Unplugged

Unplugged2

Today I release myself from the pressure to perform and produce. While still recognizing and respecting the value in my work, I also choose to allow time for reflection, relaxation, and recreation. By periodically taking a step back from my everyday goal oriented focus, I am able to connect to a broader view that enables me to give greater context to my actions. Rather than see myself as wasting time, I see myself as aligning with a Creative Energy which transcends time. I can accomplish more in 30 minutes by standing still and releasing my resistance to life, than I can achieve in 30 hours by attempting to force my desires into manifestation. I affirm the power of slowing down by making myself available to the silence and space within my heart and mind.

I am attending a retreat this week where there is a no-screen policy. This means that apart from emergencies, the attendees will not be able to use their wireless devices, tablets, or computers.

I will be attempting to put into practice, in my own unique way, a technique described by Chuck Norris in The Secret Power Within as “Slowing Down to Go Faster.” Recounting a conversation during a training session with Bruce Lee, Norris said the following,

Bruce: No matter how much I tried I was unable to block your kicks. What am I doing wrong?

Chuck: You tried to speed your blocks up. And your timing was off. Like when I practice sticky hands [a wing chun technique] with you. When you try to faster, you score on me repeatedly. If I am getting faster, it’s because I’ve slowed down, and that’s what I’m suggesting to you. Pace yourself, attend to everything in its own sweet time, and you’ll accomplish more than if you go all out at every opportunity. Slow down and you’ll go faster…Breaking down a martial arts move means doing ti slowly, and I found that by moving slowly, I could sense what was meant to be the inner balance of the move, each step serving its own specific purpose. Having sensed that inner balance and learned to adjust my body to it, and having discovered the importance of including each move, I found I could speed up the moves at will, performing them quickly or slowly with the same accuracy…At first the notion o slowing down so he could go faster seemed contradictory to Bruce. But he did as I suggested and soon found that I was right. He forced himself to relax then explode, and then relax again. His blocks and kicks improved.

I won’t be throwing any punches or kicks, but I will be off the grid this week. I will not be posting daily updates from my personal development project until next week. Since most of my PDP activities are done via computer, I will still do the physical exercise portion of my project, but I will be substituting 2-3 hours of daily reading for the other activities.

In other news, I wrote an article for the Praxis blog yesterday called A Note to Young Dreamers Who Don’t Feel Supported by Family & Friends. If you or someone you know is in such a situation, feel free to share the article with them.

Cheers,

T.K. Coleman

What I’m Learning: Day 20/365

“[What’s exciting is] the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there’s now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it’s time to die, there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There’s only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try to grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, at least you can do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.” -Isaac Asimov

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray (Pgs 212-235/Book now finished)

On our culture’s tendency to underestimate the abilities and autonomy of children:

I doubt there has ever been a human culture, anywhere, at any time, that underestimates children’s abilities more than we North Americans do today. Our underestimation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, because by depriving children of freedom, we deprive them of the opportunities they need to learn how to take control of their own behavior and emotions.

On trustful parenting:

Trustful parents trust their children to play and explore on their own, to make their own decisions, to take risks, and to learn from their mistakes. Trustful parents do not meausre or try to direct their children’s development, because they trust children to do so on their own. Trustful parents are not negligent parents. They provide not just freedom, but also the sustenance, love, respect, moral examples, and environmental conditions required for healthy development. They support, rather than try to direct, children’s development, by helping children achieve their own goals when such help is requested.

On the message that trustful parenting sends to our children:

You are competent. You have eyes and a brain and can figure things out. You know your own abilities and limitations. Through play and exploration you will learn what you need to know. Your needs are valued. Your opinions count. You are responsible for your own mistakes and can be trusted to learn from them. Social life is not the pitting of will against will, but the helping of one another so that all can have what they need and most desire. We are with you, not against you.

On the myth that children are best protected against future unemployment by orienting their childhood activities around schooling rather than play:

The world of employment is less stable now than it was a few decades ago. It’s impossible to predict what jobs will be available in the future or what job skills will be required…Companies and whole industries sprout up and disappear with unsettling frequency. A result of all this is that parents worry about their children’s abilities to make a living more than they did in times past, and this contributes to their increased tendency to view childhood as a time of resume building rather than a time of play. Somehow, parents believe, if they can get their children into the right adult-directed extracurricular or volunteer activities, get them to achieve high scores on tests, and get them into the most prestigious schools, they can protect their children’s futures. They are wrong of course, but the perception persists.

The reality is that the best protection against unemployment in uncertain times is having precisely those qualities people develop through self-directed experiences, not through the prodding of parents or teachers. Uncertain times require unique personal responsibility, independence of thought, self-initiative, self-assertion, flexibility, creativity, imagination, and willingness to take risks. These are the characteristics fostered by the trustful style of parenting and inhibited by the directive-protective style.

On how school-centric thinking has adversely affected our concept of child development and parenting:

In addition to its direct influence on families lives, the school system has had an even more pervasive indirect influence. Increasingly, researchers, parents, and society at large have come to view all of childhood through the lens of schooling. Everyone categorizes children according to their grade in school. Most research studies of children are conducted in schools and focus on school issues and concerns. The result is a school-centric view of child development that distorts human nature.

In schools, learning is adult-directed, not child-directed. In schools, learning is considered to be sequential, along established pathways. You have to learn A before you learn B. In schools, children’s companions are all the same age — there is no learning of skills through play with older kids, or of responsibility through play with younger ones. In schools, self-initiated play and exploration are disruptions. All these are components of the school-centric model of child development. As a result, people have come to believe that learning is fundamentally sequential and adult-directed, that the proper companions are other children of the same age, and that self-directed play and exploration are largely a waste of time for children beyond the age of four or five. Developmental psychology textbooks, for example, commonly refer to the preschool years as “the play years,” as if play naturally stops or takes backseat after that. We have allowed the schooling system to blind us to the natural ways of children.

On the importance of giving children the opportunity to learn, grow, and choose on their own:

If we value freedom and personal responsibility, we must respect our children’s rights to chart their own lives. Our ambitions cannot be theirs, and vice versa. The self-charting begins in infancy. To learn responsibility, children must learn how to make their own decisions in the course of each hour, day, and year, and they can learn that only by practicing it. All loving, caring parents care about their children’s futures, so it can be hard not to try to control them. But the attempts at control defeats its goals. When we try to determine our children’s destinies, we prevent them from  taking ownership of their own lives. When we try to pilot our children through the daily and weekly mazes of life, we prevent them from practicing their own piloting and learning from their own mistakes. When we offer our children advice they didn’t ask for and don’t need, we reduce the chance that they will ask us for advice when they do want and need it.

On the need to let children define success for themselves:

Whether your child succeeds or fails is up to your child, not you, and the measure of success or failure must be your child’s, not yours. The world is full of unhappy lawyers, doctors, and business executives, and many clerks and janitors are happy, fulfilled, and decent. Career success is not life success. You can be happy or unhappy in any profession, but you can’t be happy, at least not for long stretches, if you feel that your life is not yours. These are truisms. They may sound trite. But too many people forget them when it comes to their child-care practices.

On the real reason why education reform fails:

Almost everyone involved in the education enterprise considers himself or herself to be a “reformer,” in tacit acknowledgement that the current system doesn’t work. This has been true since the dawn of compulsory schooling. Some want to reform the system by nudging it one way (maybe by offering a few more choices and lightening up a little on the testing), while others want to reform it by nudging it the other way (with an even more standardized curriculum and more rigorous testing). This is the stuff of countless books and articles written by professors of education. But no one in the education establishment is willing to admit that coercive schooling doesn’t work precisely because it i coercive and that the only meaningful reform is one that puts kids in charge of their own learning.

On why he’s optimistic about the future of education:

History tells us that when people see freedom as a viable option, they choose it. When adults see that coercive schooling isn’t necessary for success in the culture, they will find it hard not to choose freedom for their kids, and the kids themselves will demand it. Children will no longer buy the argument that schooling is bad-tasting medicine that must be endured because it is necessary or good for them. As more people leave the coercive school system, a significant bloc of voters will begin to demand that some of the public education money that’s been freed up be used to help support kids’ self-directed learning, to provide educational opportunities rather than coercion. Think of what could be done with even a fraction of the roughly $600 billion of taxpayer money that is currently spent on coercive K-12 schools every year in the United States.

The decline in coercive schools and the rise in voluntary educational opportunities will be gradual, but eventually the coercive system will fade away. And then we will witness a full renewal of children’s capacities for self-control and desire to learn, and an end to the epidemic of anxiety, depression, and feelings of helplessness that plague so many youth today.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Caplan on Parenting
EconTalk Episode with Bryan Caplan

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode, Bryan Caplan explains why he thinks parenting isn’t as difficult or expensive as so many seem to think it is:

It is true that parents push themselves very hard today. Actually, they spend more time taking care of their kids than they did during the baby boom suprisingly enough. But a lot of what they’re doing is based on the idea that they have to do a lot of unpleasant things for their kids in order to protect their kids’ future. So you have to do a lot of different activities with them, you have to ride them very hard, so that they can succeed in today’s tough competitive world. The kids often push back on this and many people feel like if you’re a decent parent, you have to make your kid unhappy now in a lot of ways in order to give your kids a decent future. And so, a lot of what’s going on is that people are doing things that aren’t very fun, they’re stressing, and they’re stressing their kids on the theory that if they do so there will be some longer benefits. And this brings us to the million dollar question which is, “does all of this parental investment, parental effort an sacrifice pay off?”

Caplan then explains how the nature/nurture debate has gone on for a very long time without much progress. We now know things, according to Caplan, that gives us plenty of reason to believe that we overestimate the extent to which we affect the long-term behavior of our children. Bryan concedes the point that parental styles do have an impact, but the nature and longevity of that impact is radically different from what we typically suppose.

It certainly has an impact of some kind. A lot of what I talk about in the book is precisely what kind is it and how long does it last. It’s one thing to say that you see the effect on your kids right now. Certainly I see that. Everyone sees it. Your child’s misbehaving, you punish him, his behavior temporarily improves. But the question is, “how long does that improvement lasts?”

One you take a look at the adoption/twin evidence, the big punchline, which is very surprising, is that parents turn out to have surprisingly very little effect on long-run outcomes of how their kids turn out…on almost all the things parent care about actually.

So what I wound up doing in the book is looking at adoption/twin evidence on health, on intelligence, on happiness, on educational success, on occupational/career/financial success, on character, on values, religion, politics, in all these areas, the effect of parents turn out to be surprisingly small.

If it really is true that parents are not having a large long-run effect on their kids, then a lot of the unpleasantness that parents currently experience actually is really not unnecessary. You can responsibly, and in good faith as a parent, stop pushing your kids so hard and focus more on doing things that you enjoy. So if there’s things you really don’t like and your child also doesn’t like, then it does become a no-brainer to stop doing those.

Once you adjust your parenting style to take out a lot of this unpleasantness, this basically means that the kids you want are cheaper than you think. You can get a decent well-adjusted successful child, your child will turn out to be a decent well-adjusted successful adult, even if you don’t do a lot of this unpleasant stuff…which basically means that kids you want are cheaper than you think, so stock up. While parenting still has its challenges, as do all forms of human relationships, many of the challenges are exaggerated based on falsified ideas about how much work parents need to be doing.

For Caplan, if you want to have kids, have kids. Most of the reasons for why we should be so afraid are overhyped.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

30 Things People (You) Need To Stop Doing Right Now by Ryan Holiday

Highlights:

Stop lying to yourself about how much you need to work. Sleep is important, family is important, reflection is important. Pushing yourself past the point of diminishing returns is not.

Don’t get outraged by random stuff you read online. First off, a lot of it is more complicated than it first appears. Second, this reaction is profitable for publishers and they deliberately exploit it. Third, outrage doesn’t solve problems. Sober discussion and solutions do.

When idle chit chat is dying off naturally, don’t revive it. That’s like the kid who reminds the teacher about homework. Just because you can’t deal with the void of silence doesn’t mean everyone else has to hear more noise. Let things drift towards their end, it’s a chance for reflection.

