Taking a brief break from La Rochefoucauld today for a little variation in perspective. Don’t worry, I’ll go back to his Maximes. I just like to keep a fresh perspective on things instead of getting too heavily focused on a single writer’s work.
To ask for advice is in nine cases out of ten to tout for flattery.
John Churton Collins
I have a really hard time with this. Because of past traumatic experiences as well as my own tendency to want to be successful, I crave validation for everything I do.
It’s a problem in many cases because not only do I wind up becoming reliant on this validation I also find it a little distasteful. First, one should always be honest in their dealings with others, and fishing for praise is possible in a tasteful way. It’s not hard to just ask what people think, and they’ll give you an honest answer. To ask for help when you don’t desire any is just a waste of everyone’s time.
We’re social creatures, and it makes sense that we want to look good. There’s an added element of flattery in asking someone for advice. It shows that there is enough respect in the relationship that the opinion of the advisor is valued above the asker’s.
However, when this falls flat the opposite effect is had: the person who has been asked for advice instead realizes that they are being used for emotional gain. Even if there weren’t a slightly scummy immorality to the process, it would still be a practice that risks consequences for the flatterer.
One good antidote to this is to surround yourself with people you respect and humble yourself to the point that you are willing to do whatever they suggest. I try to do this; if I am taken by a momentary desire to flaunt stuff for appearance’s sake, at least I can redeem it by actually using the feedback I get. I also try not to judge other people when I look at their work unless they have asked me to do so.
I feel that I should take a moment out of this to quickly praise my brother, who has faithfully helped me edit some work and whose feedback I highly value, even though there were a few times when I was definitely just trying to show off writer chops.
Of course, there’s an extra element of risk here for those who work in the creative fields. I’m sure there are accountants who like to get approval for their wonderful spreadsheets (disclosure: I’m not actually sure what accountants do, though I appreciate their work), but those of us who are in the business of creating things wind up at even greater risk of wanting to preen and show off.
For most of us, people like me who freelance, it’s a matter of survival. If people don’t like my work I don’t keep working and my creative endeavors are over. I plan on returning to teaching, but I would like to do so after I get an advanced degree, not because the money ran out.
If someone is truly successful, though, there’s also a cocky attitude that can come up. There’s a thrill in knowing that you’re good at something; I’m a good writer, for instance, in the sense that I do it comfortably and almost professionally. There’s an even greater thrill in knowing that you excel at something. If you are recognized as one of the best, the temptation to shed humility grows even more insidious.
Forced myself to write a little more today to make up for some previous short entries. I’ve now been doing this for basically a month straight, and it’s been really good. I think it’s helped me find my compass a little better than I had been.
In a conflict, the middle ground is least likely to be correct.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the Bed of Procrustes
We falsely praise compromise as a virtue because we associate it with the ability to change one’s mind when better evidence is presented. This doesn’t necessarily mean that compromise is worthless, but I think people don’t understand what a good “compromise” really is.
It is difficult to actually realize an improvement by moderating one’s values. It is much easier to achieve such a thing by remaining true, but being realistic. To permit one’s values to be breached, even in part, will only lead to resentment.
Settling for a compromise only leads to two unhappy parties, rather than one.
Compromise leads to a decreased ability to adapt.
Instead of accepting the fact that one’s values may not actually improve the world, and that they should be reconsidered, instead the half measures are blamed rather than a flaw in their foundation. We can see this in basically every political issue in modern American politics. The compromise only creates a further point of contention, and both sides claim the success of their views and the failure of the other’s.
The solution to this is to concede rather than to compromise. Of course, one should never sacrifice one’s highest values lightly, but it may be better to have a short-term defeat then a long-term compromise that adds up to be equally bad. Don’t take a half-measure if the half-measure is not substantially better than having nothing.
It’s also worth noting that I’m not calling for extremism. Go only to the point at which desired effects are achieved, not further. Going too far for the sake of avoiding compromise is not any better than compromise.
Rather, one should fight vociferously to achieve their goals until those goals are achieved.
One should also think carefully before forcing others into a compromise that will breed resentment. This is a great way to amplify every ill, and should be avoided.
Identify what would satisfy.
Eat until you are no longer hungry, but do not continue past that point.
Never sacrifice a value for expedience.
For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.
Goethe, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms
I value humility highly. I believe that being humble is a great way to guard against being wicked.
I do not think that Goethe (especially the Goethe of his later life) disagrees with this. However, being humble in and of itself is not necessarily a goal.
