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The Silent Thoughts of the Calm, The Appeasement Strategy, Human Weakness as a Choice, The Inevitably Embarrassing Nature of Older Work, The Loyalty Required of Artists, & What it Really Means to Know You Can’t Please Everyone (Reading/Study Notes 5.26.18)

Resource: If the Angry Could Hear What the Calm Do Not Say


“In all the years we’ve known each other, how many times have I expressed anger at you? By my count, the answer is… zero. Question: Do you think that’s because your behavior is above reproach? Do you imagine I’m entirely satisfied with the way you’ve treated me? Well, I’m not. Your emotional abuse aside, you’ve failed to meet my expectations more than once.”

“Nobody’s perfect. I take a moderate amount of bad behavior for granted, and count myself lucky it’s not worse.”

“Assessing behavior is surprisingly ambiguous. Real life is not a math exam. While bad behavior plainly exists, even decent people frequently see the world differently – an insight that inspired game theorists to develop the notion of trembling-hands equilibria. In such an environment, interpreting people’s actions charitably is advisable – especially people with a long, admirable track record.”

“While getting angry often changes behavior for the better, getting angry also often changes behavior for the worse. Net effect? Unclear.”

“Getting angry is far from the only way to change behavior for the better. So in the subset of situations where anger is an effective motivator, you still have to ask: Does it motivate better than these alternatives? The answer, once again, is unclear.”

“Getting angry clouds your thinking, leading to intellectual and moral error. And two of my chief life goals are being right and acting rightly.”


When people fail to express anger or frustration towards you, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re perfectly satisfied with your behavior. It might just mean that they’re exercising tolerance/temperance or choosing to interpret you charitably.

While it is true that anger can be a motivating force for positive behavior, it is not true that there is evidence to suggest that anger is a better motivating force than any alternatives.

While anger can be quite effective at helping you get what you want in the short-term, it tends to eat away at relationships in the long-term.

Resource: My Life of Appeasement


“Morally speaking, I think taxation is theft. The government has a lot of bad excuses for taking my money without my consent, but no really good reasons. Still, every year, I pay my taxes. Why don’t I stand up for my rights? The obvious reason: If I stood up for my rights by refusing to pay and attacking anyone who tried to make me, I would end up dead or in jail. That’s the way the government deals with tax resistors. Given this bleak forecast, I never openly defy the government. Instead, I practice the opposite strategy: appeasement. I find out what the government demands, I comply, and I resume living my rich, fulfilling life. Yes, my rights have been violated. But I’d rather live on my knees than die on my feet. Indeed, I would consider dying on my feet to be not only foolish, but wicked. Life is a gift, even if the government insists on tarnishing it.”

“Despite its well-hyped failures, appeasement is an incredibly effective social strategy for dealing with the unreasonable and the unjust… also known as 90% of mankind. Whenever someone makes bizarre demands upon me, my default is not to argue. Instead, I weigh the cost of compliance. If that cost is small – and it usually is – I let the babies have their way. If you bump into me in the grocery store, I say “Sorry.””

“Once people retract the absurd claim that “appeasement doesn’t work,” they finally unveil their real objection: They have too much pride to appease. “Why should I apologize when she’s the one who stepped on my foot?” When people express such attitudes, I usually just appease them and get on with my life. But what I’m silently thinking is: “If you’re truly awesome, you shouldn’t care what unreasonable, unjust people think.””

“Does this mean that you should never stand up for what is right? Of course not. But you should pick your battles very carefully. While fighting is far more impulsively satisfying than submitting, you should restrain your impulses in favor of calm reflection. You might be in the wrong. You might be making a mountain out of a molehill. And even if right and proportion are on your side, the real world is not an action movie. You could easily fail – and you have a lot to lose.”


Appeasement is a survival strategy where you choose not to make a big deal out of something because you have a good reason to believe the other party will be unreasonable/unjust in their response and the cost of dealing with their response is greater than the benefits derived from your protest.