Stop blaming other people (especially when it would be natural to assume its their fault). Accept what responsibility you can in every situation. You’ll be better for it.

In fact, most of these rules can be deduced by asking: “What would it be like if everyone else was doing this at the same time?” If the answer is unpleasant, you should stop doing it right now.

Stop saying things just because you want people to know you know something.

Don’t compare yourself to other people. Run your own race.

Stop saying ‘I wish I could read more’ or ‘I need to read more.’ Just do it. Make time. It’s important. Don’t act like it’s in anyone else’s control but yours.

Stop commenting on blogs (even this one), it’s almost certainly a waste of your time (who cares if someone is right or wrong) on the internet.

Don’t share something you haven’t actually read. Not just because the internet is terribly misleading and headlines exploit our worst impulses. Sending something to someone is not free–it costs them time to look at. You’re abusing their trust in you.

The final one is this: Stop pretending that other people know better. They don’t. And you’ll be happier and less resentful if you just assume they have no control over these things. You do control your own behavior, so focus on that…whether it’s rewarded or acknowledged or not. As one philosopher put it, pretend that everyone else is hemmed in by predetermination but that you, and you alone, have been given free-will. Because when you give up the misguided notion that they are in control and focus solely on the fact that you in fact are in control, the whining petulance stops and the magnanimity can begin.

What I’m Learning: Day 19/365

“Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel.” ― Socrates

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

A Book Is a Heart That Only Beats in the Chest of Another: Rebecca Solnit on the Solitary Intimacy of Reading and Writing

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Rebecca Solnit on the relationship between reading and writing:

Like many others who turned into writers, I disappeared into books when I was very young, disappeared into them like someone running into the woods. What surprised and still surprises me is that there was another side to the forest of stories and the solitude, that I came out that other side and met people there. Writers are solitaries by vocation and necessity. I sometimes think the test is not so much talent, which is not as rare as people think, but purpose or vocation, which manifests in part as the ability to endure a lot of solitude and keep working. Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.

Rebecca Solnit on the power of books and the manner in which they transformed her life:

The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. The child I once was read constantly and hardly spoke, because she was ambivalent about the merits of communication, about the risks of being mocked or punished or exposed. The idea of being understood and encouraged, of recognizing herself in another, of affirmation, had hardly occurred to her and neither had the idea that she had something to give others. So she read, taking in words in huge quantities, a children’s and then an adult’s novel a day for many years, seven books a week or so, gorging on books, fasting on speech, carrying piles of books home from the library.

Rebecca SolnitOn  on writing as a conversion with no one and everyone:

Writing is saying to no one and to everyone the things it is not possible to say to someone. Or rather writing is saying to the no one who may eventually be the reader those things one has no someone to whom to say them. Matters that are so subtle, so personal, so obscure that I ordinarily can’t imagine saying them to the people to whom I’m closest. Every once in a while I try to say them aloud and find that what turns to mush in my mouth or falls short of their ears can be written down for total strangers. Said to total strangers in the silence of writing that is recuperated and heard in the solitude of reading. Is it the shared solitude of writing, is it that separately we all reside in a place deeper than society, even the society of two? Is it that the tongue fails where the fingers succeed, in telling truths so lengthy and nuanced that they are almost impossible aloud?

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

The Economics of Paternalism

Economist Ed Glaeser of Harvard University talks with host Russ Roberts about the dangers of soft paternalism–various forms of government regulation that fall short of outright bans or taxes but that are meant to correct alleged flaws in the choices we make. Glaeser argues that while individuals do inevitably make mistakes, so do politicians, and the concentration of power in the hands of the few makes government “benevolence” particularly dangerous.

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Ed Glaeser, an economics professor at Harvard University, discusses the distinction between hard paternalism and soft paternalism. He defines hard paternalism as forms of legislation that explicitly outlaw or penalize our unhealthy or flawed choices. Soft paternalism, on the other hand, is understood as a way of discouraging certain kinds of choices (ie. warning labels on cigarettes) without directly infringing on people’s freedom to choose. Glaeser then argues against both forms paternalism. He then makes a case for why the motives and abilities of political actors should be treated with the same healthy skepticism that we’d apply towards anyone else. While it is true that people often make unhealthy and self-destructive choices, he argues that the consequences are even worse when we give the government a monopoly on violence for the sake of forcing us to make choices that a particular group of politicians deem healthy, right, or good.

Among the many interesting points made by Glaeser, I particularly enjoyed the excerpt where discussed how how understanding the belief formation process in terms of supply and demand can help make sense out of why certain regulations and policies are passed in spite of the harm it does to the people they’re designed to help:

I think that the central lesson of psychology is that our beliefs are enormously manipulable. We actually believe things most of the time because we’ve been told them, not because we’ve seen hard evidence for them…Once you recognize that beliefs are formed by our friends, our neighbors, what we hear, what we read, it suggests a huge role for the suppliers of belief — be they ministers, be they politicians, be they friends out there to convince other friends — who then are the actors who help change people’s beliefs. Historically, there has been this whole array of people who recognize that there are profit opportunities and political strength to be gained by convincing people of things…This is why I think economics has so much to add to psychology. The only way that you understand the market is by thinking about the interaction between supply and demand. Only by thinking about beliefs as being supplied by suppliers of beliefs interacting with consumers, we will we actually make sense of the things we believe. In any sensible model like this, you come up with the view that you expect to see more errors when you have highly incentivized suppliers interacting with unincentivized consumers. In the case of buying ice cream or razor blades, consumers have a fairly strong incentive to get it right. It’s not all that easy to convince guys that some crappy razor is incredibly good to use because you have to put up with that crappy razor and after you use it, you get some feedback on it. In the case of politics, you have strongly incentivized suppliers who really want to capture government, who really want to win elections so that they can impose their own policies. At the same time, they’re interacting citizens who really don’t have strong incentives to figure out if we send more medicaid or foreign aid. It’s not like that knowledge. It’s not like that knowledge is going to make some huge difference in terms of their everyday life. So why should they go out and undergo the pain and suffering of actually figuring out where those dollars are being spent. As a result, he policy world is one in which there’s tremendous scope for error because of these highly incentivized suppliers pushing around beliefs.

Using smoking and cigarettes as an example, Glaeser also makes the point that soft paternalism almost always leads to hard paternalism. He also discusses the gay rights issue and argues that most of the problems that surround this topic are result of governmental paternalism. He also talks about negative externalities and discusses how we can think about them within a framework that honors individual choice.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

MM McCabe on Socratic Method

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode, MM McCabe discusses the life of Socrates and the style of questioning that defined his legacy. She describes Socrates as a physically ugly man who quickly came to irritate the politically and intellectually elite of Athens with his penetrating and incisive questions about knowledge and ethics. Socrates became such a source of annoyance to those who didn’t like his questions or to those who were threatened by his emphasis on critical, that he was eventually charged with corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death by being forced to drink hemlock. McCabe goes into detail discussing what’s unique and important about the Socratic Method, a term philosophers use to refer to his particular style of questioning.

One significant aspect of the Socratic Method, according to MM McCabe, is that it isn’t merely a matter of pressing oneself or others to provide evidence for a particular point of view, but it’s also a systematic attempt to evaluate the coherence or internal consistency of one’s broader worldview. That is, the Socratic Method is aimed at developing a deeper understanding of how all our beliefs fit together. Additionally, she points out that the Socratic Method embodies the conviction that philosophy is a conversation and collaborative enterprise. Thinking about our beliefs is not just a matter of isolating ourselves and working out the problems of life in solitude, but of also engaging others and allowing them to engage us about the concepts we live by. For Socrates, philosophy is essentially a social activity. One of the most widely known sayings of Socrates is “The unexamined life is not worth living.” According to McMcabe, Socrates was just saying that we need to examine the lives we lead, but that we also need to lead lives of examining.

McCabe believes that this Socratic approach is essential to effective education:

If we’re involved in education at all, whether we’re being educated or doing the educating, it’s not only a good thing to do, but it’s a fundamental feature of how people need to be educated. To discuss with people in this open-minded, open-ended way that allows them to reflect on what they think and us to reflect on what we think without telling, without dogma, without insistence, and without imperative, to ask people to think about what they really think. And what that asks them to do is, if you like, to be true to themselves, asks them to be sincere about their beliefs, to be honest.

McCabe also claims that Socrates would not recognize the approach to education universities take today:

The standard ways that we have of teaching in universities are ways that Socrates wouldn’t recognize…It’s actually very hard to lecture Socratically. Socrates really wouldn’t approve, he certainly wouldn’t approve examinations in the contemporary sense…He wouldn’t like bite-sized, if you’ll forgive my putting it that way, courses. He wouldn’t think you could start here and finish there and get it right about metaphysics. I think perhaps the way to think about it is this: it’s a model that one needs to bear in mind all the time. It keeps you honest just a little bit. It stops you from thinking “Oh yeah, it’s easy. I’ll  go give a few lectures and then I’ve done my job.” Especially in philosophy, that’s not what doing your job looks like.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

The Foundational Difference Between Austrian Economics and the Mainstream | Interview with Paul Cwik

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

Nate Silver Says: “Everyone Is Kind of Weird”: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Nate Silver is the editor is chief of FiveThirtyEight.com and he’s on a mission to approach journalism with a rigorous emphasis on statistical reasoning, critical thinking, big data, and empirical research. In this episode of the Freakonomics podcast, he shares some of his thoughts how to think about big data, predicting long-term success, and some of his professional influences.

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On the importance of thinking critically about statistics and not being hsty with the conclusions we draw from big data:

there are a couple of things to unpack. You know, one is the term “big data” itself. And there are some people who would say, “Well, big data has to be really large, not the sort of stuff you could crunch on a regular computer.” You know, for example, we launched an interactive recently where it looks at- a different way of looking at which flights get you there the fastest, what’s the best airline for logistics, and that relies on data from about 6 million flights. That sounds impressive. But you can still run that program in about ten or twelve minutes on a laptop, right? People wouldn’t really say it’s big data when all those records are pretty carefully scrutinized. But that said, people I think when they say big data often mean analytics really, and statistical analysis, applied statistics. You know, it’s not all about the data necessarily. Oftentimes it’s not about the amount of data you have but how much you vetted that data. If a data set is virginal, as they call it, no one’s looked at it before really. You’re gonna have a lot of problems and one problem with a really large data set is that if you’re running some algorithms, some quick and dirty way to find the most influential data points, a lot of times those are bugs and outliers, right? And the reason why you have that anomaly is because someone coded it in wrong. Or you made some mistake in the analysis.

You know, I also think there aren’t necessarily the skills and the training, so one thing I talk about in my book is how when the personal computer became commonplace in the workforce in the 1970s and then in the home in the early 1980s, it took awhile before there were any tangible signs of productivity gains in the economy, meaning like ten or fifteen or twenty years, even. So I think people love new technology but they overestimate how much of the kind of human factor gets in the way. I’m not trying to be cute about that, I just mean that people need to learn how to use these tools, what they can do, what they can’t do, you know, no amount of data is a substitute for scientific inference and hypothesis testing, and kind of structured analysis of a system. I think one of the false promises that was made early on is that, well if you have a billion data points or a trillion data points, you’re going to find lots and lots of correlations through brute force. And you will, but the problem is that a high percentage of those, maybe the vast majority, are false correlations, are false positives. Where there could be significance, but you have so many lottery tickets when you can run an analysis on a trillion data points, that you’re going to have some one in million coincidences just by chance alone. If you bet all your money on them, you might wind up looking very foolish in the end.

