Tag: Philosophy

Influence, Gender, and Defying Social Conventions with Friedrich Nietzsche and Jane Austen

In the third installment of our FS Bar series, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and writer Jane Austen sit down for a drink and discuss each other’s work, gender, philosophy, and try to find common ground. As always, they are attended by our intellectually curious bartender Kit.

***

We are back at the FS bar. Kit is going through the stock to prepare an order. The door opens and Friedrich Nietzsche lurches in and settles himself at the bar. Kit puts down her paperwork and moves a few bottles to the side.

Kit: Good afternoon. What can I get you?

Nietzsche: Beer. (He casts his eye over the taps.) It seems that no one has yet determined how to elevate the craft of brewing. I see even the French make some.

Kit: I’m pretty good at matching preferences to types. What are your must-haves in a beer?

Nietzsche: Strong. Illuminating. And thick enough to hold up a spoon.

Kit: (grins) I love a challenge.

Nietzsche: Hmph.

(As Kit is getting Nietzsche’s beer ready, Jane Austen walks in. Elegantly, if somewhat tentatively, she takes a seat at the bar. Kit puts Nietzsche’s beer down in front of him before turning to Austen.)

Kit: Hi, what can I get you this afternoon?

Austen: Port please.

Kit: Sure thing.

(There is a pause that stretches and becomes slightly awkward.)

Nietzsche: (starts speaking to Austen) I’ve read some of your stories you know. The ones with the alliteration. Sense and Sensibility sounded promising until I realized none of the characters had either.

(Austen takes a sip of the port that Kit has just set down.)

Nietzsche: Really, what was the use of all that sentimental drivel? Man should be required to confront his stupidity, not hide behind it moaning about useless nonsense. In my last book I didn’t waste time trying to comfort those who cower behind the lies they have come to worship. A mirror or a strong knock on the head is what’s required. Not giving ignorance legitimacy.

Austen: Well, I did desire to make some money, and thus did not have the luxury of completely pissing my readers off. You understand why I had to be a fair bit more subtle in my take-down of social convention.

Nietzsche: (his eyes light up) I must have missed that. I was obviously confused by the happy endings. How, despite all the absurdity, it all works out okay in the end. That seems to imply that social convention works.

Austen: Giving readers a happy ending helps them digest the rest. If you tear everything apart and then have your characters die in misery, there is no hope for the reader. If you want them to change their thinking you must give them hope there is still time and a reason to make that change.

Nietzsche: People who need to be coddled like that are beyond benefiting from reading.

Austen: I think it is worth the effort, to try to reel them in before I cut their legs from under them. The more someone enjoys a story, the more they will see it through to the end.

Nietzsche: What people will pay for.

Austen: What they won’t.

Nietzsche: Lots of people read my work-

Austen: Out of sheer morbid curiosity. Dying to know who you will next assault. But you and I aren’t so different. What they come for isn’t what they leave with.

Nietzsche: (regards her for a moment) I doubt it. Most people are too invested in the status quo and too ashamed of their ignorance to think for themselves.

Austen: And yet here we are. Having managed to think ourselves out of the primitive struggle for daily survival. To create language and steam engines and leisure time. So, surely, the odd human occasionally manages to think for themselves, dragging the rest of us along.

Nietzsche: Not without considerable difficulty.

Austen: Yes. But we are up to the challenge, you and I, are we not? (pause) I read Twilight of the Idols in its entirety you know, despite it having no description of twilight or anyone to idolize.

Nietzsche: (takes a sip of his beer, trying to hide a smile) And you think I should have been kinder. Thrown in a puppy or some of that romantic nonsense that has taken over society like a cancer.

Austen: Not at all. I do think you missed a great opportunity to further decimate the social systems that lead to the kind of thinking you seem to abhor.

Nietzsche: Really? And where was that?

Austen: In your book you talk about the progress of an idea, how it grows more refined, more enticing, more incomprehensible. You say it becomes more like a woman. By doing this, by effectively reducing women to be simply what they appear to men, you take away their humanity. And when you do that, you place women outside of the changes you are arguing for.

Nietzsche: Explain yourself.

Austen: Christianity has also reduced women to objects solely to be used by men. By being aligned with the church’s thinking you reinforce the same power structure you are trying to take down.