There are those who assert that the biblical injunction to be meek is more properly rendered as being able to use power, keeping it restrained. It is not a virtue to be harmless if one has no other choice.
So it is that being humble means recognizing one’s potential and capacities but not fooling oneself into believing that one is living up to their potential. Otherwise, it is just a lack of confidence.
I think that this is what Goethe is referring to when he says that someone must regard himself is greater than he is to achieve what is demanded of him. He must see that he has what we would call a heroic potential, I must be willing to struggle to bring that into being.
In my own life, I have been struck by the need do this. As someone who would happily think of himself as ordinary, I need to keep in mind that my potential is incredible and constantly move it forward. If you had told me ten years ago that I would be where I am today, I don’t think I would have believed you. At the same time, it was the striving that I did five and ten years ago that has gotten me where I am. Where I will be in five years is a direct result of what I do today.
It is necessary to blend many ideas of the self together. The past self, weaker and less experienced but also with more potential, the future self, who will reap the rewards of today’s labor, the current self, who must act in accordance with both the past and the future, and the hero, who represents the fusion of all three into one personage, must act as one.
This is a tremendous force, and it requires faith and will to bring it to bear.
Bring myself into balance with my past and my future.
Do those things which fall into the domain of the hero.
Live as if I could one day command millions.
No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.
Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms
People have a problematic relationship with the truth. Even those with the best intentions often have difficulty figuring out what it is, and emotions can complicate things. We generally consider sticking to the truth as a moral good, but it is a good which we are oft-tempted to subordinate to other purposes.
The most natural thing in the world is to defend self. Even someone who holds themselves in low esteem still grates at the offenses of anyone else.
We like to defend ourselves against criticism, even if it is deserved. In this ironic fashion, we impede our own growth.
I find out that I work as a freelance or independent game designer my first response to any criticism of something I have done is to come up with five thousand justifications as to why it is the best thing to do. Many of these justifications will be things that only occur to me once it was time to defend my work. While this is not such a grievous falsification, it shows this general mood well, and it also lets me to see if myself into thinking that I am better than I am.
A more honest response would be to internalize the sort of polite response that one gives a well meaning critic. To accept others’ feedback, and then immediately compare it to your own original motives, is to listen to what has been said. Otherwise, you get defensive and then you lie.
It is also worth noting that takes cultivated personal virtue to ward off other indignity without resorting to deception. Too often, we see people whose first response to criticism is to slander someone else. This shows weak character, and not much of a mind. This sounds harsh, but I will admit that I am of this tendency myself. I simply rarely get a chance to use it.
To remain honest under pressure is a sign of integrity, the ability to always act in accordance with one’s guiding values. Acquiring this integrity provides one with a bulwark against making expedient but destructive choices.
I’ve been listening to Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton: A Memoir (Amazon affiliate link), in which he recounts his time living under a fatwa from Ayatollah Khomeini. One of the things that I find interesting is that he is able to discern how his critics are responding emotionally and falsely accusing him because he has disturbed their quietude, not because he has actually done the things that he is accused of (whether or not he had).
Act with honesty, even in the face of shame.
Don’t attack others because I have been hurt.
Never assume that I will be virtuous.
Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.
Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms
This ties in, to a degree, with the subject of our previous aphorism. There is the potential for a great deal of self-contradiction in the human mind. One of the most powerful forces that can lead to this error is belief. As such, it is important to always examine whether a belief is being held in line with truth.
This is a difficult thing to do, as it requires earnest discussion with those who disagree with you. This makes it unpalatable to most people. It is much easier to pretend to debate, or to debate those who are in agreement with the conclusion you have already reached, than it is to enter at your own risk. It requires a respect for the person you are talking with which exceeds the strength of your own stubbornness.
I find that when I believe something I have a hard time rationally assessing the surrounding details. This isn’t a novel phenomenon, but it is something that is pretty common. There’s a really low-level breakdown of it in more detail than I care to go into here:
There are various reasons that people give for this tendency: an evolutionary biology perspective that says that you will believe what you believe in light of conflicting evidence because it is better to remain with your in-group, traditional abstract vices like hubris, psychoanalytical concepts like the ego and superego.
However, the truth is this:
Everyone is willing to die for their beliefs, they just might not realize that they’re the ones killing themselves.
This is why all major religions have a large tradition of faithful doubters; people who challenge the assertions of the faith but do not leave it. They’re necessary for the health of any large group. I’m fairly orthodox in my perspective, but I see the merit of constant questioning in all things.
Build my convictions on solid ground. Test the ground first.
Pay attention to emotion. It can be easily overlooked.