On the trickiness of distinguishing between long-term and short-term indicators of value:

So, you know, I think sometimes people grasp onto outliers, especially when they talk about us and FiveThirtyEight. So ESPN when it signs a deal with a sports league, like the NBA, that’s a 10-year deal. And they literally will be contemplating technologies that don’t even exist yet. The thing about traffic now is that you can measure so much in real time, you know, so you might be able to say, “If we wanted to publish a story that would maximize pageviews right now, we would say, ‘There’s been an alien invasion, right? President Obama has been kidnapped and beamed up to Mars.’” And everyone on the internet would look at that story for about five minutes, and then no one, hopefully, would ever read our site again. There’s no metric, yet, for kind of what’s the long-term value that you’re generating from a stupid article that you post today to get a lot of page views or the loyalty you develop with your customers. So, we saw some baseball a little bit, where for a while people were able to measure offense really well, and not defense really well. And so the sloppy conclusion there is that, “Well we can’t measure defense,” therefore it doesn’t matter.” Well it turned out that when people actually found better ways to measure defensive ability, it turned out to matter at least as much, maybe more than the conventional wisdom had held. So we’re aware of that and that some things you can judge with metrics, some things you can’t and that’s a tricky part of the media business now.

On his biggest intellectual influence:

I mean, you know, I admire Bill James a lot for what he did with baseball statistics. In part because he was way, way ahead of his time. I mean, he kind of preceded Moneyball literally by 20 years or thereabouts, but also because he’s a good communicator and kind of a humanist at heart, right? He’s not just interested in statistics for statistics’ sake, but how they’re used to kind of vest life and our understanding of sports and other things with a lot of meaning instead.

On the one thing he’s spent way to much time or energy on that he doesn’t regret:

I mean, I invest a lot of time and a lot of money in eating well. It’s one of those things that I think in a market like New York, where I live, really rewards effort, where if you spend the time to try different places and sometimes spend the money, although there’s great cheap eats in New York, too, you know I just find that it’s a product where it’s a fun way to experiment and something where you have to eat every day, so you might as well put some thought into it.

On a book that’s influenced his thinking:

I kind of often talk about Daniel Kahneman and Thinking Fast and Slow is kind of, just I think, a really great overall kind of modern guide to thinking, if that isn’t a little too pretentious, or too precious, rather. But that’s one of my favorite books.

On one thing he’s changed his mind about:

I kind of thought, “Well, just be quantitative and that’s better categorically than being qualitative and that’ll solve all your problems.” I still believe to a very rough approximation, people need to be more quantitative, but I think it needs to be a much more kind of structured investigation of the data. And kind of realizing this is one of the challenges, one of the reasons I’m betting our markets are interesting. Whenever you have a belief that kind of differs a lot from the consensus, then that’s a very complicated place to be.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

Two Gorgeous Ways of Saying NO in Business…Without Throwing Cheeseburgers at People’s Heads

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

“Boundaries in business are important. I’m obsessed with them. I talk about boundaries a lot. Probably because when I was young, I was very, very horrible at setting them.”

Ash Ambirge begins this blog post on boundaries with those words. Here are a few of my favorite excerpts:

On her struggle to set boundaries as a beginning entrepreneur:

When 2006 rolled around and I started my first copywriting business, boundaries took on a whole new meaning. As in, GET SOME OR DIE. It was hard saying “no” to people who were giving me money. It felt almost like a bait and switch. Until I realized that people weren’t paying me to say “yes.” They were paying me to write. That reminder helped me a lot in those early years. Anything that didn’t support my main job for them—writing—was rejected. This eliminated a lot of the, “Hey, you’re good with computers. You think you could help me format this 100 page case study?” Which, surprisingly, was a fairly typical kind of request for a little freelancer like me, at the time.

On how saying “no” is a matter of kindness, professionalism, and respect:

Then, of course, you’ve got present day me. The present day me says no more than I say, “wine, please.” I’m now a NO samurai. I love saying no. It feels so good. Protecting my head space is the most important thing I could ever do.

I love when other people tell me, “no,” too. It shows me they care about themselves. And if they’re working for me, it shows me that they care about their work. I can rest easy knowing I’m not giving someone panic attacks in the middle of the night. No is healthy. No is realistic. No is yes, in a way. It just might be in a different way than most people assume. It’s yes to a priority, yes to a reputation, yes to control, yes to professionalism.

On two examples of how to say “no” with firmness, precision, and dipomacy:

Just this week, I’ve had two people tell me “no” in a way that felt so respectful, so supportive of our work and relationship together.

The first was just a few minutes ago. I have a conference call at 11am today. We all know I’m a talker. This person made sure to make the disclaimer:

“I have a hard stop at 11:25, but we may only need 15-20 minutes.”

Beautifully done. Bravo! It sets expectations for everyone, and sets him up for a professional exit—not one that feels like he’s slighting me.

The other was earlier this week. It’s one of our developers. He said this:

“According to Home Base you’ll hear from us again on April 15 with some really sexy updates. Until then, have a splendid week.”

You know what that does? It lets me know they aren’t going to be in constant contact–which is a no in disguise. It’s a no to constant availability, the feeling of being put on-call by your clients. And it is GORGEOUS. (Furthermore, by using the phrase “According to Home Base,” they remove the pressure off themselves and show me that it’s our agreed upon timeline. Another really great tip.)

Ash ends her post with the following challenge,

Your homework today: Say no as many times as you can. (And maybe in as many foreign accents as you can.) You don’t need to rationalize yourself to everyone you meet. Sometimes, a two-letter word is all you need.

What I’m Learning: Day 18/365

“Those people who develop the ability to continuously acquire new and better forms of knowledge that they can apply to their work and to their lives will be the movers and shakers in our society for the indefinite future.” ― Brian Tracy

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

J.R.R. Tolkien on Fairy Tales, Language, the Psychology of Fantasy, and Why There’s No Such Thing as Writing “For Children”

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Maria Popova on there being no such thing as writing for children:

“I do not believe that I have ever written a children’s book,” the great Maurice Sendak once said in an interview. “I don’t write for children,” he told Colbert. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’” This sentiment — the idea that designating certain types of literature as “children’s” is a choice entirely arbitrary and entirely made by adults — has since been eloquently echoed by Neil Gaiman, but isn’t, in fact, a new idea.

Tolkien on the power of myth and how language makes it possible for human beings to be creators:

Mythology is not a disease at all, though it may like all human things become diseased. You might as well say that thinking is a disease of the mind. It would be more near the truth to say that languages, especially modern European languages, are a disease of mythology. But Language cannot, all the same, be dismissed. The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval. The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalization and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faerie is more potent. And that is not surprising: such incantations might indeed be said to be only another view of adjectives, a part of speech in a mythical grammar. The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into a swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power — upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. It does not follow that we shall use that power well upon any plane. We may put a deadly green upon a man’s face and produce a horror; we may make the rare and terrible blue moon to shine; or we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such “fantasy,” as it is called, new form is made; Faerie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.

Tolkien on the normalcy and appropriateness of adults reading fairy tales:

It is usually assumed that children are the natural or the specially appropriate audience for fairy-stories. In describing a fairy-story which they think adults might possibly read for their own entertainment, reviewers frequently indulge in such waggeries as: “this book is for children from the ages of six to sixty.” But I have never yet seen the puff of a new motor-model that began thus: “this toy will amuse infants from seventeen to seventy”; though that to my mind would be much more appropriate. Is there any essential connexion between children and fairy-stories? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios. Adults are allowed to collect and study anything, even old theatre programmes or paper bags.

Tolkien on fantasy as a virtue rather than a vice:

The mental power of image-making is one thing, or aspect; and it should appropriately be called Imagination. The perception of the image, the grasp of its implications, and the control, which are necessary to a successful expression, may vary in vividness and strength: but this is a difference of degree in Imagination, not a difference in kind. The achievement of the expression, which gives (or seems to give) “the inner consistency of reality,” is indeed another thing, or aspect, needing another name: Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation. For my present purpose I require a word which shall embrace both the Sub- creative Art in itself and a quality of strangeness and wonder in the Expression, derived from the Image: a quality essential to fairy-story. I propose, therefore, to arrogate to myself the powers of Humpty-Dumpty, and to use Fantasy for this purpose: in a sense, that is, which combines with its older and higher use as an equivalent of Imagination the derived notions of “unreality” (that is, of unlikeness to the Primary World), of freedom from the domination of observed “fact,” in short of the fantastic. I am thus not only aware but glad of the etymological and semantic connexions of fantasy with fantastic: with images of things that are not only “not actually present,” but which are indeed not to be found in our primary world at all, or are generally believed not to be found there. But while admitting that, I do not assent to the depreciative tone. That the images are of things not in the primary world (if that indeed is possible) is a virtue, not a vice. Fantasy (in this sense) is, I think, not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent.

Tolkien on the difficulty of creating internally consistent worlds of fantasy:

Fantasy … is difficult to achieve. Fantasy may be, as I think, not less but more sub-creative; but at any rate it is found in practice that “the inner consistency of reality” is more difficult to produce, the more unlike are the images and the rearrangements of primary material to the actual arrangements of the Primary World. It is easier to produce this kind of “reality” with more “sober” material. Fantasy thus, too often, remains undeveloped; it is and has been used frivolously, or only half-seriously, or merely for decoration: it remains merely “fanciful.” Anyone inheriting the fantastic device of human language can say the green sun. Many can then imagine or picture it. But that is not enough — though it may already be a more potent thing than many a “thumbnail sketch” or “transcript of life” that receives literary praise.

To make a Secondary World inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft. Few attempt such difficult tasks. But when they are attempted and in any degree accomplished then we have a rare achievement of Art: indeed narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.

Tolkien on why good fantasy requires the use of reason:

Fantasy is a natural human activity. It certainly does not destroy or even insult Reason; and it does not either blunt the appetite for, nor obscure the perception of, scientific verity. On the contrary. The keener and the clearer is the reason, the better fantasy will it make. If men were ever in a state in which they did not want to know or could not perceive truth (facts or evidence), then Fantasy would languish until they were cured. If they ever get into that state (it would not seem at all impossible), Fantasy will perish, and become Morbid Delusion.

For creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it. So upon logic was founded the nonsense that displays itself in the tales and rhymes of Lewis Carroll. If men really could not distinguish between frogs and men, fairy-stories about frog-kings would not have arisen.

Tolkien on how fantasy sets the mind free from the danger of familiarity:

Recovery (which includes return and renewal of health) is a re-gaining—regaining of a clear view. I do not say “seeing things as they are” and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say “seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiares are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them.

[…]

Creative fantasy, because it is mainly trying to do something else (make something new), may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like cage-birds.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Boettke on Living Economics

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode of EconTalk, Peter Boettke discusses the value and importance of understanding economics as a discipline that deals with human action and the incentives that drive it. To think of economics solely or primarily in terms of mathematics and statistics limits our capacity to accurately make sense of human behavior and it results in the advocacy of policies that lead to harmful criticism.

One interesting concept Boetkke mentioned is what he calls “The Roman Emperor Fallacy.” According to Boetkke, when a Roman Emperor served as a judge for singing contests, he would immediately reward the second singer after only hearing the first one. The emperor’s logic was that the first singer was so bad that it would be impossible for the second singer to be worse. Boetkke contends that a similar kind of logic is at play when people invoke government as a solution to market failures. While the market doesn’t always meet our needs in the manner and timing we desire, it would be fallacious to assume that government would be better without subjecting government to the same sort of scrutiny.

One theme that Botekke emphasizes in this discussion between mainstream economics and mainline economics.

According to Boetkke, good economics is based on at least two key principles:

1) The self-interest postulate: This does not mean that people are selfish nor does it mean we all carry around calculators that helps us determine the units of satisfaction we’ll receive from our decisions. It also doesn’t mean that we explicitly think about our choices in terms of costs and benefits. It means “Individuals pursue what they want to see as best as they can given their situation.”

2) The Invisible Hand: This refers to “the self-regulating aspects of the market.” When individuals freely act in accordance with their self-interests, order spontaneously emerges.

Critiquing mainstream economics and contrasting it with Austrian theory economics, Boetkke says the following:

When it comes to mainstream economics, note that you can’t put a finger on what the substantive propositions are. In the mainstream, you can have Joe Stiglitz, who no one would deny is a mainstream economist, Paul Krugman, but you also have, on the other side, Bob Lucas. And Bob Lucas and Joe Stiglitz couldn’t disagree more about substantive economics, but yet they agree completely about the style or the toolkit of economics. So what happens is mainstream becomes a sociological moniker for people that believe methodologically what they believe at the top five schools. And they use and speak in that language. Whereas in the past, if you were a Smithean economist, you could speak in English, you could speak in French, you could speak in German, You could speak with math, you could speak with just pure natural language, and what mattered was whether or not you believed the substantive propositions of economics. In modern economics, mainstream became “are you using these tools and it didn’t really matter much what the substantive propositions are per se.

