A regular posting of witticisms, aphorisms, and general musings by Clifford Cohen.
Think of aphorisms and witticisms as poetry or prose of a practical nature, in miniature. These short sayings can have a big impact…if you think about them. Each saying holds within itself the secret of making you want to “look closer”. The sayings come to me anytime, anyplace, for any reason. I then serve them up to you—fresh from the garden of thought—to consider and enjoy.
I had a friend who stated, “If I was down to my last $10 bill, I’d buy a steak with it.” This remark always stuck with me. Putting aside for a moment why a person would be in such a situation to begin with, the above sentiment flies in the face of common wisdom, which tells us all to hunker down and conserve resources in the face of adversity—ostensibly to make it through to a better day. All too often, though, life doesn’t work that way. All that we accomplish in conserving resources is to “die a slower death”. As with most aphorisms, this one isn’t intended to speak for all situations. It is intended to speak for those situations in which “playing it safe” is expected to result in the same outcome as not doing so. In the face of danger, you can laugh or cry. Some choose to laugh.
(A quick note about the spelling of G-d below: I am Jewish, and in the Jewish tradition it is not allowed to write the name of G-d, so I use the common convention for referring to G-d.)
G-d doesn’t need people, the earth, or even all of creation—he wants them. That’s why G-d created everything we see and sense. We exist because of G-d’s loving-kindness. We exist so that we can share in G-d’s universe and find wonder in it all. G-d invites us to take the raw materials he has given us—our bodies, our minds, our senses, our creative instincts—and use them to discover the intrinsic truths that G-d has built into the world. In doing this, we give meaning to life itself. It is what we are expected to do—and we do it in a way that is unique to each of us. For reasons too unfathomably wonderful to comprehend, I believe G-d maintains a keen interest in how we use our lives.
"What is the meaning of life…to give life meaning."
The best advice I ever received came from my mother: “Do at least one fun thing every day.”
I must admit that when my mother first suggested this to me some years back, I reacted with skepticism. I said to myself, “How could doing (at least) one fun thing a day help me cope better with the many stressors I have to contend with in a typical day?”
As I’m sure many of you have already found, it does wonders.
At some point, and for some reason, I actually decided to give my mom’s advice a try: each day I resolved to consciously decide what I would do for fun that day; I then made certain to carry through with the plan. In no time, I found that this planning and doing became an anchor that enabled me to stay centered in turbulent seas. No matter how bad things got, I always had that one fun thing—no matter how small—to look forward to. This little piece of homespun advice has paid dividends time and again for me. I hope it will for you, too.
"The best advice I ever received came from my mother: “Do at least one fun thing every day.”"
What this country needs is a progressive conservative as president—not a conservative progressive.
(Spoiler alert: today’s post gets a little bit “preachy” and is a bit longer than usual; tomorrow I’ll return to my usual phlegmatic self (this description will give a chuckle to anyone who actually knows me).)
I actually thought this observation up 8 years ago, but it probably still has some relevance today. Here’s my simplistic assessment of what you get when you elect:
A conservative conservative: Inaction based on ideology.
A progressive conservative: Action from a position of prudence.
A conservative progressive: Inaction out of fear.
A progressive progressive: Action for the sake of action.
Of course, there are many other types of politician, including “none of the above”. And any type of politician might be perfectly suited to a particular place and time. However, given the general mood of dissatisfaction and disillusion evident in the most recent election, it appears that America is not currently producing candidates that adequately speak to the aspirations and concerns of the electorate.
Looking back in our history, and given the challenges we face, one cannot help but wonder why America does not produce viable politicians in the mold of Theodore Roosevelt anymore. Three words described Theodore Roosevelt: Courage, Caring, and Competence. Roosevelt had few intellectual equals in politics. He used that intellect, his boundless energy, and his prodigious courage, to achieve a visionary agenda that, at the time, was stiffly resisted by special interests. He found purpose in a deeply rooted love of America and the American people. Today, such expectations sound naïve, simplistic, and unrealistic relative to our present circumstances. I suggest they are not. While it is true that presidential history is complex (i.e., when we judge a president, we are judging not only the person, but the person in the context of their times, their milieu, and the actions and abilities of their contemporaries), it is never too much to ask that our leaders embody the timeless qualities that are so critical to our survival as a nation.
There are of course many facile answers to the question of why the qualities we truly seek may not be adequately represented in the person each of us might vote for as president (I can think of a few reasons myself), but the more important question is: “what does this fact say about us as a nation?” Today, we are wedded to political and economic philosophies, elegant theories, and platforms. We do not trust our instincts. We deny our own power, we retreat from wicked problems. We openly admit that our leaders are powerless (or understandably unwilling) to curb the runaway influence of special interests. If what we really want is vigorous action grounded in both prudence and decencytowards all Americans, we must be willing to find our future leader and not wait for them to come to us.
"What this country needs is a progressive conservative as president—not a conservative progressive."
A psychologist’s job (if it’s done well) is to get you to seriously laugh at yourself.
I’ve found that healing occurs best when self-evaluation and personal growth are coupled with humor and self-acceptance. A good therapist will not only help you to discover what needs to change, but will teach you how to view your current foibles with perspective, understanding, and (when appropriate) even wry amusement. Granted, the business of therapy may at times be of critical, sometimes life and death, importance. (This is what “serious” refers to in the aphorism.) But unless you have done something particularly egregious, if you change your unwanted behavior solely out of necessity—or through the impetus that comes from self-loathing or shame—you will forever view that change and your past behavior with nothing but sadness, regret, and self-recrimination. That is, however, until you are able, in some small way, to laugh at who you once were.
"A psychologist’s job (if it’s done well) is to get you to seriously laugh at yourself."
Sometimes, if your opponent is determined to win the battle, let him win the wrong battle.
The relevance of this advice is borne out in history. Two clear examples that illustrate variants of this aphorism in action are:
…the French invasion of Russia under Napoleon, in which Napoleon managed to take Moscow…at the expense of his army.
…the Battle of Hastings, in which the army of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson unwittingly fell prey to a simple tactic employed by the army of Duke William II of Normandy: during the battle, the solders of Duke William II pretended to be routed, whereupon the soldiers of King Harold chased them. When the pursuing soldiers were separated from the rest of their army, the “fleeing soldiers” cut down their pursuers. The success of this tactic contributed to the defeat of King Harold.
One obviously need not look simply to the battlefield for applications of this strategy. It is potentially relevant in most every sphere of life where competition or conflict might occur—work, sports, politics. Because the saying advocates the use of subterfuge as a means to an end, I have always considered its message to be somewhat “unseemly”. Nevertheless, there are times when the tactic is not only effective, but completely necessary.
"Sometimes, if your opponent is determined to win the battle, let him win the wrong battle."
There are two common schools of thought regarding how to best tackle a series of tasks of varying difficulty and/or appeal:
1) Start with something easy (or something you look forward to doing—whether difficult or not) to overcome any initial barrier to progress, then build towards the difficult and/or unappealing tasks.
2) Start with the most difficult and/or unappealing task. Once this task is completed, everything else will be a relative breeze to perform, and (presumably) will be possible to complete more quickly and with less stress.
Of the above options, I have found that only the second approach works for me. This is because putting off difficult things only serves to make them even more daunting in our minds (and thus difficult to start). At least in my own experience, getting the tough stuff out of the way first leads toward a more predictable completion of all tasks, whereas the opposite strategy leads to a more uncertain result. Why? Because in delaying the difficult task, that final “mountain” you must climb grows higher with each procrastinated moment, whereas the other “mountains” stay exactly the same.
Who you essentially are—the reason why you were put on this earth—is what you never grow tired of being.
If you have regrets about something you are doing, or are weary with a particular facet of your personality or beliefs, those actions and those beliefs do not define who you essentially are—even if you may (at times) find it difficult, if not seemingly impossible, to change them. On the other hand, if you consistently exhibit certain behaviors and hold certain beliefs, and you are not conflicted about them, such actions and beliefs do reflect who you essentially are—whether they are positive or negative in nature.
The above observation is independent of the question of whether one should or should not change their ways in any given circumstance based upon where an examined behavior or belief stands relative to the core of who they are. It merely seeks to recognize that there are some characteristics that truly define us, and that the benchmark, as expressed in the aphorism, is one way of distinguishing what those characteristics might be. We can use that information to help us know where we stand in relation to our fellow man and the world.
We of course do not know why we are here. We do not know if there is a reason for our existence, or if there even needs to be a reason. We can only guess. I would like to suggest that considering one’s actions and beliefs in the way described may provide a clue.
"Who you essentially are—the reason why you were put on this earth—is what you never grow tired of being."
You can do anything…but before you can do anything, you have to do something.
For some reason, the only success we feel matters is that which is fast and easy to achieve. The wise have always recognized that envisioning the end state—and then working methodically towards the goal while enjoying the ride—is the way to go in life. Each action taken teaches you something, and has the potential to lead you in unexpected and exciting directions. It’s that first step that is always the hardest.
"You can do anything…but before you can do anything, you have to do something."
Feeling guilty is not a substitute for loving somebody; it only is an indicator that you have failed to love somebody.
Some people take comfort in the guilt they feel when they have hurt someone close to them, thinking that the remorse they experience is evidence of their love for the other person. I believe the opposite is true: guilt signals a lack of caring for a person you have wronged. When you hurt someone, it is better to admit that your love for that person may be less than you would like to believe it is. Ask yourself what you can do increase and deepen that love, so that you would not ever consider doing what you did again.
"Feeling guilty is not a substitute for loving somebody; it only is an indicator that you have failed to love somebody."
A house takes on the character of its inhabitants; a homeowner takes on the characteristics of the house.
For some reason, I have always been fascinated about the interplay between ourselves and our surroundings. At some point I realized that the way our personas are formed is much like the way a face emerges out of clay under the sculptor’s hands: we offer resistance to the tempering forces of life, and the result of this dynamic interaction is the unique “mask” that appears to the world as us.
The point of this aphorism is that we should not underestimate the degree to which our surroundings shape us…and we shape our surroundings. Would our decisions be different if, in addition to considering the utility of bringing something into our lives (a pet, a house, a person), we considered the potential ways that the new addition might fundamentally influence who we are (or will become)? Things can take on a different meaning when looked at in this way.
Although it is reassuring to think otherwise, it is important to remember that we do not simply act on the world, the world acts on us—in surprising measure, and in every circumstance.
"A house takes on the character of its inhabitants; a homeowner takes on the characteristics of the house."
Regarding war and peace—the seeds of each are planted in the other.
Although it is logical that the antecedents of both war and peace should occur during the periods that precede each state, what is not so intuitive is why the forces that cause each state find such fertile ground to grow in during periods when they should theoretically find the least amount of traction. The typical progression in a society following a war (that does not result in the destruction of the society itself) is: war weariness, rebuilding, reflection, reconciliation (sometimes), prosperity, amnesia, complacency, indolence, corruption, collapse, and then war (either because the society is viewed as weak by its adversaries and falls prey to attack, or because the society seeks conflict, in order to re-establish unity and re-find its purpose). Wars can be waged over days or decades, but whether one side ultimately wins, loses, or draws, a yearning for an end to the conflict begins to develop (at least among those most intimately involved in the actual fighting) not long after the conflict starts. Belligerents then begin to look for a way out, whether it be through victory, capitulation, or mutual accommodation (read: diplomatic resolution). This will happen regardless of whether the cause(s) of either side (or both sides) is/are to some extent just, and the conflict is itself inevitable and necessary.
The true meaning of this aphorism is not to place a value on war or peace, or to judge the necessity of either. It is meant to be a reminder to any society that the conditions for the alternate state to the state they presently are in are developing now—when such conditions are least recognized. With such information, a society can act to shorten periods of conflict and lengthen periods of peace. During the darkest days of war, such an acknowledgement maintains hope and encourages efforts to find resolution. During the idyllic days of peace, this realization encourages vigilance against the complacency and decay that can set the stage for future conflict.
"Regarding war and peace—the seeds of each are planted in the other."
You are not a better or wiser person simply because you’ve ceased to care.
Cynicism is just another self-delusion—a conceit. The prevailing wisdom is that one of the hallmarks of a “mature”, “evolved”, and “world-wise” individual is that such a person has accepted that they can’t change everything, and that the world isn’t perfect and it can never be made so. While these statements may be technically true, all too often they are used as camouflage for simple insensitivity and even narcissism. It is better to care about something and be viewed as quixotic than to not care about anything and be lauded and admired for it. This aphorism warns: if you witness an injustice and you do not feel anything, you should not take comfort in the fact or congratulate yourself; rather, you should reconsider your motives for holding the point of view you hold.
"You are not a better or wiser person simply because you’ve ceased to care."
Chronic problems tend to come from chronic habits.
Got a persistent cough? Are you smoking?
On your sixth relationship in two years? Do the partners you pick have to “sweep you off your feet” at first sight?
Can’t hold a job? Is a meal just not a meal without lots of wine to wash it down?
If you have chronic problems, the likelihood is they result from things you are doing persistently that are also misguided. Problems generally do not exist in a vacuum and do not start with their diagnoses. Examine your chronic habits now—whether related to eating, hygiene, or any other area of your life—and look for any connections to what consistently ails you. The only way to address a chronic problem is to break the chronic habit that supports it, thereby breaking the cycle.
"Chronic problems tend to come from chronic habits."
Many of us have great expectations of ourselves and of what we can (or should be able to) do in a day. In fact, for each of us, just getting enough rest, staying fit, avoiding harm, performing our job, eating right, and making enough time to connect with our loved ones is a major victory and no small feat. We judge our attainments against those of others and feel that we are, somehow, lacking by comparison. This aphorism is a reminder that living well and living right each day is a cause for celebration, and is something that should give one a deep sense of satisfaction.
If you want to impress someone, simply make up a vocation and preface it with the words “molecular” or “theoretical” (as in “molecular biologist” or “theoretical physicist”). After you do this no one will question the veracity of anything you say—whether it is related to your putative vocation or not.
We show inappropriate deference to certain professions. In the real world, however, intelligence is intelligence. Whether a person is a respected rocket scientist or can write hit songs—each is no better intellectually than the other. The nature of the sophistication is just different, that’s all. The same holds true for all areas of human endeavor, and is applicable at all comparable levels of proficiency. Yes, some professions require more study, more practice, or more of a specific group of human abilities (intellectual and/or physical) than other professions, but the same humanintellectual capacity is being applied to them all. This aphorism suggests that we stop lionizing certain individuals just because they ply a particular trade involving some type of ineffable “buzz word”—or worse yet, simply because we can’t understand what they are saying when they talk.