Nietzsche: (stares at her for a moment) I should have put woman on an equal footing with man?

Austen: If only to anger all those priests and vicars.

Nietzsche: (pauses) That isn’t why I write you know, to provoke outrage. I’m trying to show people how weak they are. And how much more they could be.

Austen: There is greater potential everywhere. Women are both subject to the same institutions and have the same potential for overthrowing them as men.

Nietzsche: Hm. This from the woman who wrote “it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.”

Austen: Oh Mr. Nietzsche, you are smart enough to see the humor in that. Something that is true and absolutely shouldn’t be.

Nietzsche: Yes. People laugh. And then they keep doing it anyway.

Austen: And maybe one day they’ll realize it makes them chuckle because it’s absurd. And then they will stop throwing their daughters in the path of every man with an excellent income and a large property. And maybe the daughters will start to do something else when they aren’t saddled with these expectations.

Nietzsche: I agree with you on this. Women have much more to offer outside the confines of marriage.

Austen: I’m aware of your history, so I will take that comment in the spirit it is intended, with my tongue in cheek.

Nietzsche: And has it made a difference then, your writing?

Austen: (sighs a little) Possibly only to me.

Nietzsche: So here we are then, both of us wasted talents who sought to change the world and who failed entirely.

Austen: You don’t believe that.

Nietzsche: No. It is depressing how little happens in one’s lifetime, but there it is. The Greeks didn’t become interesting until a thousand years after their heyday. Perhaps you and I will both be on a stamp or a bank note one day.

Austen: A girl can dream.

Nietzsche: (Raises his glass in Austen’s direction) Well, Ms. Austen, it hasn’t been as much of a waste of time as I anticipated.

Austen: (smiles) Same to you Mr. Nietzsche, same to you.

Tradeoffs: The Currency of Decision Making

Every decision we make carries an opportunity cost. If we don’t budget wisely, we end up wasting time and energy on things that don’t matter. Here’s how to do it right.

***

Economics teaches you that making a choice means giving up something. — Russ Roberts

The disregard of tradeoffs and opportunity costs play out in the same pattern again and again in our lives. We try to do everything and end up accomplishing nothing.

If you’re young, you think you can go all out in your career, have fulfilling relationships, travel on a regular basis, keep up with reading and social media, go without sleep, take out unnecessary credit card debt, and start a family at the same time. The end result is always a total meltdown.

Even if you are twenty or thirty years past this point, you are not immune. Every day we are faced with choices on how to invest our time, and we all can be guilty of the same thing: Taking on too much without properly understanding the costs. The problem is a misunderstanding of the importance of tradeoffs.

The dismal science

It’s not always that we need to do more but rather that we need to focus on less. — Nathan W. Morris

Economics is all about tradeoffs. A tradeoff is loosely defined as any situation where making one choice means losing something else, usually forgoing a benefit or opportunity. We experience tradeoffs in zero-sum situations, when a plus in one area must be a negative in another. A core component of economic theory is the study of how we allocate scarce resources and negotiate opportunity costs.

Economics offers tools that we can use as guides for getting what we want out of life if we take economic lessons and apply them to resources other than money. We all know our money isn’t infinite, yet we end up treating our time and energy and attention as if they are.  Many of us act as if there are no tradeoffs—we can just do everything if we try hard enough. The irony is that those who know how to make tradeoffs can get so much more out of life than those who try to get everything.

That’s not to say we can’t get more out of our time investments, while staying within the limitations imposed by mental and physical health. We can get more efficient in certain areas. We can combine activities. We can decide to focus on one area for a while, then switch to another. We can find plenty of smart ways to achieve more.

But blindly trying to overstuff our days and stretch our minds to their limits is foolish, whatever the self-help gurus and hustle porn promoters claim. We’re sold the false belief that we can be and have everything. As Julian Baggini writes in What’s It All About?: Philosophy & the Meaning of Life, a person in a content, long-term relationship might feel the pressure to get everything right:

They may well be an excellent life partner. But perhaps they are not a sexual athlete, the world’s best communicator, the possessor of a great body, a domestic god or goddess. In their local bookshop, however, they will be told by a book that they can and perhaps should be all of these things. This can foster feelings of inadequacy.

