Category: People

Yuval Noah Harari on Why Humans Dominate the Earth: Myth-Making

“Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.” —Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens 

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Yuval Noah Harari‘s Sapiens is one of those uniquely breathtaking books that comes along very rarely. It’s broad, yet scientific. It’s written for a popular audience but never feels dumbed down. It’s new and fresh, but is not based on any brand new primary research. Near and dear to our heart, Sapiens is pure synthesis.

An immediate influence that comes to mind is Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee, and other broad-yet-scientific works with vast synthesis and explanatory power. And of course, Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has noted that key influence and what it means to how he works:

(Harari) credits author Jared Diamond with encouraging him to take a much broader view—his Guns, Germs and Steel was an enormous influence. Harari says: “It made me realise that you can ask the biggest questions about history and try to give them scientific answers. But in order to do so, you have to give up the most cherished tools of historians. I was taught that if you’re going to study something, you must understand it deeply and be familiar with primary sources. But if you write a history of the whole world you can’t do this. That’s the trade-off.”

With this working model in mind, Harari sought to understand the history of humankind’s domination of the earth and its development of complex modern societies. His synthesis involves using evolutionary theory, forensic anthropology, genetics and the basic tools of the historian to generate a new conception of our past: Man’s success was due to its ability to create and sustain grand, collaborative myths.

Harari uses a smart trick to make his narrative more palatable and sensible: He uses the term Sapiens to refer to human beings. With this bit of depersonalization, Harari can go on to make some extremely bold statements about the history of humanity. We’re just another animal: the Homo Sapiens and our history can be described just like that of any other species. Our successes, failures, flaws and credits are part of the makeup of the Sapiens. (This biological approach to history is one we’ve looked at before with the work of Will and Ariel Durant.)

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Sapiens was, of course, just one of many animals on the savannah if we go back about 100,000 years.

There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats….

These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power, but so did chimpanzees, baboons, and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves had any inkling their descendants would one way walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

We like to think we have been a privileged species right from the start; that through a divine spark, we had the ability to dominate our environment and the lesser mammals we co-habitated with. But that was not so, at least not at first. We were simply another smart, social ape trying to survive in the wild. We had cousins: Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis…all considered human and with similar traits. If chimps and bonobos were our second cousins, these were our first cousins.

Eventually things changed. About 70,000 or so years ago, our DNA showed a mutation (Harari claims we’re not sure why — I don’t know the research well enough to disagree) which allowed us to make a leap that no other species, human or otherwise, was able to make: Cooperating flexibly in large groups with a unique and complex language. Harari calls this the “Cognitive Revolution.”

What was the Sapiens’ secret of success? How did we manage to settle so rapidly in so many distant and ecologically different habitats? How did we push all other human species into oblivion? Why couldn’t even the strong, brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals survive our onslaught? The debate continues to rage. The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.

Our newfound language had many attributes that couldn’t be found in our cousins’ languages, or in any other languages from ants to whales.

Firstly, we could give detailed explanations of events that had transpired. I saw a large lion in the forest three days back, with three companions, near the closest tree to the left bank of the river and I think, but am not totally sure, they were hunting us. Why don’t we ask for help from a neighboring tribe so we don’t all end up as lion meat?

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, we could also gossip about each other. I noticed Frank and Steve have not contributed to the hunt in about three weeks. They are not holding up their end of the bargain, and I don’t think we should include them in distributing the proceeds of our next major slaughter. Hey, does this headdress make me look fat?

As important as both of these abilities were to the development of Sapiens, they are probably not the major insights by Harari. Steven Pinker has written about The Language Instinct and where it got us over time, as have others.

Harari’s insight is that the above are not the most important reasons why our “uniquely supple” language gave us a massive, exponential, survival advantage: It was because we could talk about things that were not real

As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say ‘Careful! A lion! Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say. ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.’ This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

This is the core of Harari’s provocative thesis: It is our collected fictions that define us. Predictably, he mentions religion as one of the important fictions. But other fictions are just as important; the limited liability corporation; the nation-state; the concept of human “rights” deliverable at birth; the concept of money itself. All of these inventions allow us to do the thing that other species cannot do: Cooperate effectively and flexibly in large groups.

Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

Our success is intimately linked to scale, which we have discussed before. In many systems and in all species but ours, as far as we know, there are hard limits to the number of individuals that can cooperate in groups in a flexible way. (Ants can cooperate in great numbers with their relatives, but only based on simple algorithms. Munger has mentioned in The Psychology of Human Misjudgment that ants’ rules are so simplistic that if a group of ants start walking in a circle, their “follow-the-leader” algorithm can cause them to literally march until their collective death.)

Sapiens diverged when it discovered an ability to generate a collective myth, and there was almost no limit to the number of cooperating, believing individuals who could belong to a belief-group. And thus we see extremely different results in human culture than in whale culture, or dolphin culture, or bonobos culture. It’s a lollapalooza result from a combination of critical elements.

Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights, and money paid out in fees.

Harari is quick to point out that these aren’t lies. We truly believe them, and we believe in them as a collective. They have literal truth in the sense that if I trust that you believe in money as much as I do, we can use it as an exchange of value. But just as you can’t get a chimpanzee to forgo a banana today for infinite bananas in heaven, you also can’t get him to accept 3 apples today with the idea that if he invests them in a chimp business wisely, he’ll get 6 bananas from it in five years, no matter how many compound interest tables you show him. This type of collaborative and complex fiction is uniquely human, and capitalism is as much of a collective myth as religion.

Of course, this leads to a fascinating result of human culture: If we collectively decide to to alter the myths, we can alter population behavior dramatically and quickly. We can decide slavery, one of the oldest institutions in human history, is no longer acceptable. We can declare monarchy an outdated form of governance. We can decide females should have the right to as much power as men, reversing the pattern of history. (Of course, we can also decide all Sapiens must worship the same religious text and devote ourselves to slaughtering the resisters.)

There is no parallel I’m aware of in other species for these quick, large-scale shifts. General behavior patterns in dogs or fish or ants change due to a change in environment or broad genetic evolution over a period of time. Lions will never sign a Declaration of Lion Rights and decide to banish the idea of an alpha male lion; their hierarchies are rigid.

But humans can collectively change the narrative in a period of a few years and begin acting very differently, with the same DNA and the same set of physical environments. And thus, says Harari: “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.” These ever shifting alliances, beliefs, myths, and ultimately, cultures, define what we call human history.

For now we will leave it here, but a thorough reading of Sapiens is recommended to understand where Professor Harari takes this idea, from the earliest humans to the fate of our descendants.

Richard Feynman on Refusing an Honorary Degree, Being Driven, and Understanding his Circle of Competence

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track is a wonderful collection of letters written to and from the physicist and professor Richard Feynmanchampion of understanding, explainer, an exemplar of curiosity, lover of beauty, knowledge seeker, asker of questions—during his life and career in science.

The book explores the timeless qualities that we cherish in Feynman. Let’s dive a little deeper.

Driven

Feynman was precocious; it’s clear that even early in his career, he knew he had the intelligence and drive to make an impact in science. At the age of 24 he had the foresight to mention, in a letter to his parents defying their wish that he not marry a dying woman (his fiancé Arlene had tuberculosis, a deadly diagnosis in those days), that:

I have other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute to physics as much as I can. This, in my mind, is of even more importance than my love for Arlene.

He worked hard at that goal, and he showed signs of enjoying the process. In letters he wrote during his time working in academia and on the atomic bomb, Feynman writes that:

I’m hitting some mathematical difficulties which I will either surmount, walk around, or go a different way—all of which consumes all of my time—but I like to do (it) very much and am very happy indeed. I have never thought so much so steadily about one problem—so if I get nowhere I really will be very disturbed—However, I have gotten somewhere, quite far—to Prof. Wheeler’s satisfaction. However the problem is not at completion, although I’m just beginning to see how far it is to the end and how we might get there (although aforementioned mathematical difficulties loom ahead)—SOME FUN!

This week has been unusual. There is an especially important problem to be worked out on the project, and it’s a lot of fun so I am working quite hard on it. I get up at about 10:30 AM after a good night’s rest, and go to work until 12:30 or 1 AM the next morning when I go back to bed. Naturally I take off about 2 hrs for my two meals. I don’t eat any breakfast, but I eat a midnight snack before I go to bed. It’s been that way for 4 or 5 days.

We see this frequently in genius-level contributors doing intensive work. It is not so much that they find the work easy, but they do find pleasure in the struggle. (There is actually another book about Feynman called “The Pleasure in Finding Things Out.”) Warren Buffett has said many times that he taps dances to work every day, and those who have spent time with him have corroborated the story. It’s not a lie. Charlie Munger has mentioned that one of the main reasons for Berkshire’s success is the fact that they enjoy the work.

