What I’m Learning: Day 9/365

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

Activity VII: Read one brainpickings article

Kierkegaard on the Individual vs. the Crowd, Why We Conform, and the Power of the Minority

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

In The Celebration of the Disciplines, Richard Foster wrote, “hurry is not of the devil, it is the devil.” Kierkegaard echoes similar sentiments:

Being too busy has this result: that an individual very, very rarely is permitted to form a heart; on the other hand, the thinker, the poet, or the religious personality who actually has formed his heart, will never be popular, not because he is difficult, but because it demands quiet and prolonged working with oneself and intimate knowledge of oneself as well as a certain isolation.

On the importance of the individual:

The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd… But as yet we have not come very far concretely, though it is recognized in abstracto. That explains why it still impresses people as prideful and overweening arrogance to speak of the separate individual, whereas this precisely is truly human: each and every one is an individual.

On the relationship between finding truth and being willing to be alone:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

Activity VIII: Listen to one EconTalks podcast

The Economics of Parenting

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Economist Don Cox begins the episode by telling the story of a time when he saw a mother browbeating her son in an effort to persuade him to eat cake. The apparent absurdity of this observation inspired him to think about how he, as an economist, could help parents use basic economic concepts to more effectively influence their children to cooperate with them without having to undergo so much seemingly undue hardship.

Recounting his experience at a party:

I saw one parent trying to browbeat his crying child into eating cake and it just didn’t add up for me…It looked pretty good, but it just didn’t add up. And I started thinking, ‘okay there’s gotta be a couple of economic equations that we could write down and we could nail down exactly why this doesn’t make a lot of sense. And so I started thinking about how Econ 101 just might help people become better parents by helping them think about simple ideas about incentives.

I’m going out on a limb here and this is all just pure speculation, but I really do think that some basic economic concepts…might be useful in a parenting class. Can I give you a case study? It’s Winter 2002. I’m at my daughter’s preschool…It’s go home time at the preschool in the winter. Now, the inside of that preschool is heated up to about 80 degrees because we got a lot of warm bodies in there. And I see a parent struggling to get snow pants, dreaded snow pants on his toddler. And the buzzword that I use when I pick up my daughter in this situation is “incentive compatibility.” Incentive compatibility is very simple. I, as a parent, set up the rules so that my kid has an incentive automatically to choose what I want her to choose in the first place. My idea is this: pick her up in my right arm, pick up the winter clothes in my left, and we go right out the door into the thirty degree cold. She’s got an incentive to put on all those warm clothes. Easy. Here’s where you might say, “Oh the cold-hearted economists. I would much rather read a parenting book written by the warm, fuzzy T. Berry Brazelton than some equation-mongering, cold-hearted, nerdy type. But just to kind of defend myself on this, I’ve got to give the bottom line…that kid inside in the eighty degree heat was crying, my daughter wasn’t. And that parent inside the hot preschool was aggravated. I wasn’t. So who’s on the higher indifference curve here?

Roberts plays devil’s advocate to Cox’s proposal by expressing the following concern:

I guess the issue would be some parents would be nervous about that nanosecond of thirty degrees that you made your daughter endure. And that’s, I think, the motivation for this horrible traumatic experience that the kid has inside the room where the role of both friction and autonomous behavior coincide to keep the kid saying ‘I don’t want to put on snow pants.’

Don Cox responds:

As far as the matter of fifteen seconds of exposure to cold and the health consequences of that, I would just leave that as an empirical question. If it turns out that that’s going to really do some damage to my kids, then I’m ready to back off that policy in a heartbeat.

