Reflections on Aphorisms #40

Another day of just a single aphorism. I need to get better about my aphorism sources, because I’m not keeping up with them very thoroughly. It’s harder to find good aphorisms than one would think. I’m tempted to get the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, but it’s kind of expensive for someone whose income will drop dramatically in a month or so while his outflow will be becoming unbearable relative to that.

Aphorism 63

Be polite, courteous, and gentle, but ignore comments, praise, and criticism from people you wouldn’t hire.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb, from The Bed of Procrustes

Interpretation

One of the greatest problems that people have is falling victim to others’ perceptions.

I don’t think that there’s anything predatory in how most people look at others, but there’s something in our psychological makeup that makes us adopt others’ positions.

There’s a part of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that comes to mind:

Scene in question occurs at 10:40.

Decius Brutus: Never fear that: if he [Julius Caesar] be so resolved [to avoid the Senate on the Ides of March],
I can o’ersway him; for he loves to hear
That unicorns may be betray’d with trees,
And bears with glasses, elephants with holes,
Lions with toils and men with flatterers;
But when I tell him he hates flatterers,
He says he does, being then most flattered.
Let me work;
For I can give his humour the true bent,
And I will bring him to the Capitol.

Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: Act II Scene I, 826-835

One of the challenges with our lives is that we fundamentally want to fit in. This isn’t necessarily a conscious fitting in, but rather “fit” in the sense that we want to be prepared for our world (i.e. “fitness”), and as a result we think about what others say and do a lot. This can take a negative form, where people actively reject others’ choices because they are perceived as unfit (teen rebellion, anyone?) but it’s predominantly something that happens subconsciously and can be challenging to weed out.

I was reading an article the other day about desire. Desires spread like beliefs; you just need to see other people express them. However, unlike beliefs we often don’t really have a conscious understanding of our desires (though the roots of our beliefs may lie deeper than we are capable of understanding).

When I walk through a mall and see someone drinking a Coke, I want a Coke. There are bright red and white machines scattered throughout the mall to help reinforce this, and even the feeds for cash or credit cards (call me old fashioned, but I’d never trust a machine with a card of mine) have lights that blink in a motion evocative of inserting money.

Desires are contagious because we want to achieve fitness, and we figure that if there are other people who don’t seem to be burning flaming messes we should want what they want, because it’s worked well for them.

This is part of the reason why most advertisements feature beautiful people. It’s not that they couldn’t sell us on products with average looking or even ugly people, it’s that when you have a thirty-second spot you’re probably not going to be able to make a deep enough case.

So you need bright colors, delicious food, or sex appeal to really make the viewer want things. It’s a process of association rather than ideation that leads to desire.

The problem is that we don’t know when to turn this off, when we are being influenced.

I often hang out with people who enjoy less success than myself by the means in which I measure success. This doesn’t mean they’re bad, but often I find myself wondering why I take their advice if I want to send myself on a different path than they are on.

I think what Taleb is getting at here is this:

You don’t want to take advice from people who don’t achieve your goals. Look for the people who you would say have done what you want to do, and seek their approval.

Or, basically, “Just because your mother loves your work doesn’t mean other people will.”

I’ve often heard the adage: “Hire people who are smarter than you.”

I think you should apply this to who you are listening to in daily life. You want to be polite–people have dignity and they are usually worth listening to and giving the time of day–but you can’t change your life’s direction and second-guess your decisions based on what everyone says or you’ll end up in free-fall.

The solution: Look for the people who you respect deeply, and seek their opinions. When you get an opinion from someone you don’t have conscious respect for, make sure you really want it and that it’s really good. Maybe they’ve got brains and wisdom you haven’t seen in them before.

Then, be conscious of what desires you let into your life. The influences people exert on you can be difficult to understand, but you shouldn’t get paranoid and avoid people because they change you. Rather, just be conscious. Take time to clearly communicate your goals and guiding stars to yourself, so that you can’t be led astray lightly.

Resolution

I will make sure to seek the guidance of those I respect.

Never listen to noise, only to signal.

Remember that the statement which seems urgent and profound may actually just agree with your shallow self.

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