Feynman is an interesting character though; for a super-genius scientist, he comes off as unusually romantic with passages like the following one, in a letter to his then-wife, Arlene:

There is a third thing you will be interested in. I love you. You are a strong and beautiful woman. You are not always as strong as other times but it rises and falls like the flow of a mountain stream. I feel I am a reservoir for your strength — without you I would be empty and weak like I was before I knew you — but your moments of strength make me strong and thus I am able to comfort you with your strength when your steam is low.

And long-time readers will remember the heart-breaking letter he wrote after she had passed away.

Honor and Honesty 

As the book rolls along and Feynman gets older and more famous, he is regularly asked to be honored. Generally, as most who have studied Feynman would know, he showed considerable discomfort with the process, which valued exclusivity and puffery over knowledge. One letter is typical of the middle-aged Feynman:

Dear George,

Yours is the first honorary degree that I have ben offered, and I thank you for considering me for such an honor.

However, I remember the work I did to get a real degree at Princeton and the guys on the same platform receiving honorary degrees without work—and felt an “honorary degree” was a debasement of the idea of a “degree which confirms certain work has been accomplished.” It is like giving an “honorary electrician’s license.” I swore then that if by chance I was ever offered one, I would not accept it.

Now at last (twenty-five years later) you have given me a chance to carry out my vow.

So thank you, but I do not wish to accept the honorary degrees you offered.

Sincerely yours,

Richard P. Feynman

He also offers his usual wit upon resigning from the National Academy of Sciences:

Dear Prof. Handler:

My request for resignation from the National Academy of Sciences is based entirely on personal psychological quirks. It represents in no way any implied or explicit criticism of the Academy, other than those characteristics that flow from the fact that most of the membership consider their installation as a significant honor.

Sincerely yours,
Richard P. Feynman

In fact, Feynman was constantly displaying his tendency towards intellectual honesty, whenever possible. He understood his circle of competence. Several letters scattered throughout his life show him essentially throwing up his hands and saying “I don’t know,” and he took pride in doing so. His general philosophy towards ignorance and learning was summed up in a statement he made in 1963 that “I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy…that doubt is not to be feared, but it is to be welcomed…”

The following letter was typical of his lack of intellectual arrogance, this one coming in response to something he’d written about teaching kids math in his younger years:

Dear Mrs. Cochran:

As I get more experience I realize that I know nothing whatsoever as to how to teach children arithmetic. I did write some things before I reached my present state of wisdom. Perhaps the references you heard came from the article which I enclose.

At present, however, I do not know whether I agree with my past self or not.

Wishy-washy,
Richard P. Feynman

He does it again here, opening a reply to a highly critical letter about a TV appearance with the following:

Dear Mr. Rogers,

Thank you for your letter about my KNXT interview. You are quite right that I am very ignorant about smog and many other things, including the use of Finest English.

I won the Nobel Prize for work I did in physics trying to uncover the laws of nature. The only thing I really know very much about are these laws….

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In the end, Feynman’s greatest strength, outside of his immense scientific talent, was his basic philosophy on life. In 1954, Feynman wrote with tenderness to his mother:

Wealth is not happiness nor is swimming pools and villas. Nor is great work alone reward, or fame. Foreign places visited themselves give nothing. It is only you who bring to the places your heart, or in your great work feeling, or in your large house place. If you do this there is happiness.

Check out Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, and learn more about life and learning from the best.

Listening and the Learning Lens

Seneca Friendship
In Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference, there is an excellent chapter on listening.

When it comes to describing much of what currently passes for personal communication, the analogy of the crocodile is an apt one: all mouth and no ears.

So this is why mom and dad used to tell me that I had two ears and one mouth. Yet no one has ever taught me how to listen. I mean really listen.

Communication is arguably the most important life skill of all. The quality of human relations is in large part determined by the quality of communication. There are talkers and there are listeners, but we don’t learn much, if anything, while we are talking.

Communicating means both transmitting and receiving. We receive through our ears, eyes, feelings, and perception.

