which they often explain what helped meaning and significance to them. A good memoir is written by someone who would also be able to write good reviews. The reverse may not be true.

I think that a lot of life’s meaning is to be found in evaluation. Those people who learn to do it well have provided themselves with a tool to improve everything.

My life

As I mentioned earlier, I have written many reviews. At first, my interest was more commercial. I was a game reviewer and I got free games if I reviewed them (plus commission, though I was never good at driving traffic). Since I had more time than money, this was a good arrangement for me.

Now I’ve grown to see it as more of an art. I enjoy writing reviews, even though they are no longer particularly profitable endeavor for me, because they are a representation of meaning. I’d say that it’s judging things that makes it worth doing, but judgment is not really the purpose of a review. I don’t try to express my superiority over other people. I am successful enough to do away with envy.

Rather, I’d describe it this way: When I review something, I have a chance to test it against the universe. There’s an opportunity to go in and really see what makes something tick, but there’s also an ability to ask if it’s worth it. When I write about game design, I often separate my reviews from my analysis.

That’s because these are two entirely different things. Something with flaws may still be sublimely right in one or two ways, and be worthwhile to analyze. However, whether or not it is worth spending time on is the point of an evaluation. Do the flaws, on balance, get covered over by the merits?

In many ways, I think that it’s a sort of proto-wisdom. Evaluation and analysis are both prerequisites for creating something meaningful. They’re independent from this process only in the sense that the creative act comes after analysis and evaluation.

Resolution

Evaluate ceaselessly.

Judge for merit, not for preference.

Don’t get lost in analysis what does valuation would be more proper.

Aphorism 37

It is far better to render Beings in your care competent than to protect them.

Jordan Peterson, from 12 Rules for Life

Interpretation

I did an in-depth breakdown of each chapter of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, and it had a transformative effect on me (Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which is available for free to Kindle Unlimited members through that link, was also significant in my life, though I read it later). I came to new appreciation for the buance of existence, and many pieces of advice contained between its covers were life changing.

This quote comes from the chapter on Jordan Peterson’s second rule, which states that you should treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. The question of comfort versus protection is one that is the pivotal issue of my generation.

I can speak from first-hand experience can I see countless instances of my generation being unprepared for reality. We have this tendency to view it as a dirty and dangerous thing, because life is dirty and dangerous. However, our stigma against hard truth has left us unprepared for being. We reject the risks of living entirely because we do not know what it means to triumph.

Many of the actions we have been trained to take in our daily lives are those would shelter us. This has an anodyne effect. Like the Buddha as a child, our faces are turned away from anything that could causes suffering.

But suffering is part of life. Without it, it’s impossible to appreciate virtue and choose right action. We will suffer the consequences of living without introspection, but not even have the wherewithal to understand what we are going through. Suffering is the guide that leads us to self improvement, and what motivates us to make a better world.

I think that we have a tendency to think of ourselves incorrectly. I do not mean self-deception, though there is certainly much of that our everyday lives. Rather, I mean that we have limits to our perception. We believe ourselves to be competent, collected, wise, strong, and heroic. However, we ignore the shadow, Jung’s hidden subconscious, because we want to ignore our complexity and vulnerability.

In many of our lives we walk around with untreated battle wounds. Ignorant of the source of our perdition, we view ourselves as impervious agents of the will or as driftwood on the sea of existence. We do not realize that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Potential is counterbalanced by limitation. We don’t just get to be a victim of the universe or to be the hero that saves the world. We need to accept that we need help in our moments of weakness, and selfless sacrifice in our moments of strength.

My Life

As a teacher, I found myself trying to do what’s best for my students. Often, as an English teacher, I would have them read books that challenge them. One of the tendencies that I have found results from being over-sheltered is an inability to distinguish between good and evil. Take the book To Kill a Mockingbird as an example.

My students often have an aversion to the book. Sometimes, this is because they do not wish to read anything which they are assigned to read, out of what could be uncharitably described as laziness, but it is also because they see unpleasant things in it and they do not understand why they would have to see evil face to face.

This causes discomfort, but I have never had a student complain that it was not meaningful after they have read the novel.

In my life, I have definitely been too self-certain on many occasions. Overconfidence has been a great adversary of mine. It is also responsible for more money wasted on things I have broken and do not know how to fix and I would care to admit; this is evidently a common masculine trait in this day and age. However, I think that I have a particular tendency towards learned helplessness, and it is certainly not unique to me out of my generation.

I find that when difficulties arise I prefer to work around them rather than over them. This tendency doesn’t do me any favors in the long run.

I think of all of Peterson’s 12 rules this one may have had the largest immediate impact on me.

When I entered teaching I had what Jung might describe as a martyrdom complex.

Despite cautions from my instructors in college and from my various mentors in practice, I viewed my job as sacrificing everything for my students. There is no problem with sacrifice, but I carried it to an extreme. I would work 12 hour days, then come in on weekends. Eventually, I had reached a point where I was less effective because of my devotion, simply due to exhaustion. I became bitter and resented the weight of my task. The overexertion led me to make mistakes, which led to more overexertion. My response was to push harder, and strive to put in more effort.

By the time this reached its peak, I had almost resigned from my job. I do not know what would have happened if I’d given up then, but I am not optimistic. Fortunately, those around me were supportive and helped me understand where I had gone wrong.

I had forgotten the need for self-care. The consequence of this was that I had instead embarked on a path of self-destruction.

Resolution

Accept my limitations.

Foster in others the skills they require for Independence.

Remember that self-deception is not the only thing that bars self-knowledge.

Reflections on Aphorisms #21

I may have gone long-form on this one without meaning to, so we’re still at just two aphorisms for today.

If anyone’s reading, feel free to comment on this. I’m always torn on whether people want to read about the interpretation or my life more (not that I’m pushy; it may be that people don’t want to read either, but if people do I’d like to make it as good as I can).

Aphorism 34

Most people write so they can remember things; I write to forget.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

There’s something sublime in the act of writing. It’s the act of making permanent thoughts which are otherwise fleeting. As a result, it can be used for more than just what it appears to do on the surface.

In the field of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung and others write about the importance of words. By putting something into words, it becomes meaningful. Without words, things tend to just disintegrate; Jung describes what he calls a process of psychic disintegration in many of his patients which often stems from an inability to name and deal with problems.

Writing lets people produce meaning around phenomena in the same way that a conversation might. Actually trying to describe something, even if the attempt fails, is a good step in understanding it. It unburdens the mind.

Describing things in writing also provides permanence. Writing down something important allows it to be remembered even if it is forgotten, since whatever has been written can be recovered at a later point.

In an ironic sense, writing to forget makes sense, even though it’s the sort of active contemplation of an idea that tends to help it go from short term into long term memory with a lot of practice and repetition. Despite this, the brain is still a fickle thing, and any piece of information you encounter is more likely to be gone tomorrow as it is to last for the rest of your life.

If you accept the fact that you have limitations, it is best to plan on those limitations coming to fruition. Writing something means that the consequence for forgetting it is gone.

My Life

I am someone who has what could be described as a busy mind. This isn’t a boast about intelligence. Rather, I am always thinking about something. I actually consider this a personality flaw.

