Reflections on Aphorisms #10

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 17

Mediocre men tend to be outraged by small insults but passive, subdued, and silent in front of very large ones.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

One of the things that I’ve noticed is that people who think they have something to prove try very hard to do so.

When I was a teacher (this no longer applies to me as of today, and I hope to be a teacher again once the current arc of my saga draws to a conclusion), I noticed that students who were under-performing would rarely deny their greater problems, but would make up for it with bluster in meaningless things.

I think that some of this comes from the following notion: if one has not done the due diligence to find priorities and work on them, they won’t fix them. However, there is a universal desire to be good, or at least above average. One student (who was actually decent, but created a sort of cult of mediocrity around himself) created a scatological analogy by saying that he was the “turd that floats to the top”, but this isn’t actually how mediocre people tend to react to their own mediocrity.

Instead, status symbols and irrelevant comparisons are the main point, while the things that should take a high priority are left more or less ignored.

My Life

I’m perfect and have nothing to change.

I kid. One of the things that I’ve noticed about myself is that I have a tendency to sweat the small details. I remember when I was in college and working on my PHP-based interactive fiction platform that I was trying to figure out the most optimal way to do things well before I actually had a working prototype.

The kicker here is that the whole system was, to my knowledge, never subject to more than a single user at a time. So, basically, I was going over the small things.

This isn’t quite the same as bearing insults, but I think it follows. Taleb talks about “Mediocristan”–the place in which events have a very predictable range of consequences–and “Extremistan”–the counterpart in which events can have incredibly unpredictable outcomes–frequently in his work.

I spend a lot of time ignoring Extremistan for Mediocristan, and the consequence of this is that I sweat over little things that aren’t going to have a lot of impact (like whether I eat 400 or 415 calories at a meal).

It’s not that I intentionally ignore big-risk things, but I run into human limitations because of my focus on things that bear little risk and little reward.

I do think that in a personal sense, though, I’m good about insults. I’m willing to accept criticism, and I’ll even accept a certain amount of unproductive criticism (working with kids does that to you) without sweating it.

Resolution

Don’t focus on small things for more than they’re worth.

Remember that your first impression is designed to give you a good feel for what things are.

Organize your priorities and cut the wasteful expenditures.

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