Menu Close

Steven Pinker explains what education should accomplish

The esteemed scientist and Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, on what higher education should accomplish (ht Farnam Street):

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition. 

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish.

Well said.

Pinker wrote that a couple of years ago, but it’s a sentiment in need of repeating regularly now.

Make America think again.

Be wholly alive

Author William Saroyan’s advice to writers (which is good advice for non-writers, too):

“Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

But, there’s a lot of “try” in there. Yoda would counter: “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Wake up. Uncork the life force within. Be wholly alive as often as you can.

Giving the gift is the thing

Decry the commercialism and bemoan the perils of mindless consumption, but the holiday season’s focus on gift-giving offers its own kind of gift.

It’s a joy to be surprised and delighted by a gift someone has given me. But it’s a greater joy to be the one offering the surprise and delight.

You can look at your gift list as a burdensome chore. Or you can see it as an opportunity to try to connect with your family and friends in a meaningful way. A mindful gift-giver will attempt to see through the eyes of those they’re giving to. 

What does my nephew love? What would inspire my wife, and how can I delight my kids? Instead of just going through the motions and checking off the gift list with whatever, make the effort to understand the people on your list just a little better. Inhabit their imagination for a moment. Ask good questions, directly or indirectly. Be a bit of a sleuth in pursuing clues that will unlock a bit of the mystery of your recipients’ wiring — their yearnings and inclinations and even their worries. 

It’s easy to fall into the pattern of giving just exactly what has been asked for, or, worse, what you want them to have. The golden rule will let you down here. Don’t give to others what you like given to you. Instead, give in a way that uniquely delights the recipient, a way that might even disappoint if you were the recipient. I was that guy that, because I love books, would give books, even to people who I knew never read, hoping that my gift would be the one to change everything. I could see the disappointment as they were realizing the wrapped present in their hands was another book from me. 

I’m not saying this mindful approach to gift-giving isn’t hard. It is. And I usually fall short or miss the mark completely. (Occasionally, though, magic happens.) But the attempt is worthwhile and is a challenging way to connect you a little more closely to those who matter most in your life. 

The game is afoot. Giving the gift — the gift of your presence and attention and thoughtfulness — is the thing.

Sunday morning Stoic: A man’s true delight

Marcus Aurelius: “A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.”

I don’t think we are each “made” for a particular vocation or calling.

But we are all made to be authentic human beings.

We are made for connection. We thrive as members of groups, as citizens of tribes, as sisters, brothers, fathers, and mothers.

We shine most brightly when we are a part of something bigger than just ourselves.

We are made for adventure, for journeys, for quests — literal and metaphorical.

We are made to be useful. We are adapted to solve problems and make a difference.

We are made to fully inhabit our bodies. Agility and strength and physical skill are coded into us. Those attributes may be asleep in many or even most, but humans are more than just a brain inhabiting a vehicle.

Walk more. Breathe mindfully. Move intently. Get stronger.

Un-numb your five senses.

We are made for curiosity and mystery and awe.

And for play and laughter.

And for wonder and delight.

Reflect on the moments of greatest delight in your life. Drill down to the core of that delight. Make room for more of that in your authentic human life.

Do something amazing


I just discovered this message above the exit of my daughter’s middle school.

As you exit this week today, do something amazing before you go. 

Make a connection that you’ve been meaning to make. Be that person that lights up the room, that summons smiles even from strangers. 

Solve a problem. Get started on that big idea. Focus intently today, without distraction, for a solid hour or more and make something that delights you. 

Uncork your enthusiasm. Make room for wonder. 

Do something amazing.

How lucky we are to be alive right now

Look around…

In spite of a steady stream of bad news and foreboding events, there’s not a better time to be alive in human history than right now.

On the whole we are safer, healthier, more educated, more knowledgeable, more prosperous, and more secure than any generation of humans before us.

“But,” you say, “look at all the people saying and doing bad things. Look at all the suffering and injustice in the world. Look at the fragility of our planet.”

Well, go fight for justice. Provide relief where you can to those who are suffering. Protect our planet. Do good and be good and make the world around you a kinder place.

Let the circumstances that challenge us summon the heroic within us.

The century ahead is filled with unprecedented potential for progress and for peril.

The previous century was marked by both the greatest triumphs and the most shameful transgressions and tragedies of human history so far. But where we are today is markedly better than where we were one hundred years ago.

What do the decades ahead hold for us?

Our story is unwritten. We get to decide how we will respond to the obstacles and opportunities rising before us.

But we are more fortunate and more prepared to push humanity forward than any generation that came before.

Be grateful that you are alive right now.

When you need encouragement

Meditations 6.48:

“When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.”

What if I were intentional about looking for the good in those around me?

My wife’s generosity and her compassion for others regularly humble me and challenge me to give more and care more.

The college students I work with bring energy and humor and innocence that remind me not to be such a serious old man.