Cox also talks about the importance of being honest with children about constraints and refusing to pretend that they have options when they really don’t:

There was a mother that lived in our old condo building and she was taking her three year old on a trip, so she asked him, “Jerry, you wanna go to the children’s museum today?” And the only problem was the kid so no. And even further, it really wasn’t even have a choice. So we have the absurd situation where the mother is taking her child to children’s museum and the kid, just like the one having cake foisted upon him, is screaming and unhappy and I just have this reaction that something’s wrong. And I think what it is….is you don’t give your kid a menu if you’ve already ordered what the dinner’s gonna be and there’s no choice. And I kind of have a catch-phrase which is “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Giving them too many choices just might drive them nuts with cognitive dissonance and if you get on a string of no’s, that can easily ignite a temper tantrum and it might just be better to not pose the false choices. Just to give you an example, we go to visit my mother. We packed our daughter in the car and we’re just going on a trip. We get halfway there and she asks “where are we going.” “We’re going to granny’s house.” That was the plan all along. No sense in asking her what her opinion is. And you see parents trying to alter their children’s utility functions at 7:30 in the morning when the school bus is coming and the kid says “I don’t want to go to school today” and they’re like “Oh but you’ll like school. Your friends are there.” But all mainstream economists take those preferences as a given. When my daughter says I don’t want to go to school today, I believe her…I accept her utility function.. You’ve got utility functions and there are constraints. So my response is “hey, I sympathize. You don’t want to go to school, I can buy it. I can understand. Unfortunately, you have to. And usually that just about ends it.

Don Cox on how he handles objections from his child when they ask “why not?”

The way I handle the why question in the grocery store when my daughter wants something and the answer turns out to be “no” is I just say “I’m perfectly happy to explain why…,but after our entire discussion, the answer is still going to be “no.” So you ready to start in?” She gives up pretty fast on that. So it turns out she’s not really in pursuit of knowledge for it’s own sake.

Cox tells lots of stories and provides plenty of examples illustrating economic ideas as they may relate to typical parenting challenges. Whatever one may think of the solutions he proposes, I think this is an episode that many would find entertaining. I especially enjoy hearing about economics when it’s connected to everyday real-life scenarios.

Activity IX: Listen to Philosophy Bites podcast

Mark Rowlands on Philosophy and Running

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

Explaining how the activities of philosophy and running can intersect, Rowland claims that “running can be divided into four stages and at each stage, useful philosophical ideas emerge or can be understood quite well.” According to Rowland these four stages are:

1. The Embodied Self

Running makes us keenly aware that we are physical beings and that our mental/emotional states are intimately relation with our physiological state.

2. The Cartesian Stage

At this stage, the body has somewhat dropped out of the picture and the activity if mostly controlled by mental focus and willpower. The runner experiences the body as a backdrop or servant to the mind’s role as master. According to Rowland,

‘Cicero once said to be a philosopher is to learn to spend time with the mind’…when you run distance, at least, you learn to spend time with the mind.

3. The Humean Stage

References a view which he credits to David Hume, that there is no discrete self, but rather a collection of sensations, thoughts, experiences, etc, Rowland says that at this stage, the runner may experience his or her thought processes as ego-less and spontaneous. Thoughts appear on the screen of consciousness, but their isn’t much of a sense of being a separate self or ego that’s thinking the thoughts.

4. The Embodied Apprehension of Intrinsic Value Stage

Rowland’s doesn’t give a specific name for this stage, but he talks about the point in the runner’s journey where the runner may choose to keep running in spite of having very good reasons to stop. When a runner reaches this point, they may decide to continue running for pleasure, play, or sheer assertion of will in the face of practical reasons to the contrary. According to Rowland, this is an assertion of freedom, of one’s capacity to choose simply because one chooses. Rowland recounts his initial reasons for running by telling the story of how he aqcuired a wolf at age 27. He started to run everyday because his wolf would tear apart his home and eat all of his food if it didn’t get enough exercise. Initially, the thought of running was unpleasant to him. Now, however, those reasons don’t matter very much. After running for many years, the activity has acquired its own value independently of external benefits.

