There was a moment in the Civil War where Ulysses S Grant found his legs. Although he’d had experienced leading men into battle during the Mexican-American war, part of his early stumbles can be explained by fear. Or, at least, the anxiety that comes along with being uncertain of yourself. In July of 1861 he was sent to break up a notorious group of guerillas led by Gen. Tom Harris. Grant hemmed and hawed in his mindit wasn’t the fighting, it was the fighting as a colonel. If there was some way he could be the lieutenant-colonel, he later wrote, and someone else could be the colonel he’d  have been fine.

And so, racked with misapprehension, he marched his men on their mission. But when he arrived at the Harris’ camp it was empty. They enemy had left, knowing Grant was coming. Grant changed in this instant. His fears disappeared and did not return. Grant wrote later in his memoirs “it occurred to me at once that Harris had been as much afraid of me as I had been of him…from that event to the close of the war…I never forgot that the enemy has as much reason to fear my forces as I had his.”

It’s probably a strange take on this, but such a realizationthe power you have over your opponentis deeply connected with empathy. It’s understanding and acknowledging that there is a world outside your predominant emotions. And that this is a logical world, one that is ripe with people who feel what you feel not because you are special and came to it first but because we are all the same.  In a perverted way, it’s very hubristic to think only you would feel fear in this situation. It is to deny, essentially, the enemy a sense of personhood or self. It is to assume that your emotions matter and nothing else doesor rather, that they do not even exist.

So I think you apply Grant’s realization to many parts of your life. The awkwardness of introducing yourself to strangers. Fighting with your girlfriend. Business negotiations. Selling a product. Taking a test. Pitching an idea. It’s not simply that you have something to do or say, there is another person who will be responding to you and that response is equally daunting. And you have to remember that well before the stage of being very attuned to others is the realization that those others exist. And the power that comes from taking that first step. Because most people don’t.

And here, I feel like this better says what I’ve been trying to get at for a long time:

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Perceptions like that—latching on onto thing and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the timeall through our lives when things lay claim to our trustto lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations VI.13″

I tried here, here, here, here, here, here, here and so many times when I needed to convince myself that it wasn’t all that it appeared. That was some reason, no matter how deep the draw was, to not be like that, to not give in. What I like about finding this again is that its kind of the opposite of that feeling that Emerson talked about when he said that in the genius of others we’ll see our own rejected thoughts with an alienated majesty. This wasn’t discovering that someone else had said what I have struggled to say or never was able to say. This was finding the source that put me down the path the begin with. This is the origin of that nascent thought. And it’s replenishing to return to it.


April 6, 2011 — 9 Comments

I read this paragraph in Kierkegaard’s amazing essay “The Present Age.” It fits so perfectly as a meditation or a note to oneself.

“Only someone who knows how to remain essentially silent can really talk—and act essentially. Silence is the essence of inwardness, of the inner life. Mere gossip anticipates real talk and to express what is still in thought weakens action by forestalling it. But someone who can really talk because he knows how to remain silent, will not talk about a variety of things but about one thing only.”

I feel like it expresses everything I tried (and mostly failed) to say here, here, here and so many other times. There is something immediately humbling and settling about seeing someone translate and elaborate what you’d never have been able to do, like a sigh of relief. Because ultimately the only reason we try to mess with these ideas is to help ourselves understand something and now we do.

One More Step

March 22, 2011 — 8 Comments

Add New Orleans, Austin, Tahoe, Riverside, San Francisco, San Diego, Vicksburg, Dallas, Tombstone, Tucson, Joshua Tree, Phoenix, Vegas to cities I’ve run in during the last year. Add some of the cities multiple times on multiple trips. In the rain. When I was sick. With a weight vest. On the beach, on treadmills, hopelessly lost, in the snow, in the middle of the night, twice in one day.

I wrote a version of that for the first time in 2008. But it was a shorter list for sure. When I look back on that period and partially on this one, what strikes me despite the differences in locations is the sameness of it. It was always about the same distance, at the same speed and usually around the same time at night. I realize now how unnatural that is, unproductive in a way. Periods of lots of activity can still be a stasis. In fact, the body gets used to this and settles itself into handling it.

People with energy cannot not use it. It pours out of them. There’s no question of whether they have time to do this or that, it just happens. They take one more step because they are compelled to. You rack up a history this way. The problem is when it begins such a unconscious part of your decision making process, it starts to not be enough. It ceases to mean anything if it is a routine, physically and in significance. What the body needs is unpredictability and contrast and challenges.

For me that has meant adding in new things like sprinting. Or using a weight vest. And swimming or biking occasionally. It’s less about the cities—I can trust myself now to get up and do it anywhere—and more about the diversity. The evolution of self-discipline ultimately comes to include regulating the discipline itself. To do the same thing over and over takes nothing. To do something different, exhausting, and new each time takes a robust creativity that you can be proud of.

Underlying Motivations

March 11, 2011 — 7 Comments

The underlying premise of a concept like public choice theory is that people respond to incentives. Even the government, as insulated as it is from the market, is still driven by a self-interest that colors and shapes its decisions. It’s a fact that is manifested individually first, and then collectively in second order.

This is something I think about a lot. Asking: what’s behind this? why is it this way? what am I not seeing that influences this situation? The eye of the needle determines what gets threaded through it. And people and the constraints of their environment function much in the same way. I’ve always found that getting things done is about understanding the forces that are acting on the people involved. Ignore the actions; consider the factors that created and shaped them.

It’s funny because what makes people the angriest or the most disappointed was often the most understandable. Yet their energy is typically funneled towards the examples that are least typical (and least changeable). Take something like ethics in the media. People focus on rare but overt conflicts of interest, nevertheless letting subtle but pervasive biases stand and be rewarded. For instance, everyone would agree that journalists shouldn’t cover things they have a financial stake in. But to me, its this kind of brazen corruption we should be the least worried about—at least it is easy to spot. Meanwhile, we have no problem accepting that how journalists or bloggers cover is something from which they receive direct financial benefit. The choice to make a story more than it is, to extrapolate wildly or to create controversy are all part of how a writer makes a name from themselves, particularly in a world of pageview bonuses.

The idea is to make yourself a student of incentives and of motivations. To understand that this person is addicted to chaos, that another gets paid to distort, that what matters to you is not necessarily what matters to them, or that you know what, it just can’t be helped—their self-interest is too compelling. Because if you study it and accept it uncritically, you can position yourself to travel along with that current, instead of fighting hopelessly to make it upstream. But this is contingent acknowledging a simple rule of thumb: there is always more going on beneath the surface. There is always an incentive. And a response.