Appeasement is not an appropriate response to all forms of undesirable behavior. Sometimes you should resist/protest, but that doesn’t mean it’s always reasonable or effective to resist/protest.

While most people object to the strategy of appeasement by appealing to principle, the real cause is that it’s hard on the ego.

Putting up a fight when you feel wronged or slighted is more immediately gratifying than maintaining composure long enough to think things through, but it creates far more trouble in the long run.

There are other way to stand up for your rights and fight for your freedom beyond engaging in personal in-the-heat-of-the-moment protests.

Resource: Against Human Weakness


“I’m not a principled advocate of monogamy; it’s not for everyone, and I am after all a fan of Big Love. I am however a principled advocate of honoring your contracts and promises. If you don’t want to practice monogamy, here’s an idea: Don’t agree to it. If you want a non-traditional marriage, write a contract for it. Don’t accept the standard-issue version, then pretend that you didn’t have a choice.”

“But aren’t monogamous contracts “unrealistic”? This claim makes no sense. If 50% of people who vow life-long monogamy keep their promise, what’s “unrealistic” about it? Monogamy is no more unrealistic than hundreds of promises that we expect people to keep – to show up for work on time, buy lunch next time, pay their workers, or give dissatisfied customers their money back. In each instance, if you think the terms are onerous, refuse them. Don’t say yes, then blame the fates.”

“But what about human weakness? Here I take a hard line: Human weakness is a choice, and it should be criticized, not excused. I’m particularly baffled when economists say otherwise. In what economic model is “lots of people feel tempted to do it” a reason to turn a blind eye? I embrace a simple alternative: Do the right thing all day, every day.”

“I do many embarrassing things every day. I sing off-key, dance badly when no one is watching, say things about people that I wouldn’t say to their faces, and much more. I’d rather not see any of this on Youtube. Still, I insist that my behavior is merely embarrassing. If I thought it was wrong, I would cease and desist – not plead human weakness.”

“Public defenses of human weakness are part of an insidious pooling equilibrium. Someone fails to live up to their marriage vows or other solemn agreements, and bystanders are supposed to either invoke human weakness or stay quiet. What happens if you condemn the guilty party? You risk being singled out for hyper-scrutiny, and harsh condemnation for the smallest stain on your record. (Or alternately, you single yourself out as a bitter, pathetic victim). As a result, wrong-doers caught red-handed deflect attention from their own bad behavior onto those who vocally disapprove of what they’ve done. What kind of incentives are those?”


Monogamy is not an unrealistic expectation. 50% of marries people keep their vows. Hence, it can be done.

If you don’t think monogamy is realistic, that’s your right. But it’s also your right (and responsibility) to stay out of contracts (ie. marriage vows) that you don’t believe in or intend to keep. Thinking critically about the agreements you make is realistic even if marital fidelity isn’t.

Criticizing human weakness is a good thing. We should all take stands against immoral behavior, but we often fail to do so because we’ve bought into the notion that having flaws is the same thing as being a hypocrite. So we stay quiet when people do wrong because we fear a spotlight will be shone on our own flaws.

Human weakness is a choice. If we have areas where we are weak, we have the option of avoiding temptation or cultivating mastery/discipline/restraint in that area.

Resource: If You’re Not Embarrassed By Your Old Work, You’re Doing Something Wrong


“You make a thing. An article, a song, a drawing, a show, a book, whatever. You work like hell to get it finished. You spend hours polishing it. You pour your soul into it. You let it take over your life and consume your thoughts for days, weeks, maybe months. Finally, you finish it and release it the world. You’re proud of it. Maybe other people like it, maybe they don’t, but you’re glad you shipped it. You admire your handiwork, then move on to the next thing. Then a year later (or maybe six months) you look at it again. Suddenly, it doesn’t seem that impressive. In fact, it seems kind of bad.”

“creativity makes you vulnerable. You’re essentially pulling out a piece of yourself and presenting it to the world. Whatever it is, there’s a lot of you in it. As you change, the work remains the same. It remains linked to who you used to be, the past self which is now long gone.”