I wouldn’t really want to say I hated running, but I certainly hated the thought of it. That’s all changed now for a variety of reasons, but I think part of it is that the point is being reached where these sorts of things don’t really seem to matter that much anymore. They might at the beginning of the run, but I reach a point in the run when they don’t. It’s in those sort of moments, where I’m running just to run. That’s when you find the embodied apprehension of intrinsic value…The more you’re in touch with that kind of thing, the more you’re in touch with the doing of something just to do it, the more you’re in touch with intrinsic value or the good in your life.

When asked why he thinks more philosophers aren’t devoted to topic of this sort, Rowland offered the following:

I’m fascinated by life. It’s true that philosophers have not really been engaged with life in that sense very much. I suspect it’s partly to with the professionalization of philosophy. I think it was Julien Barnes who once said ‘we’re all amateurs when it comes to our own lives.’ And so the casting aside of the focus or the analysis on life was part of the perceived process of becoming a professional discipline. I think that’s a mistake. I think philosophy should be concerned with or fascinated by life because life is interesting.

Activity XI: One episode from my favorite podcasts list

Accidental Creative Podcast: Steven Pressfield on The War of Art

Highlights/Personal Reflections:

On Resistance:

The central concept of The War of Art is the concept of resistance with a capital “R.” How I define that is as that sort of weird internal force that resists the creative process. It’s kind of the dragon that the writer or creative person has to fight each day they face the blank page or whatever it is when they’re trying to create out of nothing….There’s a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don’t know. And the secret is this. The writing is not the hard part. The hard part is sitting down to write. So my sort of overview of the creative process is that it is a battle. There’s no sort of magic state of flow that you plug into and everything comes effortlessly. That each day is a matter of kind of marshalling your resources, your emotional resources, and your resources of perseverance and tenacity and aggression, pushing through the…all those internal sabotage acts that your subconscious…I don’t even know where it comes from, that will get in your way.

On how to create on demand:

There’s a little quote that I have in the War of Art from Somerset Maugham. Someone asked him if he wrote on a schedule or only when inspiration struck him. He said, ‘I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.’ I think deadlines can work in your favor. I have a real blue-collar attitude towards how to work: you get your hard hat, you grab your lunch bag, you put on your work books, you go to the job site, and you start working. The other kind of theme in the War of Art is ‘turning pro.’ Metaphorically speaking, that’s my answer to how you overcome the resistance that tries to stop you from working. That is, you have a professional attitude, not an amateur attitude. And a professional shows up every morning. A professional shows up ready to work and stays on the job all day just like a carpenter does…I think most real working professionals have a very kind of hard boiled, no-nonsense, no mercy attitude towards that kind of thing. You can’t accept excuses. You just have to show up and do the work.

On the persistent nature of the battle:

It never gets any easier. The blank page is still just as hard. The only thing that helps over time is that through experience you’ve overcome it enough times that you feel confident that you can overcome it. and you also have familiarized yourself with the insidious nature of resistance and how incredibly convincing it can be in the excuses it puts up. So you can see through it a lot better than you might when you’re first starting and your brain throws up all these excuses and rationalizations of why you shouldn’t work today, or why today you can make an exception, and why you don’t have to work today. And after long experience, you learn what a crock of bull it is and that you just have to work. No, it doesn’t change over time. It’s just as hard as it ever was.

On what single piece of advice he would give to aspiring writers and creators:

To be absolutely aware, and brutally, ruthlessly aware of the fact that there is this thing called resistance that will stop you, that will work to sabotage your resolve, and your rhythm, and your perseverance, and your art. And that the one thing that you have to do before everything else is beat that resistance everyday. You’ll learn the craft just through doing it. I wouldn’t worry about the craft. No matter what the craft is, I wouldn’t worry about that. You’ll learn it as you go along. But what will defeat you, and what defeats almost every artist that does get defeated is that they allow resistance, they allow self-sabotage to stop them…I would say… to overcome resistance, you have to be incredibly tough-minded and really hard on yourself. You have to be a real professional. You can’t accept excuses from yourself. The idea of the artist…entering a state of ecstacy and producing a bunch of stuff is baloney. Art is hard work…This is war.