I’m often taken by reverie and fantasy. For whatever merits this may bring in terms of creativity and passion, I have felt stark consequences for letting stuff that is important to remember be abandoned for a passing fancy. One of the greatest things about writing is that it helps remove the entirely unnecessary urgency to remember things.

I also credit my increased writing with an ability to sleep better at night. When I was younger, I suffered serious insomnia. I would be awake for hours after I went to bed. After I left college, I never had these issues. I attribute this to the fact that I have written more consistently about the things that have been on my mind.

The last time I had problems sleeping other than due to sickness or outside interference was when I got offered a freelancing gig on one of my favorite games ever by the creator himself, and got cold called to do it, no less. That sort of favorable excitement I do not associate with any disorder.

I think this is because of how much writing I do. There are very few things that go on in my life which do not get analyzed and assessed. My childhood cat and faithful companion for the past decade and change suffered a stroke back in May, and while I miss her I haven’t shed a tear for her after the day she died, and then more so for her suffering than her loss (though there were a couple moments of self-pity, especially right after she had passed).

Likewise, when I left teaching I had a hard emotional time of it, but I was able to move beyond it. I still have a deep longing to return to it, but I also know that my path lies elsewhere for now.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no sorrow, but it never conquers me. There are a lot of factors in that: faith, perspective, stoicism. These are things I’ve consciously developed as a result of my writing and reflections, but the act of writing and reflecting itself is perhaps an even greater factor in overcoming the situations I find myself with. It’s something I didn’t have ten years ago or even five years ago. Just over a year ago I had let myself descend into a slump, and working my way out of it was hard.

Now I don’t enter that slump. I am vigilant against the chance of some new and great trauma coming along to shatter my psyche, but the work I’ve done has strengthened me and bolstered my discipline.

I have written on and off for the last decade or so on whatever catches my fancy. I don’t have a total amount of writing that I’ve done, but I’ve probably written at least five million words over the course of my adult life. A lot of that hasn’t been personal, but an ever-increasing share has been.

That’s been a great way to work through stuff. My paternal grandfather always wanted me to write journals when I was a kid (I mean, he still does), and I never really wrote about my life. I would try and put the things I considered to be the products of mind on paper, but I would never write about my self, because I didn’t have a good concept of the self.

Resolution

Write so that my mind can be free.

Create when it is possible to do so.

Become better at bringing thought to fruition.

Aphorism 35

The sad truth is that man’s real life consists of a complex of inexorable opposites – day and night, birth and death, happiness and misery, good and evil. We are not even sure that one will prevail against the other, that good will overcome evil, or joy defeat pain. Life is a battleground. It always has been and always will be; and if it were not so, existence would come to an end.

Carl Jung, from Man and His Symbols

Interpretation

The notion of archetypal duality is one that is central to Jung’s work. I don’t think that Jung’s understanding and point is that the universe isexclusively dualistic (e.g. comprised of opposites), though I do not intend to disagree with it. I simply cannot support a notion which I’m not entirely certain of.

I will agree but there are some interesting ways that we perceive the world. I’ve read some of Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative mythology and literature. What I take away from it is that whether or not the universe is truly dualistic in essence, it is definitely comprised of extremes in our minds.

Things tend to fall into one extreme or another because we have a need to come with concrete judgments to any situation we encounter. I don’t know what is the origin of the human tendency. I’ve heard people say that it is survival mechanism and a biological limitation in turn, and truth be told I don’t think it’s significant to ask why this is the case. That is evident should be sufficient as a starting point.

One of the other reasons why we tend to form concrete perceptions rather than appreciating abstract nuance is that it is easier to communicate the simple than the complex.

Not only does our ability to put something into words have an influence in our ability to communicate and perceive it, but there’s also the simple fact that we don’t always have time or skill to deal with more complex topics.

My Life

I’m generally a devotee of Jung’s, and while I do not necessarily agree with everything he says I think he is correct more often than he is not correct. This is, I believe, generally a good measure of whether or not someone is worth listening to. I don’t expect perfection from people: rather, I would be surprised by it.

Looking back on the earlier years of my life, I can see a conflict within myself which I was unaware of at the time.

I don’t think I ever had anything quite as intense as humans internal conflict, which he details in his autobiographical work Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Amazon affiliate link; I am currently listening to the Audible audiobook, and I am as enraptured by it as I tend to get when reading or listening to a great book). However, I can now see in myself a great deal of confusion over the way that I had wanted to live.

I grew up religious. Unlike Jung, whose father had doubts about his faith despite being a member of the clergy, I felt that everyone else had stronger experiences than I had, while my own were relatively weak.

This was a sort of irrational fear, because I have always been deeply spiritual. However, while most people associate the spiritual feelings with a sense of chaos (in the sense that chaos is the great unknown), but I always had a sense of comfortable order from them. My early awareness of God was that of everything being in its place, something which was perhaps even not God but rather an idealized notion of God (insomuch as something great can be idealized as something good, because my more mature understanding of the sublime nature of God is much more meaningful to me).

It was only later as an adult that further experiences would shape me. When I was in college, I had a mentor teacher who was unsupportive and actively hostile to me. She filed complaints against me (which I maintain were mostly undeserved) which led to me nearly having to change my degree program and endangering my ability to go on to teach. I have written about this before in more detail, and the recollection is painful to me, only a little, so I will not give an account of it in great detail here.

At this point in my life, I had known relatively little chaos. There were some small family matters that caused me some minor distress, but the worst of these was nothing that would be considered unusual or traumatic. In fact, my family life was probably peculiarly stable, owing to the prudence and good judgment of both my parents. My father’s work was sometimes unsteady, mostly due to the companies he worked for, but we were never financially ruined due to his foresight and dedication; one of the greatest fears in my life is that I will not grow to appreciate my abilities in the same way he underestimates his own.

The experience with my first attempt student teaching changed the way that I viewed the world. I had already had the inklings of some notional chaos from the periods where my father was between jobs, but it was only with my own personal chaos behind me that I realized that there is going to always be part of the world that I cannot control.

I had failed previously in various things, but they were all relatively minor. None of them posed any threat to my future. And it so was that I had my first encounter with what Jung would describe as archetypal chaos.

It is difficult to explain exactly how the event changed my life. I wouldn’t use the term bitterness to describe how I felt, but cynicism sounds too mundane. For a while, I slipped into what one could call a depression. It is worth noting the difference between clinical depression and depression as an emotional state, just that the two are not aligned (namely, it is easier to exit the latter), despite their similarities. The state that I was in (with maladies consisting primarily of sleep and appetite disruptions) was entirely psychogenic, a consequence of entering a state of purposelessness.

I did not appreciate this for what it was, or grasp that I had entered into archetypal chaos unprepared, and it had very nearly destroyed me. Fortunately, I was surrounded by people who supported and cared for me, and with the help of friends, family, and members of my church I was able to get back on my feat.

I returned to school, got a part-time job as a game designer, and by the end of the year I was more or less entirely back to normal. I had a great mentor teacher in a great placement to finish my student teaching, and even had time to work independently on my own games–I had to leave the game designer gig in the fall because of my student teaching, but I could always write a few hundred words in the morning or evening.