Some of the smartest people I know are incredibly intelligent, but along with that intelligence, they also demonstrate an uncanny ability to help me understand what they understand. Despite my respect for their abilities and knowledge, I believe it would be a mistake to assume that such talents necessarily extend to other spheres of human concern.
"If you want to impress someone, simply make up a vocation and preface it with the words “molecular” or “theoretical” (as in “molecular biologist” or “theoretical physicist”). After you do this no one will question the veracity of anything you say—whether it is related to your putative vocation or not."
In most situations, the best you can do…is simply to do the best that you can.
When the way isn’t clear and the outcome is uncertain, this aphorism reassures one that the experience of having to make a choice in the face of ambiguity is a common one, and that by endeavoring to face the challenge as best we can, we are doing all we can do.
"In most situations, the best you can do…is simply to do the best that you can."
Don’t think for a moment that you’ve gotta be perfect to be paid.
If you can perform a job competently and conscientiously, you deserve to get paid for doing it. Don’t let anyone try to convince you otherwise by suggesting that what you have to offer is somehow not worthy of compensation because you have not attained some subjective level of acceptable proficiency. This might seem like obvious advice for a situation that rarely occurs, except that it happens all the time under various guises. For instance, a boss might tell you that you won’t be getting that bonus because your work is not stellar. If something like this should happen to you, ask yourself whether your work needs to be stellar to receive a bonus. If the answer is no, consider that other motivations might be at play.
"Don’t think for a moment that you’ve gotta be perfect to be paid."
In any career, there is a moment when you are no longer need to be pushed up from below, but rather pulled up from above. Know when that moment comes and adjust your strategy accordingly.
What I’ve seen in corporate life is that at the beginning of a career one’s managerial potential is judged largely on how your subordinates perceive you, whereas later in your career, such potential is judged based on how your superiors perceive you. There is some intangible “moment” (usually at the senior manager level) when this change occurs. If you are able to notice when this happens, you can begin to adjust your priorities and refocus on more fruitful strategies for getting ahead. While no one would suggest showing less concern for your subordinates, neither should you cater to their needs at the expense of your career ambitions.
"In any career, there is a moment when you are no longer need to be pushed up from below, but rather pulled up from above. Know when that moment comes and adjust your strategy accordingly."
Punishment—either don’t merit it, or learn to embrace it.
It is easy to endure punishment, much harder to accept it.
Committing a crime is like incurring a debt: you can either pay it off now, or pay it off later—with interest.
If you have committed a wrong, do not fear punishment and do not take action to avoid punishment. Welcome and accept punishment. In fact, seek it out through owning up to what you have done and attempting to make amends. To do otherwise will unleash great evil. Only through punishment can one achieve a degree of absolution and learn from the experience. If you are shown mercy by someone you have harmed, so much the better, but such mercy can have no meaning to you unless you have allowed yourself to feel remorse and are willing and prepared to pay the price for your actions.
Of course, all this can be avoided if you simply endeavor to do right to begin with…
"A few thoughts on crime and punishment:
Punishment—either don’t merit it, or learn to embrace it.
It is easy to endure punishment, much harder to accept it.
Committing a crime is like incurring a debt: you can either pay it off now, or pay it off later—with interest."
The minute someone begins to delay in completing a task for you, suspect that their ultimate intention may be to not perform the task at all. Many people adopt the practice of calculated delay, because they learn that others may either forget their obligations or passively accept non-payment/non-performance. The true lesson of this aphorism is that one should not brook delay (even the first time it occurs) without clearly setting a new, mutually agreed, deadline for completion of the work. Although agreeing to a delay is often acceptable if one has confidence in the person performing the task, or the circumstances of the delay were justified, the key is not to simply let it pass without comment or correction.
We can be destroyed so readily because we are willing to destroy so readily.
Yes, “those who live by the sword, die by the sword”, but what about the motivation behind why we pick up the sword in the first place? Collectively, we often have no choice but to act with deadly force, and we do so reluctantly. But we also can do so willingly—almost as a default. The likelihood of perishing by the same means we use against others is almost axiomatic, but this aphorism attempts to explain why such a consequence is the logical outcome of our actions.
"We can be destroyed so readily because we are willing to destroy so readily."
Always try to align your loyalties and commitment with the largest scope of the context you find yourself in. For example, if you work for a department in a company, align yourself with the company—not the department; if you are in an army platoon, align yourself with the army.
This advice is designed to short circuit an unproductive tendency in people to myopically focus their loyalties towards immediate influences and not towards the larger entity of which they are a part. All too often, allowing oneself to be swayed and manipulated by the goals of those closest can make one prone to acting at cross purposes to the goals of the organization as a whole. Loyalty to one’s team is fine and desirable, but your ultimate value to—and any reward you may receive from—any organization will be assessed based on your ability to serve and benefit the institution. This cannot happen if your actions at every step along the way are not informed primarily by a recognition of the institution’s interests.
"Always try to align your loyalties and commitment with the largest scope of the context you find yourself in. For example, if you work for a department in a company, align yourself with the company—not the department; if you are in an army platoon, align yourself with the army."
Some people say I raised a good child. I like to think of it as my child raised a good parent.
Children don’t get enough credit. Because our kids are dependent on us and they (generally) do what we say, we somehow think that the parent child relationship goes only in one direction—when in fact we are as much subject to our children’s influences as they are subject to ours. Like every parent, I parented as best I knew how. But an interesting thing happened that I could never have predicted: if my child did not like the way I was parenting, she would tell me so—and, much of the time, I listened to her! Now, people congratulate me on the incredible child I raised, but I know the truth: whatever satisfaction I can take in my own efforts as a parent, my child’s mother (an incredible parent in her own right) and my child deserve much of the credit for who my child is and has always been.
"Some people say I raised a good child. I like to think of it as my child raised a good parent."
I started saying this back in my corporate days whenever I would hear something that had gotten way too complicated than it needed to be. This saying works well in any situation in which you find yourself frustrated by a problem so dense that it defies resolution. The perfect time to say it is when you are informed that the elegant solution you thought would solve a problem won’t work, because a new, “this just in” piece of information has just come to light that contradicts your original assumptions. When making this statement, grimace slightly, hunch your shoulders (as if a heavy weight lies upon you), and affect an air of resignation and measured disgust. This will get the point across.
Cooler heads prevail while things spin completely out of control.
Know what works in corporate life? In fact, know what works in life, in general? Always be calm. Never lose your cool. Speak slowly, in a relaxed fashion—even when you are communicating devastating news or addressing a critical, life threatening problem. The reasoning behind this idea is that “losing your head” will only make matters worse. As a result, very calm people (or at least those who are very good at seeming calm) inhabit the highest rungs of any institution you care to mention. People who are “excitable” and less phlegmatic are branded as less capable, and quite frankly, less intelligent.
The problem with all of this is that some very bad and disastrous decisions have been made by very calm people: people who dress right, talk right, and who use the correct fork at the dinner table. One of the great misfortunes of the human race is that form often trumps substance when it comes to how people are valued or evaluated. When less polished individuals are ignored because of their manner, it is a recipe for disaster. When more polished individuals are heeded because of their manner, it is still a recipe for disaster.
While the serene among us can be relied upon to council caution, restraint, and non-action in response to a dire challenge, circumstances may require the exact opposite mindset. An excellent example of this is the effective non-response of our leaders to the growing gap in income in society, and the redistribution of a majority of the nation’s wealth to a very small percentage of the population—a process that has been in progress for decades. Either our leaders think this is a good thing, or they feel powerless to stop it, or they don’t care, or they are dithering simply because it is in their nature to studiously “fiddle while Rome burns”. As polls are taken, expensive studies are performed, and well heeled consultants advise our policymakers on how to effectively manage the public’s anger, the opportunity for meaningful action diminishes. At the outset of the great depression, faced with growing domestic unrest due to the economic hard times, FDR was counseled not to act too quickly to address the issues that faced the country. FDR refused to heed this advice, because he knew that to ignore an urgent situation would only lead to the undermining of the very stability that made his leadership possible.
"Cooler heads prevail while things spin completely out of control."
Quote from my mother: “Intrigue and creativity are two sides of the same coin.”
Try as I might, I cannot give a good explanation of this statement, but very little of what my mother says is not profound, so I am including it as today’s aphorism, in case you might know what it means.
Hold the presses! Here is a highly cogent and illuminating comment on the above from my good friend, Joe:
Intrigue implies subtle manipulation to execute a scheme. Creativity, the making of something new and original, draws upon similar skills. Intrigue has a negative connotation but creativity is not always positive; it can be used for good or bad ends.
"Quote from my mother: “Intrigue and creativity are two sides of the same coin.”"
Some people are more interested in making good on a promise—rather than in doing what they promised.
Think about the seemingly inconsequential semantic difference between these two turns of phrase. Look closer and you will see that they are a world apart in meaning. Are you the kind of person who makes a promise and then endeavors—with a full heart and good intention—to make good on it? Or, are you the kind of person who makes a promise and then simply carries out the promise? Which type of person do you want to be? The first approach is heavy on intention and light on action. It adds that extra dimension of thinking about one’s actions to an act that should not require thought at all.
The deeper meaning of this aphorism relates to a key concept that can be applied to life in general: Much of what is wrong with this world can be traced to derivative thought and action. We take a basic concept, truth, or object, and we construct (derive) abstractions from it that sometimes bear little resemblance to their source. We do this because we find the process intellectually pleasing, and because the result can often be rewarding—as long as others are willing to buy into the premise of our inquiry.
Unfortunately, a host of issues can result from this tendency towards “questionable complexity”. Take the example of money. Money, itself, is a derivative concept and object—an artifact of convenience, created to “make value portable” and to reify the idea that value itself is not intrinsic to any specific thing, but rather is an “independent truth” shared, to varying degrees, by all things. Once these abstractions have been accepted, it is but a short leap to say that the “objective” value of money is itself fungible: it is defined by our perceptions of it. And once this happens, it becomes possible for us to assign value to value. Armed with this notion, we are free to engage in practices (e.g., derivatives trading on the stock exchange) that are so far removed from their origins that they are as if “tethered on air”—houses of cards built on shaky foundations. Our willingness to buy into such practices exposes us to the forces of chance—with the very real possibility of experiencing shame and penury as a result.
Note that I am not suggesting that intellectual inquiry is not a necessity in life. However, there is a difference between engaging in abstraction for abstraction’s sake and using our intellects to tease out and fathom complex truths.
"Some people are more interested in making good on a promise—rather than in doing what they promised."
His greatest competency is in disappointing people.
Why shouldn’t the ability to disappoint be considered a talent? Some people are extraordinarily good at it, and I imagine it takes a lot of hard work to hone the necessary skills to truly disappoint others. In fact, I’ve known people who have raised this practice practically to an art form.
"His greatest competency is in disappointing people."
We get so good at dodging bullets, wiggling out of uncomfortable situations, and avoiding unpleasant responsibilities that we think there is very little that life can throw at us that we can’t handle or turn to our purposes. Then the fateful day comes when we encounter that thing or situation that won’t cooperate—no matter what we do. Using the biblical allusion, when this happens we feel like a “bird caught in a snare”, and we are discomfited entirely by the realization that we are not in complete control. Taking this aphorism to heart means making a conscious effort to not underestimate challenges that may occur or people we may encounter, as both may ultimately prove to be far more influential to our survival than we think. It means acknowledging that part of life includes the occasional experience of being dominated by circumstance. Although we cannot escape a trap once we are in it, we can try to avoid the trap in the first place, prepare, as best we can, for the eventuality of falling into the trap, or at a minimum accept the inevitable consequences, come what may.
In Stage 1 you are enthusiastic about your work, but inexperienced (start of your career).
In Stage 2 you are both enthusiastic about your work and have gained experience (top of your career).
In Stage 3 you’re tired of your work, but you are also still competent/experienced (maintenance stage).
In Stage 4 you are sick of your work, and because you haven’t been motivated to keep up with your profession, you are now, once again, inexperienced relative to the state-of-the-art in your field (end of career).
Some people manage to avoid the latter stages of this progression by purposefully staying engaged in and enthralled by the work they do. The point of this aphorism is simply to challenge a person to ask themselves whether the sentiment expressed may be applicable to their lives, and if so whether a change of course might be needed to prevent the all-too-familiar career outcome described.
"There are four stages to a person’s career:
In Stage 1 you are enthusiastic about your work, but inexperienced (start of your career).
In Stage 2 you are both enthusiastic about your work and have gained experience (top of your career).
In Stage 3 you’re tired of your work, but you are also still competent/experienced (maintenance stage).
In Stage 4 you are sick of your work, and because you haven’t been motivated to keep up with your profession, you are now, once again, inexperienced relative to the state-of-the-art in your field (end of career)."
Humility and competence are the keys to a successful life.
Humility breeds competence, because it leaves a person in a state of constant wonder and curiosity regarding what isn’t yet known, thus motivating the person to learn and increase their skills. Competence leads to practical success for obvious reasons, but it also can result in arrogance and isolation. Cultivation of humility prevents this from happening. Being a success, in the limited sense of the word, is not enough. Leading a successful life is.
"Humility and competence are the keys to a successful life."
When moving from one home to another watch out for losing dear (expensive) things. This is when people will steal from you.
In my life, I have tended to lose the material things that matter the most to me during moves. There are many potential reasons or this:
1) When you move, you may find yourself overwhelmed with the logistics of the move. This primes you take shortcuts in the way you pack, in the records you keep, and in the care with which you attend to the things that are of greatest valuable to you (this latter phenomenon occurs, because during the haze of a stressful move, such items may seem momentarily less valuable to you than they really are). Note: a thing of value may be so for either sentimental and/or practical reasons.
2) You may find yourself needing to use the services of others who you don’t know and who may be untrustworthy.
3) A move provides cover for theft. A “disappearance” of something can be blamed on any link in the logistics chain. In short, the thieves know they cannot be held accountable, as no proof will likely exist as to when or where the theft occurred. Thieves also know that there will be an important lag between the time of the theft and the time of discovery of the theft—even more incentive to steal.
If you have something that is highly valuable, think twice about placing it in a box and shipping it with high insurance. The insurance alerts thieves to the value of the box, making it an easy target. Rather, find a way to accompany the item of value from end to end—and never take your eyes off of it. Remember, unless you have witnesses to what you put in the box, and you have sealed the box in a legally verifiable manner, there is no way to prove that anything specific was taken from the box. If something goes wrong, the shipper may deny all claims, citing the above reasons.