“While I regret having destroyed so much of my old work, it’s a good sign to feel embarrassed by your prior art. It shows how far you’ve come, what you’ve learned, how you’ve improved. If work from a year ago doesn’t make you wince even a little bit, it’s a bad sign. There’s no pinnacle of perfection that we get to reach. There’s no point where our work can’t get any better and we stop cringing at prior pieces. It’s an endless trudge upwards, improving by increments, getting better with each passing year.”

“The paradox of the grain of millet points out that a falling grain of millet makes no discernable sound, yet a whole bushel clearly makes a sound. It’s much the same with our work. Day by day, with each thing we ship, each falling grain, not a lot changes. Yet when we look back across six months or a year, a falling bushel, the change seems obvious.”


The process of creating things is a vulnerable process. When you make a work of art or write down your thoughts for public consumption, you are sharing a part of yourself. And the part of yourself that you share, as represented in the artifact you created, will remain the same months and years after you’ve evolved. This leads to the inevitable experience of creating things only to be later embarrassed by your work.

Being a little embarrassed by your work is a good sign. It shows that you’re still creating and still challenging yourself. Because you’re reaching new levels of mastery, it’s getting easier for you to look back on older work and spot the flaws. That’s a net positive. The only way to avoid the possibility of this embarrassment is to either stop creating or to be so impressed with yourself that you stay at the same level forever.

No matter how far we’ve come or how much experience we’ve accumulated, there’s always room for improvement. Always.

Changes in the quality of our work are more readily seen over long stretches of time. Like physical growth, it’s hard to detect on a day-to-day basis, but it’s strikingly evident after many years. The same is true of the impact of our work. It becomes more noticeable over time.

Resource: The Third Self: Mary Oliver on Time, Concentration, the Artist’s Task, and the Central Commitment of the Creative Life


“In the wholeheartedness of concentration, world and self begin to cohere. With that state comes an enlarging: of what may be known, what may be felt, what may be done.”

“just as self-criticism is the most merciless kind of criticism and self-compassion the most elusive kind of compassion, self-distraction is the most hazardous kind of distraction, and the most difficult to protect creative work against…the intimate interrupter’…is far more perilous to creative work than any external distraction.” -Maria Popova

“It is a silver morning like any other. I am at my desk. Then the phone rings, or someone raps at the door. I am deep in the machinery of my wits. Reluctantly I rise, I answer the phone or I open the door. And the thought which I had in hand, or almost in hand, is gone. Creative work needs solitude. It needs concentration, without interruptions. It needs the whole sky to fly in, and no eye watching until it comes to that certainty which it aspires to, but does not necessarily have at once. Privacy, then. A place apart — to pace, to chew pencils, to scribble and erase and scribble again.”

“But just as often, if not more often, the interruption comes not from another but from the self itself, or some other self within the self, that whistles and pounds upon the door panels and tosses itself, splashing, into the pond of meditation. And what does it have to say? That you must phone the dentist, that you are out of mustard, that your uncle Stanley’s birthday is two weeks hence. You react, of course. Then you return to your work, only to find that the imps of idea have fled back into the mist.”

“The world sheds, in the energetic way of an open and communal place, its many greetings, as a world should. What quarrel can there be with that? But that the self can interrupt the self — and does — is a darker and more curious matter.”

“Certainly there is within each of us a self that is neither a child, nor a servant of the hours. It is a third self, occasional in some of us, tyrant in others. This self is out of love with the ordinary; it is out of love with time. It has a hunger for eternity.”