Another interesting point made by Boettke was that while there are macroeconomic problems, there are only microeconomic solutions.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Paul Seabright on the Relationship Between the Sexes (Social Science Bites)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Seabright on why an economist would take up an interested in the relationship between the sexes:

If you want a serious answer: it has to do with the fact that the relationship between the sexes is one of the most economic relationships there has ever been. Let me put it two ways; one is, it’s about co-operation. Sexual reproduction is the most co-operative activity in the universe. That’s true whether you’re talking about sexual reproduction between fish, or birds, or any kind of animal, but humans have taken it to a very extreme form. The amount that we invest in our offspring is, by the standards of the animal kingdom, absolutely spectacular. We have offspring that are dependent on us for nearly two decades, which is massively longer than any other species, and that requires a sort of massive co-operative endeavor.

The second reason has to do with the role of scarcity. Economics is really the science of scarcity, and I was fascinated when I first did biology of sexual reproduction, apart from the aspects that would fascinate any adolescent doing the biology of sexual reproduction – what really interested me intellectually about this was that here you have a technology, if you like, which uses the same amounts of male inputs and female inputs, one sperm, one egg, and yet the eggs are incredibly scarce and the sperm are incredibly abundant. The woman produces one egg a month, and men produce a thousand sperm a second, and there seemed to be something spectacularly weird and wasteful about that. Here was this very strange technology in which you were doing something together, collectively, you had one input that was very scarce, and the other that was very abundant. And of course what it means, and that’s why it’s so interesting from an economic point of view, is that you have an enormous amount of competition among those sperm and their progenitor, to be the favored ones that actually get to fertilize the eggs.

On how economic thinking can make sense out of apparently mysterious forms of relationship dysfunction:

First of all, at a relatively general level, I think we really have to understand that natural selection doesn’t select for optimal relationships. That’s where some insight from economics, and specifically from Game Theory, is really very helpful. Because one of the things you learn when you start to do simple Game Theory is that even if the players in a game are each doing as well as they can, given what the others are doing, then the outcome could be a lot worse for both of them than some other imaginable outcome. There’s a famous case of this known as the Prisoner’s Dilemma where each of us may be doing as well as we can, given what the others are doing, but we’re both doing a lot worse off than if we could somehow commit to a collectively better outcome. So, there are lots of examples of sexual relationships which are extremely wasteful, violent, unhappy for all the parties, and if you think that that’s just because something which natural selection should have selected for, but has gone wrong for mysterious reasons, then I think it’s much harder to think about how to fix that.

If, instead, you think well, natural selection never really selected for the relationship to be optimal, what it did select was for various kinds of traits and behaviors, to be fitness-maximizing for the individuals, or rather more strictly speaking, likely to lead to the copying of the genes that made those traits more likely to happen, then we can understand why all of the parties to a relationship may be stuck in a set of outcomes that could be dysfunctional, could be costly, could be violent, could be wasteful, but for reasons that can’t simply be put down to either mysterious dysfunction, or to individuals not doing what’s in their own interest.

On what a scientific approach to gender differences reveals about differences in women and men’s aptitudes:

I think the science requires you to test conjectures against evidence wherever you can, and I’m struck by the number of questions on which I’ve changed my mind in the last few years as I’ve looked more closely at the evidence. So let me give you an example: I have looked recently in a lot of detail at the evidence on gender and IQ and more generally intelligence and personality testing. Now, before I did that, I had a prior view that when I looked at it, I was likely to find substantial overall gender differences in IQ, and I was a little worried about that because I was nicely comfortable in my previous belief that there probably weren’t any differences. Now, it turned out that I was wrong, at least I was wrong in not a very straightforward way: there are a lot of differences between men and women with respect to particular capacities and talents that we have for various things. So in a lot of contexts men perform better than women on tests of visual, spatial skills. Women tend to perform better than men on tests of verbal comprehension. What I discovered looking at this, was the extent to which nobody, but nobody, has come up with a sensible overall theory about how you would weight these different talents and constituent competences against each other.

So it’s a little bit like the old early days of doing national income accounting when people sort of said, ‘Well, how are you going to measure the performance of an economy when it produces apples and nuclear submarines and software programs and musical performance and so on?’ and, eventually, a well-developed theory was worked out, that you would weight the production of all of these different things according to their relative prices because those prices represent the contribution to marginal utility. Now there is no theory, but no theory, that explains how you should weight performance in a test of visual spatial rotation of objects in three-dimensional space versus a test of performance of verbal comprehension. And I think we need that, and we need a more open and frank debate about it, which has been very difficult to have because it’s been taboo for so long to discuss even the possibility that there might be gender differences in performance in tests. And it’s about time we started to see, you know, which of those tests actually better match the kinds of talents that we need in a modern economy. And I’m not at all sure that the answer when it comes up will either be systematically in favor of one sex or the other, and whether we’re going to see any very interesting gender differences along those lines at all.

On the value of investigating differences in aptitude even though their value is subjective:

Nigel Warburton: I mean, that’s an interesting case of psychological research which has certain sorts of presumptions about the relative weighting of different aspects of intelligence, but it’s still got this basis on a human construct which is the idea of an intelligent person, which is not a natural kind, as it were. It’s not as if you’re going out and measuring the temperature at which water boils.

Paul Seabright: No, it’s absolutely not a physical constant. On the other hand, the interesting way to think about talents is they’re just a bundle of competences that we have. And the interesting talents that an economist wants to look at is talents for doing things that other people value, and that’s because we’re not just social animals, but we’re animals that live by exchange. So there are lots of things that matter for my happiness, but that essentially I do for myself; but there are a lot of other things that matter for my well-being which I do because other people value what I do. So, I cannot survive by eating my own economics lectures, but fortunately I manage to persuade other people to pay me enough to buy my food, in return for my delivering economics lectures. All of us, therefore, live by exchange. So, of course, you’re right, that’s not what philosophers would call a natural kind: it’s a bundle of different capacities which may not have any very close relationship to each other. But to go from that to say that there’s no stability in the things that make people good at doing the things that people value, I think would be a mistake.

On how the study of social science can lead to changes in our behavior:

There’s a book by Steven Pinker called The Better Angels Of Our Nature, and it deals with something that I’ve thought about a lot in the past which is about why the levels of violence in modern societies are so much lower than they’ve been, both in recorded history and in pre-history. Now that’s a really interesting fact, and the best explanations for that fact have to do with a more systematic understanding of our social environment, which we have been able to put to work. It’s a complex thing, it’s not just about reason replacing emotion: it’s a lot about reason harnessing emotion and reason understanding our emotions better so as to put them to do good social work. But it is about creating very complex and subtle webs of incentives in the modern institutions that surround us that simply make it a better bet for most of us to handle our differences peacefully rather than to fight and to kill each other. There’s not been a single social innovation that’s done that: there’s just been an enormous number of small innovations that have brought that about, largely piggy-backing on the gradually improving and more systematic understanding of how other people behave.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Economics Is A Value-Free Science | by Jörg Guido Hülsmann

Beginning with David Hume’s distinction between “is” propositions and “ought” propositions, Hülsmann discusses subjective values and shows how economic thinking makes sense of social phenomena without prescribing what we should do about such phenomena. That is, “It is a fact-based analysis with no value judgment.”

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

The Importance of “Stupid Ideas” and How That Relates to Education

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

I like to say that “stupid is the new smart” because when you come into this new belief that a stupid idea can be great, you start thinking about it in different ways.

With that statement, Richie Norton opens an inspiring discussion on why it’s helpful to embrace, rather than condemn, our seemingly stupid ideas. According to Norton, life is a puzzle and we’re all in the process of putting the pieces together. What often appears to be stupid is nothing less than a valuable puzzle piece for which we have yet to find the proper context. When we have an idea that seems stupid, it’s important for us to ask ourselves “Is it inherently stupid or am I just scared?” According to Norton, our problem is not that we have stupid ideas, it’s that we lack the patience and persistence to keep exploring past the initial iteration of a fragile idea. Norton also discusses the importance of not taking an all-or-nothing approaching to exploring our ideas. Unearthing the value of stupid ideas is only possible when we maintain a playful attitude. Trying something new doesn’t mean you have to quit your job.

Activity XII: Read one Paris Review Interview

Joy Williams, The Art of Fiction No. 223 Interviewed by Paul Winner

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On the importance of short stories:

I recently received a letter from an Iowa Workshop grad—typical—seeking my participation in a “collaborative” interview. The question was, Why do short stories matter and why should we value them? What a retro question. It sounded like something out of the 1940s. I was too weary for a reply, but I think they probably don’t matter all that much. A herd of wild elephants matters more. And which stories are we talking about? There are so many of them.

On her concept of what a story is:

What a story is, is devious. It pretends transparency, forthrightness. It engages with ordinary people, ordinary matters, recognizable stuff. But this is all a masquerade. What good stories deal with is the horror and incomprehensi- bility of time, the dark encroachment of old catastrophes—which is Wallace Stevens, I think. As a form, the short story is hardly divine, though all excel- lent art has its mystery, its spiritual rhythm. I think one should be able to do a lot in less than twenty pages. I read a story recently about a woman who’d been on the lam and her husband dies and she ends up getting in her pickup and driving away at the end, and it was all about fracking, damage, dust to the communities, people selling out for fifty thousand dollars. It was so boring.

On the responsibility of the writer to signs and dreams:

I think the writer has to be responsible to signs and dreams. Receptive and responsible. If you don’t do anything with it, you lose it. You stop getting these omens.

On the importance of respecting our unconscious creative thoughts and being faithful to our true self:

There’s a story about Jung. He had a dream that puzzled him, but when he tried to go back to sleep a voice said, “You must understand the dream, and must do so at once!” When he still couldn’t comprehend its meaning, the same voice said, “If you do not understand the dream, you must shoot your- self!” Rather violently stated, certainly, but this is how Jung recollected it. He did not resort to the loaded handgun he kept in a drawer of his bedside table—and it is somewhat of a shock to think of Jung armed—but he deciphered the dream to the voice within’s satisfaction, discovering the divine irrationality of the unconscious and his life’s work in the process. The message is work, seek, understand, or you will immolate the true self. The false self doesn’t care. It feels it works quite hard enough just getting us through the day.

On the possibility of embracing that which is not easily understood:

I wonder if understanding the dream is really what must be done. Can we incorporate and treasure and be nourished by that which we do not understand? Of course. Understanding something, especially in these tech times, seems to involve ruthless appropriation and dismantlement and diminishment. I think of something I clipped from the paper and can’t lay my hands on. This peculiar aquatic creature who lives deep within the sea—it looked like a very long eel—came up to the surface, where it was immediately killed and displayed by a dozen or so grinning people on a California beach. Didn’t have a chance to evolve, that one. Curiosity by the nonhuman is not honored in this life. For many people, when confronted with the mysterious, the other, the instinct is to kill it. Then it can be examined.

On her desire to write and see more stories addressing diversity from a larger ecological perspective:

To return to the idea of the avant-garde, real avant-garde writing today would frame and reflect our misuse of the world, our destruction of its beauties and wonders. Nobody seems to be taking this on in the literary covens. We are all just messing with ourselves, cherishing ourselves. Andrew Solomon wrote a mega-successful nonfiction book titled Far from the Tree in which he ticks off every emotional, physical, mental, social disability you could possibly imagine and yokes them to true tales of actual practitioners or victims—though Solomon would never employ such a word—which he then bathes in a golden humanist light. We are all so special, particularly the very special, whose needs must be met. We are all so different and some of us are even more different, and this difference must be cherished and celebrated. The critics were ecstatic. What a hymn to diversity! No one spoke of how claustrophobic Far from the Tree was, the tree being utterly metaphorical, how narrowly and pridefully focused, how dismissive of a world outside the human. Cultural diversity can never replace biodiversity, though we’re being prompted to think it can. We live and spawn and want—always there is this ghastly wanting—and we have done irredeemable harm to so much. Perhaps the novel will die and even the short story because we’ll become so damn sick of talking about ourselves.