But information doesn’t enter the brain directly. It passes through our eyes, ears and other sense organs before being processed by our brain. We receive information through the “lenses” we are wearing. We are going to consider two types of communication lens: what I call the lecturing lens and the learning lens. Each of us has a default tendency towards one or the other. Which is your default mode?

First let’s talk about the lens distorters.

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The Lens Distorters

These inhibit clear communication. Here are some of the most common ones.

The limits of language. There are a few distorters at work here. To begin with, verbal communication represents just a small part of overall communication. When we speak to each other we are essentially blowing air at each other – albeit in a highly sophisticated fashion. Phone calls are far less effective than face-to-face encounters. Secondly, we are not always able to find the right words. Words are often not specific enough. We have a word for friend and a word for enemy. What about someone in between? An acquaintance perhaps? What about a work colleague that you respect and trust but would not want to socialise with? Even black and white are not black and white. I recently met the head of an international thread manufacturer that produced over 200 different shades of “white” thread!

Different histories and cultures. Your lens and my lens will have been shaped by our individual histories and conditioning. Words, gestures or tones that may seem humorous and harmless to me could seem offensive to you.

Different contexts. In addition to unique histories, everyone has a different current context and emotional state. …

Irrational expectation of rationality. When we communicate we expect that logic is what drives other people’s behaviour. The reality is that much more is at play and you will waste a lot of time in this world trying to move people through brute logic.

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What Is Your Default Lens?

Are you a talker or listener?

Animated or observant? Focused on yourself or on the other person? I characterise those of us who are more likely to be talkers as wearing the lecturing lens. Gaps in conversation are simply periods during which we gather our thoughts to continue our lecture – me and my story. Others are better listeners and tend to communicate through a learning lens. I suspect that good listeners are in the minority, which makes defaulting to the learning lens all the more effective. There can be no real understanding without listening. We feel honoured when others take a genuine interest in understanding our position. When people understand us we are psychologically validated. Our opinion matters. We matter.

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Suggestions For Better Communication With Others

Make the learning lens your default setting. Approach every conversation with an open mind. OK, I have a view and I believe it to be the correct one, but, what might I be missing here? What if the other person has some insight that can illuminate my own? What if I am wrong? We listen intently not just with our ears, but with our eyes and our senses. We are paying attention, striving to perceive what is really going on in the other person’s mind. And they know and appreciate it. The whole conversation is a journey of discovery not a battle of wits.

Make them a star. Try to bring out the best in other people. This is not false flattery, but helping people get their views properly heard and understood. Do not seek to show off how smart you are.

Be courteous. There is no need for rudeness. Respect the right of someone to have a different opinion from yours. Leave unconstructive criticism at the door. There is no good in it. It merely creates resentment and distorts the other person’s lens, often for a long time. If you call a person an idiot, both you, and the person you insulted, have changed. No apology can take back the words. Avoid criticising people in print or in front of others.

Double check your gut feelings. For example, first impressions can trigger subconscious negative emotions. The person resembles someone you had a problem with, and you suddenly dislike them. Abraham Lincoln understood this risk. When he met someone he didn’t like, he resolved to get to know them better.

Find your words. Once you have demonstrated a full understanding of the other person’s view, think carefully about what you want to say and then don’t say it! Try instead to figure out what the other person is likely to hear. In other words, try to make some allowance for the distortions in their lens. Your opinion on something is more credible when you can also clearly articulate the contrary view. Good communicators are thoughtful in how they choose and arrange their words.

Words are never enough. Your tone and demeanour should be consistent with, and supportive of, the whole message.

Choose quality over quantity. Don’t always feel there is a need to fill every moment with communication.

Know when to give or accept an apology. A genuine apology, offered sincerely and accepted, is one the most emotionally mature human interactions.

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To Sum Up

Don’t be a crocodile, all mouth and no ears. Choose a learning lens over a lecturing lens. Be aware of the differences between your lenses and those of others. To truly listen to others is a gift to them. Give it with courtesy and humility. The payback is real understanding.

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I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices make All the Difference.

Stronger: Developing Personal Resilience and Becoming Antifragile

How is it that some people come back from crushing defeats while others simply give in? Why does adversity make some people and teams stronger and render others ineffective?

These are the questions that George Everly Jr., Douglas Strouse, and former Navy SEAL Dennis McCormack explore in their book Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed.

According to them, there are five factors of personal resilience.