When I graduated with my degree, I had found myself back in the realm of order. In this world, good and evil is clear. Everything is clearly defined, and you know your place. I was relieved.

Then the search for a teaching job came. Since I graduated in December, pickings were slim even with a teacher shortage. My experience has had made me more selective in the jobs that I was going to take, perhaps due to an aversion to dealing with uncertainty. I was not in a hurry to test my skills again.

I had also finished work on my first big solo game. I did not expect to make money off of it, so I was not disappointed when it made pretty much no money at all. It was a passion project. However, on the day that I announced its release to my family with some pride (it had exceeded my low expectations, though not by much), my father made a remark but I do not recall precisely, but which questioned whether I would ever move out of my parents’ home.

At this time, I had never planned to make any real money to sign in games. I didn’t care to work with studios, I think this was a hold-over from some of my prior experiences that year, both in terms of my newfound disdain for uncertainty and the fact that the games that I had worked on before going solo had fizzled out before publication or even testing, despite receiving good feedback.

I developed something of a complex about criticism–or perhaps about negative feedback in any sense.

During my first year teaching, we administered assessment tests which showed us real time progress for students. I was not aware that the preview of students levels assumed that they would miss everything they had not completed, and about halfway through testing I looked at the feedback on the computer.

All or most of my students were failing in every class. I have never had an experience quite as harrowing as that, if only because of the abrupt nature of the experience. These tests were used to assess us teachers as much as the students.

In the end, the students did fine, but this instance is typical of my responses during my first couple years teaching to any chance of failure.

I think this ties back into Jung’s point because the reason that this distress occurred to me was that I was met with uncertainty.

I did not yet have the confidence in myself to accept my own definition of success. This led to me being in the no man’s land between two concrete notions of success and failure. It’s worth noting that success and failure have never been truly divorced from the notion of good and evil. As much as we have made progress in assuming that those who suffer do not suffer because of wickedness and those who succeed do not succeed because of virtue, we do not accept randomness in our own lives.

The failure to see that these dichotomies have middle points and that they are constantly in motion was a cause of persistent angst for me. In that sense I think that the idea that Jung has left out of this statement is that the mutually exclusive dualism of many parts of life is not as mutually exclusive as the term “inexorable opposite” would imply.

Resolution

Pay attention to the dynamics of things.

Never forget that things are in motion and must be kept on top of.

Don’t be afraid of the unknown, harness it.

Reflections on Aphorisms #20

I’ve been doing these reflections on aphorisms for what is now two-thirds of a month, and I’m really enjoying them quite a bit.

I’m not sure if they’re good reading, but posting them helps to keep me accountable for actually it, and I’ve found that they bring me some happiness. There’s a sort of satisfaction in quiet contemplation that I don’t think you can get anywhere else.

Aphorism 32

“You can’t go from books to problems, but the reverse: from problems to books.”

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Note that I got this quote from the audiobook edition of The Black Swan (Amazon affiliate link), so I probably have a different style and punctuation than the printed version.

Interpretation

One of the things that is interesting about education is that we have a concept of reverse design.

The idea is that you start with your objective and then you decide on the actual methods you use to achieve that goal.

I think this is a good way to write a book as well.

When you start writing for the sake of writing, it’s very difficult. As someone who has written daily posts for months at a time, I can say that it is tremendously difficult to keep up with such a schedule.

It really shows when you don’t have a problem that you’re solving.

Another thing is that books and writing are of limited value. There are very few people who can actually take a concept and then apply it from a book.

People often believe they can do this when they can’t. As English (and I’m sure other language teachers notice this as well) teachers worldwide know, students struggle with generalizing information.

What this means is that you can read something and not get its meaning in a concrete sense. If you start with a book in lieu of any worldly experience you end with a lack of deeper understanding. The ability to generalize, or apply information in a context other than it was first received, is one that requires a certain amount of cognitive development. Frustratingly, it is very easy to listen or read and then immediately fail to apply what has been learned. In education, there is a theory that something must be taught five or six different times before it is truly learned. Otherwise, limitations on memory and failures to generalize make the teaching much less effective.

Mind you, this is with practice. Text itself is more difficult by itself. Fortunately many of the people who are reading books will have better generalization and memory techniques than children.

All the same, books work best as reference if someone knows what the problem is that they need to solve. Then the information in a book is fantastic. Trying to learn from a book in the sense of acquiring wholly new skills is not an easy task.

My Life

I am working on a book on game design. I do not have a whole lot of on paper qualifications for this (though I do actually have more than I sometimes give myself credit for), but I have tinkered with games for more or less my entire life.

One of the challenges here is how to make the book valuable to people. I have faith that my skill is sufficient to make it worth reading, but transferring that skill in book form is the difficult endeavor. Since I write a blog on game design both here previously and now elsewhere, I have written about the subject and done research to such a point that I have gotten my process down well enough to translate to a full-length book.

My plan is to use techniques that one would use while teaching more than using techniques that one would use while writing a traditional book. I’ve noticed that I learned poorly from textbooks, but very well from books written by people with an intuitive grasp of human knowledge. My plan is to use anecdotes, case studies, and other methods including including both basic and deep overviews of various concepts.

There’s also something more personal about the book. When I wrote a Blog, I found it there were things that I wanted to include but could not because of time and length restrictions. If you go too long in a Blog, it’s really easy to lose readers. My average length is something between 1000 and 2000 words, which falls on the longer side for most blogs. I’ve given some thought to the best structure for the book and my plan is to have it be nonlinear.

Concepts will be explained in a simple overview, long-form analysis, and case studies. I will probably not do an individual case study for each concept, but rather for each of the overarching ideas since there will be a couple overarching categories into which the concept will be assigned.

Resolution

Don’t write a meaningless book.

Craft learning objectives for each chapter I write.

Remember the limits of human learning.

Aphorism 33

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

A problem with modern life is that it is difficult to even be sure what is a factor in any particular part of our overly complex lives. It is an artificial life that we live. Lest I sound overly alarmist, I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. It’s just something we need to be aware of.

Modern life requires caution. With so much of our life being defined by metrics that have been created and designed, rather than naturally occurring, we run the risk of compounding errors in judgment.

Our prevailing social mode is one of preventing change, or at least that change which we perceive to be undesirable. In doing so, we have created systems that govern our lives and embraced over-dependence on them, knowing that we will resist change tooth and nail.

The problem is that these things will inevitably change.

Our comfort has become an addiction. The salary is a good example of this because it stopped actually useful work instead tried to abstract the value. the danger in this is that at some point we may lose our value not our wage.

At first, this sounds almost reassuring. After all, it is certainty. The problem is that it’s false certainty.

Because salaries blind us to our actual product, we don’t see the value of what we create. At best, we provide better value than we receive in return. Even if this goes unrewarded, at least it generally assures some level of appreciation and job security.

If the value in one’s work falls, and the situation is not remedied, they’re actively destroying their own sense of security and may not realize it. This can happen regardless of an individual’s merits, salaried workers are unlike an artisan who could see that there is less demand for their work they may not have their ear to the ground.