On the importance of never being bound by methods:

Methods limit you as soon as you recognize them. Then you have to find another form to free yourself.

On writing and freedom:

Yes, yes. Freedom is most desirable. Of course none of us are free. Our flaws enslave us, the things we love. And through technology we’re becoming more known to everyone but ourselves. What’s that phrase about certain writers being what the culture needs? Most writers just write about what the culture recognizes.

What I’m Learning: Day 17/365

“Self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is.” ― Isaac Asimov

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray (Pgs 171-191)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On the superiority of learning through play over learning through compulsory schooling:

(pg 175) Play is nature’s way of teaching children how to solve their own problems, control their impulses, modulate their emotions, see from others’ perspectives, negotiate differences, and get along with others as equals. There is no substitute for play as a means of learning these skills. They can’t be taught in school. For life in the real world, these lessons of personal responsibility, self-control, and sociability are far more important than any lessons that can be taught in school.

On the value of age-mixing in education:

(pg 182) The free mingling of children who differ broadly in age is a key element to childrens’ abilities to educate themselves successfully, on their own initiatives. Children learn by observing and interacting with others who are older and younger that they are. Yet education professors have paid almost no attention to the educative value of free age mixing; they are hooked on the idea that education is controlled by teachers and that it occurs most efficiently in settings where the students are all at the same level. They rarely, if ever, think about the idea that children can learn from one another in settings where they differ widely in age, skills, and levels of understanding.

(Pg 185) In age-mixed groups, the younger children can engage in and learn from activities that would be too complex, difficult, or dangerous for them to do on their own or only with others their own age. They can also learn simply from watching the more sophisticated activities of older children and overhearing their conversations. And they can receive emotional support and care beyond what age-mates could provide.

This chapter is filled with many anecdotal stories and various accounts of psychological experiments illustrating the ways in which age-mixing in education results in more sophisticated forms of learning that when children are serried into separate groups based on age. One particularly interesting concept he mentions is “the zone of proximal development.”

(pg 186) In the 1970’s, Lev Vygotsky…coined the term zone of proximal development to refer to the set of activities a child cannot do alone or with others of the same ability but can do in collaboration with others who are more skilled. He suggested that children develop new skills and understanding largely by collaborating with others within their zones of proximal development. Extending Vygotsky’s idea, the Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner and his colleagues introduced the term scaffolding as a metaphor for the means by which skilled participants enable novices to engage in a shared activity. The scaffolds consist of the reminders, hints, encouragement, and other forms of help that lift the child up to a higher form of activity….In age-mixed play, where abilities differ considerably, scaffolding occurs continuously and naturally, often unconsciously, as a way of pulling the younger children up to a level that makes the game fun for all.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

The Art of Stumbling: David Brooks on Character, “Résumé Virtues” vs. “Eulogy Virtues,” and the Humility Code of Living a Meaningful Life

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

David Brooks on the two categories of virtue:

I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.

Most of us would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues, but I confess that for long stretches of my life I’ve spent more time thinking about the latter than the former. Our education system is certainly oriented around the résumé virtues more than the eulogy ones. Public conversation is, too — the self-help tips in magazines, the nonfiction bestsellers. Most of us have clearer strategies for how to achieve career success than we do for how to develop a profound character.

To this distinction, Popova adds,

Brooks argues that we live in a constant tussle with these two contradictory parts of ourselves that rip the psyche asunder with their conflicting demands — the ambitious and status-oriented achiever, driven by the “résumé virtues” and stimulated by external rewards, and the moral aspirant propelled by the “eulogy virtues,” which offer their own internal satisfactions. The former is goaded by cultivating and showcasing our personal strengths; the latter by contemplating and confronting our inner weaknesses.

Brooks on struggle as sanctification:

We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling — in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.

The stumbler scuffs through life, a little off balance here and there, sometimes lurching, sometimes falling to her knees. But the stumbler faces her imperfect nature, her mistakes and weaknesses, with unvarnished honesty, with the opposite of squeamishness. She is sometimes ashamed of the perversities in her nature — the selfishness, the self-deceit, the occasional desire to put lower loves above higher ones.

But humility offers self-understanding. When we acknowledge that we screw up, and feel the gravity of our limitations, we find ourselves challenged and stretched with a serious foe to overcome and transcend.

The stumbler is made whole by this struggle.

I have often thought that success can easily lead to vice not because it exposes us to a greater number of temptations, but because it conceals the flaws in our character and often deceives us into believing that our moral failings are the actual basis for our achievements. While I do not romanticize struggle, I do agree with Brooks that it is usually in the struggle that we find our way to wholeness.

Brooks on the necessity of finding a sense of purpose in one’s work:

No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation. If you try to use your work to serve yourself, you’ll find your ambitions and expectations will forever run ahead and you’ll never be satisfied. If you try to serve the community, you’ll always wonder if people appreciate you enough. But if you serve work that is intrinsically compelling and focus just on being excellent at that, you will wind up serving yourself and the community obliquely. A vocation is not found by looking within and finding your passion. It is found by looking without and asking what life is asking of us. What problem is addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy?

This last excerpt on vocation is what I take to be the most important. We live at a time when many people fear being workaholics because they believe that working too much is the thing that stands between them and a passionate fulfilling life. I think the problem is the exact opposite. We are so bored and overworked not because we work too much, but because we don’t work hard enough at at developing a robust philosophy of work. That is, most of what we call “work” amounts to things we think we need to do in order to avoid being homeless. We work out of fear and necessity rather than out of a sense of mission and calling. We then use this fear and necessity as the basis for avoiding the kinds of creative risks and daring acts that might help us find meaningful work. We indefinitely delay the importance of pursuing fulfilling work because of the perceived urgency of doing necessary work. Then rather than identify our alienation from vocation as the problem, we hastily pin the blame on all forms of work and we uncritically pursue a false nirvana of endless vacation.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Friedman on Capitalism and Freedom

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode, Milton Friedman discusses the relationship between free market thinking and principles of liberty.

One interesting comment by Friedman was pointing out of the fact that capitalism is good to business people, but business people are often not so good to capitalism. Contrary to the conventional view that business people would normally be against socialistic ideas, Friedman argues that they’re frequently in support of those ideas because they protect them from competition and accountability to the marketplace.

If free markets weren’t so damned efficient, they could never have survived because they have so many enemies and so few friends. People think of free market capitalism or free markets as something that would obviously be supported by business, that if there were a business party in politics, they would promote free markets. But that’s wrong. Because it will be in the self-interest of individual businesses to promote a tariff here and a tariff there. It’s so much harder to repeal anything a government is doing than it is to get it to do it.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Lucy Allais on Forgiveness

Lucy Allais shares some interesting insights on what forgiveness it, why she finds it philosophically interesting, how forgiveness differs from accepting, justify, or making excuses, and whether we have a moral duty to forgive those who’ve wronged us

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

It’s one of those subjects which you think isn’t puzzling, but as you as you start thinking about it philosophically, it becomes more and more puzzling until you almost can’t understand how anybody can make sense out of it. So a lot of philosophers think that forgiveness is essentially paradoxical, that it’s essentially a religious notion that we can’t make sense of it at all.

On the two things that make the topic of forgiveness philosophically puzzling:

One is to really take seriously that forgiveness is something distinct from excusing, justifying, and accepting. Quite often, in interpersonal life, we aren’t really distinguishing those. And what we take ourselves to be doing quite often when we think we’re forgiving is actually excusing, justifying, or accepting. But the reason that’s important that those aren’t distinct is that those are all ways of coming to see that there isn’t anything to forgive. So when you really come to see that it wasn’t your fault, then of course I’m going to stop holding it against you, but it’s because it wasn’t your fault. There’s nothing to forgive. And forgiveness essentially involves seeing it not as justified, not as excused, and not as acceptable and still coming not to hold it against you and that’s puzzling. I think forgiveness essentially features, in this logic, in the space where blame makes sense.

The second thing that drives the puzzle follows from that last thought about the appropriateness of blame. Partly, just that blame itself is appropriate. And I think that’s really important. People often thing “wouldn’t it be a nicer world if nobody ever blamed anybody or got angry with anybody,” but firstly I think that would be failing to take wrongdoing seriously and I think it would be failing to treat each other as persons, failing to hold each other accountable or responsible. I think this is how we all keep each other sane. So related to the idea that blame is appropriate, I think is the idea that certain kinds of emotional responses like resentment can be appropriate…Forgiveness starts from a point where resentment is warranted or appropriate. Disproportionate anger is just something you shouldn’t have. Forgiveness involves giving up resentment to which you’re entitled, resentment which is appropriate given what the wrongdoer has done.

On the notion that we should forgive others for the sake of our own well-being:

People sometimes say that it’s important to forgive so that you’re not going to be eaten up with resentment and for your own sort of mental health. It’s very plausible that it’s destructive to be eaten up with resentment and to dwell on things, but you can stop that without forgiving. So there are lots of ways to not be eaten up by resentment and anger that are not the same as forgiving. Suppose I say to you “I’m not angry with you anymore, but I’ll never see you in the same way again and I’ll never forget what you’ve done.” You’re not going to feel like you’ve been forgiven. So I think this point about forgiving from the point of view of mental hygiene, not being eaten up with resentment, that’s not exactly what forgiveness is. And that goes back to the point of why I think forgiveness is puzzling. When you start seeing all these things that are in the vicinity of forgiveness, but aren’t quite the same thing, it starts putting pressure on exactly what it would be.

On how to understand forgiveness:

I think the way to understand forgiveness, to get into it, we need to start by thinking really carefully about what’s involved in the content of resentment. So philosophers working on emotion have spent a lot of time looking at the fact that emotions are not just contentless itches, but there’s ways in which an emotion presents the world as being. And resentment, in specific, has some content, there’s a way in which it presents its object, so there’s something that can make its content appropriate or not. I think to understand forgiveness, what it is, we really need to pay very carefully attention to what that content is. What I think it essentially involves is a way of seeing with feeling, it’s affectively seeing that the way in which you appraise the person is affected by their wrongdoing. When can see this when you say things like “I would have never thought you were capable of that.” I’m now seeing you in a way that is informed by you now being capable of that. I’m seeing you differently. I think when we come to forgive, we come to see a person in a way that isn’t informed by their wrongdoing. And that goes back to what makes it puzzling because it doesn’t involve changing your view that it was an unexcused, unjustified, and unacceptable.

I think that forgiving is essentially overcoming justifiable resentment. I think resentment is central…I think that also involves a change in the way you come to feel towards the person. You stop seeing them as the person who did this, whatever it was, to you. I think forgiving is essentially a change in the way you feel towards the person. So if you still resent them, I think you haven’t forgiven them.

On forgiveness as a process and the cognitive impenetrableness of certain kinds of emotions:

I think that forgiveness is usually a process and I don’t think it’s entirely subject to the will. So I think you can undertake to try to forgive someone, but you might find yourself unable to forgive someone and you might also, I think, think you’ve forgiven someone and then something comes up that reminds you and you feel yourself being overcome with that feeling and you’re like “I thought I’d forgiven you, but actually it’s a little still there, but I’ve put it out of my mind. Or on the other extreme, I think you might just find that you’ve forgiven and the resentment is gone. Emotions are differently subject to the will than beliefs. Sometimes they are more directly subject to the will than beliefs are partly because emotions involve focus and dwelling and things like that, so we can sometimes overcome an emotion by what we choose to focus on. But sometimes they’re less subject to the will than beliefs. Some emotions are completely cognitively impenetrable. You know you’re not in danger, but you still feel scared at certain heights.

