Reflections on Aphorisms #41

Sunday’s a day of rest, so this will be shorter than average. I’ve also just had a slow writing day, and put it off right up to my bedtime (though, to be fair, I’ve been listening to Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans and I read at least five nonfiction articles today, so it hasn’t been entirely wasted).

Aphorism 64

In making his way through life, a man will find it useful to be ready and able to do two things: to look ahead and to overlook: the one will protect him from loss and injury, the other from disputes and squabbles.

Schopenhauer

I haven’t ever read much Schopenhauer (if any; my memory is fickle), and I probably should. I’ve got Marcus Aurelius to get through first, but I’m confident I’ll get there eventually.

I’ve seen a few quotes attributed to him I don’t agree with, but this is one that I actually find rings true.

First, the need to work forward.

Image by SplitShire from Pixabay.

I’ve got a sort of exaggerated notion of the “way”, because I’m influenced heavily by Jung, Campbell, and Pearson, but I do think that there’s a deeper element to this than just cultivating foresight.

It’s not enough to predict, because predictions suck.

Sorry, it’s true.

We will be wrong more often than not when we try to guess at what the future holds.

However, we can make sure that we know what to do. We can figure out what is folly and what is wise, and once we discern between them we can do better than if we lived as aimless wanderers in the universe.

This is where the Way comes in, in an archetypal sense. We figure out what to do (e.g. Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, which is applied by Pearson to the everyday life of the individual) by finding broad guidelines and patterns in life that guide us to the future.

The second part is not obsessing over things.

I have only rarely had people hurt me deliberately, and when they have it never did me any good to obsess over it.

This isn’t to say that there’s never a time for the defense of self and others (and when it is called for, I believe it should be overwhelming and immediate), but also a need to remember that defense protects the future, instead of avenging the past.

Think of, for instance, World War I. There was no need for a war, because the probability of further assassinations of Austrian archdukes was relatively low, but war came nonetheless due to a pretense that was formed through conflicts other than the one at hand.

There’s an opportunity cost to everything. Any energy and time spent on one course is energy and time that will never be available for anything else.

Never waste that energy because of bitterness.

Resolution

Follow the rules for the good life.

Never do something “because”.

When the opportunity comes to forgive, remember that it costs nothing.

Reflections on Aphorisms #38

Today I’ve had some more work to do, and I’ve also been trying to get through some writing backlogs. As usual, I sort of go in scattered motions toward everything simultaneously, so I’ve been polishing off a freelance project, getting back into work on my own games, and starting a master’s program simultaneously.

I’ve also been listening to An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link), and there was a quote in it that matched up to an article in the Harvard Business Review I also read recently. I’m falling into a bit of a rut on the productivity stuff, and I should get back to exploring my horizons now that I’m moving more concretely in the right direction, but I’ve found it to be really valuable.

Aphorism 61

Anticipating problems and figuring out how to solve them is actually the opposite of worrying: it’s productive.

Chris Hadfield, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Interpretation

This probably doesn’t need a whole lot of interpretation, but it relates to my personal struggles with productivity quite a bit.

I am a worrier. I will lose sleep over social interactions that other people probably weren’t even paying attention to, how I signed my name in a guest book, if I should have gone to bed earlier, and various other sundry things.

I’ve also got a strong neurotic tendency. Things bothered me a lot when I was younger. Sometimes they still do (I have somewhat idiosyncratic things that bother me that I know aren’t logical), but I overcame most of it by simply adopting the counter-point and choosing to let go. If something bothered me, I would either deal with it or decide that it didn’t matter and actually orient myself around that (as opposed to suppressing my emotion and burying it). The result was that I became very decisive and active in many ways.

You can’t do the same thing with worrying. There’s something very valuable to be said about living in the moment, and wiser people than me have talked about the virtues of emotional detachment, but I don’t think that it’s a good idea for most people, especially because worrying does play a role in our lives (even if it’s something that extends well beyond its right purpose in most cases).

Rather, the solution is active consideration, what Hadfield calls “anticipating problems” and which bears resemblance to the Stoic methodology that I’ve been talking about recently.

The secret is that worry can’t be a passive state. If you let yourself slip into anxiety, as I am often prone to doing in my own life, you move yourself away from what you should do. I have a really hard time asking people for assistance that isn’t strictly their responsibility (I’m a master at being needy, though; I’m just not willing to impose), and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that I’m thrilled when people ask me for help but I don’t let that logically percolate through. If being asked for help thrills me, it will probably thrill others, or at least let them know they are respected, and I can always ask in a way that does not invoke commitment on their part.

Moving on, however, there’s another step here which falls into the notion of self-actuation. Solutions are important, not just problems. I’ve heard it said that drowning people are focused more on the fact that they are drowning than on the ways to recover gracefully, which is why they tend to drown without help in even seemingly unlikely conditions and can be dangerous to others who are trying to help them. Only having one close call myself, I don’t recall this from personal experience: I didn’t consider myself to be in any risk, though apparently my swimming was showing signs of issues; it’s likely I was in over my head metaphorically but not yet literally.

However, the key here is that if you focus on the problem, it’s difficult to take the action that leads to the solution. As a teacher I got to see examples of this all the time in practice, both in myself and in those around me.