Number your boxes and maintain a clear and complete list of everything in each box, so that you can verify that everything has arrived at its destination safe and sound.
Theft during transit is a well known fact of life and has been documented. As terrible as this sounds, when you move, take the psychological stance that no one who is involved in the process (and who is outside your core “circle of trust”) can be trusted—even if they have come highly recommended to you. Slow down, take care to inventory your belongings, fight the urge to “outsource” difficult tasks to others who you don’t know well, and finally: ask yourself what items matter the most to you, and then resolve to guard them carefully. Then, proceed as if you are a soldier entering enemy territory: be wary and watch your every step until you are safely ensconced in your new home, surrounded by your precious possessions.
"When moving from one home to another watch out for losing dear (expensive) things. This is when people will steal from you."
Spices are like colors: if you mix them all together you get a taste that is akin to the colors black, dark brown, or grey. But if you mix spices judiciously and sparingly—as you would mix yellow and blue to make green—you get a wholly unexpected and beautiful flavor.
Less is more…subtle accuracy often trumps brute strength. Treat each spice as if it alone deserved to be the center of attraction
"Spices are like colors: if you mix them all together you get a taste that is akin to the colors black, dark brown, or grey. But if you mix spices judiciously and sparingly—as you would mix yellow and blue to make green—you get a wholly unexpected and beautiful flavor."
We live in an age where corporations are people and employees are not.
In our day and age, it often appears that commerce and all of its related concepts matter more than the species that created such concepts. If you haven’t already noticed, there is currently a highly refined effort underway to limit the power of individuals in an organization and to expand the power of the organization as an institution—which is just another way of saying that such effort is focused on expanding the power and prerogative of senior management within the organization. By the cold calculus of commerce (alliteration intended), people involved in the creation of a product are, in some contexts, increasingly being viewed as a necessary evil—employees are treated as “resources” and are carefully managed to mitigate risk for the organization and its upper management. It may seem to make sense to do this when efficiency is the only criterion that matters. However, when a system dictates the subordination of people to non-human imperatives, it is the system that must be examined for flaws—not people. There are many potential solutions to the predicament that we find ourselves in—some of which are already being implemented by forward looking companies—that do not involve a compromise of individual rights or freedoms and do not undermine the principles of a meritocracy based upon a holistic understanding of “merit”. It is time we reevaluate where we are headed before our lack of perspective creates serious risk for mankind.
"We live in an age where corporations are people and employees are not."
Just because you say you will do something does not mean that you are also willing to do that thing. Ensuring that both things are true is especially important in the matter of either making or receiving a proposal of marriage.
Think of yourself as a compass with multiple needles:
One needle represents your inner voice (intuition).
One needle represents your thoughts.
One needle represents your actions.
Imagine that any direction on the compass can be “right” or “wrong”, “good” or “bad”, depending upon the situation you are in.
When the needles are not aligned, you will be feckless, confused, and of equivocal goodness.
When all needles are aligned and are pointing in a certain direction, you will be effective.
When all needles are aligned and are pointing in the wrong direction, you will be evil.
When all needles are aligned and are pointing in the right direction, you will be righteous.
In other words, in any situation, each of us should aspire to achieve a state in which our inner voice, our thoughts, and our actions are all working towards the same, good end result.
How do you know what the right direction is in any situation? Find a moral and learned teacher you trust and learn from them.
Allowing yourself to do something (the “will” in the aphorism) can be disastrous if the action conflicts with what you know or feel to be wrong. You cannot be willing to do something unless your thoughts and intuition also support the action you are taking. This especially holds true when confronted with having to make a profound life decision (e.g., whether to give or accept a proposal of marriage). The aphorism suggests how to approach making such a decision.
"Just because you say you will do something does not mean that you are also willing to do that thing. Ensuring that both things are true is especially important in the matter of either making or receiving a proposal of marriage."
Work towards a goal, but try not to visualize the successful result: if you don’t achieve success, you will be disappointed; if you do achieve success, you will already have experienced it in your mind’s eye.
Let the outcome of any endeavor have an element of surprise. The sages of old recognized that success—whatever form it takes—is most satisfying when it has not been fully experienced in the imagination before it has occurred. Whether an endeavor is ultimately successful (based on one’s preconceived expectations of what “success” should mean) or not, nothing can take from you the joy of the process of discovery—regardless of the outcome.
"Work towards a goal, but try not to visualize the successful result: if you don’t achieve success, you will be disappointed; if you do achieve success, you will already have experienced it in your mind’s eye."
Don’t give unsolicited advice where solicitors are not welcome. (Don’t give unsolicited advice if you can get paid for it).
You’ve probably experienced it – someone you know is hurting and you want to help them, so you offer some well-reasoned, but unsolicited, advice. Surprisingly, the person is none too clear with you that you should mind your own business. It took me a long time to learn the lesson expressed by this aphorism. The aphorism is related to the old adage about leading a horse to water. Before you decide to tell someone what they might change in their behavior or in their life, try to assess first whether they will be receptive to your thoughts—I mean really receptive: if you think the person is only paying lip service to you about being receptive, don’t bother speaking a word. Hold their hand and sympathize if necessary, but don’t speak a word.
Sometimes unsolicited advice is not welcome because the receiver does not respect advice offered for free. In that case, you should oblige them by charging them for your wisdom.
"Don’t give unsolicited advice where solicitors are not welcome. (Don’t give unsolicited advice if you can get paid for it)."
There’s no arguing with a song that writes itself.
Has this ever happened to you:
You sit down one day in a creative mood with the intention of creating/inventing something—a song, a painting, a short story, a new way to make malted milk balls—and what you end up producing is something totally unexpected…but wonderful nonetheless. This happens to me on a surprisingly regular basis, and strangely, I have found that my first inclination in such situations is to question the validity of what I have created because it does not conform to what I intended to create. What I have learned is to never question such gifts. If you sit down to write a serious novel, and what comes out is a collection of bawdy limericks, go with the flow! Make it the best collection of bawdy limericks ever written. In short, if you do anything of an inspired nature, unless you are philosophically opposed to the result, or you are afraid of what will happen once you share your work with others, do not argue with your good fortune—let your creation be what it needs to be: nurture it in the proper direction the minute its true nature reveals itself to you…then release it to the world and take credit for it.
"There’s no arguing with a song that writes itself."
If you think you’ve invented something, ask yourself three questions:
1) Has it been done before?
2) Why hasn’t it been done before?
3) Is it worth doing?
If your invention passes these three tests, you’re good to go.
Given the amount of time and money spent on inventions that go nowhere, it makes me wonder how often these questions actually get asked…
"If you think you’ve invented something, ask yourself three questions:
1) Has it been done before?
2) Why hasn’t it been done before?
3) Is it worth doing?
If your invention passes these three tests, you’re good to go."
Why do the powerful always insist on having a “back story” to justify whatever they do? Why can’t they—just once—do something for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do, in itself, for reasons understood and accepted by all? In politics, laws are passed to secretly serve hidden agendas, for without such agendas many lawmakers would never find the motivation to support anything at all.
I get it – for some politicians, backroom deals are part of the “fun” of being in politics. When I hear of a new piece of legislation being passed, the first question I ask myself is why they really managed to pass the legislation. Call me cynical, but all too often I see right through the “public facing” reasons given for the legislation to the likely actual reasons for it. It is rarely pretty. When leaders treat the public like idiots, that is galling enough, but not to speak openly about the true purpose of a new law (or the true reason behind a change in the law) is, well, downright criminal. To be fair, there have been many circumstances where changes to the law achieved altruistic aims (or as close to this as conceivably possible), and the politicians who championed the changes acted with great integrity and resolve. However, there is little excuse for any circumstance in which the opposite occurs. Yes, it is fun to be “in the know”, one of the “movers and shakers”, someone who understands how things “really are”—but such delight comes at the expense of transparency, decency, and integrity, and it threatens to undermine the very foundation upon which we all stand.
"Why do the powerful always insist on having a “back story” to justify whatever they do? Why can’t they—just once—do something for the simple reason that it is the right thing to do, in itself, for reasons understood and accepted by all? In politics, laws are passed to secretly serve hidden agendas, for without such agendas many lawmakers would never find the motivation to support anything at all."
We live in an age of equivocal competency: if you want, you can be a competent dictator, a competent self-promoter, a competent terrorist. Just because you can do something well does not mean you should be doing it.
Sorry, but I will gladly risk being thought of as naïve for saying this, but if you haven’t noticed, the bad guys are finally figuring out to be highly competent at what they do—so much so that the normal mechanisms that used to work to unseat such people no longer seem very effective. With just the right amount of pressure—carrot or stick—against just the right people at just the right time, some world leaders have effectively eliminated even the notion of coordinated dissent. In entertainment, politics, and other fields, others have thrust themselves into the limelight through skillful use of media. We then get to hear their thoughts about everything and/or consume their creative output—even when their talent does not justify such exposure or influence. Terrorists today know they’ve got a winning formula working: convince someone angry to commit an atrocity. Then watch as the public becomes polarized against that person’s entire race. Smile, as the resulting ostracism and fear of that race create even more angry people who you can use to further the vicious cycle. Eventually, your wildest dream comes true: you manage to engineer oppression and expulsion of a people. You then simply wait for the dispossessed to find their way into your waiting arms.
What is the answer to the above aberrations? Strangely, I believe the answer is honest, frequent, and open communication. Throughout the world, the unspoken is eating like a cancer at the fabric of societies. Leaders of every country must create venues designed to give safe harbor for people to speak their minds—the good, the bad, and the ugly—regarding the things they fear and the things they want. The input received must be treated very seriously by leadership…and acted upon decisively and transparently. In the absence of such discourse the potential exists for demagogues to “articulate” the public frustration and act in ways that may not adequately or reasonably address the underlying issues. It is time: we have to face and bare our demons openly if we are to have any hope of surviving (or preventing) what comes next. While solutions will be anything but easy to find, at least such effort will be based on a clearer understanding of the problems as they actually are.
Finally, this aphorism exhorts those who would pursue a course of action simply because they can succeed at doing so to reconsider whether the ability to achieve something is reason enough to try. Sometimes we are amply endowed with the talents to achieve our own (and others’) destruction. It is our choice whether to give expression to such talents.
"We live in an age of equivocal competency: if you want, you can be a competent dictator, a competent self-promoter, a competent terrorist. Just because you can do something well does not mean you should be doing it."
If you can’t be brave in the face of adversity, at least be practical.
Why waste time trying to be brave when confronted with danger when you could use that time to formulate an effective response to the danger? Bravery under fire is highly overrated. Clear thinking and practicality under pressure can never be overrated. If you find yourself in trouble and with few options, try to identify what courses of action are realistic in response to your situation and do what is possible.
"If you can’t be brave in the face of adversity, at least be practical."
Confusing these two things is very common and can often have serious implications. If you collected anything when you were young—coins, stamps, bottle caps—you probably were imbued with the sense that less of something means that that something is more valuable. Then, when you grew up, you naturally applied this idea to just about anything. But think about it for a minute: why should something be intrinsically worth more simply because there is less of it relative to other forms of the same thing? We humans tend to value things based on various criteria that often coincide with rarity: an object’s sophistication, artistry, beauty, historical significance, etc., all differentiate the object from other objects, making it more singular (rarer) than its counterparts. Nevertheless, it is these things that define the item’s value—not its rarity. In short, value often accompanies rarity, but rarity—when and for whatever reason it occurs—does not “cause” value. The latter notion is a loose form of post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, and its victims throughout history are many. When we fail to perceive the correct relationship between value and rarity, we become prone to various schemes.
Notwithstanding the valid argument that value itself is fungible (see my earlier post on the subject), this aphorism challenges one to consider whether the price one is about to pay for something is based on the item’s scarcity (either naturally or artificially created), or on more meaningful criteria. If you are buying something simply because it is hard to get, don’t buy the item if you don’t need it.
You should be on a first name basis with your ambitions. When you name something you establish a relationship with it. You open a dialog of sorts, in which you treat the other entity with understanding and respect. Your ambitions are not an extension of you: they exist separate from you, have “lives” and conditions of their own, and are shared by others. You are merely trying to be their friend. Seek out a good ambition as if you were seeking out a mentor. Be grateful when your ambition decides to take you under its wing. Perhaps with time, the student will surpass the teacher.
His problem is that he doesn’t want anyone until he can have anyone he wants.
Why is it so hard for some individuals to commit to one person for fear that someone else “better” might come along? Do you think it ever occurs to such people that, at any point in time, there will always be someone new to “strike their eye”—or that it is literally impossible for them to be aware of every possible person in the world who might appeal to them? Nevertheless, despite the obvious answers to these questions, we all know that in such matters logic does not play a big part. Human beings fall prey to this illusion (of wanting to keep their options open) in all spheres of life. Choosing one person, one course of action, one career, one house, or even one entree from a restaurant menu—and living with the results—can often be very hard to do. Those who persistently seek the better option risk experiencing various forms of paralysis. If you find yourself described by this observation, try thinking about your situation in this way:
The volume of a box is Length (Depth) * Height * Width. When looking at the box from the front, are you thinking only about the height and width and ignoring the depth? If the height and width were to be made smaller, but the depth were to be increased, wouldn’t the volume be the same? If you allow yourself to accept that even if there may be other boxes where two of the dimensions might be greater, you always have the option of exploring and appreciating the other dimension of the box you choose, such that the box is always large enough for you to be satisfied with. In life, the “box dimensions” of practically everything will change over time, but applying the above perspective will help you to continue to appreciate the choices you make. In any circumstance, there is little that is not engaging when the total picture is considered.
"His problem is that he doesn’t want anyone until he can have anyone he wants."
Observing stupidity in others is a sure sign of stupidity in the observer.
There is always someone smarter than you, always somebody who is not as smart as you—and do you always know who is who? This aphorism does not suggest that it is always wrong to note (and to lament) that someone is behaving foolishly. It merely states that one should not make it a habit, or be too free with such speech—not only because such speech is hurtful and slanderous, but also because it might be in error.
"Observing stupidity in others is a sure sign of stupidity in the observer."
Suggestion for an answering message: “Hello, I know I’m just a computerized message, but you can talk to me. It might make you feel better to get things off your chest. I’ve heard just about everything, so feel free to pour your heart out. Just relax, get comfortable, and tell me all about it.”
"Suggestion for an answering message: “Hello, I know I’m just a computerized message, but you can talk to me. It might make you feel better to get things off your chest. I’ve heard just about everything, so feel free to pour your heart out. Just relax, get comfortable, and tell me all about it.”"