On forgiveness as a non-obligatory act:

In my view, it’s central to forgiveness that I don’t think you’re obliged to forgive. So I think it’s as important to giving an account for what forgiveness is that we give an account that makes sense of the fact that we think it’s generally virtuous, it’s generally a good thing, it’s generally something without which our lives would be worse. But I don’t think it’s obligatory in particular cases. I think it’s essential to what forgiveness is that it’s somehow discretionary. It’s not the same as if I owe you money and now I’ve paid you the money, there’s nothing further to be done. You just recognize that the debt has been discharged. I think it’s essential to forgiveness that it’s not just recognizing that the wrongdoer has just discharged a debt. It’s giving them something which I think is, in some central way, not their due. Forgiveness sees them better than their action warrants seeing them…I think we do it in small and big ways all the time, but I think it’s really radical.

Why should we forgive:

Blame makes sense. I think in interpersonal relations, we do all hurt each other and wrong each other all the time and we need to hold each other accountable. But we also need to be able to move forward and also I think it’s really important…that we don’t just relate to each other in a way which is keeping a tally of what we all deserve…One might say “What would justify forgiving?”, but I think that’s the wrong question. I don’t think when you’re considering to forgive someone —first, I don’t think you’re obliged to— you have to say something would have to be done to justify it. It think it’s, in a way, shifting to a different way of seeing people from the way that’s involved with keeping a tally and working out “Well, has this person done enough now for me to change my view?” So when we think about loving —I think there’s something interestingly connected between love and forgiveness and trust— they way we affectively see people is informed by their actions. I think that’s part of what it is to see them as an agent. But I think it’s also important that we have these attitudes that aren’t just a matter of evaluating what they deserve. I think love precisely isn’t that. You don’t love somebody just because there are all these various ways in which they’re good enough, or they deserve it. In forgiveness, “what warrants it or is it deserved?” is precisely not the question.

Related resource:

Wiping the Slate Clean: The Heart of Forgiveness by Lucy Allais

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

The Economic Way of Thinking | Interview with Anthony Carilli

This is a great short clip (under ten minutes long) for anyone who wants a concise and clear explanation of what the economic way of thinking is and how it can be used as a tool for understanding the social phenomena we observe around us. Contrary to popular misconception, Carilli shows how economics at its core is less about finances and more about human action.

Carilli opens this brief talk with a concise description of what constitutes economic thinking:

The economic way of thinking starts with a very simple premise and that premise is that all social phenomena emerge from the actions and interactions of people who make choices after weighing cost and benefits to themselves. So that way of thinking means that when we look out at the world, the things that we see are not random happenings. The things that we see that are social in the world are part of a decision-making process.

He then identifies three essential elements: actions, interactions, and choices.

1) Actions: We assume, in the economic way of thinking, that people act or that they choose. What it means to act is to apply means to ends according to ideas. They have ideas about how they can achieve goals…We call those goals ends. To be able to achieve ends, they need means. And means are the methods by which they achieve those ends…I have to choose because while my ends might be unlimited, I could have lots of different ends that I like, the means that I could use to attain those ends are limited. So the core problem of choice or action is scarcity. If means weren’t scarce, we wouldn’t need to choose. And in the real world, means are scarce and we need to choose. So if we want to understand real choice about real people, we have to understand scarcity.

2) Interactions: Interaction means if I’m in the social world, the decisions I make bump up against the decisions other people make and sometimes they’re incompatible which means we have to have some way we can coordinate our activities…So economics is a way to look at the way we coordinate with each other.

3) Choices: When we say that social phenomena emerge as a result of the actions and interactions of others, those social phenomena are unintended consequences of individuals choosing. So for economists, we believe that choice exists also that only individuals choose. When we talk about choice, we don’t mean collective choice or that a group can choose, but that only an individual can choose. So the order we see in the world — if you watch people walk down the street, or walk into the subway, or drive their cars, or sit down in a movie theatre — those are all orders. And those orders are spontaneous in the sense that nobody intended for those orders to exists. They end up existing as consequences of the choices that individuals make.

Carilli concludes by contending that our ability to make sense out of all types of social phenomena, from the riots some sports fans start after seeing their favorite team lose to the movie choices people make, depends on our grasp of the fundamentals of economic thought. And while mathematics and statistics are sometimes used to illustrate economic concepts, economics is primarily a philosophical discipline that seeks to understand things on a macro scale in terms of individual choices and incentives.

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Great Ideas Derive from Well-Rested Minds

David Heinemeier Hansson argues against the notion that a successful entrepreneur or start-up founder needs to spend 80 hours a week working on his business. When you spend too much time working, he argues, you lose focus on what really matters and reduce yourself to the role of a busy bodied automaton who can’t distinguish what’s really important from what’s marginal. He also pokes fun of people who brag about the little amount of sleep they get saying that they’re doing nothing more than announcing to the world how inefficient and poorly managed they are.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

Miracle Grow for Your Brain (Farnam Street Blog)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Drawing from Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey, Shane Parrish shares some scientific reasons for why we should make it point to stay physically fit. Taking care of our bodies is the same as taking care of our brains. Conversely, when we fail to get proper exercise, we fail to give our brain the nourishment it requires. If you really care about learning and optimal performance, you’d be wise to “get moving.” Among the many great quotes and insights he shares, here are two of my favorite excerpts from the book:

physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. For the brain to learn, these connections must be made; they reflect the brain’s fundamental ability to adapt to challenges. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn. Aerobic activity has a dramatic effect on adaptation, regulating systems that might be out of balance and optimizing those that are not – it’s an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to reach his or her full potential.

Darwin taught us that learning is the survival mechanism we use to adapt to constantly changing environments. Inside the microenvironment of the brain, that means forging new connections between cells to relay information. When we learn something, whether it’s a French word or a salsa step, cells morph in order to encode that information; the memory physically becomes part of the brain.

What I’m Learning: Day 16/365

“My philosophy, and the one thing I’ve been strategic and deliberate about from the beginning, is reader first …” -Maria Popova

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray (Pgs 150-170)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On how a playful state of mind broadens our perception and range of thought:

(pgs 152-153) The mental state of play is what some researchers call “flow.” Attention is attuned to the activity itself, and there is reduced consciousness of self and time. The mind is wrapped up in ideas, rules, and actions of the game and relatively impervious to outside distractions. May researchers…have described this state of mind as the ideal state for learning and creating. A few years ago…, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson developed what she calls the “broaden and build theory of positive emotions.” According to her theory, positive emotions broaden our perception and range of thought, which allows us to see what we didn’t see before, put ideas together in new ways, experiment with new ways of behaving, and in these ways build our repertoire of knowledge, ideas, and skills.

Fredrickson’s theory captures nicely much of what I have said in this chapter. But I would call it “the broaden and build theory of playfulness.” Or, to be more complete, maybe “the broaden and build theory of playfulness and curiosity.” The positive states of mind that broaden and build, in most if not all of Fredrickson’s examples, are states that generate play and exploration.

On how the power of play lies in its triviality:

(pgs 153-154) People often think of play as frivolous or trivial, and they are right. As I have explained, play is activity conducted for its own sake rather than to achieve serious real-world goals such as food, money, praise, escape from a tiger, or an addition to one’s résumé. It is activity that takes place at least partly in a fantasy world. So it is indeed trivial! But here is the most delicious of play’s paradoxes: the enormous educative power of play lies in its triviality.

Play serves the serious purpose of education, but the player is not deliberately educating himself or herself. The player is playing for fun; education is a by-product. If the player were playing for a serious purpose, it would no longer be play and much of the educative power would be lost.

(pg 156) Perhaps play would be more respected if we called it something like “self-motivated practice of life-skills,” but that would remove the lightheartedness from it and thereby reduce its effectiveness. So, we are stuck with the paradox. We must accept play’s triviality in order to realize its profundity.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

The Virtues of a Wandering Heart: How External Crushes Fortify Your Relationship

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Popova begins this thought-provoking article with the counter-intuitive suggestion that our feelings of attraction for people who are not our lovers might be the very element that makes it possible for us to not only remain faithful to our significant others, but to also fall in love with them over and over again. Sharing from the diary of Heidi Julavits, Popova offers her readers this bit of unconventional food for thought:

The marriages that last are the ones in which the two members regularly develop (but do not act upon) extramarital infatuations.

This is an idea I can honestly say I’ve never considered before. I’ll need some time to chew on this one.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Milton Friedman on Money

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Valerie Curtis on the Sources of Disgust

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In this episode, Valerie Curtis discusses the phenomenon of feeling disgusted, the different types of disgusts, and the relationship between our experience of being disgusted and our need for survival.

As it happens, my two favorite moments from this interview came when Curtis was talking about something other than disgust. While I enjoyed everything she had to say, what I found to be most noteworthy were her ideas about the nature of feelings and the importance of being what she calls “post-disciplinary.”  Those two excerpts are transcribed below.

Curtis on the relationship between feelings, imagination, and our human potential:

I don’t think that feelings are definitive of emotions. An emotion is a system that makes you behave in a certain way. So love makes you behave in a way that makes you sacrifice for the sake of a pair bond, for example. Why do we have feelings then? Well, most of what we do every day we can do perfectly well without our prefrontal cortex, without this uniquely primate part of the brain where our conscious brain resides. The clever trick evolution played that make us different from animals is to have this theater in our mind, is to have this ability to imagine the future. We’re able to take memories of things and project them into the future, that way we can weigh up future options against now. I can say to myself, being slim and beautiful in the future is such an attractive option that I’m prepared to forego my lunch now because I can imagine it. Now, no other animals can do that: they can’t hold alternative futures in their heads and weigh them up against each other. That’s what feelings are for, you look up your feelings, you have conscious experience of feelings, so that you can use them as tokens to map your chessboard of the future, and choose the one which will bring you the greatest value in the future, so that is the evolutionary trick that humans have played that allow us to be this extraordinary prescient animal, who is able to imagine, for example, working together to build a space station. No other animal can do this collaborative, collective work that produces this extraordinary world we live in today.

On her determination to make the pursuit of truth a greater priority than identifying herself by a particular academic discipline:

I like to think of myself as being post-­‐disciplinary. I came to this field because I wanted to change human behavior to improve health, but I came to a field where I couldn’t find good theories, good approaches that would help me learn about human behavior well enough to change it. So we’ve had to go back to the source, which is evolution. If you look at behavior in an evolutionary perspective, you start to understand why we behave the way we do, and ultimately, if we’re going to understand why we behave the way we do, then we’re going to get much better at changing it. So I think that you have to take a spanner from here, and a piece of wire from here, and a little bit of string from there, and whatever it is that works, to solve your problem, that’s what you should use.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

How to Change Education – Ken Robinson

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Ken Robinson begins his talk making note of how people often talk about “getting back to the basics” of education. According to Robinson, what most people mean by “getting back to the basics,” is tantamount to making children study the subjects we think are most important. For Robinson, however, the true meaning of “getting back to the basics” should be about assessing the purposes for why we educate in the first place. Pointing out the industrial model of education that originally gave rise to our public schooling system as an outdated paradigm , Robinson argues that it’s time to upgrade our approach to accommodate the new kind of world we find ourselves in. The real power to determine one’s educational path, according to Robinson, ought to belong in the hands of parents, students, and teachers, not politicians.

During his talk, Robinson identifies the following four purposes of education:

1) Build their capacity for economic self-sufficiency

2) Develop a sense of creativity and adaptability

3) Understand their cultural identity, appreciate the cultural identity of others, and gain a philosophical and practical knowledge of the social institutions that shape and govern the world.

4) Develop a sense of personal identity, autonomy, and individuality.

Near the end of his talk, he makes a poignant remark about the tragic results to both teachers and children when we insist on a top-down, politically driven approach to public schooling

Children have a vast appetite for learning and it only starts to dissipate when we educate them. That’s to say when we put them into buildings designed for the purpose and put them in serried ranks and start to force feed them information in which they may or may not have an interest. The conceit of education is that your children learn anyway, but we can help them do it better and direct them to things they may not otherwise learn if left to their own devices…If we really want education to be effective, we have to focus on the process of teaching and learning. And teaching, I think, over the course of the past number of years of these so-called reformed movements, has become reduced in the political discourse to a kind of delivery system. Your job is to deliver the national curriculum. Teaching has become a kind of delivery system and teachers have become seen as functionaries in the raising of standards and in the administration of tests.