1. Active Optimism. Optimism is more than a belief, it’s a mandate for change. It’s the inclination to move forward when others are retreating. This mandate can be so strong that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

2. Decisive Action. Optimism is not enough. You must be decisive and act in order to rebound. As Clare Boothe Luce observed, “Courage is the ladder on which all the other virtues mount.” You must acquire the courage to make difficult decisions.

3. Moral Compass. Use honor, integrity, fidelity, and ethical behavior to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances.

4. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. Persistence can be omnipotent. As comedian Jonathan Winters once quipped, “If your ship doesn’t come, swim out to meet it!” Be persistent, while at the same time knowing when to quit.

5. Interpersonal Support. Who has your back?

Resilience, as you’d expect, has a biological as well as psychological background.

Before you can develop resilience, however, you need to know yourself.

Sun Tzu, the Chinese military strategist, wrote, “He who knows the enemy and himself will never in a hundred battles be at risk.”

Increasing Decisiveness and Taking Personal Responsibility

The authors talk about how to overcome indecision and increase personal responsibility.

1. Problem: Paralyzing fear of failure

Solution: Never forget this simple guiding principle: Anything worth having is worth failing for. And don’t forget the words of Friedrich Nietzsche: “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”

As I wrote in my post on mistakes: “Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond.”

2. Problem: Fear of ridicule for being different. It’s no fun to be laughed at.

Solution: Most people ridicule what they do not understand. In his 2008 bestselling book Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell makes a cogent argument that extraordinary success is often predicated upon being different. Gladwell describes people who were not only different but possessed what many thought of as liabilities.

3. Problem: Procrastination. Waiting too long to act. The desire to wait until the moment of absolute certainty before making a decision can be compelling.

Solution: What we too often fail to understand is that almost all opportunities come with time limits. As we wait for that moment of absolute certainty, we also see the window of opportunity become smaller, until the opportunity is lost. In the words of Mark Twain, “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”

If you are procrastinating because a task seems overwhelming, simply use the “Swiss cheese” technique. This is a method recommended by time management expert Alan Lakein in his book How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life. Rather than avoiding something because it seems overwhelming, break it into smaller, more manageable, component tasks and do the more manageable tasks at a time. (Also see my webinar on how to be way more productive.)

I’ll skip a few and hit on information overload.

6. Problem: Being overwhelmed by too much information, too wide a scope, or too little time.

Remember the 80/20 Rule: 80 percent of your problem comes from 20 percent of the potential sources. It’s a derivation of the skewed (non-Bell-shaped) distribution of Power Law statistics. For example, 80 percent of all healthcare costs come in the last 20 percent of your life. Eighty percent, or more, of polluting vehicle emissions come from only 20 percent of all vehicles. Eighty percent of casualties in a terrorist attack will be psychological as opposed to physical. You get the point. So rather than view problems as being universal and paralyzing, search for the applicability of the 80/20 Rule. Focus on the minority of potential sources that may account for the majority of the problem. Then, if appropriate, apply your resources to the 20 percent. Malcolm Gladwell concludes that if you use this approach, you may actually be able to solve a problem rather than simply palliatively manage it.

Try practicing Occam’s razor (a.k.a. the law of simplicity): When faced with competing alternative courses of action or competing conclusions, choose the one that rests upon the fewest assumptions.

Also consider whether the problem is a mystery or a puzzle.

In the end the authors sum up the lessons they’ve learned on human resilience.

The seven characteristics of highly resilient people are:

1. Optimism
2. Decisive action
3. Honesty
4. Tenacity
5. Interpersonal connectedness
6. Self-control
7. Calm, innovative, nondogmatic thinking.

The authors spend a great deal of time on the first 5 factors which they see as sequential.

Coming back full circle to the five factors they now re-write them:

1. Active Optimism. Active optimism is more than a hope or a belief. It’s a mandate to bounce back, to be successful, to avoid being a victim. Active optimism is the belief that you can be an agent of change. Optimism breeds self-confidence that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy when it is honed with a dose of realism. Optimistic people are often viewed as more attractive to others than are pessimists. But the optimistic mandate to be resilient alone is not enough. It must lead to …

2. Decisive Action. You must act in order to rebound. You must learn to leave behind the comfort of the status quo and make difficult decisions. To paraphrase Mark Twain, if all you do is sit on the right track and wait for something to happen, it will. You will get run over. Or, perhaps at least an opportunity will be lost. Being decisive is hard. That’s why it’s rare. But by being decisive you distinguish yourself from others, usually in a positive way. As such you may then become the beneficiary of the halo effect, a lasting positive regard in the eyes of others. Making hard decisions to act is made easier when based upon a …