The way Americans tend to buy things: A person who has $20 will buy something for $40 if it’s marked down from $100.
Getting into debt is easy if the temptation of a deal outweighs the fact that you don’t have the money to buy something. Although one of the hardest things in the world to do, cultivate the ability to walk away from a bargain if it means spending money you don’t have. It is generally better to wait until you have sufficient funds to buy what you wanted at a price that is fair.
"The way Americans tend to buy things: A person who has $20 will buy something for $40 if it’s marked down from $100."
When you do the unexpected, you get unexpected results.
Sometimes the results are positive; sometimes the results are negative—or somewhere in between. The purpose of this aphorism is to note that as long as a person is willing to accept unpredictable results, doing the unexpected can make sense. Otherwise, it is better to stick to the tried and true.
"When you do the unexpected, you get unexpected results."
The human mind seems to have a penchant for divining intrigue in everything. We do this as a “proactive defense” against any possible harm we might experience at the hands of others. Nevertheless, there are times that things are exactly as they appear to be. We often see malice or malevolence in the actions of others when in fact the intent of such persons may be entirely benign and explainable on a simple level. When we fail to discern the true intent of others the results can be disastrous. Nowhere is this better depicted than in the film, Affliction—in which the main character makes this miscalculation and mayhem ensues as a result. Despite the film being fiction, the events depicted are entirely realistic and instructive. If you find yourself thinking that another person has ulterior motives and is acting out of self-interest, pause to consider an alternative interpretation. Very often, the person may not be pursuing any specific agenda, but rather they may be simply doing what seems, in their opinion, to be logical, prudent, or right for the situation at hand. You do not always need to agree with their logic, but if you can concede that their motivations might be innocuous, it will prevent you from reacting inappropriately and escalating tensions. This will give you time to seek facts, and if possible engage the person to confirm or allay your suspicions.
Unsolicited piece of advice: If you haven’t seen the movie, Affliction, your life will be impoverished until you do :).
Be careful not to think that just because you know what a person is going to say, you know what that person is going to do.
Be careful not to think that just because you know what a person is going to do to others, you know what that person is going to do (or not do) to you.
These mistakes are made frequently by people, and I imagine they are often the last mistakes such people make in life. The ability to see yourself objectively, in the third person, is a key survival tactic, but most people cannot (or choose not) to do this. Such self-awareness is particularly useful when you find yourself making one, or both, of the mistakes described by these aphorisms. Simply having an intimate enough relationship with someone, such that you have an insight into their potential behavior in a given situation, does not make you invulnerable to that behavior. Simply knowing what a person is likely to say in response to something may not give you insight into what they are planning to do about it. The bottom line: When dealing with dangerous people, never think yourself immune to their actions simply because you may be able to predict how they will behave towards others. Do not take comfort in your understanding of such people. Place yourself in the position of a person who does not have such understanding, and get out while there’s still time. In this case, knowledge only gives the illusion of power.
Because I am beginning to make a habit of recommending films that depict the relevance of the aphorisms under discussion, my suggestion is to re-watch the film, Casino, with special attention paid to the character of Andy Stone (Alan King).
"Be careful not to think that just because you know what a person is going to say, you know what that person is going to do.
Be careful not to think that just because you know what a person is going to do to others, you know what that person is going to do (or not do) to you."
Never invest in any scheme that is based on a metaphor, or anything with the word, “next”, in it (e.g., “this kid is the next Elvis Presley”, “this will be the Lake Lucerne of the Southwest”). You will lose your shirt.
If the salesman/saleswoman in front of you is using either of these two techniques to sway you to buy or invest in something, run—don’t walk—for the exit. Why? For the simple reason that the use of a metaphor, or comparison to what has gone before, is manipulative: it is a time honored technique for getting a prospective buyer to suspend critical thinking—a way of imparting “veracity through association” with an object that is generally assumed to be representative of some type of “success”. This technique is used when the seller desires to discourage critical examination of the substance of the investment or product.
"Never invest in any scheme that is based on a metaphor, or anything with the word, “next”, in it (e.g., “this kid is the next Elvis Presley”, “this will be the Lake Lucerne of the Southwest”). You will lose your shirt."
It’s that circumstance, situation, or challenge you never knew to expect: the unattended detail that could grow into a major headache. Being human, it is unlikely you will always be able to see the quicksand before you step into it, but this aphorism suggests that in any situation you should consider what might happen in your environment that might leave you with no practical options—like a bird caught in a snare. Try to identify what you might do if such a situation were to occur. Then, prepare yourself to avoid the situation completely or effectively address that situation should the need arise. Here are some examples:
You plan on hiking in a remote area of the Pacific Northwest. Although the odds of meeting an aggressive bear are very low, if you do meet such a bear, there may be little you can do about it. Solution: bring bear mace.
You borrow money from “Lenny the loan shark”, thinking there is no possibility that that horse you like in the third race won’t win. But what if the horse loses and you can’t pay Lenny back with interest? Solution: don’t borrow money to gamble with from anyone…let alone Lenny.
You are traveling abroad and an attractive lady you meet at a bar suggests that you both go to her place to have a drink of wine. But wait! That would mean that no one will know where you are or who you are with. You will be in unfamiliar territory with someone you don’t know. Anything could happen—mostly not pleasant. Solution: don’t trust anyone who is not personally recommended to you by someone you know, or who is not associated with an entity that you trust.
Look for the snare always…avoid the checkmate. There’s no worse feeling on earth than the realization that the game is up and there’s nothing you can do about it but to wait for the final act.
Sex can be the result of love, but never the cause of it.
Has anyone ever really fallen in love—true love—because the sex was good? I personally think not. However, sex can result from, or follow, the establishment of a satisfying relationship based on more substantial foundations: trust, emotional intimacy, commitment, etc. This aphorism is designed to dissuade any individual from thinking that their attraction to another person, if it is based on sex, is more than it really is. Perhaps with such a realization, the individual might avoid making decisions and/or commitments that would most appropriately be made only in the context of meaningful love.
"Sex can be the result of love, but never the cause of it."
If someone tells you that they’re called “blueberries” because they’re berries and they’re blue—believe them.
Of course, we all know that we’re talking much more than blueberries here…
We can dress anything up to seem like something more than it is…or something it isn’t. It’s our challenge to know when our friends on “Madison Avenue”—or anywhere else (say, Pennsylvania Avenue)—have hit on a new way to get us to ignore plain reality. For those of us who are old enough to remember, a great example of this was the Chrysler Cordoba commercial with Ricardo Montalbán, in which we learned that it was possible to buy the car with “soft Corinthian leather”. Apparently, the phrase worked magic on us all. (Don’t get me wrong—I have the greatest respect for Montalbán—both as an actor and as a person—and it is fair to say that he did not write the words, but only delivered them; you could also say that anyone should be allowed to name anything the way they want; however, it doesn’t change the fact that, at the time, there was no actual type of leather known as “Corinthian leather”—let alone one with an implied storied history of quality or rarity.)
Here’s the bottom line. If you are looking at a car that has four seats, headlights, a 6-cylinder engine, and a is made by a reliable manufacturer, you are looking at a car that has four seats, headlights, a 6-cylinder engine, and a is made by a reliable manufacturer. You are not looking at a car that will guarantee you a successful career, allow you to dominate others, or cause your friends to envy you.
If you are looking at fruit that looks like a berry and is red and is from some far off land, you are looking at fruit that looks like a berry and is red and is from some far off land. You are not looking at a fruit that will cure your malady (whatever that may be), make you smarter, or make you live longer. It will likely benefit you the way other fruits do—just like blueberries do, for instance.
"If someone tells you that they’re called “blueberries” because they’re berries and they’re blue—believe them."
When someone apologizes to you, be sure you know whether they’re sorry, or just scared.
It makes a difference. This aphorism is particularly relevant to parenting: if your child is saying they’re sorry, and you get a sense that their response is motivated by fear of what you will do, try being a little less scary and a little more understanding. It might just create the right conditions for a true apology.
"When someone apologizes to you, be sure you know whether they’re sorry, or just scared."
We recognize authority based on whether we feel we could attain authority by the rules by which the authority was obtained.
If we agree with the rules by which authority is obtained, and someone follows those rules and thereby attains authority, we are more likely willing to recognize the right of the person to have authority. It’s when people usurp authority by bending, breaking, or ignoring the rules that we cry foul. This aphorism states that the rules for attaining authority need to be clear, and they need to be followed, if such authority is to have any credence with those who are expected to submit to it. It does not address whether the rules are fair, right, or good—or whether the authority itself is necessary or justified. It also does not advise as to how the authority should be exercised. It does say this: If you are in a leadership position and your subordinates do not appear to want to follow your lead, consider the means by which you attained your authority. If the process lacked veracity, such that your subordinates might logically conclude that they could not fill your shoes even if they had demonstrated the requisite skills and followed the rules for advancement as commonly understood, you will either need to determine how to earn and merit their respect, or consider whether you should be where you are.
One parting thought about rules: when in the wrong hands, rules can be deceptive and manipulative. If you want to get a large number of people to acquiesce to a questionable agenda, simply place rules around it. The appearance of order and predictability will cause people to become focused on the process and not the product, lulling them into ignoring the end result.
"We recognize authority based on whether we feel we could attain authority by the rules by which the authority was obtained."
Some people are sanely insane: do not underestimate these people.
It is quite a talent to want to accomplish something that is ill advised, destructive, and wrong—and to convince others to follow you by appealing to their reason. Nevertheless, some people have this talent. They can make a phlegmatic, cogent argument for engaging in everything from cheating on an exam to perpetrating genocide. They speak calmly when suggesting a course of action, do not seem upset when you challenge them, answer your questions with patience, honor meeting etiquette, and generally comport themselves in a professional manner. They know exactly what needs to happen to achieve their goals, and they pursue such goals methodically. Often, their appearance belies their motives. When a person possesses the above qualities, their potential to do harm to others greatly increases.
Lest one should fall prey to such a person, this aphorism bids one to separate the logic of a message from its delivery or its deliverer. If the logic being espoused is disturbing—no matter how elegant or consistent it might be—consider the damage that might result from the implementation of any actions resulting from such thinking…and take a highly skeptical, concerned, and guarded stance toward the person speaking. If you don’t, they’ll convince you, too.
"Some people are sanely insane: do not underestimate these people."
Just because something is ubiquitous does not mean that it is innocuous.
We are surrounded by many things that are either sanctioned, tolerated, or have become commonplace in our eyes—but that can (and often do) present serious danger to us: chemicals used in our foods and packaging, destructive personalities, pollution—even the sun. It is human nature to discount the nature of a threat the longer we coexist with that threat (and/or the more dependent we are on it). In such circumstances, things tend to go well…until they don’t. More often than not, with time we cease to see the potential threat as a threat, but rather as just “part of the landscape”. With our guard down, we experience the inevitable consequences of such self-delusion as a complete surprise.
The purpose of this aphorism is not to suggest that one should avoid the sun. Instead, it advises that we always bear in mind that “common” is not synonymous with “benign”. Our ability to survive is not synonymous with an actual mitigation of the dangers we survive. If we engage with dangerous things repeatedly, we may win a few of the battles, but the “war” will be won by—and we will ultimately succumb to—the unchanging nature of such things, despite our unshakeable belief in our ability to “manage” or “handle” them.
And don’t look to others to protect your interests:
Store owners will happily sell you cigarettes, liquor, and sugar-glazed doughnuts.
Casinos will happily let you gamble.
You can drive as fast as you want on the autobahn.
Seeing your surroundings clearly is the first step in deciding which risks you are willing to take, and which risks you will avoid. Before you can do this, you must see past the familiar.
"Just because something is ubiquitous does not mean that it is innocuous."
People usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming into what’s good for them.
Resisting good advice until no other option exists but to take the advice is a common fact of life for almost everyone. We have all been guilty of it. More times than I would like to admit, I have found that finally giving in to the well-meaning suggestions of others produced results that were not only exactly what I was told they would be, but were also quite beneficial. Often, we are given no choice about a matter, and it is only later that we realize that someone (or something) did us a favor in obligating us to pursue a certain course of action or outcome.
This aphorism teaches us to allow for the possibility that there are occasions where relenting to authority or the will of others can actually turn out well for us. Sometimes we simply do not know better than others. Sometimes we need to trust and let go. Sometimes we should perhaps kick and scream a little less.
"People usually have to be dragged kicking and screaming into what’s good for them."
There’s way too much that’s legal that’s just plain wrong.
Our laws are necessary for our survival as a species, but like any man-made construct, they can be misguided, immoral, or incomplete. When you find yourself rationalizing what you are doing by saying to yourself that what you are doing is not illegal, consider questioning that thought. If something feels wrong, it probably is—whether it is legal or not. Don’t do that thing. The law is a guide, not an absolute, when it comes to ethicality. It provides a minimum basis for acting in the world. Obeying the law is a requirement of every person. However, just because the law can, on occasion, allow you to act in a certain questionable manner does not mean that it requires you to do so. When what is allowed conflicts with your conscience, it is better to listen to your inner compass.
"There’s way too much that’s legal that’s just plain wrong."
Some things are compelling, but not convincing; some things are convincing, but not compelling.
Why care about this? When one seeks to influence anyone, both conditions must be present. You can capture someone’s imagination until they have stars in their eyes, but if you can’t convince them that what you are saying has veracity, your attempt to influence them might be in vain. Similarly, you can lay out every fact and make every cogent argument until someone is certain that your words are true, but if you can’t make them care about what you are saying, you’ve lost the opportunity to make an ally. This aphorism is for salespeople, project managers, and politicians, to name a few.
"Some things are compelling, but not convincing; some things are convincing, but not compelling."
Don’t ask a yes or no question unless the person being asked can say no without hesitation.
If you like my aphorisms and you want to remember any one of them, I think this may be one of the most important to remember. It is probably the rule that when we ask a yes or no question, we expect a yes. And if we don’t get that yes, we let the other person know—in no uncertain terms—that they should reconsider their answer. This is especially true in circumstances in which the question is merely a formality, asked by someone in a position of power, and the question is simply proffered in order to demonstrate workplace civility. The person being asked in such a manner usually knows the game and answers yes, dutifully. However, it is my contention that in such situations, if an order is being given, it should be given as an order—politely delivered, of course (perhaps with a “please”). In situations in which such assumptions are not applicable, it is a very bad idea to ask a yes or no question in such a way that the person cannot easily say no. If the person says no, it is critical to accept the answer—without question or challenge. There are very few circumstances in which doing otherwise is justified or advised. If you do not follow this rule, the other person will resent you and your question, and they will be less likely to trust your integrity in the future. Their commitment to an “agreed” course of action will be equivocal at best. Bottom line: asking a yes or no question of another person and not accepting their answer disvalues the other person. Challenging an answer is only justified when you feel the other person may not be aware of important facts—and it is believed that if the other person knew of such facts, they might appreciate knowing them and could use them to come to a more informed decision.
