The Logos

March 28, 2010 — 10 Comments

Paul Feyerabend calls our accomplishments “debris on an ocean.” Currents bring a few of them together and we mistake this coagulation for permanence and security. It may seem like a platform to build a life around but it really isn’t. We forget, he says, that this illusion can be swept away at any time by the very “powers that permitted them to arise.”

It’s hard for me to think about what I was like a few years ago and not notice that I am calmer, more open minded and reasonable. But I know already that this kind of emotional progress comes along with leaving your teens and entering adulthood. It’s called growing up. And it’s a cliche for a reason.

This is why Taleb likes to do what he does: pointing out the accidental nature of some of the world’s most respected accomplishments. To make you realize that whatever credit is due to this successful trader or a ballplayer on a hitting tear, it was a statistical certainty that somewhere, someone was going to do that eventually. It just happened to be them.

These kinds of contemptuous expressions are important because they are lessons in humility. For instance, biographers like to point out that so-and-so published their first bestseller by the time they were 30 or founded a company days before their 25th birthday. We hear these things and feel inadequate in comparison. Or we feel a kinship for them, like two special outliers on the same trajectory. But what we know is that there are powerful biological pressures that channel these types of accomplishments right into this range, almost uncannily [or cutely] so.

The Stoics had a similar idea to this ocean analogy. Not only are the things we own not really ours, they said, but even our life itself is possessed by us only in trust. It can be taken back at any moment. Like a mortgaged house or a leased car, you set yourself up for disappointment if you take any pride in the “ownership” or resale value of it.

They had another, too, that explained how our personal contribution in any situation is often dwarfed by a world much bigger than ourselves. Like a dog tied to a moving cart, we have two options. We can struggle with the foolish notion of control and dig our hind legs in. Or we can go along for the ride, uniting our necessities and freedoms together.

There is something interesting about the fact that so many philosophers, scientists and economists have all danced around this same theme in different incantations. The temptation is always there to wrongly attribute credit or use prior returns to predict future results when it comes to ourselves. Both are unwarranted and un-humbling. They are weak but alluring centers of gravity. And when something crashes or unravels or wakes up one morning horribly unhappy with the person they’ve become, I think there is a good chance that they built too much on top of one.

Questioning

March 13, 2010 — 18 Comments

In Eating Animals, Jonathan Froer mentions hidden camera footage of slaughterhouses. They are the videos that we’ve seen and were sickened by or maybe made a conscious effort not to see. The ones with abuses and disgusting conditions and an appalling lack of humanity. In both choices, there is this tacit admission that something is wrong with what is happening and our role in it. And a process that backs people into that kind of corner is troubling.

This is a theme in philosophy and real self-awareness as well. To look at that things that make us disassociate. That prompt us to rationalize. Or more banally to not probe something uncomfortable.

It calls to mind a line in Meditations about never regarding a thing as doing you good if it makes you lose your sense of shame or, “desire to keep things behind closed doors.”

Better: a Spartan anecdote from Plutarch about King Hippocratidas when a youth and his lover met him accidentally in a crowd. The two had turned their faces away and he said “You ought to keep the company of the sort of people who won’t cause you to change color when observed”

Dread

March 6, 2010 — 5 Comments

What’s so weird about dreading things that might happen is that you have usually already figured out what you’re going to do if it does. In which case, your role in the whole situation is kind of over.

Why the anxiety? Do you doubt your ability to stick with your own plan? Ok, so focus on that. Do you think the universe registers your fears and then takes them under consideration? No, obviously not. So you want to feel miserable for fun then?

Ideas

March 1, 2010 — 8 Comments

About 3 years ago, I was pretty early in signing someone off YouTube. At the time, the kid I represented had one of the top 20 channels and I thought we’d be able to turn it into something. I remember putting together this whole plan for where I thought it could go. Unfortunately, after a big rush of excitement, it limped to a close on both end – the agency kept stalling investing resources in some 16 year old kid and the kid himself eventually had a melt down. I left the whole thing feeling like my balls had been cut off.

Cut to many many months later, and the company pulls in someone else from online. His manager put together a strategy for his career and they asked me to look at it. Shockingly, it was a familiar sight. Two years had passed and someone is feeling out ideas I’d been begging them to try back then. I wanted to get angry. After all, what kind of fucking bullshit business is it where you’re getting pitched your own pitches and asked if you think they’ll work?

Then I realized that the real awful thing was the notion that I apparently only liked my ideas when I thought I was going to get credit for them. And my instincts were more inclined to let everyone know I’d been there first than to relish an opportunity to put them into action.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about ideas. It’s your job to have them. It’s your fate that they’ll sometimes be ignored or unappreciated. It’s beneath you to throw a tantrum when this is exactly what happens. Finally, don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s enough to simply not mind getting credit. If you really want to get something done, go around looking for people for the credit to go to and work your execution backwards from there.

Self-Indulgent

February 14, 2010 — 8 Comments

Schopenhauer once said that the ability to “always see the general in the particular is the very foundation of genius.” Sure. And being a pompous fool too.

The running temptation on the internet is to take a minor observation and turn it some grand theory (Thankfully it’s not as common, but still shamefully alluring to name this theory after yourself. I wince every time I see a “Hugh’s Law” or one of the “Jarvis Laws of Media“). See a poorly run restaurant? – pontificate about the power of customer service. Hear an old media company fucked up? – let’s rant about how awesome blogs are.

Of course these articles always suck. The only people who can stomach them are the ones who have nothing to do with the industry in question – or they’d be struck by the overwhelming amateurism and cluelessness that drown out any value.

It’d be well and good if this stayed and died on the internet, but it doesn’t. People are being raised in this culture, consuming it on a daily basis, and letting it work alchemy on their soul. It’ll turn you into a laughingstock and a do-nothing long before it brings out your genius.

Work it like this, I think: cut yourself off the next time something makes you think “wow, that would make a good blog post.” It won’t. The fact that it feels like it would means it’s probably trite, obvious and self-congratulatory. Give it a some intense study before you expound the value of a new business model. Stop and consider how likely it is that new information will change the nature of the situation and you’ll find you probably don’t need to weigh in just yet.

It’s ok. You’re not missing out on anything. Focus on the vision you’ve planned for yourself. Leave the chatter to the people who enjoy peddling thoughts to empty rooms and avoid the tactic hell that is responding to every particular that pops up in front of you.