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You, as a Failure

March 14, 2009 — 6 Comments

Jay Hayley has an essay called The Art of Being a Failure as a Therapist and in it he does something interesting. He tries to argue for a method of psychiatry (directive) by discussing all the ways it can be done poorly. By showing specifically where it can go wrong, Hayley knows he is proving it to be quantifiable rather than some vague, indescribable notion. In other words, he tested for falsifiability.

Jake Lodwick used the same idea in a thought experiment that is worth running through occasionally. Try to think, he says, of one thing that would finally convince you that Keynesian economics don’t really work.

A better example might be Umair Haque. Is there anything he doesn’t see as confirmation of his theories? His approach makes for a entertaining record of pithy blog posts but it also makes him callous, excessively general, and open to criticism.

If you combine Hayley’s approach with the thought experiment you have a nice way to test yourself. Think about your job. Can you write out, concretely, what you would have to do to be a failure at it? If you can’t then maybe you don’t really do anything. Or, think about something you have faith in or hold in high esteem. Can you articulate, exactly, what would have to happen for it to lose your respect? If you can’t, maybe it’s closer to worshiping than believing.

It’s just a coincidence that they all involve eating:

Putting lime or lemon in a coke – It makes no sense that restaurants assume the customer wants a lemon added to their drink rather than ask. The default should obviously be just the soda. It’s a practical example of Tversky’s conjunction fallacy. It’s much more likely that someone will like just one thing rather than one thing and another.

Adding your own credit card tips – I put the final total amount and leave the tip area blank. Your waiter functions as your cashier and is perfectly capable of doing the math themselves. In fact, that’s partially what you’re tipping them for.

Nachos with beans – The appeal of nachos is based on the interesting contrast between crunchy warm chips and the cool, soft toppings. Beans undermine the purpose of the entire dish. They put an irreversible expiration date on the meal within a matter of minutes and are therefore more appropriate as a request, not a required ingredient.

There are a few others worth observing like turning left on red (in Los Angeles), the carpool lane reverting to the furthermost most left lane in times of no traffic and declining opportunities to “wait” for someone to leave a parking space. Off the top of my head, I don’t think it’s worth struggling to pronounce any foreign word. Just say it how it appears. No one would think it politically correct to criticize the accent of someone from Mexico or France.

What other common practices do we observe that make little sense? There has to be evidence of why dissenting is more logical or convenient, not just that you don’t like it.

Once while Plato entertained guests, Diogenes entered his home and stomped on his carpets. He’s said to have shouted that he was trampling down the pride of Plato. Plato, according the guests, simply replied “Yes, Diogenes, with a pride of another sort.”

I don’t think we need any more blogs that give you career advice, networking tips or chatter incessantly about micro-movements cut off from the big picture. I agree with Seneca when he said we don’t have time to discuss the storms that befell Odysseus when every day we run into our own storms, storms in reality not fiction. Instead each day you should acquire from what you read something that helps you fight fear, stagnation, indulgence or death. If you’re setting out to write something, that should be its purpose.

But to focus on the heavier stuff inherently risks moralizing. And to moralize, like Diogenes, is to risk another kind of prideful error.

What I’m Reading

March 6, 2009 — 32 Comments

The Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius

To Philosophize is to Learn How To Die by Montaigne (some good stoic thoughts on death. In Egypt they would carry around a painting of a corpse in a coffin and toast “drink and be merry for you will be just like this when you are dead.”

The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian (Arrian is the student of transcribed Epictetus’ lectures. His book on Alexander is surprisingly fair)

Conquering Gotham: A Gilded Age Epic: The Construction of Penn Station and Its Tunnels by Jill Jonnes (it’s a bargain book so it wasn’t a waste but I was hoping for some urban anthropology and this is not it)

Peter the Great by Vasili Klyuchevsky (very dry but interesting)

The Wit and Wisdom of Abraham Lincoln: A Book of Quotations (his notes for a law lecture are my favorite. tells you how not to be this guy)

The Souls Of Black Folk by W. E. B. Du Bois (worth having a copy of)

Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (couldn’t sleep and read most of this on the couch)

I’m using delicious more and writing about each article. I do this for a couple different people’s accounts but you can subscribe to an RSS feed of someone’s links. Here’s mine.

Also, we can talk about it in the comments but I think Obama’s ‘Limbaugh as the voice of the republican party‘ strategy is a huge mistake. He’s the wrong guy to do it to and even if he wasn’t it’s a bad move. Polarity is a defensive tactic so it doesn’t make sense for the party with the momentum to purposely bog themselves down in it. They should be sowing dissension and conflict, not giving them a leader (even if it’s a crazy, loud one). I think it’s an out of touch move that seemed like a no-brainer to a bunch of 90’s Democrats but will end up firming up resistance that wasn’t there previously. Before discussing glance at: Law 42, Strike the Shepherd and the Sheep will Scatter and Strategy 17, Defeat them in detail: Divide and conquer.

On Grievances

March 4, 2009 — 6 Comments

One thing I’m slowly learning is how to stop holding people accountable for things you haven’t articulated. It’s the emotional equivalent of waiting for an answer to a question that you mumbled. It seems basic but it’s actually really easy to avoid ever doing. There is so much incentive for abuse.

It’s insidious. On the one hand, there is some vulnerability in having to explain honestly how something makes you feel. On the other, saying anything means they might stop and then you can’t hold it against them anymore. Comparing the two options for someone like me, it not even a question. Think about how often people turn down the chance to feel better than someone else. In my experience, it doesn’t happen very often.

So I’ve tried to use the Mirror Trick on a regular basis. It’s meant for married couples but the application is far reaching:

Before you approach your partner with a grievance, take a mental peek into the mirror. What aspect of yourself, what issues or ‘stuff,’ either past or present, are you bringing to the discussion about this problem? For example, if you don’t like the amount of time your partner spends with friends, ask yourself “what does his/her spending time away from me mean to me specifically?” It could be an issue of feeling inferior to them or unwanted, something that cuts beyond the core of “a man/woman needs to be home with his/her spouse.” If you can ‘look in the mirror first’ you can then approach your partner with the grievance in the form of your personal idiosyncrasy with the issue as opposed to simply pointing the finger. This will often decrease defensiveness and lead to a more productive outcome. Consider: “When you spend such a large amount of time with your friends, it taps into my fears that you don’t want to be with me. I feel inferior to them.” Compare this with: “I hate it when you’re with your friends so much. You need to be home more.”

When I run through the list of my grievances they almost all are rooted at some level in this problem. I’m holding someone to account for something they never knew they signed up for. Changing that variable is an instant release of tension. I’m no longer carrying the resentment and suddenly, they aren’t the “violator” anymore. And for the other cases where you can’t do anything about it? It’s still ok, I think, to hold people to your own internal standards. You just don’t get the right to bemad about it.