The truth is, when you’re trying to get everything right, you’re getting nothing right.

No one has everything

When we look at other people, we end up getting the impression that they are managing to do everything. They are fantastic parents, their relationships are novel-worthy, they look amazing, their careers are epic, they get enough sleep, and they feel good all the time. This, however, is far from true. We’re just not seeing the hidden tradeoffs they’re making.

Tradeoffs can take a while to become apparent. They sometimes only show up in the long term. We see this in complex adaptive systems. Try to optimize one area and there’s likely to be a price elsewhere. Sometimes it’s an obvious negative equation, like when steroid abuse leads to organ damage, or when fancy houses mask crippling debt.

But often the tradeoffs are genuinely hard to evaluate—people with world-class math abilities are often socially clueless, and many parents sacrifice career advancement to raise their kids. We all have to make sacrifices to be able to invest in what is important to us. Tradeoffs imply that to get really great at a few things, you have to accept being mediocre at a lot more.

There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.

— Thomas Sowell

Most of us can divide up our lives into a few important areas: work, health, family, relationships, friends, hobbies and so on. It’s an unfortunate truism that we can never quite keep everything in balance. We’re constantly going off-kilter in one area or another and having to make course corrections. When one area goes well, another is usually sliding. It’s like a game of whack-a-mole. Focus on one area and it’s often to the detriment of another.

If you feel like you’re always behind on some area of your life, it’s probably a sign to reconsider tradeoffs. If you feel like you’re always running in place without making any serious progress on anything you care about, you’re probably making the wrong tradeoffs. We often end up allocating our time, and other scarce resources like money, by default, not in the way that gets us what we want.

How to take tradeoffs into account

The necessity of making trade-offs alters how we feel about the decisions we face; more important, it affects the level of satisfaction we experience from the decisions we ultimately make.

― Barry Schwartz, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

One of the most important areas where we need to pay attention to tradeoffs is when we make decisions. It’s not always enough to consider what we stand to gain from going for option B over option A. We also need to take into account what we lose.

Most big decisions involve major tradeoffs. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s neutral. It’s just the price we pay. Simply being aware of the notion of tradeoffs is enough to change the way we make decisions.

Time is our most fundamental constraint. If you use an hour for one thing, you can’t use it for anything else. Time passes, whatever we do with it. It seems beneficial then to figure out the means of using it with the lowest possible opportunity costs. One of the simplest ways to do this is to establish how you’d like to be using your time, then track how you’re using it for a week. Many people find a significant discrepancy. Once we see the gulf between the tradeoffs we’re making and the ones we’d rather be making, it’s easier to work on changing that.

For instance, understanding tradeoffs in time usage is a good way to cut out unwanted, unhelpful behaviors and wastage. It’s one thing to tell yourself you’re not going to spend half an hour reading the news every morning before starting work. It’s another matter to plan how you’re going to spend that time instead. Will you finish work earlier and cook a fancier dinner, or Skype with a friend who lives abroad, or read a chapter of a book?

The higher the value is of what you could be doing versus what you are doing, the greater the opportunity cost. We’d all agree that we’d rather devote our time to activities we value, yet we can end up not acting that way out of habit or obligation or simply because we haven’t considered what we’re forgoing. We will never manage to get rid of everything that has low value to us, but we can keep cutting it back.

Multitasking as a way of getting more out of our time without making tradeoffs doesn’t work. The tradeoff in that case is often not doing anything particularly well. If you answer emails when you’re with your kids or friends, you’re not really focusing on either. Your emails are banal and the people you are with feel unimportant. Even if we try to find ways around fundamental constraints, the tradeoffs show up somewhere.

The final requirement in order to take tradeoffs into account is that you really need to be able to let go of not being great at something. If you’ve chosen to prioritize your relationship with your kids over a clean house, then you need to be okay with letting other people see the mess. If you’ve prioritized physical activity over entertainment, you need to accept that other people are going to tease you for being ignorant of what’s going on in the world. If you’ve chosen to focus on your career versus maintaining every friendship you’ve ever had, you need to get over the pang of hurt when people stop inviting you out.

Tradeoffs aren’t always easy, which is probably why we try to avoid them.