Heroin I do not feel much of a need to talk about. Especially in the modern day, there is such an epidemic of drug abuse that it’s dangers are clearly known. Not using drugs and being a teetotaler, I haven’t had any significant personal experiences in this field.

My Life

My own relationship with carbohydrates is complex. I went on a diet where I consume less than 20% of my calories as carbohydrates and I lost more than 10% of my body weight. Since then I’ve lost discipline to keep up with it, and I’m a little ashamed to say that I may simply not have the willpower (until I get back into it; I’ve been trying to get better about it).

There is something to be said for an addictive quality in the things that we eat. When I was more focused on eating meat and nuts and other high protein foods, I found it I was much less hungry. Many of my favorite unhealthy foods are high in sugar, so cutting out sugar meant that I stopped indulging some of my more Dangerous tastes.

I think the real danger isn’t the fact that all of these tend to be associated with unexamined lives. Strong painkillers take us out of our own minds.

Resolution

Stick to a diet that builds my well-being.

Recognize when I have become dependent on something that does not provide value.

Bring value, rather than seeking rent.

Reflections on Aphorisms #19

One of the things that I like about reflecting on aphorisms is that sometimes aphorisms can contain a challenge. The whole point is to enter into a process of self-improvement and to keep going with that.

Today’s aphorisms are interesting to me, but the first one, a quote from Nassim Nicholas Taleb, is particularly relevant because I find that it deals with one of the greatest dangers I have to deal with as a writer.

Aphorism 30

It seems that it is the most unsuccessful people who give the most advice, particularly for writing and financial matters.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Advice is always tricky to assess. There’s a natural desire to give the world and much advice is given freely without guile, but there’s always a question of who is giving advice and why they are giving it. Another twist in the whole ordeal is that you have people giving advice who are not necessarily qualified to do so.

I think there’s a desire by some people to be seen as an expert, and on some occasions this drive overcomes the motivation to actually be an expert.

The best antidote against this fake mastery this disregard one’s own reputation.

Taleb himself has an interesting way of doing this. He intentionally foregoes the sort of manners that make you pleasant to be around, choosing instead to be recalcitrant and stubborn. He tries not to agree with anything which he does not truly believe, but also does so openly and without politics, which means that almost everyone he talks about has an incentive to disbelieve him or argue against him.

I don’t think you necessarily need to be abrasive to succeed in overcoming ego, but I think it is wise to be wary of salespeople those who are selling something, especially themselves, are not incentivized to be honest about who they are. This is also probably easier to sound smart then to be smart.

A while back I talked about one of Nietzsche’s sayings about writing. What he said was that it is easier to train someone to sound good than to make them write in a concise and coherent manner.

This is important because being concise and coherent is key to making a good point.

I think that there is a tendency to respect what we don’t understand. If someone makes their writing look decent people will just sort of take it at face value. Overcoming this is a key step in becoming a savvy reader. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who have figured out how to harness this fake respect, and many people are still blind to their methods.

I don’t know if I would attribute malice to all of them, because I’m sure that some people with the best intentions wind up being accidentally vapid. I know I was guilty of this (often deliberately) during my college days, when I would write above the level of peers or even sometimes faculty to try and avoid any legitimate criticism.

One thing that I’ve noticed as I read is that I can find trends where there are some people whose writing never leaves me better than I was before I read it. These are often people who are considered to be great writers. This is not to say that reputation is nothing; I am reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Amazon affiliate link), and he earns all the accolades he has received. However, for everyone who receives great acclaim by merit, there is at least one other person who has achieved acclaim by dumb luck.

I think there’s also a matter of blind ignorance here. If you think you’re really good, you can come up with all sorts of metrics and ways to justify yourself as an expert. If other people say you’re good, that carries a lot of weight.

My Life

Sometimes I worry if I am one of those people who is blindly ignorant of my limitations and naivete. Obviously, if I felt strongly that my advice were useless I would be a hypocrite if I did not stop giving it.

Of course, I don’t so much give advice as do analysis. I’m not a fan the telling people what to do. I merely present what I know and if someone finds that to be interesting or helpful, free to take it.

There are a lot of people who try and make their work seem valuable by painting it as “if you do this, will succeed” or other insipid promises. I find the practice concerning. My goal is always to try let people see my point and draw their own conclusions.

Resolution

Don’t market myself falsely.

Don’t be so proud as to admit when I are not an expert.

Draw the line between theory and practice. If I can find no evidence of my theories being practical, I should assume I have fooled myself.

Aphorism 31

The tyrant dies and his rule is over; the martyr dies and his rule begins.

Søren Kierkegaard, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Humanity is capable of great and horrible things. One of the greatest triumphs of humanity is an embrace of what is good. Just as people can embrace the good, they can embrace the wicked, but we need not be pessimistic. Evil often wins in small moments, but in the end we tend to see it for what it is. This doesn’t mean that the balance of the universe is positive, nor that there is any moral evolution that is taking place that will bring us to utopia.

However, if you look far enough you will find examples of people who do the right thing when it cost them dearly their legacy built what we rely on. Even if Kierkegaard’s martyr never achieves a worldly reign, their sacrifice builds a universe that is tolerable.

It is resentment for the world that breeds much evil. Attachment can cause just as much suffering, but the tyrant is driven buy a desire to control the universe. They may even believe themselves to be stamping out evil and corruption as they oppress the helpless.

When someone takes acts that are good for the sake of goodness, they forestall the entropic descent into suffering that seems to be the natural cast of the universe.

My Life

I’ve noticed something very simple:

Nothing good comes from force.

This is not true in the reverse; there are times when just and righteous motives are backed up with force (e.g. self-defense, just law), but it’s not automatic.

When I see people saying what ought to be, it’s almost always an extrinsic thing, something they want to change in the world.

The goal of a tyrant.

I hope to be the sort of person (and maybe I even can accomplish it if I strive hard enough) who takes it upon himself to do actions which advance the good.

The goal of a martyr.

Resolution

Find a way to do what should be done, not put it off.

Bring positive change to the world.

Don’t become a tyrant.

Reflections on Aphorisms #18

Aphorism 27

One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.

Anton Chekov, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

When I go through the Viking Book of Aphorisms, I just open it to a random page, or to something that thematically aligns with what I’ve been discussing, but I don’t typically pick out an aphorism as particularly profound. I do try and choose ones that look fruitful, but often I just choose something that serves as a starting off point for something else.

This aphorism, however, is one that particularly stands out to me. It aligns with my interests, I guess one could say. One of the notions that I’ve struggled with as I’ve grown in understanding is how one deals reality. I’m an objectivist (no relation to Ayn Rand’s Objectivism), meaning that I believe that there is unifying underlying truth, but I also have the good sense to recognize that I am limited as a person by what I am capable of perceiving.

One oft-neglected factor in this is the question of how one even goes about figuring out what is right and wrong and what is good and what is not.

Chekov raises a very good point here. There’s limitations in our perception that stem from things which are deep beyond the point of comprehension. To draw a comparison to science, there are things which are common knowledge today like many of the advancements in chemistry, which would have been absolutely unimaginable two-hundred years ago. While I am certain that many people can recognize revolutionary changes when they occur, how many of us have noticed smaller evolutionary changes? How many of us have the wherewithal to assess them correctly?