Note: This aphorism applies equally to any question for which a “no” is expected.
"Don’t ask a yes or no question unless the person being asked can say no without hesitation."
As I get older I find it more and more easy to watch a pot until it boils.
Scientists have no doubt studied, in depth, that strange way we experience time when we wait intently for something to happen. Our impatience and agitation in such circumstances are undoubtedly a result of the increased and more frequent polling we do of the status of the item being watched. As of late, I find I can watch a pot come to a boil without feeling the frustration I once felt. I believe it is because I don’t mind so much anymore when the water boils. I have plenty to think about while the water “does its thing”. There seems to be a common belief that time is a universal entity that applies equally, and consistently, to all events and objects, such that there is an intrinsic dependency between one object’s experience of time and any other object’s experience of time. In the short story, Walimai, by Isabel Allende, Allende paints a different picture of how time can be experienced: the main character starts in one time continuum based upon his familiar life, then transitions to another time continuum in response to events that unfold, then transitions back to the original time continuum when the earlier events resolve. These transitions are as much a result of the psychology of the character as they are of any potential truths about time that might exist in the physical world. Not to trivialize Allende’s masterpiece of a short story and its many lessons, to extend the analogy to this aphorism, the pot is coming to a boil in its own time continuum while I watch the process in another time continuum. That separation suggests a certain autonomy for both events that must be respected. Next time you watch a pot boil, or wait expectantly for anything in life to happen, imagine that the event/process you are observing is in its own “river of time” and is independent of you. Create a parallel, personal river of time and attend to your experience in it. Then, when the time is right, rejoin the river of time that involves you both.
Note: Don’t forget to turn off the gas, or you will set the house on fire.
"As I get older I find it more and more easy to watch a pot until it boils."
There is no reason to assume our species will survive itself.
I know it is a downer to say this, and this sentiment is not unfamiliar to anyone with even a shred of realism about them, but I include this aphorism to take aim at a notion that I believe we all secretly harbor—namely, that somehow we will ultimately solve the existential problems we create, or that nature creates for us. Being Jewish, I have long been fascinated by the question of whether something—anything—could have occurred to forestall the events that led to the holocaust. My intuition has always been that there was nothing inevitable about the holocaust: there was no divine commitment to allow such a thing. Saying this in no way contradicts our theological precepts. It merely reflects the nagging possibility that had humanity’s consciousness and resolve been sufficient at the time, that disaster could have been avoided. History would have occurred differently. Today we would have had no knowledge of that singularly terrible event…
Of course, we must make sense of what did happen—to not do so would be a terrible mistake, as it would deny the suffering of the victims and prevent us from learning from that suffering. Perhaps as part of the process of remembering the holocaust, it is necessary to consider whether it had to happen. An acceptance of this possibility serves as but one motivator to take resolute action to detect and prevent any such occurrence in the future. This can be applied to approaching the question of the destruction (or decimation) of our species. Seeing adverse events in the manner described leads to two seemingly contradictory conclusions:
The disastrous outcome can be prevented, which encourages hope and action.
The disastrous outcome can sometimes not be prevented, which encourages fatalism.
To resolve these perspectives, I believe the following stance is required:
Accept that it is absolutely possible that our species will, in fact and in practice, destroy itself—maybe tomorrow.
Know that you must try to stop it from happening, because your efforts might just succeed.
"There is no reason to assume our species will survive itself."
It is more important to understand the book you are reading than to finish the book you are reading.
Get it done. Tick off each item in that list. Read that book, so you can talk about it at your next dinner party. In my opinion, it is better to read a single book and truly grasp its meaning than to read 10 books, just so that you can say that you read them. Of course there is a lot of ground in the middle of these two extremes.
Naturally, this aphorism doesn’t apply only to reading books. Perhaps it is just my proclivity, but I tend to favor depth over breadth (could you tell?). That is a bias of mine, but I am guessing that many would agree with the idea that more meaningful advancement is made, and more appreciation is gleaned, when we take the time to truly understand a subject with all its nuances.
Some people can do both—consume information fast and understand in depth. I am awed by such people. Nevertheless, I doubt they get any more satisfaction out of such instant command of a subject as I get out of accomplishing a similar level of understanding, albeit at a slower pace. We’ll never be able to read through every book in the library anyway…
"It is more important to understand the book you are reading than to finish the book you are reading."
You may have to earn your way in this world, but you don’t have to earn your right to be here.
When a person does not pull their own weight, this does not mean that they have no right to exist. And yet: that is exactly what some in our society would have us believe. There are so many issues with how we perceive value in general in our society. Relative to valuing people, it has come to a point where if a person is not supporting themselves, they are not worthy of any respect. They are considered a wastrel, a drain on the public coffers, or worse.
I am not justifying laziness. I am merely observing that sometimes we don’t value what should be valued, and we do not encourage certain behaviors because we consider such behaviors unproductive, when in fact they can be very productive. Even if a person is a complete ne’er-do-well, no one has a right to question that person’s right to life. In short, this aphorism is an affirmation, that applies to any person who is currently demeaned or marginalized by society, that validates that person’s right to be sustained by their fellow man.
A reader of this back story might be inclined to think of me as a “liberal” (whatever that really is), but that would misread my intentions and my “political” philosophy. I am suggesting that inability (or refusal) of someone to sustain themselves in the manner prescribed in our current economy does not necessarily equate to a sociopathic attempt to “leech off” of others. Even when it does, there are better ways to deal with such people than removing support with the intention of making such people go quietly away.
The thought might also occur: “does such a thing really happen: do people ever really call into question a person’s right to exist, simply because they do not fully support themselves?” My impression is that this will be the logical result of current rhetoric…if we don’t begin to rethink our perceptions and priorities.
"You may have to earn your way in this world, but you don’t have to earn your right to be here."
All too often, our elegant political theories amount to nothing more than ideology triumphing over common sense.
It seems every political theory attempts to solve virtually all of man’s ills through an elaborately constructed set of policies built around a basic philosophy concerning what the optimum balance should be of personal responsibility and governmental responsibility in addressing societal challenges. The policies seem to be as much a product of theory as they are of experience. With time, people begin to almost solely discuss the policies themselves and not the problems the policies were originally created to solve. No one seems to truly know whether the policies actually work as intended. When such policies are discussed, the accusations fly, with usually one party in the debate claiming that if the policies were only given a chance to be fully applied as defined (the implication being that the adherents of the opposing philosophy are responsible for undermining such efforts), they would perform flawlessly.
Now, let’s ask a very basic question relative to our political platforms: Can it be said today that either liberal or conservative platforms—when and as implemented in our nation’s history—have succeeded at satisfactorily alleviating poverty, making the streets acceptably safer, consistently improving geopolitical stability, providing social services to all of its citizens, or distributing wealth in an equitable fashion? I believe they have not.
Yes, we have managed in this country to create a reasonably stable middle class (now under some pressure)—something which is frequently cited as a key factor in maintaining the social stability of the nation as a whole. However, can any one political party seriously claim to take credit for that? As we fall deeper and deeper into growing income inequality, political polarization, and loss of national purpose, perhaps it is time that we admit that our policies are failing us, and have always failed us to a degree. The evidence is in the reality on the ground. Instead, perhaps we should “work backward” from the problem to the solution, entertaining new ideas (or variations of the old ideas), and then resolving as a nation to give unified support to the implementation of supporting policies. If subsequent assessment shows unacceptable progress, we begin the process anew. To make this work, we need to unify as a nation concerning what the problems of this nation are. As noted in an earlier post, I see it as almost axiomatic that many in this nation consider a degree of poverty and lack of opportunity and access to resources to be both acceptable and unavoidable. There will be losers in any game, after all, the argument goes. The logic is that all governing is ultimately a matter of statistics and realism: help the most people possible as much as possible. Yes, there will be collateral damage, ‘tis a shame…
Let me be only the latest person to say that such an attitude will destroy us in the end. We are imperfect beings and are not expected to solve any problem completely. However, we will be judged by whether we try with a full heart to do so. The issues facing an increasingly wide portion of our society today are intolerable. Period. Any political philosophy that sanctions (tacitly or otherwise) an acceptance of needless suffering, for any reason whatsoever, is a philosophy that we follow at our peril. The first step towards undoing the torpor of the past (and the present) is to begin to disassociate ourselves from the ideologies du jour and instead ask simple, common sense questions about what is not working, why it is not working, what we can do about it, and what will be the consequences of inaction. No supporting theories or guiding political precepts are necessary—only tangible, directed steps need be taken.
"All too often, our elegant political theories amount to nothing more than ideology triumphing over common sense."
I have always been fascinated by the fact that when we know the name of something, we actually think that we understand that object at a deeper level. In fact, 9 times out of 10, all we know is the name. We are so impressed when others exhibit this knowledge, that we give undue respect and deference to them on any matter pertaining to the subject. While knowing the identity of an object or concept is clearly a prerequisite to knowing or learning more about it, there is danger in not recognizing the fallacy described above when it applies. This is because when we allow ourselves to assume knowledge of something, and such knowledge is not accurate, we open ourselves to potentially nasty surprises. The greatest dangers are in having an inflated opinion of ourselves, simply because we know something that other people don’t know, or in trusting others, simply because they know something we don’t know.
This aphorism advises anyone to see a name for what it is: a (basically) random set of syllables (albeit often derived from a naming system for the object in question). When you start feeling impressed with yourself or others for understanding what something is called, probe further to ascertain the true extent of understanding.
Amazing how too much passion in one part of your life can destroy passion in other parts of your life.
We weren’t meant to get too passionate about any one thing—at least not for too long a time. Our capacity for passion (emotional or intellectual) is limited, and when we allow ourselves to become too enthralled with something, there is a price to pay in other areas of our lives. Why should this matter—especially when it feels so wonderful to focus exclusively on a particular passion? We are generalists, specifically designed to meet the varied challenges of life with varied responses and strategies. To do this, we must find enough interest in any given opportunity/challenge to motivate us to contend with that opportunity/challenge and achieve our aims—but not too much interest, such that our ability to address other pressing matters is compromised.
I am aware that “unlocking passion” in one area of a person’s life can help them to find passion in other areas of their life. This aphorism states that while there can be salutary effects arising from passionate pursuits, the opposite can also be true. When you find yourself thinking exclusively about something or someone, ask yourself what impacts this might be having on other, equally important aspects of your life. Because those things also matter greatly, make a conscious effort to refocus some of your energies toward them in order to regain balance.
The oft-noted concept of “everything in moderation…including moderation” is, of course, pertinent to these observations. However, the moderation concept conveys more of a prescription for how to live your life, without explicitly providing the rationale for doing as advised. This aphorism states the consequences of engaging in a key (and common) form of immoderation: the passionate pursuit of an interest. Simply knowing that the potential for consequence exists is usually enough to encourage more moderate behavior.
"Amazing how too much passion in one part of your life can destroy passion in other parts of your life."
Eating healthy is not so much about what you eat, but what you don’t eat.
This statement might seem obvious to some, unintuitive to others. The logical/philosophical conundrum of eating healthy is whether one should focus on eating the right foods in the right amounts, or on not eating the wrong foods in the wrong amounts. Both are valid ways to approach changing one’s diet, but my instinct tells me that the latter is more important than the former. Why do I say so? Because when you focus on eating the right foods, inevitably some of the wrong foods “creep into” the diet. This creates a situation in which you may be better nourished, but you suffer the effects of eating the wrong foods. Whereas when you focus on not eating the wrong foods you avoid the ill effects of such foods while leaving open the possibility of finding superior nourishment in other foods.
If anyone reading this post wants to know what my diet is, let me know and I will be glad to share in a future post.
"Eating healthy is not so much about what you eat, but what you don’t eat."
It is ironic that the mind—that great defender of our safety and well-being—also convinces us that we are less ephemeral than we really are.
On the one hand, our mind is constantly on the alert for hidden (or obvious) danger, constantly considering contingencies for dealing with real or perceived threats. On the other hand, the mind convinces us that we will live an inordinately long life, will survive whatever is thrown at us, and will leave an important legacy when we do, finally, “shuffle off this mortal coil”. This aphorism is a warning to be wary of the mind’s tricks. While both mindsets have their utility in helping us cope with real dangers and remain effective despite our short tenure on this earth, we must remember that our world is often less scary than it seems…and we are probably a little less permanent than we might hope.
Note: Whether our degree of impact on the world is great or small, short or extended, this does not detract from our fundamental value as human beings and our obligation to treat our fellow man with dignity and respect. The purpose of acknowledging our ephemeral nature is to guard against engaging in hubris.
"It is ironic that the mind—that great defender of our safety and well-being—also convinces us that we are less ephemeral than we really are."
If your life insurance company just raised your premium, don’t rail against their rapacious pricing. Rather, take stock of the fact that they have reason to believe your chances of dying just increased.
See the deeper meaning in what happens to you. All too often, we respond emotionally to an event, which makes it all the more difficult to understand the true import of the event. Take life insurance, for instance: while it is not pleasant to pay a higher premium, the insurance company just did you a favor: they inadvertently let you know that it is time you took stock of your habits and your life. And yes, I just used two colons in a single sentence—on purpose and with full knowledge of how grammatically unacceptable such an act is. Getting back to the subject at hand: (another colon…in the second of two consecutive sentences) Seeing the deeper meaning of things allows one to take more meaningful action in response to those things. That’s why this witticism is important. : (A colon, by itself, in its own sentence, just because no one is stopping me from doing it.)
"If your life insurance company just raised your premium, don’t rail against their rapacious pricing. Rather, take stock of the fact that they have reason to believe your chances of dying just increased."
All creative pursuits (e.g., art, music, acting) in which it is difficult for practitioners to get good at what they do, and even more difficult to get noticed (or rewarded) by the general public for doing it, will spawn an associated culture that is exclusive, intimate, and insular.