Conclusion

If we think we can have it all, we’re more likely to end up with nothing. We can get much farther if we decide where to focus our energy and which areas to ignore. When we actively choose which tradeoffs we want to make, we can feel much better about it than when we’re forced to let things slide. We need to actively decide what we value the most.

Each of the myriad decisions we make on a daily basis carries an opportunity cost. If we don’t consider them, we easily end up stuck in situations where we’re forgoing things we’d rather prioritize. We end up lamenting what we’re missing out on against our will, unsure how this happened. But if we first consider the tradeoffs associated with the decisions we make, we can end up with far more satisfying choices.

Ayn Rand on Why Philosophy Matters

Nearly four decades after her death, many of Ayn Rand’s works remain controversial and divide people into two camps: love them or hate them. Her lesser known book on philosophy provides broad, timeless insights. Here are her thoughts on the value of philosophy.

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A note on keeping an open mind:

Ayn Rand is a controversial figure. Responses to her ideas seem to land on extremes. The problem with this kind of discourse is that it prevents dialogue. We encourage taking advantage of grey thinking and trying to avoid viewing people and ideas as good/bad binaries. We can learn from people we both like and dislike. We can agree with one idea from someone without having to buy into all their ideas.

There is no doubt that Rand’s essays are polemic. Her writing, like all recorded knowledge, needs to be understood in context. The 1970s saw the height of the Cold War, when capitalism versus communism was set as a battle that would decide the fate of humanity. One need not agree with her political and economic prescriptions to get something interesting from her writing. Accepting this complexity is aligning with the complicated nature of the world. With this in mind, let’s continue!

In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand raises questions that dive into the heart of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of reality. What can be known? What are our core responsibilities as human beings? The title of the book comes from a talk she gave at the United States Military Academy in 1974. It is a collection of essays written mostly in the 1970s, and explores ideas about the requirements of living a full life and participating well in the world.

Here are two key takeaways from this book:

We All Need Philosophy

To answer the original question of who needs philosophy, Rand argues that everyone does.

She suggests we need philosophy to help develop our values, and to defend ourselves against manipulation and control. Rand posits that everyone has a personal philosophy. In her view:

[y]our only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.

She goes on to advocate for the process of learning to identify first principles in our thinking processes. This involves picking apart assumptions about the foundations of our knowledge by asking questions like, “Why?” or, “How do I know this to be true? What are the standards a statement must meet in order to be considered true?” This kind of questioning is an important component of deliberate thinking. When we avoid challenging ourselves and others, we remain vulnerable to the influence of ideas that would ultimately do us harm.

Reflection is the key to thinking well

Rand claims that reflection is a responsibility we all have, and that it is a critical step in gaining useful knowledge.

The men who scorn or dread introspection take their inner states for granted, as an irreducible and irresistible primary, and let their emotions determine their actions. This means that they choose to act without knowing the context (reality), the causes (motives), and the consequences (goals) of their actions.

Letting our emotions dictate our actions results in rationalizing experience to fit what we feel, instead of dealing with the world as it actually is.

Rand makes an interesting distinction when she says, “What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an ‘open mind,’ but an active mind—a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically.” Being willing to listen isn’t enough. We must be willing to engage with what we hear, not accepting at face value the often misinformed opinions of others.

She discusses how lazy thought processes hinder progress. Discussing the person who avoids reflection, she writes, ‘When such a man considers a goal or desire he wants to achieve, the first question in his mind is: “Can I do it?”—not “What is required to do it?”’ It’s a handy approach to keep at the forefront. When confronted with obstacles, we can first consider the conditions necessary to tackling them, not if we have the capacity to do so.

***

There are many philosophers and essayists that we continue to learn from, even as we gingerly pick our way around their flaws. One disappointment in the book is that Rand’s philosophy often doesn’t live up to the requirements she herself argues for. But she isn’t the first thinker whose questions are far more interesting than her answers.

The Best of Goethe’s Aphorisms

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749–1832) Maxims and Reflections is a terrific source of philosophical wisdom. The German writer, statesman, lawyer, playwright, and polymath was brilliant at distilling complex questions and concepts into simple, reflective statements. His wisdom was derived from a life spent learning, thinking, and transmitting knowledge across a wide variety of fields. He crafted volumes of poetry, dramas, and thought pieces on botany, human anatomy, and even the science of color. From his 590 aphorisms, here are our favorites which we hope you enjoy pondering:

#2. How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty and you will know at once what you are worth.