“Say you have bought a ticket on an airplane and you intend to fly from New York to San Francisco. What do you ask of the pilot when you climb aboard and take your seat next to the little window, which you cannot open but through which you see the dizzying heights to which you are lifted from the secure and friendly earth? Most assuredly you want the pilot to be his regular and ordinary self. You want him to approach and undertake his work with no more than a calm pleasure. You want nothing fancy, nothing new. You ask him to do, routinely, what he knows how to do — fly an airplane. You hope he will not daydream. You hope he will not drift into some interesting meander of thought. You want this flight to be ordinary, not extraordinary. So, too, with the surgeon, and the ambulance driver, and the captain of the ship. Let all of them work, as ordinarily they do, in confident familiarity with whatever the work requires, and no more. Their ordinariness is the surety of the world. Their ordinariness makes the world go round.”

“Intellectual work sometimes, spiritual work certainly, artistic work always — these are forces that fall within its grasp, forces that must travel beyond the realm of the hour and the restraint of the habit. Nor can the actual work be well separated from the entire life. Like the knights of the Middle Ages, there is little the creatively inclined person can do but to prepare himself, body and spirit, for the labor to come — for his adventures are all unknown. In truth, the work itself is the adventure. And no artist could go about this work, or would want to, with less than extraordinary energy and concentration. The extraordinary is what art is about.”

“No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not. Still, there are indications. Among crowds, in drawing rooms, among easements and comforts and pleasures, it is seldom seen. It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker. It isn’t that it would disparage comforts, or the set routines of the world, but that its concern is directed to another place. Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.”

“Of this there can be no question — creative work requires a loyalty as complete as the loyalty of water to the force of gravity. A person trudging through the wilderness of creation who does not know this — who does not swallow this — is lost. He who does not crave that roofless place eternity should stay at home. Such a person is perfectly worthy, and useful, and even beautiful, but is not an artist. Such a person had better live with timely ambitions and finished work formed for the sparkle of the moment only. Such a person had better go off and fly an airplane.”

“The working, concentrating artist is an adult who refuses interruption from himself, who remains absorbed and energized in and by the work — who is thus responsible to the work… Serious interruptions to work, therefore, are never the inopportune, cheerful, even loving interruptions which come to us from another.”

“It is six A.M., and I am working. I am absentminded, reckless, heedless of social obligations, etc. It is as it must be. The tire goes flat, the tooth falls out, there will be a hundred meals without mustard. The poem gets written. I have wrestled with the angel and I am stained with light and I have no shame. Neither do I have guilt. My responsibility is not to the ordinary, or the timely. It does not include mustard, or teeth. It does not extend to the lost button, or the beans in the pot. My loyalty is to the inner vision, whenever and howsoever it may arrive. If I have a meeting with you at three o’clock, rejoice if I am late. Rejoice even more if I do not arrive at all.”

“There is no other way work of artistic worth can be done. And the occasional success, to the striver, is worth everything. The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”


One of my favorite brainpickings articles so far. I think I may need to read this one every day for the next month or so to ensure the spirit of Mary Oliver’s thoughts are flowing through my veins. My biggest takeaway is that the only interruptions that are truly threatening to the artist are the ones that come from within. It is no mystery that nature interrupts us. That is simply part of what it means to live in a communal world. No man is an island and none should expect go uninterrupted for too long. The real issue for the artist, the mystic, and the intellectual, however, is learning to not interrupt yourself. Once you sit down to do your work or to contemplate the things that matter most to you, you’ll find the remembrance of all sorts of trivial matters welling up inside you. This is the real resistance.

Being an artist takes an almost extreme level of loyalty to your availability to ideas.

Resource: You can’t please everyone


“You can’t please everyone. We know this. Each of us knows it. From experience. From logic. By doing the math. It can’t be done.
Okay, fine. So, what are you doing about it? When you’re creating something, are the possible reactions of the people you can’t please weighing you down? And when you inevitably end up disappointing someone, how do you react or respond?”

“It doesn’t do any good at all to know that you can’t please everyone but not use that knowledge to be bolder, walk lighter and do better work for those you can please.”


There’s no point to reminding yourself that you can’t please anyone if you’re not acting on that insight by truly using your voice and talents in the way you want. The value of knowing that everyone can’t be pleased is that it should inspire and empower us to push past the fear of external resistance and boldly live as we believe.

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