There’s a “love of the new” that I believe to be one of the most dangerous elements of our social culture. Take, for instance, our smartphones, the harbingers of the interconnected age. There is great value in this, namely all of the opportunity that it provides, but it also brings with it tremendous risk. We have changed our way of life so tremendously in the past Century that is going to have second-order effects that we are not even prepared to discuss.

Think about the fact that we no longer are able to check out from our daily life and enjoy quiet moments. Without deliberate effort, those who have never known to seek such a thing will now never benefit from it: they cannot discover it by accident, unless they are incredibly fortunate.

However, it is important not to idolize tradition.

While we bemoan the loss of private spaces and being contemplative, there are benefits to this constant connection to others.

I think that we do not give people enough credit. Those of us who choose to carry constant interruption devices have not done so in base ignorance. Rather, we recognize that there is an opportunity to being reachable by anyone at any time it is a trade, one whose outcome will only be made clear once the deal is complete. As such, I do not believe in reactionary overzealous abstention.

We would do well to remember to be humble. No man may know what tomorrow may bring.

My Life

I have learned is sort of humility over the years. I do something which I know to be at least not wrong, and I do not worry about the outcome.

There’s something of Kant’s categorical imperative in this, though I am not as hardcore as Kant. If you do what you know brings good, it doesn’t matter if individual actions have much fruit. Overtime, the law of averages will apply. It is the whole, not the part, which brings results.

Resolution

Pursue constant little goals.

Do not obsess over the result of any single action.

Diversify my portfolio of worthwhile deeds.

Aphorism 28

Most of the grounds of the world’s troubles are matters of grammar.

Michel de Montaigne, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

I find myself recommending the essays of Montaigne to everyone I meet. This may be a testament to the quality of Montaigne, or may simply show me to be relatively simple, with only one thing on my mind at any time.

This quote is a grand illustration of Montaigne’s wit, at least in my opinion. I envy his ability to create such short statements which also hold such deep meaning while keeping a flippant air.

People have always had communication problems. In the Bible, this is what makes Able preferable to Cane. Able listens to what God desires, while his sinful brother does what he believes will be pleasing to God.

While on the surface Montaigne may seem to be talking about mere copy-editing, the deeper meaning is clear. We do not understand how to communicate with ourselves and each other in a way that improves the world.

There is a Greek concept of the Logos which carries into ancient Gnostic perceptions of the world. It is even influential in Abrahamic religions, as they are at themselves based around the notion of a single omnipotent knowing creator, and in some interpretations may even be referred to as the Logos.

The Logos as a divine concept is associated with the word, with knowledge. Our understanding of the world is the first step in our ability to change it. If you cannot comprehend something, you cannot work willfully with it.

There’s a deeper social level to this that needs to be explored. Much of our life is seen through the lens of other people. Even our perceptions of ourselves are influenced by how other people view us. If we cannot communicate, we cannot understand.

My Life

I am, of course, as an English teacher by trade inclined to see the value of good grammar. Communication, likewise, falls into my domain of specialty, even if I have not acquired such a mastery of it as I would like. What I find has been the greatest problem of my adult life is figuring out what my problems are and getting them to a point where I can communicate them.

Only once that first step has been completed have I found myself able to make changes that improve my life.

This has also been a key part in overcoming what I would describe as anxious tendencies within myself. I do not know if I suffer from them any more than the average person, but I frequently find myself in a place where worry overcomes the ability to act. Being hyper-conscious and continuously vigilant in identifying what I truly desire and what I truly suffer from has been key.

Being able to explain something, even if only to oneself, makes all the difference.

Resolution

Be able to speak about what I need to speak about.

Hold no deception toward myself.

Seek to understand the meaning.

Aphorism 29

To take upon oneself not punishment, but guilt–that alone would be godlike.

Friedrich Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

I believe that it is a fundamental part of human nature that leads us to avoid blame. There are strong social benefits to being blameless, and stark consequences for being in error.

However, being able to accept blame ties into the notion that I just discussed earlier of communicating clearly. Guilt is the consequence of the wrongness of an action. If sin is falling short of moral perfection, guilt is the consequence of that. Guilt is the fall that accompanies error.

If one managed to find what brings suffering, and remove the consequences, they would essentially undo entropy. This is likely impossible.

It is equally impossible to transfer guilt from one person to another. The act which causes harm is a product of moral agency.

To illustrate:

If I were to throw trash in the street, it would have a wide-ranging variety of negative consequences. It might harm the environment. It might start a downward spiral of disorder, with other people more likely to litter on account of my example. It harms property values, as no one wishes to live in a neighborhood full of trash. Each of these is likely a negligible impact from a single action, but by the time you add up many small consequences, the harm caused by even a small negligence may become quite profound.

If someone were following behind me, they could pick up my trash and throw it away. Assuming that they followed relatively close behind me, they might even be able to entirely prevent the consequences from taking effect. In a sense, the only consequence would be that someone had to pick up after me, which has a much less profound cost, we could hope. Obsessing over the butterfly effect is not a good use of time. However, if a police officer were to see me do this, they would not consider me less of a litterer because someone followed behind me cleaning up.

The person who cleaned up after me could remove my consequences, essentially taking the punishment (except that which society place is upon me on account of my guilt), but they cannot remove my moral agency in the situation.

My Life

I have never been a practicing Catholic. I spent a semester student teaching at a Catholic school, and it was an experience that interested me in religion beyond just my own personal practice. The Catholic Church talks about mysteries hidden within the example of Christ and other events portrayed in the Bible, something which my own Protestant upbringing did not ever mention.

The greatest mystery of them all, at least as I see it with my limited understanding of the Catholic mysteries, is how Christ managed to take responsibility for believers’ sins.

I believe that it is this which Nietzsche talks about.

As someone who works with children, I often find myself wishing that I could impart my own moral superiority upon them. This is not possible, which is probably for the best, since those who believe themselves possessed of moral superiority usually do not actually have such an advantage over others.

However, it pains me when I see people make the same mistakes that I made in my own ignorance.

If everyone could share with everyone else the heights of their virtues, the sum of their ability to improve the world and avoid sin, they would make the world a better place, perhaps even the dreamed-of utopia.

Resolution

Accept what I earn, good and bad.

Seek to do that which bears no guilt.

Remember that the goal of moral perfection is in the self, but that the benefit is for everyone.

Reflections on Aphorisms #17

Back to a more active schedule for at least a while. Two aphorisms on success today.

I’ve been traveling, and while doing so I’ve had a few moments to reflect and think about the world, and I hope that should breathe some fresh life into the reflections I’ve been writing.

Aphorism 24

The opposite of success isn’t failure; it is name-dropping.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Aphorisms like this illustrate why I love Taleb’s style enough to go through a whole book on his thoughts. Technically, I actually have gone through multiple books on his thoughts, not counting the rest of the Incerto.

That the opposite of success isn’t failure and that name-dropping is opposite of success are both separate points and they are ones that should be considered carefully.