#7. Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are. If I know what your business is, I know what can be made of you.

#19. It is only men of practical ability, knowing their powers and using them with moderation and prudence, who will be successful in worldly affairs.

#20. It is a great error to take oneself for more than one is, or for less than one is worth.

#33. Everything that frees our spirit without giving us control of ourselves is ruinous.

#34. A man is really alive only when he delights in the good-will of others.

#37. When a man is old he must do more than when he was young.

#60. Wisdom lies only in truth.

#65. Generosity wins favor for every one, especially when it is accompanied by modesty.

#91. Certain minds must be allowed their peculiarities.

#102. So obstinately contradictory is man that you cannot compel him to his advantage, yet he yields before everything that forces him to his hurt.

#124. One need only grow old to become gentler in one’s judgments. I see no fault committed which I could not have committed myself.

#130. Hatred is active displeasure, envy passive. We need not wonder that envy turns so soon to hatred.

#131. There is something magical in rhythm; it even makes us believe that we possess the sublime.

#134. The most foolish of all errors is for clever young men to believe that they forfeit their originality in recognizing a truth which has already been recognized by others.

#143. No one should desire to live in irregular circumstances; but if by chance a man falls into them, they test his character and show how much determination he is capable of.

#152. Ingratitude is always a kind of weakness. I have never known men of ability to be ungrateful.

#162. There are people who make no mistakes because they never wish to do anything worth doing.

#184. We may learn to know the world as we please: it will always retain a bright and a dark side.

#211. Enthusiasm is of the greatest value, so long as we are not carried away by it.

#223. We cannot escape a contradiction in ourselves; we must try and resolve it. If the contradiction comes from others, it does not affect us: it is their affair.

#231. Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.

#239. To live in a great idea means to treat the impossible as though it were possible. It is just the same with a strong character; and when an idea and a character meet, things arise which fill the world with wonder for thousands of years.

#264. A man’s manners are the mirror in which he shows his portrait.

#270. Against the great superiority of another there is no remedy but love.

#276. Fools and wise folk are alike harmless. It is the half-wise and the half-foolish, who are the most dangerous.

#278. Difficulties increase the nearer we come to our aim.

#320. A man is not deceived by others, he deceives himself.

#324. It is not enough to know, we must also apply; it is not enough to will, we must also do.

#332. Nothing is more highly to be prized than the value of each day.

#345. A man is well equipped for all the real necessities of life if he trusts his senses, and so cultivates them that they remain worthy of being trusted.

#346. The senses do not deceive; it is the judgment that deceives.

#383. Every man hears only what he understands.

#485. There is no surer way of evading the world than by Art; and no surer way of uniting with it than by Art.

#486. Even in the moments of highest happiness and deepest misery we need the Artist.

#488. The dignity of Art appears perhaps most conspicuously in music; for in music there is no material to be deducted. It is wholly form and intrinsic value, and it raises and ennobles all that it expresses.

#529. We more readily confess to errors, mistakes and shortcomings in our conduct than in our thought.

#554. A man must cling to the belief that the incomprehensible is comprehensible; otherwise he would not try to fathom it.

#579. There are two things of which a man cannot be careful enough: of obstinacy if he confines himself to his own line of thought; of incompetency, if he goes beyond it.

#584. Every one knows how to value what he has attained in life; most of all the man who thinks and reflects in his old age. He has a comfortable feeling that it is something of which no one can rob him.

***

If you enjoyed reading these you may also be interested in digesting similar lists of aphorisms we wrote about:

From Eastern Philosophy: Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish: The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin 

From the mind of Nassim Taleb: The Bed of Procrustes — 20 Aphorisms from Nassim Taleb

And an interesting discussion criticizing aphorisms: Susan Sontag: Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

The Power of Questions

The quality of the answers we get are directly correlated with the quality of the questions we ask. Here’s how to improve your questions.