Just a little observation about the nature of the mindset that is often shared by a community in its pursuit of creative goals. This mindset doesn’t always have to be present, but often is. Personally speaking, I have difficulty accepting that individuals in certain fields need to be as exclusive and insular as they often are. I can guess that it has to do with the fact that the barriers to entrance are of such magnitude that when a person overcomes these barriers, the person is viewed as worthy of receiving the acknowledgement of being “special”, and has earned the right to respect. Such respect is a kind of “reward” for “paying one’s dues”. As with any circumstance in which people share a limited professional space, a certain intimacy and mutual comradery seem to develop in such situations. I’ve experienced artistic communities that, in large measure, seem exactly the opposite as described—such as the one here in Seattle, so I question the inevitability of the conventions described by this aphorism, but I’ve also seen these conventions play out exactly as described.
The key value of this aphorism is simply to prepare a person for the kind of culture they will likely encounter when they enter a given professional space. It also suggests the possibility of a person deciding not to buy into self-perpetuating dynamics, and instead making their own rules for enjoying their success—such as viewing those outside the “bubble of exclusivity” as not being outside the bubble…or perhaps acknowledging that no bubble need exist at all.
"All creative pursuits (e.g., art, music, acting) in which it is difficult for practitioners to get good at what they do, and even more difficult to get noticed (or rewarded) by the general public for doing it, will spawn an associated culture that is exclusive, intimate, and insular."
The quickest way to turn a friend into an acquaintance is to send him a card once a year, for one occasion or another.
Let me qualify—right off the bat—that I am not talking about a situation in which you maintain an ongoing and active friendship with someone, and the card sending is part of it. In that case, sending a card is a very nice thing to do, indeed. I am talking about a situation in which sending a card, on very rare and predictable occasion, is all you do. Don’t be surprised if your friendship with that person died long ago. Friendships require maintenance—just like everything else. If you can’t pick up the phone, go visit, or generally stay involved in a person’s life, perhaps it is best to admit that you have grown apart and no longer share the closeness you once did. To be sure, not sending a card to an old friend might sting for a minute, but I am going to guess the other person will get over it, quickly. They might not even notice you stopped sending cards. Sad to say, but true.
"The quickest way to turn a friend into an acquaintance is to send him a card once a year, for one occasion or another."
The tragedy of our times is that our leaders believe—as have so many leaders before them believed—that they have finally learned the techniques that will enable them to control and confuse the larger population indefinitely.
It seems the allure of being able to dominate one’s fellow man is too great to resist. The techniques for manipulating others may be varied and ever-evolving, but I fear that we stand at a point in human history where the exercise of such techniques has evolved to the degree necessary to create a status quo, in which a majority of people are permanently confused and unable to see the true causes of their fears. Without insight into the root issues and practices that have led us to where we are, there is no possibility of remediation or reform.
I will be blunt: the primary tool of misdirection in our culture is the appeal to greed. Appealing to this facet of our collective psyche is viewed as an effective way to motivate action, but it does so at the expense of nurturing more sustainable impetuses. Greed may appear at first to lead to more efficient outcomes, but efficiency is an equivocal ideal. It should not be the only criterion by which the success of something is judged. Where human, environmental, and animal welfare are concerned, greed must take a back seat to other considerations, so that suffering is prevented. The next time you hear of a situation in which human, environmental, or animal suffering is involved, search for the role of greed in creating the conditions for it to occur. In all of your personal and business dealings, resolve to subordinate your selfish desires, and instead find motivation in other drivers of human action, such as love for your fellow man.
"The tragedy of our times is that our leaders believe—as have so many leaders before them believed—that they have finally learned the techniques that will enable them to control and confuse the larger population indefinitely."
There’s the wrong way…and then there’s the long way.
There’s no way around it: in life you can take shortcuts and suffer the consequences, or you can pay your dues and enjoy a delayed, but more gratifying form of success. Achieving your dreams need not take a long time to realize in every circumstance, but when necessary neither should you shrink from the prospect of expending adequate effort and time to master the competencies that enable meaningful and lasting accomplishment.
"There’s the wrong way…and then there’s the long way."
A sure recipe for disaster: When humankind allows one type of change to outpace all other types of change.
Change is often viewed as an unalloyed good, and there are many types of change that come close to fitting this bill. However, as with all things in life, change does not exist in a vacuum. The ultimate degree of benefit resulting from any change is highly dependent upon the context in which it occurs. When one type of change—whether it be positive or negative in nature—outpaces other forms of change, a critical mechanism is short circuited: there is insufficient change in other areas to compensate for, mediate, or moderate the runaway change, so that its effects are tempered and made manageable and less disruptive. Virtually anything that is left unchecked will eventually create problems of one kind or another. Therefore, it is incumbent upon mankind to prudently manage change, based on the reasonable assumption that anything arising from the actions of humans can never be an unalloyed good.
"A sure recipe for disaster: When humankind allows one type of change to outpace all other types of change."
Reconciling the competing needs of life is part of the art of life.
It is an art to balance and address the many competing claims on our time, such that we remain effective in the world while attending to our and others’ needs. This skill is not learned in a day, but instead over the entire course of our lives. Any success we may have in exercising such skill is a cause for celebration. However imperfect we may occasionally seem to be at reconciling the competing needs in our lives, we can take satisfaction in knowing that only our species is able, or willing, to take on such a challenge at such a sophisticated level.
"Reconciling the competing needs of life is part of the art of life."
One of the greatest gifts that parents can impart to their children is the hope for a rewarding life experience.
Inculcating a sense of the possible in a child is a gift of immeasurable importance. Creating an emotional environment that validates the reality of hope, and the potential of dreams to materialize given the right conditions, is one of the worthiest goals any parent can have. A child without hope or expectation of tangible and spiritual reward for a life well lived is a child who will forever act in opposition to the natural flow of things—a child who will view any interaction as a contest, with winners and losers, a child who will never fully enjoy his/her victories, and who will experience shame at all of his/her defeats. The child who believes that the world holds within it the promise of positive reward will seek such reward through the same means by which the reward is offered—benignly, openly, confidently, generously.
"One of the greatest gifts that parents can impart to their children is the hope for a rewarding life experience."
If you’re feeling insulted, the likelihood is you are being tested.
People test people in different ways for different reasons. One of the surest ways to test a person’s maturity is to insult them and then watch what they do. This aphorism is designed to encourage a person to recognize indignation when it wells up inside, and to develop the capacity for immediately stepping back and taking stock of why the emotional reaction is occurring. Here’s what to do when you are feeling insulted:
Consider whether the insult is really an insult.
If you believe that the insult is truly an insult, consider the source of the insult and what their possible intent might be in insulting you.
Determine how you will respond based upon the above conclusions.
Doing the above can potentially prevent misunderstandings and inappropriate actions. Equally important: it will prevent you from losing opportunities that you might never have known were at stake.
"If you’re feeling insulted, the likelihood is you are being tested."
You can only cheat death for so long…until death catches you cheating.
This is why attempting to cheat death is, ultimately, a futile exercise. The key to understanding this aphorism is in understanding what “cheating death” means: when you place yourself in an irresponsibly risky situation with the understanding that you are going to try to survive that situation despite its risks, you are attempting to cheat death. Death may not see you at first, but eventually it will catch a glimpse of you out of the corner of its eye…and taking an interest in what’s going on, it will investigate, observe, and then do what it was hired to do.
"You can only cheat death for so long…until death catches you cheating."
Before you martyr a rock star who lived and died tragically, ask yourself whether their mistake was simply that they believed their own press.
There must be something about fame that is very addictive. My impression is that once some people experience fame, they will do anything to retain it—including engaging in self destructive behaviors that they believe their fans expect. When the cause of a celebrity’s death is something that they had at least some power to avoid (e.g., a drug overdose due to addiction), it does not necessarily mean that their actions can be attributed only to the dynamic described, but it should be considered as a possible factor. The purpose of this aphorism is to caution anyone who believes that they must maintain a certain way of life simply to cater to others’ expectations of them—to challenge such assumptions and correct course before it is too late. If you want to admire someone who dies tragically in the manner indicated, and mourn the loss of that person and their talent, feel free. However, martyrdom should be reserved for those who act from more lofty intentions.
"Before you martyr a rock star who lived and died tragically, ask yourself whether their mistake was simply that they believed their own press."
What good is having faith if you don’t believe that faith works? Yes, it would appear that the basic definition of faith includes within it the assumption of belief in the efficacy of faith. But how does a person bring themselves to want to take a chance on faith itself? The answer: by having faith that faith will “work”. How’s that for circumlocution?
We often think something is extraordinary, when it is really nothing more than aberrant.
Being different than the main is not synonymous with being extraordinary, but we frequently entangle the two in our minds. Whether something is considered extraordinary or aberrant usually depends upon whether we find the outlier’s qualities to be positive or negative in nature (by any number of personally applied criteria). This aphorism merely suggests that we should not be overawed by something simply because it deviates from the norm—in fact, it might be advised to consider the possibility that the very qualities that we find so compelling are more strange than singular, more unnatural than unique.
"We often think something is extraordinary, when it is really nothing more than aberrant."
Because someone can do something better than you does not mean they are better than you.
When you make the mistake of confusing expertise with intrinsic worth, you give power to expertise that is never deserved. We all know that the exercise of skills is but one capability of our species. Often, the skills themselves by which we compare ourselves are arbitrary—even laughable on some level. Simply because we have identified a certain set of actions to be useful or desirable to perform does not mean that those actions are always particularly meaningful. Yet, when we cannot perform these actions as well as others, we call into question our very worth. Sure, we should all aspire to learn from the expertise of others and to excel at what we do, but when we lose perspective and begin to question our value because we cannot perform tasks as well as others, we open the door to self-recrimination and self-loathing. Next time you find yourself in such a state, ask yourself the following two questions:
What can I do to improve my performance irrespective of the talents of others?
If I am never as good as [you provide the name], can I still find enjoyment in engaging in the activity at a more modest level?
Using the performance of others as a motivator is a double edged sword: while you may find inspiration in the examples set by others, you may fixate on external standards and lose sight of both the importance of your actions to others and what you uniquely contribute to the quest.
"Because someone can do something better than you does not mean they are better than you."
There is a difference between having a good time and enjoying your life.
Having a good time is great, but often the way we achieve this is by engaging in activities that actually detract from a deeper enjoyment of life. Here are some examples:
Attending a football game is fun whether your team wins or loses, but how would it feel to actually get your friends together, divide up teams, and play a game of football yourself?
Attending a cocktail party will result in the chance to meet new people, engage in pleasant conversation, learn new perspectives, and enjoy some good food and drink, but what about skipping one of those parties and instead calling a close friend you haven’t spoken with for a while?
You can learn what the critics think of the latest movie, who will win the most appliances on your favorite daytime game show, which actors have just gotten out of rehab, and what exercise equipment will finally get rid of those excess pounds—or you can join with a group in your community to help those in more immediate need.
Some might argue that none of the above activities necessarily prevent performance the other activities mentioned. While true, when you devote too much time to one type of pursuit, you will have less time to devote to other types of pursuit.
Having a good time occurs in the moment—there’s nothing wrong with that—but enjoying your life requires doing things that have a more lasting effect on the entire arc of your life. One shouldn’t neglect either type of experience. One should only keep in mind that there is a difference between them, and that we as humans tend to rely more heavily on the former than the latter. The consequences of doing this are beautifully captured in the following lyric from the song, Street Life (Will Jennings, Joe Sample), featured in the movie, Jackie Brown:
Street life—and there’s a thousand parts to play.
Street life—until you play your life away.
"There is a difference between having a good time and enjoying your life."
The only way we achieve our greatest potential is by accepting our limitations, not by not accepting our limitations.
I know this sounds heretical in a world in which every person is expected to “rise above” and “conquer” their limitations to achieve unheard of things, but I believe that it is better to know your limits and then decide how, with those limits, you can achieve something entirely unique that is both fulfilling and meaningful. If you find yourself saying that you must “overcome” this or that limitation, so that you can compete on a universally recognized playing field, try radically accepting that you cannot, and should not, attempt to do so. Instead, ask yourself what your larger interest is in the goal you have chosen. Then, work with your limitations to achieve that larger purpose in a novel way. Such thinking flies in the face of everything we hold dear in our “can-do” culture, but I believe that thinking about one’s limitations in this way offers a better strategy for addressing the challenges we sometimes encounter in life. I also believe it better reflects what actually occurs in the world. I can make the case that heroes who are credited with surmounting incredible odds to achieve great things did not succeed by ignoring and overcoming their limitations, but by doing just the opposite.
To those who would ask, “How can you know if you can overcome a limitation unless you try?”, I would suggest that the concept of overcoming a limitation is itself a misnomer. If you can’t do something today, but you can do it tomorrow after exerting some effort, you were not limited in your ability to do that thing. You merely had not developed your skills sufficiently to perform the action in question. A limitation is a limitation. That is, it is something that fundamentally prevents you from achieving a specific goal. If you think you can “overcome” something and it, in logic and in reality, cannot be overcome given the circumstances of your situation, you are wasting your time. Better to do an “end run” around the issue and assert a new reality based on the logic of the context in which you find yourself.
"The only way we achieve our greatest potential is by accepting our limitations, not by not accepting our limitations."
Yes, there is pretty much nothing in our existence that doesn’t rely, in some form, on something else for its existence and meaning. The only exception to this is that G-d is not reliant on other things, but as stated in an earlier post, G-d nevertheless appears to “choose” to take an active interest in his creation. The point of this aphorism is that we should not iconize any aspect of this physical world: even the most profound human experiences have dependencies and limits, without which their meaning and importance would be highly questionable. The interdependence of all things is what connects us—both on a practical and more “spiritual” level. Therefore, there is no one and nothing that exists in a vacuum, is too removed from our experience to escape scrutiny, or is not worthy of our attempt to understand and appreciate it. Here is one example of a situation in which this aphorism might be used:
Person 1: “Doctor, my life is perfect—no money problems, no deep emotional entanglements, no health issues, no existential angst. Problem is, I can’t shake this feeling of loneliness.”
Person 2: “Well, it’s all well and good that your life is going so well, but even miracles need witnesses…”
How much money do you really need to be happy? How much money would make you really unhappy?
Something to think about next time you find yourself fantasizing about all the incredible things you’ll be able to do once you win the lottery. Money can make things easier, but two things I believe are true: 1) most people typically do not need large amounts of money to lead a fulfilling life, and 2) having too much money can create complications that detract from the enjoyment of living. This aphorism is designed to undermine the delusion that money is somehow correlated directly to the degree of happiness one experiences in life. Money, of course, plays an important role, but its importance is subservient to each person’s particular needs and perspectives. Instead of passively accepting that having more money is an unmitigated good, take a more volitional approach and decide exactly how much money you really need to meet the requirements of your life.
"How much money do you really need to be happy? How much money would make you really unhappy?"