In a world where so many people seem to think that the solution to education is throwing money at the problem or lobbying for more legislation, Ken Robinson’s talk is an inspiring breathe of fresh air. You can listen in its entirety here.

Activity XI: Watch One TED Talk (Under 20 Minutes)

Ray Kurzweil: Get ready for hybrid thinking

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

Dangerous Ideas: Getting Started is Overrated by Cal Newport (Study Hacks Blog)

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In contrast to the post I wrote this morning on the Praxis blog, Preparation is What Happens While You Work, Cal Newport warns aspiring creators to be leery of the commonly espoused notion that getting started is the key to proficiency. Referencing writers like myself, Newport claims there’s a lot more to the picture than the merely getting into the game:

Attend any talk given by an entrepreneur and you’ll hear some variation of the following:

The most important thing you can do is to get started!

This advice has percolated from its origin in business self-help to the wider productivity blogging community. You’ve heard it before: Do you want to become a writer? Start writing! Do you want to become fit? Join a gym today! Do you want to become a big-time blogger? Start posting ASAP! If you don’t start, you’re weak! You’re afraid of success!

Here’s the problem: I completely disagree with this common advice. I think an instinct for getting started cripples your chance at long-term success. And I suggest that, on the contrary, you should develop rigorous thresholds that any pursuit must overcome before it can induce action.

According to Newport, the problem with this advice is that it’s guilty of what Nassim Taleb call Survivor’s Bias — “a common fallacy in which we emulate people who succeeded without considering those who used similar techniques but failed.” While entrepreneurs are quick to emphasize the importance of getting started, the success stories they use to support this point only represent a small sample of the data that needs to be examined.

For every successful entrepreneur, or writer, or blogger, or actor, there are dozens of others who did get started but then flamed out. Some people lack the right talents. For many more, the pursuit, once past that initial stage of generic, heady enthusiasm, simply lost its attraction and their interest waned.

In other words, putting the emphasis on getting started leads to “flame out” experiences more than it leads to success. The real advice we ought to be given, according to Newport, is wait until you get started:

In short, I’ve noticed that people who succeed in an impressive pursuit are those who:

  • Established, over time, a deep emotional conviction that they want to follow that pursuit.
  • Have built an exhaustive understanding of the relevant world, why some succeed and others don’t, and exactly what type of action is required.

Steve Martin noted that the key to becoming really good at something (so good that they can’t ignore you), is diligence, which he defines as effort over time to the exclusion of other pursuits. This is why people who ultimately succeed in a pursuit go through such a long period of vetting before they begin — if you’re not 100% convinced and ready to tackle something, potentially for years, to the exclusions of the hundreds of interesting new ideas that will pop up along the way, you’ll probably fizzle out well before reaping any reward.

This reality brings me back to my original point: try not to get started. If you translate every burst of enthusiasm into action, you’re going to waste time. More dangerous, you’re going to hobble your chances of succeeding in any pursuit, as the constant influx of new activity prevents you from achieving a Steve Martin-style diligence.

My advice: resist starting. Spend lots of time learning about different pursuits, but put off action until an idea begins to haunt your daydreams and refuses to be dislodged from your aspirational psyche. Then, and only then, should you reluctantly take that first step, one of what’s sure to be many, many more before you get to where you want.

While I think there is much to learn from Newport here, I think he runs the risk of overstating his case a bit. While reading the comments for his post, I came across the  following comment from a reader named Scott that expresses my thoughts quite well:

Cal,

I’m going to have a friendly disagreement with you, for two reasons:

1) A lot of experience comes from taking action. While you can learn something about a field by sitting on the sidelines, you won’t truly know about it until you dive right in.

2) Many pursuits have relatively few downsides. Starting a blog is free. If your blog fails after 6 months, then you’ve just wasted 6 months. There is no capital involved or employees to fire. I’d rather waste 6 months trying to make it as a blogger than waste 6 months researching blogging where I will learn less and have a 0% chance of success.

Where I do agree with you is in the domain of real risks. Areas where you are committing exorbitant amounts of time or money to a pursuit. In those cases, resisting the initial spur to get started and doing more careful research might be beneficial.

In fairness to Newport, he responds to Scott’s comments and acknowledges the value of his take:

Scott, I enjoy your take. I think an important distinction for this discussion is the ultimate goal of action. I guess I should clarify that I’m addressing those interested in building what I’ll call “superstar skill,” that is an expertise that has reached a level where rewards become disproportionately large.

With this caveat in mind, I would address your points as follows…

A lot of experience comes from taking action.

Superstar skill requires expertise which requires consistent, diligent action over time. Too much “experience” gathering on multiple fronts prevent expertise in any one area.

On the other hand, I think we agree in that I too support the idea of small experiments as a smart way to test whether or not to commit to a pursuit. Perhaps starting a small blog could be considered a lightweight experiment.

Many pursuits have relatively few downsides.

We chronically undervalue attention and time. If one is interested in building a superstar skill, any extra pursuit that eats up time and attention does have a big downside.

In essence, the attitude I’m combating is one in which every twinge of momentary enthusiasm is translated into action that consumes a non-trivial amount of time and attention.

I appreciate the non-dogmatic tone of Newport’s response. Given the fact that he’s addressing the proverbial problem of acting on “zeal without knowledge,” his points make a great deal of sense. Diving into action isn’t some kind of silver bullet that’s going to make your dreams come true. Over the long-term, getting started won’t matter very much without the persistence and deliberate practice necessary to cultivate true craftsmanship. As I wrote in Preparation is What Happens While You Work, however, it’s absolutely vital to recognize that taking some degree of risk-based action (as opposed to merely practicing or researching) an essential part of what it means to prepare for something.

A more important point for me to make, however, is how Newport’s article and some of the comments made by his readers illustrate the importance of taking a both/and approach to self-help philosophy and professional development. For almost any view that can be espoused (ie. Follow your passion or Hack your life), there’s a writer or speaker telling us to do the exact opposite (Don’t follow your passion or Stop hacking your life). This could lead to a lot of confusion if we approach self-help with the hope of having someone else do our thinking for us. But if we’re willing to think critically about all points of view, we’ll find something useful and useless in all the great ideas. This is why I think the best question to ask ourselves when studying ideas like this is not “Do I agree with this author?” Rather, the question we should be asking ourselves is “How can I take what’s application to my situation and use it to create the results that matter most to me.

What I’m Learning: Day 15/365

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting. Learning is the only thing for you. Look what a lot of things there are to learn.” ― T.H. White, The Once and Future King

To see the spreadsheet documenting all the activities I completed yesterday, click here.

Activity IV: Read for one hour

Free to Learn by Peter Gray (Chapter 7 The Playful State of Mind)

Gray opens Chapter 7 by offering a myriad of experiments illustrating and demonstrating the adverse effect that the inhibition of play has on people’s ability to learn and think creatively. After sharing several interesting and thought-provoking experiments, he goes on to make a number of crucial observations about what play is and why it matters to personal development. Here are some of my favorite passages from this chapter.

On the consequences of inhibiting play and the benefits of facilitating play:

…learning, problem solving, and creativity are worsened by interventions that interfere with playfulness and improved by interventions that promote playfulness.

On the impossibility of mandating creativity through authoritarianism, coercion, or bribery:

Pressure to be creative interferes with creativity…If you want to increase the degree to which people will pull hard or persist at some boring, repetitive task, such as shelling beans or copying sentences, you can succeed by giving them an incentive to perform better. If you enter them into a contest, or watch them conspicuously, or pay them well for excellent performance, their performance improves. But creativity doesn’t work that way. High incentive seems to foul up rather than improve the process. You can’t become creative by simply trying really, really hard. Creativity is a spark that comes when mental conditions are just right, and high incentive seems to mess up those conditions.

On play as a psychological, not merely physical, phenomenon:

…the characteristics of play all have to do with motivation and mental attitude, not with the overt form of the behavior itself. Two people might be throwing a ball, or pounding nails, or typing words on a computer, and one might be playing while the other is not. To tell which one is playing and which one is not, you have to infer from their expressions and the details of their actions something about why they are doing what they are doing and their attitude toward it.

On the blended nature of playfulness and the myth of play as an all or nothing phenomenon:

Play is not necessarily all or none. Play can blend with other motives and attitudes, in proportions ranging anywhere from zero up to 100 percent. For that reason, the adjective playful, which is understood as something that can vary by degrees, is often more useful than the noun play, which tends to be interpreted as all or none. People can, to varying degrees, bring a “playful attitude” or “playful spirit” to whatever activity they are doing. In general, pure play (activity that is 100% playful) is more common in children than adults. In adults, playfulness most often blends with other attitudes and motives having to do with adult responsibilities.

On the essential elements of play:

Play is not defined in terms of some single identifying characteristic. Rather, it is defined as a confluence of several characteristics…1) play is self-chosen and self-directed; 2) play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; 3) play has structure or rules that are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; 4) play is imaginative, nonliteral, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and 5) play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.

Gray spends the remainder of the chapter devoting a separate section for each of these five elements of play. Nearly every other paragraph is quotable. His analysis and elucidation of the essential features of play makes the reading of this book worthwhile. Chapter 7 of Free to Learn can justify the purchase of this gem of a book all by itself.

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

Young Delacroix on the Importance of Solitude in Creative Work and How to Resist Social Distractions

In this article, Maria Popova shares the personal musings of Eugène Delacroix on solitude. Quoting from The Journal of Eugène Delacroix, she provides the reader with more than a few poignant observations about the richness of contemplative life and the potential pitfalls of overindulging in social activity. Here is my favorite excerpt:

Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you’re always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well-ordered your health will not suffer.

Like Delacroix, I see pleasant social interaction as a reward for having the sort of well-ordered interior state that comes from the practice of solitude. Scipio was reported by Cicero as having said “I am never less alone than when alone.” When we exercise the courage and determination to set aside time alone with ourselves, pushing aside the guilt and peer pressure thrust upon us by those hungry for our company, we’re able to develop the kind of relationship with our inner being that allows us to return to the crown with a greater sense of presence. Fewer people are more pleasant and healing to be around than those who don’t feel the need to always be around.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalk podcast

Giving Away Money: An Economist’s Guide to Political Life

Mike Munger joins Russ Roberts to share his thoughts on the relationship between economics and political life. While politicians may be motivated by different concerns than the rest of us, Munger argues that we should not look at political actors as neutral agent. Politicians are neither angels or demons, they are human beings who respond to incentives. The entire interview (under 40 minutes long) was informative. Here are two of my favorite quotes by Munger from the interview.

On the paradox of public choice:

In a market setting, the way to make money is to create new products and services and sell them at a low cost. The paradox of public choice is that in government, the way to make money is to promise to give it away for free.

On the nature of public choice and what it means to attribute self-interest to political actors:

The public choice approach basically just extends the fundamental assumption of economics to the study of politics. The fundamental assumption of economics is that people act in their own self-interest. In politics, if you believe that people act in their own self-interest, you don’t necessarily mean that they’re narrow and egotistical. They could be doing what they think is good for you.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Bruce Hood on the Supernatural

Bruce Hood shares some fascinating insights into why we tend to invoke supernatural explanations for ordinary and extraordinary phenomenon. Invoking the concept of essentialism, “the attribution of a hidden dimension to things giving them their true identity,” he explains how our common belief in hidden essences accounts for appeals to the supernatural. One of the more interesting aspects of his research is his demonstration of the fact that supernatural beliefs are often held by believers and non-believers alike. Even people who self-identify as atheists, rationalists, or skeptics, exhibit tendencies to think in supernaturalistic terms. Hood provides examples ranging from objects we hold to have sentimental value (ie. wedding rings) to things like the sense of disgust we would feel about wearing a sweatshirt previously worn by a serial killer to show how we often attribute intangible essences to things that have no basis in scientific thinking:

So for example, I did a study some years ago asking people if they’d be willing to wear a cardigan. I offered them incentive of £20. Most people would. And then you say ‘Actually, would you still wear it if you knew it belonged to Fred West?’ Most people would put their hands down when you say, ‘Well why wouldn’t you wear it?’ Some people say ‘Well I don’t want to be seen to be as someone who’s willing to wear Fred West’s cardigan.’ But that just restates the problem. What’s wrong with wearing a killer’s cardigan? Others will say well it feels disgusting. It feels dirty. It’s almost as if they’re applying a biological explanation.

