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 #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.