3. Moral Compass. There are four points to our moral compass: honor, integrity, fidelity, and ethics. Use them to guide your decisions under challenging circumstances. Simply do what is right and just. Your actions always have consequences. Consider the consequences of your actions not just for you but for others as well. Once your decisions have been made, employ …

4. Relentless Tenacity, Determination. In 1989 Woody Allen was credited with proffering the notion that about 80 per cent of success is showing up. We can modify that notion somewhat and say success often comes to those who not only show up but tenaciously show up. Show up and carry with you a relentless defiance of failure (but keep in mind that success may have to be redefined occasionally). Marine General Oliver Smith is quoted in Time magazine about his change of direction during the Korean War’s Battle of Chosin Reservoir. He said, “Retreat, hell! We’re not retreating, we’re just advancing in a different direction.” To find hidden opportunities and aid in physical and psychological energy, rely upon . . .

5. Interpersonal Support. Remember, no person is, nor ever should be, an island. Great strength is derived from the support of others. Going through life alone means no one has your back. Surround yourself with those of a compassionate heart and supportive presence. Knowing when to rely upon others is a sign of strength and wisdom. Supportive relationships are most commonly earned, however. Give to others. Be supportive without any expectation of a return. It will be the best external investment you can ever make.

Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed goes on to explore these five aspects in greater detail.

Henry David Thoreau on Success

Henry David Thoreau On Success

In the classic Walden, Henry David Thoreau echoes Warren Buffett on having an inner scorecard and defining your own success:

If one listens to the faintest but constant suggestions of his genius, which are certainly true, he sees not to what extremes, or even insanity, it may lead him; and yet that way, as he grows more resolute and faithful, his road lies. The faintest assured objection which one healthy man feels will at length prevail over the arguments and customs of mankind. No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and the night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, is more elastic, more starry, more immortal — that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality. Perhaps the facts most astounding and most real are never communicated by man to man. The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.

[…]

Our whole life is startlingly moral. There is never an instant’s truce between virtue and vice. Goodness is the only investment that never fails.

A bit later he writes, in perhaps one of the most important passages in the book,

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

And finally …

Why should we be in such desperate haste to succeed and in such desperate enterprises? If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. It is not important that he should mature as soon as an apple tree or an oak. Shall he turn his spring into summer? If the condition of things which we were made for is not yet, what were any reality which we can substitute? We will not be shipwrecked on a vain reality.

Love as Moral Knowing

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“Love allows us gently, respectfully and intimately to slip into the life of another person or animal or even the earth itself and to know it from the inside. In this way, love can become a way of moral knowing that is as reliable as scientific insight.” — Arthur Zajonc

In an interview with Krista Tippett, commenting on this phrase, Zajonc, author of Meditation As Contemplative Inquiry: When Knowing Becomes Love, says:

Now this is again something which as a scientist you can’t prove, so I’m not trying to convince anybody. I’m trying to though speak up on behalf of or for those people for whom when they hear that they go, “I know that place. It doesn’t happen all the time, but I know that place.”

At a certain point William James talks about this when he’s writing about mystical experience. It’s noetic. It’s completely compelling for the person who has it, and it doesn’t change anything for the two of you.

To me it’s like teaching. When I’m teaching a class and I’m up at the blackboard, and I’m having my epiphanic moment in front of some differential equation and the students are all looking at me cross-eyed.

…but then you can see the one in the back all of a sudden just got it. Then the one in the front goes, “Oh, I see that, too.” In other words, it can be contagious, but each one has to do it on their own. It’s a moment of insight. Knowledge is not something you can just move across the table, and the other person has it. It’s an invitation to exploration to think, to ideate.

Then there’s that “Aha.” I think you could say that the moment I’m describing there is a moral analog of that moment. Sometimes it happens at the hand of a teacher. You might say a moral teacher or something of that or a moral dilemma that you’re in the middle of and you just can’t see your way through.

Then you make your steps and find that place where all of a sudden it gets clear. That doesn’t mean you can’t make mistakes. Somehow people think because you can make mistakes. To me if you can make a mistake then you can also not make a mistake. They come with each other.

(image source)