The Terrain

January 10, 2010 — 16 Comments

Your mind plays tricks on you. They brought me in because I’m the best. They want me to implement my way. This is foolish. This is ego-driven self-destruction.

Most of your impulses are bullshit. Most of your ideas suck. What you think is so important now will embarrass you not long from now.

Now that you’re out of school and on your own, you need to carve a space where these failures don’t define you. Where they don’t provide ammunition for others to dismiss you. In fact, the most important thing a company looks for when they hire a young person is not his skill but his ability to maintain and utilize those skills within the existing order. Doing this depends on your ability to understand and appreciate the terrain – the realities of the environment you’re hoping to succeed in.

Terrain takes a variety of forms. In social politics, Alinsky knew that tradition was the terrain. On the internet, it’s the way that information is communicated and spread. In organizations, personalities are the terrain.

Understanding and internalizing these intricacies requires a certain type of patience and humility. The wherewithal to come in and say nothing. You have to subjugate what you want with how things are.

Michael Polanyi, the scientist and philosopher, knew that belief in tradition was the key with which scientists often unlock the greatest discoveries. Each advancement takes for granted those that preceded it – implicitly they value the current system by nature of expanding and altering it. Those without the ability to take certain assumptions as a matter of faith are unable to proceed in any direction. They’re paralyzed by their own skepticism, like a revolutionary movie producer so distracted by the inefficiencies in union rules that he takes on the Teamsters at the expense of actually making a movie.

Thurgood Marshall had a mentor who refused to give him a job after law school. He told him he needed to get his “head kicked in” before he was worth anything to him. So Marshall left and was thrown around by racist judges and double standards and garbage cases. Through it he learned the secrets of the white legal system, secrets he later used to dismantle its many problems.

Consider a scientist who rejects Polanyi’s notion or a more conceited Thurgood Marshall. Both are stopped short of contribution because of their inability to develop a foundation with which they advance their goals. They are like a young person too fragile to stomach and tolerate conditions they don’t approve of.

The next time you find yourself in a new environment, dedicate weeks or even a few months to understanding the terrain. Give yourself time to be underestimated. Familiarize yourself with the system so you know what to do when you fuck up, so nothing is irreparable or permanent. Quieting your ego is not the same as changing your principles, in fact, it’s the best way towards implementing them.

Stop. Examine. Reconsider.

January 3, 2010 — 9 Comments

The first time a recovering addict thinks about relapsing and outsmarts the impulse, they’ve formed a additional layer of consciousness: a constant examination of why they might be driven to do something.

Most of us lack this. It’s strange that in our most formative period we were not taught to think this way. Remember back to when you were a teenager. It was almost exclusively a matter of whether some was or was not allowed. Never: “why are you doing this?” “tell me what compels you to get so wasted?” “have you ever wondered why you want a 26 year old boyfriend?

There is no prompting to question the desires themselves – only to check them against the posted rules and guidelines. This creates addicts. Addicts, losers, constant wall-crashers, the people who just can’t seem to function like the rest of us. It strips you have the ability to notice patterns in your own behavior – to catch what strikes impartial observers as being obviously reactions or connections. Most importantly, you learn to make a habit of trusting “the little voice inside you” long before its developed a track record of success.

As a child, parents often recognize this duality. Excuse him, he’s just upset because he hasn’t had his nap yet. And later, in adulthood, we tacitly acknowledge it all the time. The serial single are supposed to recognize what causes them to submarine relationships and men are expected to resist the humorous temptations of their mid-life crisis. But where are these skills taught?

Certainly nowhere I’ve ever been. In fact, we pay lip service to the opposite all the time. Go with your gut. Do what feels right. Follow your own path. But we are the problem.

By definition, what addicts leave with is an ability that transcends the “self” in self-awareness. It is calling the credentials of your instincts into question – auditing them, forcing them to stand up under scrutiny. So while this might not technically be self-awareness, I think it is certainly a kind of self-respect. And do you really believe it’s available only to people who have hit bottom?


December 22, 2009 — 15 Comments

Lately I have felt off. As I felt down, it often occurred to me how long it had been since I’d sat down and read philosophy. I knew I should fix this but I didn’t. A new book would come and I’d immediately pick it up. I’d think “I spend so little time reading now, it would be shame to sit down with something I’ve read before.”

It was a sham. What I was doing was distracting myself. This is what Steven Pressfield calls “the resistance.” I made myself busy so that I would have no chance to feel better. I knew that philosophy requires work and self-criticism and one inevitable conclusion – that my problems were almost entirely my own fault. Their resolution requires an active process that only I can initiate.

Philosophy is the tool with which to do so. As one would say, doctors carry their tools on their person, or more ideally, a boxer’s tools are his person. We should seek to do the same. There is no excuse for being too busy or too distracted. Nor is there any alternative.

One of Them

December 16, 2009 — 18 Comments

I guess what I was trying to say here is that when you start to work in the real world, you see people rewarded for the worst stuff. Things like overcompensation, cluelessness, aggression, shameless self-promotion and so on. This is especially true in Los Angeles. And when you see that happen, it’s easy to question the fairness of it all. What you have to remember that is you’re not refraining from those behaviors out of some “strategy.” You don’t decide to settle on integrity or humility because it will work out better.

The people that find rewards in these types of behavior have accepted a certain alchemy in their soul. They’ve traded in their self-awareness: if they were able to see themselves half as objectively as they saw others, they couldn’t live anymore. You could do this too if you wanted. In fact, it’d probably be easier. But you didn’t choose to not be insufferable after weighing the costs and benefits – it was simply not an option.


December 10, 2009 — 38 Comments

When I read this, I am stuck by the extraordinary lengths that someone will go to avoid ordinary work. I see a young man congratulating himself for exploiting other people’s labor. Economically efficient, sure. Laudatory? Hardly. Consider the irony in protecting the “value” of your time while you brag about how cheaply it can be replaced.

The same goes for most of you auto-responders, automators, travelers and remote workers. How much pride you take in skirting the effort of everyday life. How elaborate the systems you’ve designed to facilitate it. I’m impressed, recently, to see that this force was enough to propel two friends in a boat around the world. Literally.

I think the same when I read this. Now, I know Charlie and he is a great person (Jeff too). He does not, however, have a career. In no way is that a failure, but it is important to look at these things honestly. What he has done is manage to land a series of internships and freelance work that show incredible potential. He’s young (like myself), ambitious and promising. But then again, this is what we should expect from intelligent, affluent, white college graduates.

What is it, then, that motivates us to be so quick to the trigger? Quick to reflect and congratulate ourselves? To wave the all-clear to those behind us when we are only in waist-deep? I’m not sure. All I know is that when I look back and find myself guilty of it I feel ashamed and disappointed. I am discouraged further when I see it incentivized by attention and emulation.

Let’s be frank: life is defined by how much you do, how often you took the difficult road and were rewarded for it. It is not, and will never be, improved by how much you avoid and scheme and congratulate.