My daughters see in me a bigger and better person than I know myself to be. I want to become who they think I already am.

The work ethic, the patience, the common sense and common decency that I encounter from colleagues, friends, and strangers every day should move me to be better and do better.

These qualities usually pass by without my noticing, and so, too, do the gifts I could be receiving.

But if I really looked and intently focused on the ways others shine, I couldn’t help but be encouraged. And if I let them know what I see, they would be encouraged in return.

Go out of your way to warm yourself at the fire in the hearts of others. Make a habit of acknowledging and thanking and spurring on the good you’ve been given.

When you need encouragement, focus on the good that’s all around.

President Obama to his daughters: Fight for treating people with kindness

This remarkable feature in The New Yorker by David Remnick recounts his inside access to President Obama in the days after the election. It is an extraordinary bit of writing and a bittersweet, yet hopeful take on the President’s reaction to this election.

There is a lot to process in the President’s analysis of the state of the nation and what’s ahead for us. But, as a father who had to explain the results last week to my two dismayed daughters, I especially appreciated this:

How did he speak with his two daughters about the election results, about the post-election reports of racial incidents? “What I say to them is that people are complicated,” Obama told me. “Societies and cultures are really complicated. . . . This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. . . . You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

The whole article is fascinating. It’s well worth a read, or two.

I was going to close by saying how much I will miss President Obama, his class and character and wit and his keen, poetic way with words. But, now, I don’t think he will be as removed from the eye of the storm as he had anticipated or hoped. He is needed now in a new way, as a counterpoint to what is to come and as a beacon for what can be. I imagine he will not ride quietly off into the sunset any time soon.

Progress is not inevitable

Via Kottke:

“I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” –Franklin Roosevelt

This is from a time when fascism was all the rage and from a man who helped move us forward and past it.

The trend towards an even kinder and more enlightened society remains powerful. But progress is not inevitable. 

Bettering our lot takes commitment and action and vigilance and a bracing clear-sightedness. 

Stay awake. 

“Rage against the dying of the light.” 

The best way to get even 

“The best way to get even with them is not to resemble them.” –Marcus Aurelius

Word. 

Fight fire with… water. 

Better to lose with your character intact than to win by becoming what you loathe. 

Forward

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” –Martin Luther King, Jr.

Two steps forward, one step back.

But ultimately — over the long haul with determined effort and in spite of our worst tendencies — forward.

Sunday night Stoic: Lift me up and hurl me

Meditations 8.45:

“Lift me up and hurl me. Wherever you will. My spirit will be gracious to me there—gracious and satisfied—as long as its existence and actions match its nature. Is there any reason why my soul should suffer and be degraded—miserable, tense, huddled, frightened? How could there be?”

Fling me anywhere and into anything. I should be able to be at peace no matter where I land. If I can willingly accept what is as though I had chosen circumstances to be just as they are, then I can act with clarity and firm purpose.

I can choose to respond to even the most undesirable circumstances without the burden of self-pity, without whining and blaming and without posting annoying, self-indulgent ramblings on social media.

Disappointment and struggle and the vast shortcomings of your fellow humans are your allies in shaping you into the person you need to become.

Grow up, man. Comfort is overrated. Triumph should be hard-won, but peace is always present no matter the outcome.

The story of Nike: Phil Knight’s epiphany

untitled-9781501135910_hr

I just finished reading Nike CEO Phil Knight’s memoir, Shoe Dog, which tells the story of the creation of his now iconic company.

Knight’s story is compelling and candid and gratifyingly straightforward. He makes himself vulnerable and doesn’t pretend to be a sage or saint.

I was hooked in the foreword by his telling of an epiphany moment, when in his early twenties out for a run in the woods he decided how he wanted his life to unfold:

 “I had an aching sense that our time is short, shorter than we ever know, short as a morning run, and I wanted mine to be meaningful. And purposeful. And creative. And impor­tant. Above all . . . different.

I wanted to leave a mark on the world.

I wanted to win.

No, that’s not right. I simply didn’t want to lose.

And then it happened. As my young heart began to thump, as my pink lungs expanded like the wings of a bird, as the trees turned to greenish blurs, I saw it all before me, exactly what I wanted my life to be. Play.

Yes, I thought, that’s it. That’s the word. The secret of happiness, I’d always suspected, the essence of beauty or truth, or all we ever need to know of either, lay somewhere in that moment when the ball is in midair, when both boxers sense the approach of the bell, when the runners near the finish line and the crowd rises as one. There’s a kind of exuberant clarity in that pulsing half second before winning and losing are decided. I wanted that, whatever that was, to be my life, my daily life.

…What if there were a way, without being an athlete, to feel what athletes feel? To play all the time, instead of working? Or else to enjoy work so much that it becomes essentially the same thing.”

Lovely, right?

And it’s a great start to the book, propelling the reader into a story that is filled with the kinds of ups and downs you might expect in a career and a company of such magnitude.

