Aphorism Reflections #27

Had something of a long/short day between church and then having a D&D game with some new players in the afternoon. I spent longer than I should checking out E3 stuff, so I’m just kind of a mess.

Aphorism 45

General principle: the solutions (on balance) need to be simpler than the problems.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

I have become convinced that simplicity is a virtue.

One of the reasons for this is that there is a relationship between the lack of simplicity and the presence of hubris. As such, it could be said that simplicity is not necessarily a virtue, but rather is a sign of virtue.

From a strictly practical perspective, simplicity is better than people give it credit for. We have a tendency towards action, but there are times our instincts hurt us more than they help us. For all the strengths one can attribute to gut feelings, one need also remember that things have changed a lot in the past thousand years, and the world we live in is primarily cultivated rather than natural.

Over-complication is actually the instinctual thing for humanity. Knowledge is generally better than ignorance, but when knowledge is not available sometimes your guess works just as well. If we are smart and remember that we are uncertain, our antidote to that is to make things more complicated than they need to be, because we actually deal with finding solutions to a number of guesses, rather than one accurate prediction.

If taken to its final extent, this leads to the moral flaw of hubris and to believing that every possible problem has been solved. Another problem here is that what one considers to be only partially certain may be taken as another to be a statement of absolute faith as it is communicated from person to person. Given enough time to stew, a misjudgment can grow into a more toxic thing than it originally was. Misconception grows while the correct parts of any observation may not be passed down.

From a practical viewpoint, it also stands to reason that solutions must be simple. Being able to actually execute a plan is as important as considering a plan. The more complicated something is, the more likely it is that the plan will fail to be executed properly, and that unforeseen factors will arise inhibit its success.

Difficulties in communication become exponential quickly, as do the possibilities that misplaced assumptions will interfere with plans. The failure in any part of a large mechanism can bring it to a halt. The best solution to this, given the tendency of the universe, is simply not to plan on anything dependent on factors that have too many unknowns.

My Life

I am a game designer, and I have found that anyone with the term designer in their job title, with the exception of the visual arts (and then not always), tends to over-complicate things while missing the big picture. This is true of anyone who works in planning as well. When you work with ideas, it’s tempting to be complicated because that’s how you justify being better than anyone else. If you can’t show that you’ve been working, how do you prove that your work is meaningful?

I am by profession an educator, and if you want an example of over-complication you need look no further than the education system. Some days I’m not even sure that anyone in the education system has a clear idea of the problem they’re trying to solve, myself included.

Of course, this would require a venture into philosophy.

However, if we start with the basic premise of education as being that people are ignorant about the world and need to be given the tools to become less ignorant, it is hard to see how the modern education system simplifies that problem in any way.

If we wanted to be more critical, we could ask if education even answers the problem. Note that I say answer instead of solve, and that’s deliberate. The chance that any attempt is successful is probably pretty low, but there’s always room for improving so that at least instead of an abject failure we have a partial one.

I find that I am susceptible to over-complicating my daily life. There is only one thing that protects me from this trend taking over entirely, which is that I am averse to anything which seems wearisome and burdening. As a result, only the simple can survive for long.

Resolution

Make a goal. Achieve a goal.

If you cannot say it in few words, do not express it solely in many words.

Do nothing out of hubris.

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 #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 #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.

Living in History

Life does not exist in a vacuum. Every living organism is the product of complex chemical and biological mechanisms that we are just beginning to truly understand.

Minds, likewise, do not exist in a vacuum. Our days do not unfold in a vacuum: they are not sequences of events disconnected and disengaged from each other.

Yet we live, for the most part, like our actions do not connect to reality. We pretend that the events that unfold around us are something that we have no control over.

We pretend that we have no history and no past, because it lets us shape our future according to our whims and our fantasies.

Continue reading “Living in History”