The Second Act Fallacy

April 23, 2009 — 17 Comments

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that there are “no second acts in American lives.” Joesph Epstein retorted in Ambition that Fitzgerald should have realized that just because the ending isn’t happy doesn’t mean there wasn’t a second act. In fact, we have a name for that style: tragedy.

Maybe he would have been better served to remember that. Or, better still, he could have abandoned the whole notion that his life was a like a play. Consider that Fitzgerald’s love of drama, glamor, and fame were responsible for almost all his problems. It’s why he was depressed, why he loved a woman who destroyed his life, and why he never sat down to really work again.

What if there is just life and we’re not all actors on a world’s stage. There wouldn’t be the crushing pressure of redemption because there isn’t an audience to redeem. There would only be you. And each day, the expectations you fulfill are your own. The day before and the day after are unconnected because there is no narrative tying them together. They just are.

The Second Act in American Lives is a fallacy generated by the absorbed belief in the First Act. They’re both counterproductive. They’re both delusional. They ultimately make it impossible to an incredibly difficult thing: waking up everyday and doing only the things that make you happy and proud and self-contained.


April 20, 2009 — 7 Comments

No offense to my dad, but I don’t remember getting a whole lot of advice as a kid. And considering how many of the former responsibilities of the family are getting pushed off onto society or dropped all together, this was probably a good thing. Today, the onus to learn life lessons falls almost entirely on the individual.

On my bookshelf, I have Life books. Books that were formative or influential and had implications outside their immediate reading. When I don’t feel like reading something new, I pick one of them up and flip through it. There’s this book called The Harder They Fall, which for about 300 pages is entirely about some boxing match, but it’s on that shelf because the last page has this wonderful paragraph about thinking we can “deal with filth without becoming the thing we touch.” I also have a delicious tag that I try to keep important articles in. Ones that make me think “what an asshole” or “keep that in mind” or “you should be so lucky to ever become that person.” The people who wrote them probably had no idea that their topic could be interpreted in such a way, which is the whole point.

The problem with a lot of advice is that it’s a good part projection of the other person, and not about you. What I like to do is search out things that speak to me, that I can tweak into becoming some sort of lesson rather than an explicit instruction from someone else. Chances are you’re going to wake up one day and find yourself in a situation you don’t know how to deal with. But if you’ve properly prepared yourself, you should have the tools on hand to work something out.

What I’m saying is that there is a critical distinction between the crap you read about box office economics, or tech acquisitions or random chatter about the future of the media and what has real implications for your actual life. One is like the clacking chatter on the floor of the stock exchange and the other, a private conversation in a lush, quiet office. One matters, and the other is distracting, vicarious bullshit that would so instantly go mute if someone told you that you were dying or had a few million dollars in a bank account.

So which one should you spend the most time organizing or collecting? Which one are you going to turn to if things go to shit? Or, finally, who is more respected, a master of wisdom or information?

The Active Life

April 17, 2009 — 7 Comments

Victor Davis Hanson wrote a book called The Western Way Of War that turned most of everything we thought we knew about Greek warfare on its head. For instance, we’d always assumed that generals gave long, inspiring speeches to their troops before battle, just like they did in ancient literature. Hanson went ahead and actually tried on a hoplite helmet and it turns out that speeches would have been pretty worthless since none of them had any earholes.

And for a really long time, historians had just taken the phrase “then the troops laid waste to the land” completely for granted. Hanson was clearing trees and vines from his property in Central California when it became obvious that the notion must have been symbolic, not literal. Uprooting olive trees is difficult with tractors in the year 2009; it would have been impossible at any scale for a Greek solider.

Hanson’s most important contributions to the history of warfare didn’t come from study but from experimentation and inspiration from an active life. Now we have an accurate, practical understanding of a style of war that was steeped in unspoken communication between soldiers and a sensitive concept of sovereignty between nations. All because Hanson trained himself to question obvious assumptions and to have the curiosity to catch small clues that once examined, open a rabbit hole of new information.

In other words, the most important skills he has as an academic have nothing to do with the classroom. Nor are they best put to use there either. So the next time you hear a professor pontificating in a scholarly journal or a dataphile obsessing about a pedantic detail, remember how often they will be completely disrupted by some tinkerer unafraid to put basic assumptions to the most important test: everyday life.

A Guide to Stoicism

April 13, 2009 — 20 Comments

My post on Tim Ferriss’ site is up and its called “Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs.”

It took a long time to put together but I think it’s the first real introduction to the most overlooked part of Western philosophy. The rest of the blogs that write about self-improvement and productivity have really dropped the ball when it comes to honest, practical advice, in favor of glib Eastern sayings. There is one thing that couldn’t fit in there but I think is still worth talking about, it’s the nature of what Stoic writing is.

Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations for his own personal study, never intending it for publication; Seneca’s letters were a private exchange with a friend; Epictetus didn’t write a single thing down (handwritten notes from a student made their way to a young Marcus Aurelius). This puts their writing in a spirit that’s almost unheard of in the “self-help” category. When you’re writing for an audience, there is such a massive incentive to puff yourself up or present the best side of yourself that it becomes inherently fake.

The Stoics wrote personal exhortations so they lack the puffing and rationalization that comes from presenting yourself to an audience. When was the last time you read a self-help book where the author admitted that all their advice was difficult, that it was ok to fail at it because they did all the time too? Publication, for some reason, makes everyone feel like they have to pretend they’re perfect and that it’s not a struggle. Stoic writing is refreshingly clear of all that and, to me, that’s why it is important.

I would really recommend Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault. It’s intense but it allows you to use philosophy as it was intended, as a way of life, rather than some academic pursuit.

In a search to be more in the “present” I’ve been experimenting with my running schedule. Yesterday, I ran through the length of skid row with an iPod as part of my run. I felt aware and constantly on guard. Unconsciously I increased my pace multiple times. When I finished, I was physically and mentally more tired than I am on runs of comparable distance. I was sweatier too.

There are two transhumanist architects who believed that people die of old age because they become too comfortable. In response, they built confusing, complicated houses that kept people active, confused and constantly disoriented. They had almost no places to sit down and the floor was made up of rocky, uneven material that looked like a children’s playground. The couple believed that you could permanently postpone death by living in one of these houses. Now that sounds like bullshit shit to me, however, I have noticed then when I go on unfamiliar runs, I am more “present” and alert. I feel better and more invigorated after I finish.

In human evolution, there would have been two types of running. The first would be for travel. The Greeks had messengers who would quickly run long distances to deliver a message. The other would been survival-mode – short sprints to avoid a fight or predator or a fire. I feel like most exercise we do is in the style of the first kind, for instance, on a treadmill. It’s not nearly as stimulative as the second kind, which requires critical decision making and alertness. Also, there is a greater incentive to be good at the latter because it is a life or death issue.

I would guess that exercise in unfamiliar or confusing terrain is better for you than running at the gym or on a regular, nightly course. I wonder if adding a sense of urgency, like someone chasing you or a dangerous neighborhood, is better mentally as well as physically because you don’t ever get in ‘the zone’. If you’re practicing being in the present, the transhumanist logic may have some merit.

(Seth Robert’s “My Theory of Human Evolution” always make me think)