As for myself, I often had issues with classroom behavior my first year teaching. The class was a notoriously rough one (and I had less support than would be nice because my position had changed mid-year), and I was definitely in the drowning person’s shoes more often than not. My focus was on whatever the greatest incident of the day was (and there was an incident, small or large, every day), rather than the steps that could be taken to prevent those incidents.

Even by the next year, I had realized that a reactive response didn’t work. I learned what other teachers did that worked, tailored it to my needs, and changed my style. It worked well enough. I still had a couple kids who were considered “problem students” and didn’t live up to my standards, but I’d hear horror stories from other teachers about those students in their class doing things that they never even thought of doing in my classroom. Finding solutions, rather than focusing on problems, worked. I was able to be respectful toward the students and approach them rather than their behaviors, and to an extent that their adolescent brains were capable of following the classroom structure they were respectful back and approached my class as a holistic experience rather than just viewing it as a confrontation with me as an overbearing authority figure.

Basically, the distinction between worrying and productive anticipation is how you frame it:

Worrying looks like “It sucks that my life isn’t going the way I want it to.”

Being productive in anticipating looks like “My life would suck less if I wrote for two hours a day.”

It’s not an obvious distinction, but if you combine the latter with actual steps toward action you get a potentially great result.

Resolution

Blame myself for my failures, then forgive myself and improve.

If I can’t find a solution to something, find a solution to something else and quit wasting my time on the first problem.

Don’t slow down when things are unclear; quickly decide whether to change direction or stay the course.

Reflections on Aphorisms #37

I made significant progress toward getting into a master’s degree program today, so I didn’t have much time to write (outside the requirements of that; I spent several hours on the phone and more working on what will hopefully be some finalities), but at least it was a productive day instead of an unproductive one.

I like Taleb’s aphorisms, so I’m going to use another today, in part because it happens to be a reflection of my own life.

For the classics, philosophical insight was the product of a life of leisure; for us, a life of leisure can be the product of philosophical insight.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes
Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay.

Interpretation

I guess I can kind of call myself a philosopher now, since I’ve been writing about stuff and I read a lot of philosophy. I’m kind of a piddly one, and I haven’t contributed much, if anything, to the field at large, but there’s something about experiences that eventually means that you have to accept or reject a label as part of your being.

An earlier me would have raged against that as an offense to individualism, but now I see it as a path to individuation, and one needs to know who one is in terms that one can understand before they can fully become themselves.

To get to Taleb’s point, I’ve been happier in the past year than I’ve been ever before, despite being under at least as much stress in many ways. I figured out how to crack the code, and it’s pretty simple:

It turns out the philosophers might know what they’re talking about.

I’m a fan of the Stoics, and I’ve learned a lot from some of their very simple doctrines:

  1. Mentally walk through the worst scenario, then steel yourself for that loss.
  2. Remember that having virtue is better than having a single success; virtue sets you up for all future successes.
  3. Don’t sweat adiaphora and other little decisions.
  4. Avoid the expedient unless it is actually the correct path (and don’t be taken in by it).
  5. Accept the things which are outside your control.

These things go quite a way to making life better.

Another thing I’ve learned is to know myself as a person, but always strive to improve.

This is a tight-rope act, but I think I’ve finally hit a point in my life where I will consider myself successful if I break even, and even if circumstances outside my control cause me harm I would be happy with less than I have now.

Part of this is that I’ve learned to exert influence over myself. It’s not perfect, and I still have a lot of things to work on, but I’ve changed more and in better ways than I have in almost any other year of my life. I’m exercising regularly, back on a diet, writing more, and doing some freelance writing.

What I’ve found is that even when I work now, it rarely feels like work, and I think that’s Taleb’s point. When you align yourself with your goals, and you truly and honestly aim for them, you find great satisfaction and value in that. I’m about half-way through Chris Hadfield’s An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link), and it’s basically déjà vu for me to hear him echo thoughts that are similar to my own.

It occurs to me that almost every experience I considered odiously strenuous in my life has been met by a reward at the end that would have been commensurate with the actual effort, had I not made the task ahead worse than it had to be.

Reflections

Do not make things worse, either in perception or substance, than they already are.

The heroic struggle usually bears fruit worth the cost.

If in doubt, ask whether something is virtuous or expedient. Choose the virtuous option.

Reflections on Aphorisms #30

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.

Aphorism 50

In a conflict, the middle ground is least likely to be correct.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from the Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

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.

Resolution

Identify what would satisfy.

Eat until you are no longer hungry, but do not continue past that point.

Never sacrifice a value for expedience.

Aphorism 51

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

Interpretation

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.

Resolution

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.

Aphorism 52

No one lies so boldly as the man who is indignant.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

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).

Resolution

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.

Aphorism 53

Convictions are more dangerous foes of truth than lies.

Nietzsche, as quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms

Interpretation

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:

A great simple breakdown, if a little over-simplified.

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.

Resolution

Build my convictions on solid ground. Test the ground first.

Pay attention to emotion. It can be easily overlooked.

Be careful with beliefs, they cut like knives.

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 #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.