The book is devoted mostly to the Nike origin story and the people Knight surrounded himself with in the very beginning in the 1960s and 70s as they created the worldwide juggernaut that Nike eventually became.

Nike came perilously close to not making it out of its infancy. But Knight and his team were resilient and persistent and savvy enough to beat the odds and create a company that resonates beyond even its products.

As business books go, this one is refreshingly readable with some worthwhile insights whether your aim is to be a titan of industry or just the captain of your own fate.

Measure yourself

“You measure yourself by the people who measure themselves by you.”

Nike founder Phil Knight, in his memoir Shoe Dog, quotes this line from the movie Bucket List.

By whom do you measure yourself?

And who sees you as the measure, as a model, as an inspiration for their aspirations?

The happy discoverer

“When I begin a poem I don’t know—I don’t want a poem that I can tell was written toward a good ending… You’ve got to be the happy discoverer of your ends.” –Robert Frost

Just get going without concern for the precision of your ending point.

It’s in the going and the doing that you are likely to make your best art and discover your true self.

Don’t overthink it. Don’t expect to have the answers before beginning.

Be open to detours and delays and scenic overlooks.

And be open to surprise.

Just get going.

Sunday night Stoic: Satisfied

Meditations 7.54:

Always and everywhere, it depends on you piously to be satisfied with the present conjunction of events…

Accept whatever you are facing. 

Embrace “the present conjunction of events”, even if it’s not the particular conjunction you would have chosen. Be satisfied with this moment. 

It’s pointless to rail against what is. What is, already is. 

But, what could be… 

That’s where you can make use of the present conjunction of events as material to make something new, something better. 

Cal Newport: Quit social media

Cal Newport has a knack for counterintuitive insight.

His book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, was a compelling challenge to quit trying to find your elusive vocational passion and instead focus on obtaining the kind of mastery that leads to genuine career fulfillment. (Pick a career path you wouldn’t mind getting really good at and stick with it for a while.)

His most recent book, Deep Work, is a wake up call that most of us are doing work wrong. Busyness is not the same as effectiveness. He exhorts us to escape the trivial distractions that drain our time and attention and instead block out time and space for focused, deep work.

Now he’s shared his recent TEDx Talk that is a provocative encouragement to quit social media altogether.

He makes a solid argument. Social media is primarily entertainment. And it’s particularly, deviously addictive and distracting.

Weeks ago I deleted the Facebook and Instagram apps from my phone, and I don’t miss them. 

Tweetbot, though, is still on my home screen and is my most used app by far. Whenever I get even the slightest bit restless, it’s off to Twitter I go. I can disappear there for a long time, mindlessly scrolling, hypnotized by whatever others are tweeting at the moment, clicking links that lead me further into interesting if not important diversions.

I have unearthed some real insights this way, but most of my time browsing internet time-sinkholes is sadly unaccounted for by meaningful results. 

I’m not ready to delete my social media accounts. But I can put a hedge around my attention and structure my time more rigidly to get real work done. 

I’ve found that my best work comes after I’ve spent around 30-45 minutes ramping up my focus without taking breaks to check email or Twitter. It’s like I need that warm up time before flow sets in and then magic can happen. 

Two hours can fly by once I get in that zone. And that zone is a happy place to be and exponentially more productive and more fertile for breakthroughs than ten times as much time spent flitting about the internet. 

Quit social media? Maybe. 

But at least shrink its hold on your attention and on the little time you have to make something worthwhile each day.  

The story of Hubble’s Deep Field image

The Hubble telescope’s Deep Field image from 1995 is one of the most important images in human history.

I’ve been fascinated by it since I first heard about it in a talk by the neuroscientist, David Eagleman. (Great talk. Add it to your must watch list.)

I regularly bring up the Hubble Deep Field image when I speak to audiences, especially high school students. It never fails to get a reaction when I tell the story then display the Deep Field slide.

Vox.com posted a video feature last week telling the story of how the Deep Field image was captured.

In an empty speck the size of a pinhead in the night sky Hubble found thousands of galaxies.

It showed us just how vast and gloriously, mysteriously interesting the universe is.

If you need a dose of perspective, look up into the night sky and see how small you are. But see also that you are part of — a wonderfully conscious part of — a grand universe filled with more to learn than we ever could in the limited time we have.

 

Sunday night Stoic: Freedom is the only worthy goal

“Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control.” –Epictetus

So much of what weighs on me is beyond my control. Maybe most of my worries, actually.

You do have control over your initiative and effort and mindset and what merits your attention, and over your response to things that lie beyond your control.

Turn your attention away from the noise of events outside of your control. No need to fret over the news, constantly hitting refresh on your news feeds to see what additional calamity you need to stress about.

Look closely at what you can control, and get busy putting your attention and effort there. 

And find freedom there.

Newer Posts
Older Posts