***

When we run our once-a-year Re:Think Europe event, 10 participants work with us for a month before the event to hone their questions. This is the most intense event we run for a reason. Each person brings a problem or challenge to the table for others to help with. Participants research each other’s problems before the event. Before they even show up, refining and iterating the questions often help the participants make huge leaps forward.

As a society, we tend to focus a lot on answers. Answers are solutions to problems. We tend to give less prestige to questions. Everyone has them. They’re easy. It’s the answers that take the work.

This overlooks the power of questions. Asking questions gives you a better understanding of everything: the situation you are in, the challenges you are facing. Life.

Let me share a story that took place in my second-year history class at university. We started discussing the assigned reading. I didn’t really understand it, but I figured I’d get it just sitting there. Then this guy raised his hand and said, “Hey Professor, could you explain [technical term]? It wasn’t clear to me from the article.”

Boom. I had this startling insight. Up until then, I had always been afraid to ask questions like that for fear of looking stupid [read about pluralistic ignorance here]. But this guy didn’t appear stupid. At that moment, he seemed like the smartest guy in the class.

Asking questions means you want to learn. You want to understand and know. So where do you start? Anywhere you want. But don’t feel pressure to begin with the big questions, the ones we all confront at one time or another, like the meaning of life, or what exists beyond our physical experience of earth. There is a significant amount to be learned from the seemingly mundane ones, questions that seem so basic, once we reach about age 12 we no longer bother asking them—because we either think we know the answer or are afraid of admitting we don’t.

Consider the following three questions:

  1. What is a horse?
  2. What is green?
  3. What is a point in time?

At first glance, these don’t seem difficult. They’re grade school stuff. But these are actually really hard questions that can show us how much is to be gained from asking them.

First, what is a horse? Most people will list the physical characteristics that horses have in common, saying, “A horse has four legs, and a mane, and you can ride it.” This is definitely true of some horses, but we would reasonably consider a three-legged horse still a horse. And a horse doesn’t cease to be a horse if it can’t be ridden. It doesn’t become some other animal.

There is, I think, some component of DNA that is the same for all horses, a bit of code that tells the cells to form the horse. So why don’t we reference a specific gene sequence when we are explaining what a horse is? Because it wouldn’t in any way communicate what we mean by the word horse. Horses have properties that relate to our experience of them. The problem is, they all don’t have the same properties.

So what we do is fix a vague concept in our minds of horseness. It can’t be an image, because then it would be a specific horse, and it can’t be explicitly defined because we wouldn’t encompass the whole category. So we keep it at a fuzzy level that, despite its lack of precision, is extremely useful when we have to communicate in any way about horses. The abstract concept must stay abstract to retain its utility.

So, are you being pedantic when you ask, “What is a horse?” Not at all. You’re actually doing something very important. You are assessing the understanding of the person you are talking to about yours. And you discover that it’s never going to be a perfect match.

As for the second question, what is green? This one is definitely more painful. The easy answer is a color. But that’s not a good answer, for what is a color? A quality that objects possess? Ooh cool. Where can I get some of this quality? Ah. Nowhere. Green is a quality that does not exist outside of the objects that possess it.

There is no place you can see green without seeing something being green. How unfair is this? I know green. I see it all the time. But it is not a thing I can hold. A change in the way my eyes process light and there could cease to be green [related: How do you know that you know what you know?]. But greenness would always be out there, a property of the interaction of light and molecules that can be so vivid but doesn’t actually exist on its own.

Does this make asking, “What is green?” a waste of time? No. Wanting to get a handle on the fundamentals is never a waste of time. You can learn what you can influence and what you cannot. In this case you learn that you can change the color of an object, but you have no powers when it comes to color itself.

Finally, what is a point in time? This one really hurts. First, we should ask what is a point? Conveniently, Euclid provided some definitions over 2000 years ago.

  1. A point is that which has no part.
  2. A line is length without breadth.
  3. A surface is that which has length and breadth only.

From this, we can conclude that a point has neither length nor breadth. That’s okay. It’s just this thing, and if you connect two of them with length you get a line. Euclid also said, “The extremities of lines are points.” It all works. Conceptually, it makes sense. I can wrap my head around it enough to do basic geometry. Great.