The first point, perhaps the more important one, is that failure is not the opposite of success. This often sounds like a sort of motivational saying or an excuse made by a loser when their plans don’t work. However, there is something to be said for the art of the attempt. Michel de Montaigne, one of the first essayists, originally called his works assays, which translates into modern English as “attempt” and reflects the fact that Montaigne’s work did not attempt to answer everything, but instead to strive to answer.

This distinction is key. Even one of the greatest thinkers in human history was not so vain as to assume that he would come up with answers for everything (this humility may have contributed to his greatness) or, at the least, he wished to shield himself from appearing to be more wise than he was.

Montaigne also presents a great point to talk about the second Point here. He is, perhaps, one of those people to include the most references to Classic works in human history. I don’t believe that even TS Eliot rivals Montaigne’s work in terms of making references, and Eliot is notorious for requiring a comprehensive humanities education to read.

However there’s something about what we would consider name-dropping that Montaigne avoids. He never uses the work of others to fallaciously inflate his own credibility, and he never assumes other people should know who he is and give him credence based on his own name. This is the sort of name-dropping that Taleb considers the opposite of success. I almost wonder if a good comparison would be to talk about the Greek rhetoric of Ethos, and how it doesn’t necessarily work when one uses themselves or their buddies instead of a grander thing (i.e. tradition may actually be an acceptable reason to do something, but because I said so is not).

Reputation and respect is interesting as a social concept. I like to think of myself as having a decent reputation, something which I worked toward by making sure that no one can blame me for doing anything wrong. However, I always find it interesting how people are known for the things which they do in the fraction of their life. Put another way, people receive a reputation for what they do in public, but only a few people spend even a tiny fraction of their life in public.

Unless you work in certain industries, your reputation as a direct consequence of your acts is low. This doesn’t mean that it’s non-existent, but most people learn your reputation second hand. Really, reputation is a reflection of one’s social skills more than anything else, the ability to market one self to whoever their audiences determines one’s reputation directly.

Name dropping is sort of a last resort for reputation. It’s equivalent to bragging. There are injunctions in many religions and cultures against self-serving boasting. The reason for this, I believe, is that this sort of name dropping really helps nobody. It’s an attempt to exert unearned influence, what’s an economist would call rent-seeking but on a social level. If you have to remind others of your accomplishments and wow them with reports of your great deeds or companions, you haven’t really built a reputation for yourself.

The most selfish sentence in the English language may very well be “Do you know who I am?”

My life

I have had the great fortune of working with people both of humble background and those who were relatively well known, and one thing that has impressed me the most among those who I consider as virtuous is that you almost learn nothing of their past when you interact with them, even if their past is filled with great things. You would have to ask them about their accomplishments directly for them to come up in conversation, even if you are quite intimately familiar with them as people.

I think that what makes this so virtuous is the fact that they never rely on anything other than their present being as a source of virtue. Bragging about the past is all well and good for politicians, but in daily life few people can rely on what they did ten years ago as a source of their current enduring success.

Likewise, people who fail–sometimes even people who fail dramatically– often seem to make the best friends and companions. This is not a universal rule, and sometimes people who fail failed because of some moral flaw, but there’s a distinction between failure and not trying. If you can identify the people who don’t try (or are tragically misguided) and separate them from the people who do try, those people who try and fail are often as virtuous or more virtuous than successful people.

As for myself, I think there is a lesson to be learned in not trying to make others’ achievements my own, and also not trying to coast on my past achievements.

Resolution

Try even if I fail.

Hope is the first step on the road to failure, but failure may be a worthwhile destination.

Never make a mask to hide a flaw.

Aphorism 25

All rising to great place is by a winding stair.

Francis Bacon, quote taken from the Viking Book of Aphorisms.

Interpretation

Once again I find myself looking at a quote that I have a complicated relationship with. On face value, I agree with this quote. Deeper, below the surface, I think that there are parts of reality that this aphorism cannot reflect.

The Matthew Principle, named after a passage in the Bible, states that goes who already have will receive more and those that do not have will lose everything. This is shown in finance when people who have money continue to receive more money, via investment or other means, are those who do not are forced into undesirable circumstances because they cannot take advantage of some of the opportunities that are available to others.

From this perspective, it’s hard to climb. When you make mistakes you push yourself down, and the cycle is a vicious one. Start low, you are more likely than not to end low, at least in certain ways (especially the financial).

However, since the operative verb in this aphorism is rising, not being, I don’t think Francis Bacon is entirely ignorant of the notion that one may need to account for the fact that some people start with more of an advantage than others.

I think it’s also worth noting that there is an element of cultivation in success. If you start with every advantage, waste your competitive edge, and end where you first found yourself, you are not successful even if you lead a life of comfort and leisure (unless you find other value along the way, like in family, spirituality, or philanthropy).

I do agree that becoming successful is an arduous task. Some people may be more naturally inclined to this than others, after all, just as a spiral staircase may be more or less tolerable for certain individuals, the rigors of life weigh differently on different people based on circumstance or aptitude.

Any view of the world needs to consider the fact that improvement requires change, change requires chaos, and chaos carries with it risk. To make a change is to confront the universe as it exists. This doesn’t have to be difficult, but it is unpredictable.

In this sense the winding staircase of the metaphor reflects both the trial and effort, but also an ascension to a new and unknown place. This is a process that carries with it innate risk.

It is only the bold who forge their own strength.

My life

I have been fortunate enough to start from a place of success there are times in my childhood that I recall being unhappy, but none that I would describe as tragic.

The consequence of this is that for much of my early life I faced little difficulty. I recalled being somewhat ostracized as a youth, but never too far from the norm. I was never popular, and there were times when I would have described myself as having few or no friends, sometimes more out to ingratitude then a realistic conception of affairs, but I had the good fortune to be academically successful due to my parents’ intervention in my early education and the benefits of a middle-class lifestyle.

There are elements of my personality which also assisted me. Though I was too shy to benefit overly from my own personal social networking, something which I have been working on in my recent years, I was endlessly inquisitive. Sometimes, this led me to accidentally form connections to my teachers and fellow pupils, since I would seek knowledge so vociferously.

In addition, I discovered the merits of reading at early age. As someone who would go on to be a writer, this was a great benefit to me. It also helped prepare me emotionally for later on when my youth would become less Pleasant.

However, it is only in the past few years that I have really begun to appreciate what it takes to be successful.

One of my greatest goals as a teacher was trying to teach my students how to be successful.

I only would later learn how tremendously difficult this was. It is also deceptively simple. What I found is that well success never comes freely, it can be found in places that are unassuming. That is to say, when people talk about success they often have this image that success as a sort of holistic thing: if you are successful, you will achieve every possible virtue known to man.

This is a fallacy. I was fortunate enough to have met a clergyman at a church in Arkansas when I was entering the years of adulthood (almost a decade ago, now). Having had a privileged youth, I was escaping my luxury on a short-term mission trip, the sort of endeavor which seeks to provide sheltered children with a more well-rounded view of the universe.

Although this person, who was the lead pastor of one of the largest churches in Little Rock, was tremendously busy he still made sure to have day-to-day interaction with even the humblest church activities. On one day of the trip, I had been asked to help clean the church cafeteria, where our group was dining, which doubled as a sort of soup kitchen. The quality of food that it provided to the needy is not served well by that description, but a better way to describe it escapes my abilities.

While I was cleaning, it turned out that the floors required mopping. As someone who had lived a life of privilege, I had never been familiar with how a mop actually works (that we did not have one at home when I was growing up contributed to this as well, since it apparently is not considered a household necessity in Arizona to mop one’s floors). Despite the fact that he doubtlessly had more important work to do, on account of his large congregation and the endless needs of the local area, the pastor stopped to teach me how to use a mop.

To this day, I have never seen a better example of Christian service embodied in a person. I like to think that actions like those of Brother Paul make up the steps which lead to the peak of success. I do not know how he felt in the moment of instructing me, but I doubt that he could have an insight as to how it would go on to shape my understanding of what it means to be successful.

Resolution

Find the steps which lead up.

If you are going in the right direction, do not hesitate.

There is no action too humble to be meaningful.

Aphorism 26

A wise man knows everything; a shrewd one, everybody.

Anonymous, from the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

This is a more light-hearted aphorism than some of the others that I’ve been looking at recently. It is also one which stresses something important.

At the very least, I associate it with a sort of tongue-in-cheek rebuttal to some point or another. Whether this is true to its original purpose or not, it is the way that I choose to read it.

Tolstoy argues at the beginning of Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike, but unhappy families find their own paths to their own ruin.

I think that this may be in reverse. There is one universal path to misery (it is merely a very wide path), but there are many paths to happiness and success. They fall under a common umbrella of virtues, so we cannot honestly believe the false corollary that the ignorant may draw when they say that there are unlimited paths to happiness.

However, inasmuch as there are multiple virtues which can be instilled which lead one in the direction of success, each path that builds virtue will itself lead towards success. Of course it’s good to be wise. Though shrewdness does not necessarily have the same universal positive connotation that wisdom possesses, most people would agree that it is probably good to be shrewd as well, if one uses the power that comes with it for good rather than evil.

It is the pursuit of any virtue which leads one toward the pursuit all virtues and eventually to at least a degree of success. To master one virtue is impossible if one still holds sin dear in their heart, so moving toward complete sanctification is the only way to achieve any virtue worth mentioning (except that which comes from a desire for face).

It is the failure to pursue virtue which leads to a lack of success. I do not necessarily mean worldly success, there may be virtuous people who are mired in poverty, ignorance, and tragedy. However, I would much rather die poor but noble of heart than rich and dissolute in spirit.

I have seen enough of the world to know that the people who do not sow virtue in their lives meet with ends that they would not choose.

To get back to the original aphorism, and leave my tangent behind, there’s something about knowing people which affects our perception of reality.

If there is an element of value in making connections in the strictly commercial sense, there is at least an equivalent value in how it changes the way we think. If you spend much time with someone who you find at least tolerable, you may be surprised by how quickly they change your behavior. At the very least, one may adopt mannerisms of their companions, getting a sort of dialect that matches the style of those they choose to associate with.

It is also possible that one may acquire habits based on others’ actions or behaviors. An example of this would be the much-beleaguered school teacher who finds himself shushing personal companions when they interrupt him. If questioned, I will insist that I do not know this from personal experience, and that I have never shushed friends at evening gatherings when I felt it was my turn to speak. I may be lying through my teeth as I do this, but despite my deliberate efforts I have never achieved what might be called true honesty.

There is an osmosis of ideas that occurs when multiple people are around each other and they have conversations. Although much of modern professional life involves hiding religion, politics, and a handful of other things which I am too polite to describe here, even in passing, it is inevitable that people will push the boundaries between idle chat, communication required for business, and the expression of belief.

My life

One of those things that I’ve noticed as I have grown older is that in my youth, I often sought what could be described as platonic ideals. I wouldn’t have used this term for it because I was not familiar with the work of Plato, but there was something about the way I viewed the world which was overly concrete.

It was for this reason that I think I had much difficulty connecting with other people as a child. I could not appreciate the nuance and blended nature of personal life. It is sort of like the school child who finds himself confused when he witnesses one of his teachers shopping at the grocery store. Although many adult strangers are around him, he does not consider the fact that those people that he knows and has associated with a particular role may actually wear more than one hat.

In this sense, I never really knew people as a youth. I would often become hung up over a particular Association that I had with someone, and assume that the relationship to me was the defining factor of their life. I believe Piaget explained this as part of natural biological development. I find unusual that I can remember such times, since I would think that such a large deviation in the cognitive function of an individual would cause them to have difficulty meaningfully recalling very different memories, just as one who has lost a language through this use may find that they have difficulty recalling it. However, as a literature teacher, now recovering during a brief stint away from the industry, we do categorize characters in a way that encourages this sort of thinking.

As someone who is very book learned, but not tremendously Street Smart, a statement like this runs a sort of a reminder of what I have missed. I’m quite introverted. People would point out that I often write thousands of words about my personal life on an almost daily basis as if that could disqualify this statement about myself, but liking to hear oneself talk is a very distinct concept from being comfortable listening to and trying to figure out one’s relationship with other people.

In any case, as I have said before, I do not delude myself in thinking that there is great value in my writing, or at least not in most of it. I read an essay on writing by Ian Fleming, writer of the James Bond series of books, in which he points out that he is not an author. He writes frequently, holds himself to a particular standard of quality, and tries to deliver things that other people want to read. I settle for the first two. That I post so much of my work publicly stems from a need for accountability, not a delusion about its marketability.

Resolution

Meet new people.

Let my experiences with other people change the way I feel and think.

Books cannot replace interaction.

Reflections on Aphorisms #16

Tomorrow I’m going to get back into doing multiple aphorisms per day. Until then, this is the last single aphorism reflection for a while.

Aphorism 23

So long as men praise you, you can only be sure that you are not yet on your own true path but on someone else’s.

Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

One of the things that keeps drawing me to Nietzsche is that he manages to make good on what Rousseau claims to do in his Confessions. Nietzsche may not always be right, and probably is not always even good, but at the very least he is interesting.

Nietzsche is a firm believer in the individual, and while he his work is often corrupted for the purpose of collectivists, he believes heavily in the purpose of finding one’s own destiny. It is this that the psychoanalyst Carl Jung would take from his teachings and apply to his concepts of the self.

I disagree with Nietzsche in general, but not in particular. Receiving praise may actually mean that one is a visionary, pursuing one’s path does not necessarily result in any ostracism. Of course, he is correct in a sense. Sometimes pursuing goodness and purpose, particularly in the realm of morality, does come with social rejection. This is especially true in a corrupt society.

The fact that Nietzsche believes this way may come from two points:

  1. That he was frequently misinterpreted, and
  2. That he didn’t manage to make many friends on account of his willingness to make bold statements.

One of the things that sent out to me from this is a counterpoint from the Bible. In Galatians, there is a statement about the “fruit of the Spirit” found in believers’ lives.

In a secular sense we might call these the virtues that come from good living and philosophical examination, though they are presented strictly as religious goals.

The fruit of the Spirit consists of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

The writer of Galatians then states: “Against these things there is no law.”

Now I believe that verse itself could be subject to interpretation, in that it is ambiguous as to whether there is no law which bans those virtues, or whether any law that decides to ban those virtues is itself not lawful. Personally, I lean to the former interpretation.