In many circumstances you will hear someone sagely suggest that doing the minimal acceptable work is advised. Anything else would be “overkill” and ill advised—that additional effort will only “slow things down”, miss the forest for the trees, and prevent timely attainment of some larger, more important goal. One hears this advice in corporate meetings a hell of a lot. To be sure, there is often some truth and value in any strategy that eschews elegance in favor of achieving results—particularly in military applications. However (and this is a BIG however), the approach doesn’t always work, as we can readily surmise from the myriad situations in which doing the minimum that is considered “good” did not exactly work out as intended. In almost every product disaster you will find that the manufacturer met minimum required safety criteria for the product class at the time the product was produced. In almost every food based disaster, you will find the same. It seems in just about every instance, the manufacturer relies on this adherence to guidelines to shield itself from liability. Forget the fact that the applicable standards of safety were likely heavily influenced by the same group of manufacturers who were required to abide by the standards. Such manufacturers invariably state that if they implemented additional (read: adequate) safeguards in their products and processes, no one would be able (or willing) to buy their products. While I acknowledge that the consumer has a part to play in demanding—and being willing to pay for—better designed products and services, this does not absolve those providing such products and services from exercising greater diligence in their design and execution practices. My purpose is not to engage in a lengthy discussion of the economics of the market or consumer protection; these subjects are too large for the present context. My only purpose is to suggest that when confronted with having to decide regarding the quality level of any output, one should consider whether good enough really is good enough.
Where the truth is unwelcome, the future is uncertain.
It goes without saying, of course: when a society lies to itself or is simply delusional in its thinking, and when it is incapable or unwilling to test the veracity of its beliefs and change course if/when needed, its very existence becomes tenuous. The inability to question direction is both a cause and an effect of societal decay. Our future as a nation is uncertain at present, and the most potent weapon we have to repair the situation is the willingness to listen—really listen—to the voices of Americans: not just the wealthy, powerful, and influential Americans who always seem to “get their air time”, but all Americans who have an opinion to proffer. What happens then? Well…
After listening carefully, it will then be necessary to “feed back” to the American people what was said and heard and confirm understanding. Based on the input received, it will be necessary to update the definitions of the issues and formulate possible responses to them. Then, it will be time to present these options to the American people for discussion and debate. Then, a referendum should be held to give the American people a say in which options will be selected for action, and which will not. Finally, elected leaders should implement those actions as directed by the American people.
The fact that such suggestions may seem impossibly naïve and unworkable in a country of 324 million souls is why we are in such a precarious position today. I can effectively argue that the above suggestions are entirely workable and implementable. It’s just that we have no collective will to do so. The noise of media, the usual loud voices, and the ringing in our ears makes us incapable of speaking, or hearing, the truth.
"Where the truth is unwelcome, the future is uncertain."
If you find yourself thinking that if you don’t do it, someone else will…immediately stop doing it.
That’s right – don’t think about it. Don’t second guess yourself: if the reason you are thinking about doing something is primarily because if you don’t do that thing, someone else will, reject the idea and the plan without further examination. Distract yourself with other thoughts and move on without regret. The reason I say this is because, inevitably, if you are using the above rationale to justify your actions, you have misgivings—on moral grounds—about the correctness of those actions…or the actions aren’t something you would typically engage in (probably for very good reasons). Sure, there are circumstances where the above assumptions may not be applicable, but I’ll bet that they almost always will be. Your clue to a troubled conscience is the presence of the mode of thinking that this aphorism describes.
"If you find yourself thinking that if you don’t do it, someone else will…immediately stop doing it."
Luck can be relied upon only after it has happened.
Those who rely on luck stand on slippery ground. Luck is one of those things that is retrospective in nature only. It therefore does not really exist in the present, which is the temporal domain that all life inhabits. As such, the concept of luck really should have no place in any decision a person makes in the present. We can comment that someone has experienced luck in the past, but no attempt should be made to apply such fact to predicting either present action or anticipated future outcomes for that person (even if that person is you). If you decide to take a chance on something, know exactly what it is you are doing—taking a chance. Luck plays no part in whatever happens. Your odds of success will likely follow the laws of probability and will be influenced by the degree of preparation and/or skill you bring to the endeavor. Why not simply expunge the word entirely from your vocabulary? It really has no practical use in our existence.
"Luck can be relied upon only after it has happened."
Getting noticed as an artist is a lot like storming a medieval castle: You first have to build a viable Army. Then, you have to fight your way across the plain of resistance, ford the moat of inaccessibility, and then overcome well-armed Gatekeepers to achieve your goal. If you succeed in doing all of these things, your accomplishment will have meant nothing if all you do is shut the Castle Gates behind you.
Funny how once a person has paid their dues and found “success”, they become the most vociferous defenders of the system that made the quest so difficult—a system about which the person was likely to have complained loudly and often during the dark days of the struggle. Because there are a lot of deserving and talented people in the world, who, for whatever reason, are defeated on the field of battle and finally give up trying to make their mark, it is incumbent upon those who have gained distinction through a system to reform the system—at least enough to increase the chances that talented people will have their day in the sun. Metaphors explained:
Viable army: your skills and talent, along with your resolve.
Plain of resistance: everyone who tells you that you’re crazy for trying; everyone who rejects or ignores your creative output.
Moat of inaccessibility: that ineffable gap between where you are and where you want to be: it might as well exist in another dimension, because at first it is completely unclear what is creating the gap or how to overcome it.
Well-armed gatekeepers: The people who have preceded you in figuring out how to bridge the gap, and who often (not always) have decided that if they had to struggle so hard to get where they are, there must be something intrinsically right about the “survival of the fittest” paradigm.
Unfortunately, survival of the fittest is a paradigm for animals, not humans. It relies on a shared acceptance that there will always be a scarcity of resources and a surfeit of contenders for those resources. In fact, the world does not actually work that way. It works that way today because we, as humans, want it to.
"Getting noticed as an artist is a lot like storming a medieval castle: You first have to build a viable Army. Then, you have to fight your way across the plain of resistance, ford the moat of inaccessibility, and then overcome well-armed Gatekeepers to achieve your goal. If you succeed in doing all of these things, your accomplishment will have meant nothing if all you do is shut the Castle Gates behind you."
Before you take that job that keeps you away from your loved ones for weeks at a time, before you assume that a long distance relationship will work, before you move to a bigger house in a nearby town and think that you still will be able to maintain your friendships with your previous neighbors—think again: the odds are likely that your assumptions will not come to pass. Sometimes, marriages work and relationships are maintained, but my experience is that usually they do not survive the effects of loss of daily contact. The purpose of this aphorism is to attune a person to the real, and often profound, impacts that distance can have on our attachments. A person may have no choice but to change their situation, but they should never do so without their eyes open. This way, they can properly say goodbye…or take concerted steps to bridge the gulf that likely will develop.
What will you do to protect yourself against the person whose stock in trade is to fool you only once?
“Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” We’ve all heard this old saying, and the sentiment it expresses can be a useful caution to any person who might be faced with making the same mistake twice. However, what about the situation in which a person is not likely to have a second chance to prevent injury? In my experience, some of the worst lessons in life come from persons who have no intention of giving you a second chance to protect yourself. These are the people, the con artists, who know better than to attempt a second try. Their strategies are optimized and structured to catch you unawares…and to do maximum harm. What do you do to counter that threat?
Learn from the unfortunate experiences of others.
Because con artists try to ply their trade in secret, and because their victims frequently don’t report what has happened to them, it might seem difficult to anticipate what a criminal might do to you. However, there is ample information that is published that can familiarize you with some of the tried and true techniques people use to fool others only once. Understanding these techniques and taking proactive action to prevent their use on you is perhaps the surest way to prevent the “devastating blow”.
Trust your instincts.
Very often your subconscious knows more than your conscious mind knows. If you have a “bad feeling” about something, don’t dismiss your thoughts or rationalize away your misgivings about a situation or a person when faced with a novel set of circumstances. Instead, give your instincts a full hearing and consider the possibility that subtle warning signs may have been missed by your conscious mind. If you determine that there is just too much smoke—even though you can’t see the fire—consider getting out now while there is still time.
Live a moral life.
While this is by no means a guarantee against manipulation, if you over-value money, do not respect others, or crave power, you are “red meat” to a con artist. They will use just those qualities of yours to blind you, so that they can drain you dry before you even know what happened. Of course, if you do not respond as readily to such lures, your chances of being targeted are greatly diminished.
Be “situationally aware”.
This habit is a key survival mechanism of life. Being situationally aware is having the ability to think about yourself and your surroundings objectively, in the “third person” as it were—something that is exceedingly difficult for most people to do. Usually, we approach any circumstance from a subjective perspective: we do not ask ourselves whether we should be somewhere, should be doing what we are doing, or should be feeling the way we are feeling. Instead, we simply react to immediate stimuli based on the perception of the particular threat and/or opportunity presented by such stimuli at any given moment. This is because thinking in this way takes less mental energy than the alternative. The bottom line: If you can’t see context, and attend to that context either proactively, or in a timely fashion once you are in that context, you stand the chance of becoming a victim of others who do see the larger picture. They will set the trap, and you will fall into it. There are a host of resources to help you develop situational awareness…so be situationally aware right now and learn how to be situationally aware.
One final note: if you find yourself victimized despite all your best efforts, forgive yourself, pick up the pieces, and try again. You are, after all, human…and you will be fooled at least some of the time, no matter what you do.
"What will you do to protect yourself against the person whose stock in trade is to fool you only once?"
Let yourself be inspired by others, but never imitate them.
Maybe I watched too much Mr. Rogers when I was young, but somehow that oft repeated notion that each of us is fundamentally special and irreplaceably unique has found its way into the very depths of my psyche. For whatever reason, I believe that every being is brought into this world with something singular to share. It is our duty to discover what that is and to give it expression. Anything less would impoverish the world in some way. It is because of this that I believe that one should never imitate anyone: to do so only creates wasteful redundancy, depriving the world of something new and fresh, of something that hasn’t been realized before.
As human beings we cannot learn if we are not inspired by others. We cannot develop if we do not allow ourselves to be influenced by others. We cannot do our best unless we work within reasonable artistic or other paradigms or constraints. However, we must always be acutely cautious not to try to be, sound like, or appear like someone else—or attempt to achieve their fame, their wealth, or their position in life or in history. Within the boundaries of an ethical life, we must strive to be the best we can uniquely be—always—no matter what the end result. Our present culture would have us think otherwise. It would have us worshipping “heroes”, coveting that corner office, and dressing like our favorite movie stars. Don’t fall prey to any of this nonsense. Look inward as much as outward, and you will never feel inadequate.
"Let yourself be inspired by others, but never imitate them."
Often the reason someone has paid a large amount of money for something is for the sole purpose of convincing you that what they paid for is valuable. When a sports team pays an athlete hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s you who they are actually buying: your curiosity concerning what all the fuss is about, your acquiescence to higher ticket prices, your belief in the team and its prospects. The team makes its money back, the athlete gets rich, and you, well…you pay for it all.
Think about it and consider whether you want to foot the bill…
"Often the reason someone has paid a large amount of money for something is for the sole purpose of convincing you that what they paid for is valuable. When a sports team pays an athlete hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s you who they are actually buying: your curiosity concerning what all the fuss is about, your acquiescence to higher ticket prices, your belief in the team and its prospects. The team makes its money back, the athlete gets rich, and you, well…you pay for it all."
Often, the thing we fear the most is the one thing that can save us.
Sometimes help comes from the most unlikely of quarters. The silver lining of adversity may not always be apparent at first, but with time it becomes clear. Sometimes tragedies are simply tragedies, and very little—if nothing—can be done to find compensatory good in them. However, have you ever feared something terribly, only to find that when you engaged with the object of that fear and accepted the dreaded outcome, something wholly unexpected and wonderful happened: you discovered that instead of the result being the curse you thought it might be, it turned out to be your salvation? I am not suggesting that we should automatically embrace that which frightens us—only that we should consider the possibility that it is not necessarily always our enemy.
"Often, the thing we fear the most is the one thing that can save us."
Learning from the school of hard knocks is fine…if you are a masochist.
Some people wear their life scars as a badge of honor, and this is OK…to an extent. After all, hard lessons make an indelible impression, and we tend to celebrate surviving that which doesn’t kill us. However, for some people, the school of hard knocks is the only school they attend. While you won’t always have a choice in how you learn about this life, it would seem axiomatic that there is nothing intrinsically laudable about doing things the hard way. This aphorism bids a person to consider what strategies might allow them to sidestep the tough lesson and learn by more benign and effective means. Maybe by doing so, it will be possible to skip a grade and graduate early.
"Learning from the school of hard knocks is fine…if you are a masochist."
Every lie carries within it the kernel of its own undoing. The mere telling of the lie creates the conditions under which the lie itself is undermined. This applies to every lie that is uttered out of self-interest, or out of evil or immoral intent (i.e., not the “polite lie” intended to spare someone else shame, or a lie told to misdirect a mortal enemy). Because lies misrepresent and negate the essential truth of our existence, it is almost as if the universe itself mitigates against their presence, providing whatever is needed to disprove them—if we only care to look. Resolution of a lie may not occur immediately, but resolution does come eventually. It is the gap between when a lie is told and when a lie is discovered that is exploited by those seeking to benefit from a lie. Such people foolishly believe that the absence of direct and obvious consequence for telling a lie is tantamount to avoiding such consequence. In fact, they pay for their dishonesty in other ways. The purpose of this aphorism is to help those who might be tempted to lie to recognize that lying is, essentially, a futile act that is destined to ultimately fail in its purpose. When it comes to malicious lying, it is a game one can’t, in the end, win.
We think that because we can eat anything we want, we can eat anything we want.
This is a corollary to my earlier post, “Eating healthy”, and closely parallels a key take-away of some of my other posts. The message, again, is that just because you can do something is not necessarily reason enough to do something.
"We think that because we can eat anything we want, we can eat anything we want."
That which is conceivable is all too often inevitable.
There are very few innovations that do not see the light of day because people stepped back and asked themselves whether the world could really use, or would ultimately benefit from, the innovations. Basically, our love of reward almost always trumps our sense of propriety. To be sure, our species evolves by surviving the challenges (often unnecessary) that it presents itself. However, sometimes our victories over such challenges are of dubious value. In the end, we learn little more than that we were fools to have engaged in the experiment at all (or, at a minimum, that it was an extraordinary waste of valuable time). Often, the rationale for pursuing and promulgating an idea is the conviction that if we are not aware of how something will “play out” (good or bad), we should not refrain from such pursuit, but instead give the idea the chance to prove itself in real world conditions. The assumption with this mindset is that any harm caused can probably be addressed after it has occurred. The thinking goes: “If we retire at the first sign of potential negative impact, there would be no innovation at all!” Sometimes, the equivocal nature of an innovation forces a decision regarding whether the good that will be achieved will outweigh the bad.
