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.

Extra: The Importance of Earnest Questions

I don’t spend as much time on Stack Exchange as I used to, but I used to frequent the sites, and one thing that I noticed very quickly was the amount of loaded questions being thrown around. Questions like “My friend said this, but I think it’s this. I’m right, right?” came up more often than one would hope. Disregarding the fact that this directly undermines Stack Exchange’s purpose, it’s also plain dumb, since instead of hearing the actual answers presented by the majority of posters, they accept whoever purports their position first as the “proper answer”, regardless of the facts. Continue reading “Extra: The Importance of Earnest Questions”