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.

Visiting San Francisco: Stow Lake

Last week I visited the Bay Area. I have family that lives out there, and I try to visit every year or two. I figured that since I am writing more on this personal blog I may as well include some Recollections from my travels. There isn’t a whole lot in the Bay Area that I feel the need to write about; there are quite a few fun things, but not all of them necessarily Merit writing.

I figured I’d start today with what I consider to be my favorite part of the journey, Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park.

Continue reading “Visiting San Francisco: Stow Lake”

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.

Reflections on Aphorisms #13

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 20

“I believe the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.”

Dostoevsky, quoted in The Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

Dostoevsky is probably one of my favorite writers. Carl Jung trash talked the writers of philosophical novels in his book Modern Man In Search of a Soul (Amazon affiliate link), arguing that they explained too much. On the contrary, I believe that philosophical novelists like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy represent valuable insights to how we feel about ourselves.

Human ingratitude is a common idea. We are limited in many ways by an inability to appreciate. Some of this is only natural. Gratitude must be learned. My experience working with children has taught me this. There is also the fact that what we consider to be good for us is not always good for us, and that what is considered to be harmful may actually be quite beneficial. We make for ourselves images of our own reality.

The problem is that we are idolators. We never truly consider what we need instead worship what seems to bring a satisfaction. Most of the time this is sufficient. After all, satisfaction often is tied to something good, at least in a first-order effect. If we eat we will no longer be hungry. However, the world is not simple.

The exact point at which our ability to appreciate breaks down may very well be unique to each individual some people besides themselves bemoaning the consequences of something they once believed to be good, feeling deceived and tricked by reality itself. Others, incapable of appreciating the immediate effect, never pay attention to what they have. The truth, painful as it is, is the I have seen very few people who are truly happy in every sense of the word. I believe this to tie directly to the problem at hand.

My life

I have learned as an adult to be that much more thankful for what I have. I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid the worst deprivations known to people but also I have learned to see what I have rather than what I do not have.

This does not mean I never want anything, and I can’t claim to be a savvy consumer who never wastes money on things that wind up being unfulfilling, but it does mean that what I want does not feel like a necessity.

There was a time when entitlement was a buzzword. It may still be, I simply do not expose myself to so much foolishness as I did in my youth. I think that’s a great antidote believing that the Universe owes you something is to remember what you’ve might not have. I am a fan of the stoics. Sometimes I find myself to be a better member of their company than others, but key lesson that I have is that you are responsible for how you feel much of modern martyrdom is elective. There is no rule or oppression that holds most of us down. It is only ourselves.

Resolution

Appreciate what I have.

Do not envy.

Tear down idols in my life.

Reflections on Aphorisms #12

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 19

At any stage, humans can thirst for money, knowledge, or love; sometimes for two, never for three.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

The notion that one has to choose priorities is not new. I believe there’s a saying in the Bible that one cannot love both God and money. At very least, it is attributed to the Bible.

I don’t know if it’s necessarily Fair to make so absolute statements about human motivation. One thing that I is that there tends to be almost archetypal layers of being that drive station. This is to say that people have stages of their life in which the desire certain things, and these are not necessarily easily categorized by simply describing them as, say, wealth or family.

However one thing that I have observed, and which seems brilliantly clear, is that people are poor judges of themselves. Shakespeare’s Brutus, in the play “Julius Caesar”, says about himself that the eye sees not its own reflection. This is a metaphor that Brutus uses to explain that he does not pass judgment on himself, or rather, does not allow himself to make judgments as to his own virtue, because it is not something which is easily knowable. It would seem natural the person that we know best is our self, but in reality we tend only to see the first order effects of our actions. It is those around us see who we truly are because they have to deal with the consequences we create.

To get back to the original point, there’s something to be said for the pursuit of the Balanced Life, but it is also something which is unnatural. It is a common tragic trope that a character cannot deal with all the parts of their life that they need to deal with. Because we go through immense changes over the course of Our Lives, the inability to truly assess our own motives and to accurately prioritize many factors of our being poses a great threat to us. This is one of the reasons why the suffering of a tragic hero is so cathartic.

My Life

I often used Carol Pearson’s psychological archetypes (Amazon affiliate link) to teach the Hero’s Journey to my students. The reason for this is that represents transition through a hierarchy of needs.

In my life right now, I am focusing on pursuing knowledge, figuring out more the truths of reality while also mastering my trade of writing and teaching.

One thing that’s interesting about Pearson’s archetypes is that she presents the notion that a highly successful person achieves balance, but each archetype has a sort of order in which they come.

The ideal is to transcend the limitations that come with uncertainty. In the works of Jung and other analytical psychologists, there’s often this concept of a balance between order and chaos.

In my own life, I seek to find the balance between these things. Having too much order breeds limitation. One never learns how to truly live if one only follows rules. Too much chaos, one and can never really pursue purpose. It is lost inside the void.

Pearson presents the Sage and the Fool as the final archetypes in development. We would associate these with wisdom. The Sage pursues the right order of the universe, and the Fool its potential.

When I was a child I was referred to as old for my age. Some people even called me wise, though I believe this was perhaps more because I parroted what they wanted to hear than because of any particular merit of my own upon later reflection. In any case, I value wisdom highly, something that has been impressed upon me since I was a child reading the Bible story of King Solomon.

To get back to the point, I think that there is a distinction between setting a goal, which can be clearly focused on something like wealth or family, and finding meaning, which is more holistic in nature.

Resolution

Work towards clear goals.

Reorient frequently enough that I do not lose sight of what is important.

Go beyond what is comfortable.

Reflections on Aphorisms #11

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 18

You know you have influence when people start noticing your absence more than the presence of others.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

This quote stuck out to me. Part of having influence is not necessarily this Machiavellian notion of control, but rather making yourself useful or interesting. The result of that is that there is an incentive to help others. Influence isn’t necessarily about being on top, but it’s about being part of life.

One of the things that I’ve noticed, when I worked with kids, is that outside of a strict social hierarchy whether or not someone is important tends to come down to whether or not they provide something to other people. As someone who considers himself a fan of capitalism, this is not that different from my approach to business. The act of changing things makes you influential. From there, you can decide whether you want to be positive in your influence or negative, if you are clever enough and wise enough to choose to do so.

It’s worth noting that tell that doesn’t necessarily say whether it is good or bad to be influential. Sometimes you want to be the quiet unnoticed person, though I think this is rarer than some people would suggest.

Part of the challenge that comes with influence is the responsibility it carries. Choosing to be quiet and unnoticed can often be a self-deceptive escape from responsibility. At the very least, he can be a waste of potential.

In this context, it is almost always better to be influential than not.

My life

In my own personal life, I found it beneficial to always be doing small favors for people. This started because I am too polite to say no when met with a reasonable request, but not only do I find it enjoyable, but has the added side effect of making people generally like me or at least pretend to like me so they continue to do favors for them. In any case I do not obsess over the issue because pretending to like someone and liking them have very similar effects.

I have also found that the inverse corollary of this is important. If you don’t have an impact on someone and you are not influential, it creates a situation that most people would prefer not find themselves in. I think this often with students I’ve had. Children are surprisingly honest, though not necessarily by choice. When someone who is not influential is absent, children will mention but they did not even notice the absence.

One of the important psychological needs is the need to feel significant. This is often made too much of, but there is some truth to it. I often wonder if the people who my pupils would not notice missing realize this. Generally they tend not to be the happiest of their group, whether teachers or students themselves.

Resolution

Behave in a way that is meaningful to others.

Identify needs and meet them.

Do today what will be felt tomorrow.