In the sense that virtues and social praise coincide, it is actually possible to walk the path of virtue, be oneself, and be praised for doing so.

It is simply that most people are not willing to elevate themselves to virtue because it comes at other personal prices.

I haven’t posted anything about music in a while, so I’ll bring up Project 86’s song “My Will be a Dead Man” which talks about the conflict between desire and moral life, in lieu of wasting too much of the reader’s time on the particular prices that come with virtue.

My Life

Part of the reason that I disagree with Nietzsche is because I do not feel that this assertion that he makes is backed up in my own life. Other than some people who have questioned my judgment in minor decisions, I do not generally find that people judge me when I make decisions that I find to be the best. As such, I have walked my own way, and others seem to approve. Now, I am open to the idea that I may be incorrect, and that I will need to change this opinion at some point, but until some tremendous evidence comes, I am comfortable in contradicting Nietzsche.

I do think, in some ways, that it is correct in part. When I left my teaching position to return to school, something which I feel an intense personal draw to do, several people expressed consternation. However, I do not think so much that this was disapproval of me as an expression of my importance and influence in their lives.

One thing that I think confuses people is that we draw too much association between what we consider good and bad events in our lives. It is the tendency to focus on the immediate consequences rather than the more nuanced effects of any action which leaves us with problems determining what we really believe and want.

This confusion is the root of many ills.

Resolution

Make mistakes costly, then avoid making them.

If what you do attracts attention, it is probably significant.

When you make a decision, pay attention to how others respond. It is not necessarily how they respond, but that they respond, which you should observe carefully.

Reflections on Aphorisms #15

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 22

The person you are the most afraid to contradict is yourself.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

Our relationship with ourselves is odd. We clearly generally view ourselves by default as the most important person in the universe but we are also willing to sacrifice much of ourselves sometimes for things which we find of little meaning for us, which we consider tragic, and sometimes for things we find to hold more meaning that ourselves, which is heroic.

There is an expression, which I hate, which says to “be true to yourself” in a sort of pithy fake intellectual want-to-be-wise meaningless statement.

The worst part of this is that it is not far from the truth. It merely just presented in the way which manages to be antithetical. What people say be true to yourself, they typically mean do what you want. However, our short-term minds often fail to match our long-term persona. It leads us to a point where we leave ourselves with no option but to violate our convictions because small decisions that we make on impulse violate the underlying code.

This does not mean that we are blind to the Sword of Damocles which we hang above our own bed. We are fully aware when we say to find ourselves, that we can make decisions which lead us astray. We simply prefer platitude to conviction.

When I was in college, I took a course called “The Human Event” as part of an honors curriculum. It was divided into two parts, a general first semester Symposium followed by a more specific second semester, in which I chose to focus on the humanities. It was in the second semester, with a tremendous professor, that learn to appreciate you manatees capability for self destruct. It is not that we do not know what we want, that we do not know why we want it and how best to achieve it. This is what many elite thinkers fail to realize.

People are not generally wrong about what they want, and they are not generally choosing things which go against their own interest. It is merely that their interests are complicated.

People make decisions which seem irrational because they have more than one decision to make and their choices rely on multiple factors. They merely choose the option which best fits the various conflicting elements of their psyche and their existence.

My Life

As someone who has recently left a job that I love, not in the petty manner of love of gaining immediate pleasure from but rather in the deeper meaning of having value to my very core of my existence, I found that even though the path which I am currently on is one which promises great potential and great opportunity, being what we might call a real life example of the Hero’s Journey, it is still incredibly painful to leave behind something which has formed such a large part of my identity, something which I truly found meaning within.

As such, I feel acutely attuned to this saying. It reflects the pain that I feel, the pain which is good to feel, the pain of being forced to choose between one good and another.

If it were a choice between one thing with no meaning, and one with meaning, there would be no pain. However, it is when one has to choose between two equal goods that decisions become truly difficult. It is a difficulty which I wish to experience with consistency for the rest of my life.

Resolution

Be in a place where every big decision requires meaningful sacrifice.

Metaphorically speaking, do not worry about what I am eating for breakfast.

Embrace what is difficult when it also bears purpose.

Reflections on Aphorisms #14

Going to do a series of shorter reflections on aphorisms for a while so that I can focus on other writing, once I get back into a schedule I’ll be doing more. Until mid-week next week I’m going to be doing just one a day, and then perhaps even a tad longer than that.

Aphorism 21

It takes less time to learn how to write nobly than how to write lightly and straightforwardly.

Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Nietzsche has interesting thoughts on writing. I’m actually surprised to see how profound they are, not because I disparage Nietzsche, but because they are sublime.

Writers are often focused on appearances. When people focus on appearances they do not always consider fundamentals. One of my observations is that students often use thesauruses when they write in ways that do not improve their writing one iota. This is because they pursue writing has something to impress others with.

What I have discovered as a writer, especially one who is currently planning to write multiple books more or less simultaneously, is that it is not the writing itself that matters. That is not actually correct, but it is a simplified version of the truth.

The good writer doesn’t without their writing. They do not sweat individual pieces of punctuation they do not obsess before anything in there text or at least, if they do, it is not their highest priority. The highest priority is to convey information that is worth knowing.

If there is one thing that I could teach students who want to learn how to write well, it is that they must focus on what needs to be said. Nothing else matters.

We teach formulaic writing in this day and age. There’s nothing wrong with this, I even recommend it. However, when you teach writing in that way, the formula is merely to free students from worrying about the adiaphora, to remove their concerns about what they have to do so that they can do what they have to do.

We assign praise to those who present the greatest prose, but we should praise those to present the best ideas.

My Life

I have written over a million words in my life. This is the verifiable count. Since I tend to squirrel of my lots of little writings on various projects, organization is not my strong suit, and I do not care to waste too much time on metrics, I do not know how much I have actually written. It seems likely that I may have actually written more than 3 million words in my life, but I do not want to making erroneously exaggerated claim, as much rather stick to the known and conservative estimates.

I have found it I am happiest writing when I feel comfortable with this subject and I do not feel the need to describe what I am talking about. It’s not that I don’t like giving definitions and descriptions, but rather that what I have found to be most authentic is the writing which a reader will get without me needing to explain it.

I am guilty of the high and lofty school of writing. When I was in high school, I wrote an essay for a teacher in AP English class. one of the pieces of feedback that I received in the margin was a simple question: “When does this sentence end?”

I was proud of myself for writing a sentence that had lasted for more than a quarter of a page without encountering any grammatical difficulties. As an exercise in writing it was impressive. It was also foolish. There was no benefit to the reader from my having written such verbose sentences. Indeed, I don’t know that that sentence despite its length actually delivered any meaning beyond what a simple short sentence could provide.

I had forgotten that the best points are made in simple statements. It is natural that more complex concepts require more complex writing, but over-complicating writing does not make the point any more sophisticated. Simple statements for simple ideas. Long statements for complex ideas. This is natural.

However, the real master can convey the complex idea with a simple statement.

Resolution

Write with purpose.

Don’t bury my point beneath wasted words.

Think of goal before thinking of means.