But if you actually think about it, your brain could explode. A point has neither length nor breadth? Then what does it have? It has to have something, to be something, doesn’t it? But anything that occupies space must have length and breadth, however infinitesimal. Since points have neither, they cannot occupy space. But then how can they form the ends of lines? How can they be?

The same thing happens when we try to conceive of a point in time. It’s something we all get. We say things like “going forward” as if there is a specific moment that we can measure all other moments against. But how exactly would you describe a moment in time? To say that implies that there are many moments, all of which could be distinguished from each other. But can they be? What fills the space between them? And if you say nothing, then how can the points be distinguished at all?

Are we unreasonable, then, when we question, ‘What is a point in time?” No. We can’t question everything every day, as it would likely put us in a state of paralysis, but asking questions like this shows that there is much to be gained from the act of trying to answer. We can learn a lot, often more, from work involved in answering a question than from the answer itself.

There are no dumb questions. Don’t be afraid to ask them. They are the most straight forward path to learning.

Article Summary

  • Good questions are the key to better insights.
  • Questions allow you to asses your understanding as well as others. Identifying gaps in your knowledge is the first step to filling them.
  • We can learn a lot, often more, from the work involved in answering a question than from the answer itself.

The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness

Along the same vein as Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness is the business philosophy handbook from the marketing, advertising, and PR firm Ogilvy & Mather.

The book is a roadmap for the desired organizational culture at Ogilvy & Mather and clearly articulates the unique culture they espouse: one focused heavily on creativity.

The book outlines eight simple virtues of an organization where creativity is pervasive:

  1. Courage
  2. Idealism
  3. Curiosity
  4. Playfulness
  5. Candour
  6. Intuition
  7. Free-Spiritedness
  8. Persistence

These eight virtues are common to creative people down through the ages. They are our path to recognizing our own inner greatness. Together, they should represent the distillation of what is best in this company. We must live by them and for them.

1. Courage

If fear is our principal adversary, then, courage is our chief ally. It is the first of the eight creative habits for good reason: it is the habit that guarantees all the others.

In the absence of courage, nothing worthwhile can be accomplished.

2. Idealism

Helen Keller, the deaf and blind activist, was asked by a journalist what she thought would be worse than being born blind. She replied without missing a beat, ‘to have sight and no vision.’

3. Curiosity

‘He who no longer pauses to wonder and stand rapt in awe,’ Einstein pronounced, ‘is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.’

It is only in the open state of curiosity that we can explore, dream and make babies in our heads.

For a start, we have to ask stupid questions like a pesky 6-year-old.

Once again, Einstein has something to say on the matter (as well as proving that he would have made a very short-lived cat): ‘I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted,’ the physicist said. ‘I am only very, very curious.’

4. Playfulness

David (Ogilvy) never entirely grew up.

He would heckle in meetings, throw chocolate cakes at dinner parties and roll down grassy slopes in Brooks Brothers suits.

He told us to develop our eccentricities while we’re young so people would not think we’re going gaga as we got older.

Like all creative people, David knew that necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is horseplay that’s most certainly the father.

5. Candour

We are a company of problem solvers.

Our job requires us to be brutally honest and totally dedicated to the truth.

For unless we know the truth, in all its unlovely details, how are we going to go about the business of problem solving.

The tendency to be nice and avoid telling the truth is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature.

6. Intuition

We waste our beautiful mind by leaning lopsidedly on logic.

We are in the business of creativity and discovery. What clients value most about us is our ability to find one-of-a-kind solutions for their business problems through intuitive leaps.

7. Free-Spiritedness

Ironically, most agencies fail to grasp the fragility of the idea-generation process.

The notion that bureaucratic sausage factories pumping out fodder for meetings will solve the problem is ludicrous, as are the box-ticking, paint-by-numbers follow-up sessions.

The work is, not infrequently, as dull as the meetings that precede it.

Bureaucracy has no place in an ideas company.

8. Persistence

If the client kills your day, do him a better one.

If he kills the better one, do him an even better one.

If he kills that even better one, do him your damn best one.

Dogged determination is often the only trait that separates a moderately creative person from a highly creative one.

If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, you’ll have a very hard time finding it on the open market (as the Amazon link above attests). To learn more this video does a great job of summarizing the eight virtues. You could also listen to The Knowledge Project Podcast Episode #19 with Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather.