Raise the aspirations of others

Tyler Cowen is an economics professor and a prolific blogger at Marginal Revolution. He’s an A-list follow with multiple blog posts every day, and he’s a voracious reader who has pointed me to a lot of insightful articles and books.

I love this thought from Cowen: “At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more ambitious than what they might have in mind”

I have appreciated those who have seen more in me than I thought possible, who summoned something greater from me by their expectations.

And I have delighted in those moments when I have been able to awaken a new possibility in someone else. That’s a calling that keeps me going.

What if you looked for opportunities to heighten the trajectory of someone who would otherwise settle for a lower arc?

What if you regularly asked “What if…?”

There could be more people more fully fulfilling their potential with even a slight course correction thanks to your interest and curiosity and encouragement.

Awaken possibility.

A belief in the blood

“My great religion is a belief in the blood, the flesh, as being wiser than the intellect. We can go wrong in our minds. But what our blood feels and believes and says, is always true. The intellect is only a bit and a bridle. What do I care about knowledge? All I want is to answer to my blood, direct, without fribbling intervention of mind, or moral, or what not.” –D. H. Lawrence

This reminds me of Kubrick’s “The truth of a thing is the feel of it, not the think of it.”

“We can go wrong in our minds.”

Indeed. Just read the news.

Undoubtedly, our age is more disconnected than any before it from the physical—from blood and flesh and the feel of sunshine on skin and feet on actual ground. And face-to-face conversation. And taste and smell and the delicate sounds that get lost in the wash of noise emanating from ubiquitous devices.

There’s a knowing that comes from the body that our long-ago ancestors probably were in touch with in a way we never will be.

Not that I want to quit feeding my mind. But I know I need to more fully inhabit more often my flesh and blood.

And feel as well as think.

Lines of excellence

In a press conference just weeks before his death, President Kennedy was asked by a reporter if he liked his job. Kennedy’s response:

“Well, I find the work rewarding. Whether I am going to stay and what my intentions are and all the rest, it seems to me it is still a good many, many months away. But as far as the job of President goes, it is rewarding. And I have given before to this group the definition of happiness of the Greeks, and I will define it again: it is full use of your powers along lines of excellence. I find, therefore, the Presidency provides some happiness.”

The “full use of your powers along lines of excellence”.

Powers?

I’m late to the Marvel Cinematic Universe party, and the last few films have had me wondering who many of the superheroes are and what exactly are their powers.

Well, what exactly are your powers? I’m not completely sure what mine are.

Whatever they are, I know I’m not putting them to their “full use”.

Passive mode prevails over active mode way too often and the easy distractions of this age make it even harder to muster the will, to fully tap into my powers.

The looming regret just around the corner will be that of unfulfilled potential and unlived life. Powers wasted, left dormant and unsummoned.

Snap out of it, this half-slumber that most of us are muddling through. Fully use your gifts. Make them true gifts that offer value beyond yourself.

And be awesome in the process. Aim for excellence. Be discontent with just good enough.

Full use of your powers along lines of excellence.

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

The Journey is the Thing

“Attaining lasting happiness requires that we enjoy the journey on our way toward a destination we deem valuable. Happiness is not about making it to the peak of the mountain nor is it about climbing aimlessly around the mountain; happiness is the experience of climbing toward the peak.” Tal Ben-Shahar in Happier

It’s about pointing yourself in a direction and toward an end that matters to you, and then fully inhabiting the journey toward that end. But it’s this moment, this step in the journey that is the true destination.

President Kennedy, in one of his final press conferences, responded to a question about how he was liking being President with a reference to the ancient Greek definition of happiness as “the full use of your powers along lines of excellence.”

That resonates. Tapping the limits of your potential and employing the full use of your powers in the quest toward some noble destination. An excellent journey.

Act as if you were absolutely perfect

“Disregard whatever you think yourself to be and act as if you were absolutely perfect—whatever your idea of perfection may be. All you need is courage… Behave as best you know. Do what you think you should. Don’t be afraid of mistakes; you can always correct them. Only intentions matter. The shape things take is not within your power; the motives of your actions are.” –Sri Nisargadatta Maharam

Caution is the devil, right? Have a bias toward action, even if you don’t know if you’re doing the “right” thing.

I tend to overthink and procrastinate and often end up missing out on the chance to do something good or to make something meaningful happen.

The better course is to just take action. Do something, anything.

Have courage. Act like you are who you aspire to be.

Miles Davis, So What, and being in accord no matter the chord

This story that opens jazz great Herbie Hancock’s memoir, Possibilities, is profound:

I’m onstage at a concert hall in Stockholm, Sweden, in the mid-1960s playing piano with the Miles Davis Quintet. We’re on tour, and this show is really heating up. The band is tight—we’re all in sync, all on the same wavelength. The music is flowing, we’re connecting with the audience, and everything feels magical, like we’re weaving a spell.

Tony Williams, the drumming prodigy who joined Miles as a teenager, is on fire. Ron Carter’s fingers are flying up and down the neck of his bass, and Wayne Shorter’s saxophone is just screaming. The five of us have become one entity, shifting and flowing with the music. We’re playing one of Miles’s classics, “So What,” and as we hurtle toward Miles’s solo, it’s the peak of the evening; the whole audience is on the edge of their seats.

Miles starts playing, building up to his solo, and just as he’s about to really let loose, he takes a breath. And right then I play a chord that is just so wrong. I don’t even know where it came from—it’s the wrong chord, in the wrong place, and now it’s hanging out there like a piece of rotten fruit. I think, “Oh, shit.” It’s as if we’ve all been building this gorgeous house of sound, and I just accidentally put a match to it.

Miles pauses for a fraction of a second, and then he plays some notes that somehow, miraculously, make my chord sound right. In that moment I believe my mouth actually fell open. What kind of alchemy was this? And then Miles just took off from there, unleashing a solo that took the song in a new direction. The crowd went absolutely crazy.

I was in my early twenties and had already been with Miles for a couple of years by this time. But he always was capable of surprising me, and that night, when he somehow turned my chord from a wrong to a right, he definitely did. In the dressing room after the show I asked Miles about it. I felt a little sheepish, but Miles just winked at me, a hint of a smile on his chiseled face. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. Miles wasn’t one to talk a whole lot about things when he could show us something instead.

It took me years to fully understand what happened in that moment onstage. As soon as I played that chord I judged it. In my mind it was the “wrong” chord. But Miles never judged it—he just heard it as a sound that had happened, and he instantly took it on as a challenge, a question of “How can I integrate that chord into everything else we’re dong?” And because he didn’t judge it, he was able to run with it, to turn it into something amazing.

Miles Davis was the greatest jazz musician of his time. (Of all time, many would say.) And he was a famously difficult, contrarian personality. I was cringing with Hancock as I read this story, fearing the reaction from Miles.

But Miles merely heard Hancock’s “wrong” chord “as a sound that had happened” and did something excellent with it. And that the iconic jazz song they were playing is entitled “So What” makes this story perfect.

What has happened has already happened. Just say, “So what?” There’s no going back, and there’s no value in resisting reality or fretting about something you have no control over.

Miles didn’t judge that chord as bad or wrong. He used it, instead, to push him and his band into a new direction and to make something wonderful out of it. The obstacle is the way.

By being in accord with reality, by not resisting what is, you can take on whatever may come and use it as fuel to continue moving forward.

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel.” –Marcus Aurelius

The only competition that matters

“Oh my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.” –Pindar

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live.” –Seneca

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

The only competition that matters is the one between who you are now and who you become.

Energy crisis

“To preserve hope in our world makes calls upon our intelligence and our energy. In those who despair it is frequently the energy that is lacking.” –Bertrand Rusell

The know-how may be less crucial than the want-to and the get-up-and-go. The will to action can be tough to summon. But it’s often the first step—the leap, the getting up and getting started—that stalls us.

Even if you don’t feel like it, just get started in some small way on your grand plan for making the world better or on your humble dream to be a better version of yourself.

Fake it if you have to. Act like you already are who you want to be. Forward movement builds momentum and renews energy you didn’t know was there.

Don’t wait till you’ve got it figured out to get started. You’ll never have it figured out. It’s only in the doing that the thinking can take flight.

Feeling a bit hopeless? In despair? Just start.

Things fall apart: The Second Law and the meaning of life

I keep coming back to this feature I read last year on the scientific term or concept that scholars think ought to be more widely known. Here’s the scientist Steven Pinker’s response explaining why more people should understand entropy as described by the second law of thermodynamics:

Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.

More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.

(Pinker’s massive new book, Enlightenment Now, is about this very topic and explores in detail how much progress we have made in imposing order on a disorderly world.)

My layman’s mind doesn’t quite get the scientific nuances at play here. But I get that things in the universe fall apart (the stars are literally falling away from each other right now) and will continue to do so with only minuscule bits of resistance.

Those seemingly insignificant and likely futile efforts to “fight back the tide of entropy”, though, are our keys for living a meaningful life.

Steven Pressfield in his excellent book The War of Art calls that apparently malevolent force that pushes back against our efforts to grow and improve and create “the resistance”. But, maybe that force is just entropy, the natural inclination of the universe toward disorder. It’s our effort to overcome entropy and make progress against this relentless current pushing us toward chaos and decay that could instead be called “the resistance”. We are freedom fighters battling against an overwhelming tyranny.

It’s been too easy to believe that progress is inevitable, that humanity will just naturally grow smarter and gentler, because that’s what we’ve seemed to witness in general over the last couple of centuries.

But, progress is not the default. The default is disorder, not order, not improvement. Left on their own, things fall apart.

Organize your sock drawer on Sunday, and, without at least a little attention and effort, it’s likely to be a mess again by Friday. The lawn won’t stay mowed. Stop exercising and you’ll get weaker almost immediately.

The tide of entropy is relentless. Our very existence—all of biology, for that matter—is owed to fighting against that tide, to digging in and making something that will stand and endure long enough for the next wave of resistance to relieve us.

Progress, for individuals and for our species as a whole, depends on diligent, unrelenting striving, pushing against the natural default of disorder.

It’s all ultimately futile, I suppose, in the really big scheme of things. The sun will die its natural death eons from now. Our species will likely be long gone well before then. Even a mere two centuries into the future, who will remember your name or care that you lived?

But instead of sinking into despair about our fate, choose to rise with courage each day to go into battle and fight for meaning and truth and beauty while you can.

Individually, this should remind us to embrace discontent, to keep searching and stretching, and to be vigilant in our efforts to move our lives forward. Get stronger physically. Eat real food. Expose yourself more often to discomfort. Get off the well worn path regularly and venture into surprise and serendipity and uncharted territory.

Be intentional about building and strengthening the relationships in your life. Life is all about relationships. Especially don’t let what seem like good relationships that you value coast along untended. Everything falls apart without some tending.

And get busy making something with your life that will add value to others. Focus less on what you can get and more on what you can give. What can you contribute? Where can you give back? What unique contribution, no matter how small, can you offer in this noble effort to move humanity forward?

Build systems, habits, and routines into your life to stay ahead of the pull of entropy. Come up with a battle plan, of sorts, for taking on this challenge week by week and day by day.

The writer, Annie Dillard, was getting at just this:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

Of course, don’t resist what already is. Accept reality as it is right now. But do resist the pull toward chaos that would otherwise define our existence.

I’ve shared this before, but a character in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, issues a fitting challenge:

“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

Putting up a fight is victory, no matter that we’re all going down eventually.

Engage with life. Be excellent. Shine while you can.

On not aiming for fame

I saw this New York Times column by Emily Esfahani Smith last fall and filed it away to reference later. I ended up reading her book, The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed with Happiness.

She makes the case that a good life is one that most likely looks quite ordinary and unexceptional. You don’t need to live a life that makes the headlines or history books in order to consider yourself a success. If that’s the measure, very few will ever make it. And we all know of too many famous people whose lives seemed to be especially unsatisfying.

The good life that’s in reach for the vast majority of us, though, is marked by authentic human connection and small, mostly unnoticed acts of kindness and meaningful contribution.

Aiming for fame will frustrate and disappoint, whether you get there or not.

The best bet, I think, is to focus on what you can give instead of what you want to get.

In her column, Smith cites this moving line from George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch:

“the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Unhistoric acts of kindness and beauty by those unknown to us have filled our world with much of its goodness. We can pay that forward to the benefit of all while safeguarding our own best chance at a life well lived.

 

On noticing when you’re happy

From a 2003 speech to college students by the author Kurt Vonnegut:

And now I want to tell you about my late Uncle Alex. He was my father’s kid brother, a childless graduate of Harvard who was an honest life insurance salesman in Indianapolis. He was well-read and wise. And his principal complaint about other human beings was that they so seldom noticed it when they were happy. So when we were drinking lemonade under an apple tree in the summer, say, and talking lazily about this and that, almost buzzing like honeybees, Uncle Alex would suddenly interrupt the agreeable blather to exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

Wouldn’t it be great to have an Uncle Alex around to regularly remind you to notice happy moments?

Or maybe you should be Uncle Alex, reminding others and yourself to notice the usually unnoticed small delights and kindnesses of daily life.

We are surrounded by wonder and deep mystery and the potential for little bits of joy that mostly get passed by in our dazed distraction or overwhelmed by the crush of complaints and worries that seem to consume our attention.

It’s easier to find something if you’re looking for it. Look for these moments. Notice when you’re happy.

Remind others, too.

“If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”

By-the-way happiness

“Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness; on the happiness of others, on the improvement of mankind, even on some art or pursuit, followed not as a means, but as itself an ideal end. Aiming thus at something else, they find happiness by the way.” –John Stuart Mill

What if your happiness is to be found only incidentally—by the way—as you focus instead on the happiness of others, on something beyond yourself, on some pursuit that is an end in itself rather than a means to some hoped for end?

What if instead of looking for what you want or what you can get, you instead put your greatest and highest effort toward maximizing what you can uniquely give, what you can contribute?

You might just find yourself surprised by the kind of meaningfulness and happiness that you could never find by direct intent.

Defying gravity

I get The Daily Stoic daily email. Today’s email quoted this passage from Walker Percy’s book, The Moviegoer:

“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

I read this and smiled and got up from my desk with a little more courage.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little less sure and a little more lost than normal.

I don’t seem to be getting wiser as I get older. I’m just becoming even more aware of how little I truly know. Or maybe that’s what getting wiser is all about. If so, wisdom is not living up to the hype.

Regardless, I do know that I can live by my “lights”, by my meager understanding of what it means to be good and to do good.

I know how it feels to come alive, even momentarily, and shake off the half-hearted, half-asleep caution that most of us cower behind perpetually.

I can fight. I can attempt to rise, knowing I’ll still go down sooner or later. But in merely making the attempt I will prevail and fleetingly defy the gravity that aims to keep us from escape velocity.

Make the attempt. Shine where you can. Get up and get going and put up a fight. Be the hero of your own life.

Wired for story

“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” –Philip Pullman

Humans are wired for story. It’s what knitted us together into a tribal species and ended up being a key to our eventual dominance of the planet. We built our culture on stories, useful fictions that allowed us to unite into communities that propelled us exponentially further than we could have gone on our own.

The quality of the stories we consume and tell can determine the quality of our lives.

If you lead others, what is the story that will bring out the best in those you serve? What is the big picture? What direction, what quest, what heroic call to action will move them and supply meaning?

If you’re simply trying to lead yourself, what kind of story would be worth telling with the way you live your life? 

Too often we are victims of lousy stories—whether it’s that we’re stuck living out someone else’s story or our own failure of imagination is giving us a story unworthy of telling.

Make your story one worth talking about, one that you will delight in telling and delight in living.

Bertrand Russell’s message to future humans: Facts matter, love is wise, hatred is foolish

This is timely insight from a 1959 interview with the philosopher Bertrand Russell about what he would say to a distant future generation of humans:

“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say. 

The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

This aligns nicely with my favorite quote from Russell: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

Pursue truth.

Spread love.

Simple, right?

Raw materials

I routinely forget to celebrate the arrival of unwanted circumstances that are beyond my control.

I need to remind myself that external events which I perceive to be happening to me are actually raw materials that I can use in my endeavor to craft a more excellent life. I can utilize events out of my control to work for me—to make me stronger and wiser and to propel me into previously unimagined possibilities.

I keep forgetting, though, and I resist, futilely, things that already are.

What is, is. Make something good with whatever comes your way.

On having the courage to look silly in pursuit of excellence

“Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time.” –Lou Brock

via Shane Parrish

My ego puts me at a disadvantage.

If I don’t care that I might come across as weak or naive or silly, I’m open to possibilities and flexible and more willing to try something daring.

But if I’m worried about protecting my image, I’m significantly less likely to accomplish anything worthwhile.

There’s safety in sticking with conventional wisdom and not being an outlier. Of course, “caution is the devil.”

The author Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw problem in his excellent podcast, Revisionist History. (What a great podcast series, by the way. Every episode is compelling.)

Chamberlain was one of the all-time great basketball players, dominant in every phase of the game except one—free throws. His teammate, Rick Barry, was one of the best free throw shooters, but he used an unconventional method, the granny shot, an underhanded and surer shot. 

Barry coached Chamberlain on the granny shot, and Chamberlain switched to it—for a while. But using the granny shot subjected the player to the chance of being ridiculed, by other players and by fans. When Chamberlain used the granny shot, his free throw percentage improved significantly. But he refused to stay with it, because as he later wrote in his autobiography, “I felt silly… like a sissy.”

Instead, his brilliant career was marred by his terrible 51 percent free throw percentage.

I’m a big fan of the high school football coach, Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, who is famous for defying the conventional wisdom about how to play football. He rarely punts on fourth down and almost always calls an onside kick when his team kicks off. And he’s remarkably successful, with six state championships and many appearances in the state playoffs. He was recently named USA Today coach of the year

When asked why more coaches don’t adopt his methods, he said “It’s simply risk aversion. People are scared they will have to suffer ridicule by fans, players and the media.”

If you don’t care about looking silly or making a fool of yourself, you’ll have so much room to grow and to fulfill your potential.

For me, I simply need to more regularly just say “I don’t know” rather than scrambling for any response to avoid looking clueless. So many of us feel like we will look bad if we don’t seem sure or confident. It’s acknowledging the not-knowing that often lights the way to breakthroughs.

Have the courage to look silly in the pursuit of excellence.

If this is it

What if this is it? 

Paradise—right here, right now.

As far as we can see in this vast universe, there is no place like this planet, no place like our home.

It’s filled with abundance and wonders far greater than the cruelties and sorrows.

Too many of us are living for something beyond this life—head in the clouds and hope deferred.

But what if we lived like this is it, like this is our only shot and we only have each other?