We’re now actually doing work where we get people to put on or touch clothing and then we inform them that it belongs to someone very good or someone very evil and then we watch what happens afterwards. Do they wash their hands? Do they start doing all these implicit measures? And they all suggest that they are acting irrationally. But there’s a good reason why they might do so. We don’t know why people are crazed killers. There might be a biological contamination. So in that sense it’s not an entirely irrational response. But when you explain it explicitly people say ‘Well I know it’s a bit strange, but it just makes me feel yucky.’ So that’s what I mean by supernatural thinking because if these things were really real, if these dimensions and forces and energies were real, they wouldn’t be supernatural they’d be natural. So these are things which go beyond our current understanding.

It’s the belief of what you think something is which will affect your behavior. So for example, we did a study asking people to cut up photographs of sentimental objects or their wives. And we found that even though they knew it’s just a photograph and they didn’t think there’d be any problem you could measure significant increases of undue stress. So in other words I think what’s going on is you have systems in the brain which are triggered by irrational supernatural intuitions if you like, but you can suppress them or control them by top down logical analysis. But they’re always in conflict. And there are no atheists in the foxhole, or at 30,000 feet when the plane hits turbulence. We can revert right back to this magical thinking.

Hood presents some interesting experimental data that could bring some clarity and intrigue to many contemporary discussions on the supernatural.

Activity X: Educational lecture/talk

Joseph DeSimone: What if 3D printing was 100x faster?

Joseph DeSimone begins with the following observation: “3D printing is a misnomer. It’s actually 2D printing over and over again.” He then explains how 3D printing works and he identifies three fundamental problems with the current approach that hold back 3D printing from being a manufacturing process:

1. 3D printing takes forever,

2. Printed parts are mechanically weak.

3. Material choices are far too limited.

DeSimone then explains that his approach to tackling these problems is to harness oxygen and light to grow parts:

Light and oxygen grow in different ways. Light can take a resin and convert it into a solid. It can grow a liquid into a solid. Oxygen inhibits that process. So light and oxygen are polar opposites of one another from a chemical point of view. So if we can control spatially the light and oxygen, we can control this process.

DeSimone refers to this process as CLIP (Continuous Light Interface Production). The result of this process is the ability to print 3D objects 25-100x’s faster than the conventional process. Because convention 3D printing is actually just 2D printing repeated through multiple layers, the CLIP approach makes it possible to produce a much more refined and realistic product.

DeSimone closes his fascinating talk, one that included a live CLIP-based 3D printing demonstration, with the following words:

So the opportunity of making a part in real time that has the properties to be a final part really opens up 3D manufacturing. And for us, this is very exciting. This really is owning the intersection between hardware, software, and molecular science. And I can’t wait to see what designers and engineers around the world are going to be able to do with this great tool.

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

Chris Michel on Art, Compliance Mechanisms, and Entrepreneurship (The Accidental Creative Podcast)

Chris Michel, a serial entrepreneur, writer, and photographers shares various insights on creativity and entrepreneurship.

On the importance of courage and work ethic over having ideas:

To me it’s even really less about the idea and more about the courage to go the company. Because often times, whatever you decide to go do, what you end up doing or what the company ends up being is a little different.

On the value of being committed to the creative process:

The most important thing is to be committed to the idea of creating something. Those people who are like “This is what I’m going to go do, this i how my life will be defined,” I think you remove some of that serendipity from the system and increase your odds significantly.

On the lack of a necessary connection between entrepreneurial success and traditional schooling:

The most successful entrepreneurs didn’t even go to college.

On the need to be proactive:

People probably shouldn’t wait around for the serendipity moment or for the light bulb. Instead say “this is what I want to go do.” Then your mind is open and receptive to seeing opportunities and hopefully you have the courage to go take the leap.

On the advantage of smaller companies or unsuccessful people:

One of the hard things for people who have had some success in life is to be willing to sacrifice to create great things when they don’t have to. A lot of younger people have done a lot of incredible things because they had no alternative or they were driven in some way. That’s more difficult for really successful people to do. Why do big companies famously don’t really innovate? Because real innovation and entrepreneurship are almost unnatural acts of human sacrifice. And big companies that don’t have to do that, won’t give it enough. They won’t bet the company on it. Nobody will work 365 days and sacrifice everything.

On the power and primacy of trust:

If you can build, maintain, and generate trust with others, you can do anything. And to the extent you don’t do that, it doesn’t matter what principles you use, you’ll have problems.

Activity XII: Read one Blog Post from Favorites List

How To Do Philosophy by Paul Graham

“while ideas don’t have to have immediate practical applications to be interesting, the kinds of things we find interesting will surprisingly often turn out to have practical applications.” -Paul Graham

Paul Graham shares his thoughts on the value of philosophy, when and how the study of philosophy went wrong, and how we can fix it.

Graham begins by criticizing much of scholarly philosophy as irrelevant and obscure. He doesn’t believe this is a matter of necessity, but rather a matter of unfortunate, but fixable, fact. Recounting one lesson he learned during his freshman year at college, Graham affirms philosophy’s ability to challenge our commonsense intuitions and judgments about life:

There are things I know I learned from studying philosophy. The most dramatic I learned immediately, in the first semester of freshman year, in a class taught by Sydney Shoemaker. I learned that I don’t exist. I am (and you are) a collection of cells that lurches around driven by various forces, and calls itself I. But there’s no central, indivisible thing that your identity goes with. You could conceivably lose half your brain and live. Which means your brain could conceivably be split into two halves and each transplanted into different bodies. Imagine waking up after such an operation. You have to imagine being two people.

The real lesson here is that the concepts we use in everyday life are fuzzy, and break down if pushed too hard. Even a concept as dear to us as I. It took me a while to grasp this, but when I did it was fairly sudden, like someone in the nineteenth century grasping evolution and realizing the story of creation they’d been told as a child was all wrong. [2] Outside of math there’s a limit to how far you can push words; in fact, it would not be a bad definition of math to call it the study of terms that have precise meanings. Everyday words are inherently imprecise. They work well enough in everyday life that you don’t notice. Words seem to work, just as Newtonian physics seems to. But you can always make them break if you push them far enough.

Commenting on the innovative nature of the questions asked by the early Greek philosophers, Graham praises the originality and curiosity of these early thinkers:

People talk so much about abstractions now that we don’t realize what a leap it must have been when they first started to. It was presumably many thousands of years between when people first started describing things as hot or cold and when someone asked “what is heat?” No doubt it was a very gradual process. We don’t know if Plato or Aristotle were the first to ask any of the questions they did. But their works are the oldest we have that do this on a large scale, and there is a freshness (not to say naiveté) about them that suggests some of the questions they asked were new to them, at least.

Aristotle in particular reminds me of the phenomenon that happens when people discover something new, and are so excited by it that they race through a huge percentage of the newly discovered territory in one lifetime. If so, that’s evidence of how new this kind of thinking was.

Citing Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Graham goes on to explain how philosophy went afoot:

Aristotle’s goal was to find the most general of general principles. The examples he gives are convincing: an ordinary worker builds things a certain way out of habit; a master craftsman can do more because he grasps the underlying principles. The trend is clear: the more general the knowledge, the more admirable it is. But then he makes a mistake—possibly the most important mistake in the history of philosophy. He has noticed that theoretical knowledge is often acquired for its own sake, out of curiosity, rather than for any practical need. So he proposes there are two kinds of theoretical knowledge: some that’s useful in practical matters and some that isn’t. Since people interested in the latter are interested in it for its own sake, it must be more noble. So he sets as his goal in the Metaphysics the exploration of knowledge that has no practical use. Which means no alarms go off when he takes on grand but vaguely understood questions and ends up getting lost in a sea of words.

His mistake was to confuse motive and result. Certainly, people who want a deep understanding of something are often driven by curiosity rather than any practical need. But that doesn’t mean what they end up learning is useless. It’s very valuable in practice to have a deep understanding of what you’re doing; even if you’re never called on to solve advanced problems, you can see shortcuts in the solution of simple ones, and your knowledge won’t break down in edge cases, as it would if you were relying on formulas you didn’t understand. Knowledge is power. That’s what makes theoretical knowledge prestigious. It’s also what causes smart people to be curious about certain things and not others; our DNA is not so disinterested as we might think.

So while ideas don’t have to have immediate practical applications to be interesting, the kinds of things we find interesting will surprisingly often turn out to have practical applications.

The reason Aristotle didn’t get anywhere in the Metaphysics was partly that he set off with contradictory aims: to explore the most abstract ideas, guided by the assumption that they were useless. He was like an explorer looking for a territory to the north of him, starting with the assumption that it was located to the south.

And since his work became the map used by generations of future explorers, he sent them off in the wrong direction as well. [8] Perhaps worst of all, he protected them from both the criticism of outsiders and the promptings of their own inner compass by establishing the principle that the most noble sort of theoretical knowledge had to be useless.

Soon after, the western world fell on intellectual hard times. Instead of version 1s to be superseded, the works of Plato and Aristotle became revered texts to be mastered and discussed. And so things remained for a shockingly long time. It was not till around 1600 (in Europe, where the center of gravity had shifted by then) that one found people confident enough to treat Aristotle’s work as a catalog of mistakes. And even then they rarely said so outright.

If it seems surprising that the gap was so long, consider how little progress there was in math between Hellenistic times and the Renaissance.

In the intervening years an unfortunate idea took hold: that it was not only acceptable to produce works like the Metaphysics, but that it was a particularly prestigious line of work, done by a class of people called philosophers. No one thought to go back and debug Aristotle’s motivating argument. And so instead of correcting the problem Aristotle discovered by falling into it—that you can easily get lost if you talk too loosely about very abstract ideas—they continued to fall into it.

After offering his diagnostic, Graham proposes the following cure:

We may be able to do better. Here’s an intriguing possibility. Perhaps we should do what Aristotle meant to do, instead of what he did. The goal he announces in the Metaphysics seems one worth pursuing: to discover the most general truths. That sounds good. But instead of trying to discover them because they’re useless, let’s try to discover them because they’re useful.

I propose we try again, but that we use that heretofore despised criterion, applicability, as a guide to keep us from wondering off into a swamp of abstractions. Instead of trying to answer the question: What are the most general truths?
let’s try to answer the question Of all the useful things we can say, which are the most general? The test of utility I propose is whether we cause people who read what we’ve written to do anything differently afterward. Knowing we have to give definite (if implicit) advice will keep us from straying beyond the resolution of the words we’re using. The goal is the same as Aristotle’s; we just approach it from a different direction.

Graham contends that one advantage of his solution is that it democratizes the practice of philosophical inquiry:

Here’s the exciting thing, though. Anyone can do this. Getting to general plus useful by starting with useful and cranking up the generality may be unsuitable for junior professors trying to get tenure, but it’s better for everyone else, including professors who already have it. This side of the mountain is a nice gradual slope. You can start by writing things that are useful but very specific, and then gradually make them more general. Joe’s has good burritos. What makes a good burrito? What makes good food? What makes anything good? You can take as long as you want. You don’t have to get all the way to the top of the mountain. You don’t have to tell anyone you’re doing philosophy.

For those who find this process daunting, Graham offers the following bit of optimism:

That sounds a preposterous claim to make. It won’t seem so preposterous in 10,000 years. Civilization always seems old, because it’s always the oldest it’s ever been. The only way to say whether something is really old or not is by looking at structural evidence, and structurally philosophy is young; it’s still reeling from the unexpected breakdown of words.

Philosophy is as young now as math was in 1500. There is a lot more to discover.