Unfortunately, much suffering has been visited upon this world by the introduction of innovations that weren’t benign. All too often, such suffering cannot be “put back in the bottle” or remediated for its victims after the fact. In most things, the world is not “either-or” in nature, and so we are required to determine a path forward with incomplete information and without the benefit of foresight. This aphorism encourages every person who has thought up a “great idea” to at least consider whether the idea must be given expression or development—particularly if the innovation causes moral discomfort in its creator. In the heat of discovery, it is not hard to convince yourself that what you want to do is not only justified, but essential. The question to ask yourself in every case is: is that really true?
"That which is conceivable is all too often inevitable."
I guess I have a problem with the entire concept of what a promise is—what it really is. It’s supposed to be a commitment to do something in the future; it’s supposed to show intent to perform an action, to give assurance to someone that something will be addressed. However, there are perhaps no circumstances in which a promise per se has significant utility in our lives. If a person wants to reassure someone that a task will be carried out, what if the following was the communicational construct for doing so:
“I understand you need the lawn to be mowed, and that your garden party next weekend cannot take place until this is done. I do not want you to have to cancel the garden party. I expect to have time Tuesday at 3:00 p.m. to do the job.”
Is a promise really worth much in itself? Isn’t it better to confirm understanding of a need and provide a specific scenario under which work will be completed—a scenario that includes the who, what, when, where, and how of the work effort? Underlying this aphorism is the concept of action speaking louder than words. However, the aphorism goes farther: it undercuts the basic premise of a promise and replaces it with a commitment to value results over words.
The wonderful thing about growing older is that as you are perceived to grow more fragile, your ability to see fragility in others also grows.
Seeing the humanity of others is almost a lost art. People are intrinsically imperfect, yet we expect them to be perfect. We judge them by harsh and uncompromising criteria. In short, we see people as objects and treat them accordingly. One way we objectify others is to impute to them extraordinary powers, stamina, and consistency; we believe their motivations come from a clear-cut and explainable source. This makes it easy for us to vilify them, counter them, dismiss them—all without feeling any guilt. On the other hand, when we see the vulnerability of others we can value them more appropriately and humanely. We can find reason to protect their dignity as we would our own. We open the door to genuine connection and understanding.
The emotional benefits of seeing the fragility in others far exceed whatever benefits we derive from being physically powerful. For those lucky enough to experience it, we are compensated for loss of the latter over time by the evolution of a new awareness that helps us to do what we were put on this earth to do: to love our fellow man. In short, growing older is a blessing—a process that is infused with its own vigor and associated psychological rewards. All of this is not to say that some never learn or experience the perspective described, or that the young cannot achieve the same emotional enlightenment far in advance of old age. It only acknowledges that for many, such growth defies early discovery.
(…Of course, if you are inclined towards a more cynical view, this aphorism can simply be understood to mean that while others see you as growing weaker, you are in fact growing stronger through your realization of others’ weaknesses…)
"The wonderful thing about growing older is that as you are perceived to grow more fragile, your ability to see fragility in others also grows."
Please see the back story for my take on the nursery rhyme.
Jack and Jill went up the hill to fetch a pail of water. Jack fell down and broke his crown and Jill wondered why Jack fell down and broke his crown. She thought:
“Jack managed to make it up the hill without any problem. If he knew the way up, why couldn’t he have just gone back the same way he came without needing to sustain major injuries?”
Jill was suddenly prescient and realized that she, too, might follow Jack in a tumbling manner—which prompted her to wonder:
“Why should I go tumbling down after Jack when I so clearly know how to avoid that outcome! For that matter, why would I need to tumble, anyway? If falling was good enough for Jack, why isn’t it good enough for me? I mean, tumbling? What am I, a gymnast? And how do you break your crown on a hill? This isn’t exactly a mountain we’re on—the most you can do on a hill is roll downhill and come to rest in a bed of clover!”
Jill then wondered why they had been sent up a hill in the first place to fetch water. After all, she asked herself:
“Why is there a well at the top of this hill? Water doesn’t flow uphill! Wouldn’t it have made more sense to place the well in the valley, closer to the water table?”
Jill was also curious as to why she, specifically, had been asked to go up the hill. And then she realized that it must be because her name rhymes with hill. Otherwise, why else would she have been sent to do this thankless job, instead of someone else being sent who has a different first name? This led Jill to the inescapable conclusion that this was probably why Jack broke his crown (instead of breaking any number of other bones in his body) when he fell: it must have been because crown rhymes with down! All of the musing about rhyming first names left Jill pondering why only her and Jack’s first names seemed to be important in this scenario: she was certain that both of them must have perfectly good last names, so it made no sense…unless the purpose was to objectify both of them in order to teach a lesson to others. The following thought then popped into Jill’s mind:
“Who sent Jack and me on this fool’s errand to begin with—and why send both me and Jack to fetch a single pail of water when only one person could have done the job just fine? Perhaps if that had happened, no one would have gotten distracted and hurt!”
Jill realized that her association with Jack begged additional questions. She wondered who Jack was to her anyway—a brother, a lover, a friend? As far as she could recollect, she hadn’t even known Jack before they both were asked to fetch the water, together. Very strange. Jill then began to wonder whether or not she and Jack weren’t part of some sort of cosmic joke, in which the two of them were both being manipulated by a mysterious force, simply for its pleasure (or because it was presumably thirsty). The more Jill thought about these things, the more inscrutable and overwhelming it all became. Finally, Jill said to herself:
“Well, I may not have all the answers, but one thing’s for sure—I’ll be damned if I’m not making it down this hill in one piece!”
…whereupon Jill set off to deliver the water to person (or persons) unknown. She then tripped, and tumbled after Jack…
"Please see the back story for my take on the nursery rhyme."
The question may arise: “How does anyone really “merit what they inherit”?” After all, it is rare that anyone who inherits anything has fullyearned such largesse. The “meriting” of bequeathed funds or objects is to be found in a person’s willingness to use those items to do good in the world at a material level consistent with what the bequeathal affords. If you work hard to be a good steward of the resources you receive, you “merit” your inheritance insofar as you: 1) you recognize that starting with something is usually better (and easier) than starting with nothing, and 2) you use the aforementioned realization as motivation to find meaningful ways of helping others who are less fortunate. Throughout the history of mankind, there have been many in positions of power and privilege who have subscribed to the notion that they are under no obligation to share their wealth with anyone. They rely on various rationales to support this perspective (actually, some probably don’t think about it much at all). If you feel some “guilt” at having been given far more than others for no other reason than that you were born to it, know that the answer to your discomfort is not to figure out how not to feel guilt at all, but to use that discomfort to spur you to use your advantaged position to make this world a better place.
You cannot truly escape a prison using only the substance from which the prison is made.
There are many kinds of prisons—physical and mental. In each case, a cogent argument can be made that escaping any prison is difficult, if not impossible, without bringing to bear tools that are not intrinsically associated with the thing that constrains you. Here is an example:
A person sits in a prison for having committed a crime. While they certainly can escape the physical prison by using tools fashioned from the physical building, they cannot escape the “mental prison” they are in—the prison that likely put them there in the first place. Escaping a mental prison requires use of an entirely different set of tools—ones that are psychological and spiritual in nature, and that promote healing, self-knowledge, and personal enlightenment. With the use of these tools, the person can truly understand the impact of what they did, find the motivation to not do it again, and truly repent. Only in this way can the prisoner earn the opportunity to leave (not escape) both the physical and mental prisons they are in.
If you find yourself feeling trapped by anything or any situation, and you have decided to escape that thing or situation by running from it, take a step back and consider whether running, by itself, will accomplish what you want it to (important exception: if you are in any situation in which you are in personal danger (physical and/or mental), run like hell and work things out later when you are in a safe place). The likelihood is that your plan of escape will not fully succeed unless you view your problem more holistically and take steps to address the larger context of your predicament.
If you are an academic involved in a research project and have hit a conceptual roadblock that prevents further progress based on the parameters of the problem domain itself, consider whether the application of ideas or concepts from other academic disciplines might illuminate the matter. Or, consider whether elements within the problem domain may be doing things that are not typically associated with such elements.
Sometimes, prisons are not prisons at all, but are instead constructed in our minds as such, from materials manufactured in our own imaginations.
"You cannot truly escape a prison using only the substance from which the prison is made."
When you are an idiot, all the world seems a genius.
People often are overawed by phenomena that they don’t understand. While it is prudent to respect a mystery, the opacity of something is not synonymous with its intrinsic worth. The problem with overawe is that it instills in us a belief that something is unattainable, and this can discourage inquiry and deeper understanding. A healthy dose of measured skepticism is always in order when confronting the “incomprehensibility” of something. Ask yourself whether (and to what extent) the likely cause of your confusion is rooted in a lesser state of knowledge and/or innate abilities in yourself, or in the evolved characteristics of the thing under consideration. If you determine the latter (or both) is/are true, sit back and enjoy the encounter…at least they can’t take that away from you.
"When you are an idiot, all the world seems a genius."
Always prioritize people—and your treatment of them—over ideas, concepts, and conventions. All man-made concepts are…well…man-made, but the requirement to treat your neighbor with respect is divinely enjoined upon us. I once remember reading an observation by an advice columnist (I think it was Esther Lederer (“Ann Landers”) or Pauline Esther Phillips (“Dear Abby”)—not sure which one), who stated (I am paraphrasing) that the lack of courtesy in this world is a serious and fundamental problem that lurks behind much graver offences that people commit against other people. At the time I read this observation, I thought that it was a rather vacuous assertion – after all, how could something as simple as discourtesy play a role in the myriad and terrible things people do to each other? However, with time, I have come to agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment expressed: discourtesy is all too often either the precursor or the cause of much suffering in the world. The purpose of this aphorism is to remind a person that if they are engaging in discourtesy, they are playing with fire…that seemingly small affronts can have profound consequences. By avoiding discourtesy, it is possible to prevent much greater insult and conflict.
Note: I read (what I remember to be) the advice column in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. Due to the significant time elapsed since I read this, I have not yet been able to determine which advice column it might have been. Therefore, I will give tentative recognition to either Ann Landers or Dear Abby for sensitizing me to this issue.
There was a point in my life when I wanted to be a pilot, so I took flying lessons. One of the key lessons I learned was that a common cause of accidents in small planes is when the pilot, faced with a dangerous situation, tries to correct the problem through employing extraordinary measures. This results in over-correction, which in turn leads to disaster. It turns out that some small planes are designed to naturally (aerodynamically) regain a state of equilibrium by themselves, and that in many situations the pilot need not attempt to correct a problem at all, but would be best served by taking their hands off the wheel, so that the plane itself can recover as it was designed to do. Knowing when to act and when not to act when confronted with an emergency is a tough call, but an experienced pilot knows that there are times when trying to make things better will only make matters worse.
Of course, we are not only talking here about flying lessons or piloting aircraft. We are talking about life. Are you grappling with an issue that seems to defy correction/resolution? If so, might it be a case of needing to “take your hands off the wheel” and waiting to see if the system resolves itself based on its own internal dynamics? Are you possibly courting disaster because you believe more in your own efficacy to address a situation than in the ability of either another person, or even a machine, to do the same—perhaps in a more meaningful and lasting way? In the end, when you are faced with any dire challenge, only you can decide how to meet the challenge…but for goodness sake, at least ask yourself whether the best course of action might be to “take your hands off the wheel” and let the problem resolve itself for you.
Being able to manipulate others is not the same as having control over your own fate.
There are a thousand ways to manipulate people: through deceit, guile, charm, charisma, personal power, etc. Because manipulation of others appears to result in immediate gain (i.e., one gets what one wants from the person being manipulated), we convince ourselves that manipulation is an indispensable tool in engineering our own fate and fortunes. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we resort to manipulating others for our own purposes, that is our first clue that what we are trying to achieve is misguided and in conflict with a better path. A beautiful illustration of this can be found in the film, Eyes Wide Shut. This film was panned by some critics when it was released, but I assert that the film was, in fact, a masterpiece. The main character of the film is depicted as someone who is not above using his physical attributes to manipulate others to do his will. One such example is expressed in a scene, in which the character is able to initiate an extramarital sexual liaison with a woman who, despite misgivings, agrees to the encounter because she is smitten by his good looks. In the end, this turns out to be a disastrous decision when he learns that he has contracted a deadly disease from the woman. This aphorism reminds us all that because we are flawed beings, our perceptions of what our fates should be is also flawed; and therefore we would do well to remember that in the absence of truly knowing what our fates should be, our only guide for behaving appropriately in this world is the knowledge that our interactions with others must be based in shared dignity. Manipulation of others is the antithesis of this. At least to some extent, our fates will always surprise us regardless of what we say or do.
"Being able to manipulate others is not the same as having control over your own fate."
Adopting a fatalistic attitude is the surest way to shorten your stay on this earth.
There is some comfort in embracing the prospect of death. Acceptance of death may seem preferable to dread of it. However, structuring your life based upon a philosophy that incurring risk is justified because you are going to “die anyway” is a miscalculation. The essence of the miscalculation can be found in a flawed view of the importance of time. The outcome of something does not define the value of something. Because our lives are finite does not mean that our lives are cheapened or made less significant by that fact. If anything, the time we are allotted is made more profound and valuable by that fact. To adopt a fatalistic attitude negates that reality. Every instant we have on this earth is precious—and the special nature of each instant is not dependent upon how many instants we have in sum. While one can take measured risks, the decision to do so should never be rooted in a fundamental disrespect for the importance of the gifts we have been given. Those who disdain the time they have been allotted will inevitably take risks they shouldn’t take, seek thrills they shouldn’t seek, and reap consequences they should never have reaped. If you find yourself thinking fatalistically, consider the implications for your life, for your loved ones, and for your legacy on this earth. If you are attracted to dangerous pursuits, find a positive reason for doing them. At least this way you will approach the danger with a different mindset, and you just might increase your chances of surviving the experience.
"Adopting a fatalistic attitude is the surest way to shorten your stay on this earth."
Anyone can do anything at all…if they do it badly.
The next time someone tells you that you can do anything you want, or be anyone you want to be, consider such proclamations with some amount of skepticism. Of course, anyone can try most things, but have they really earned “bragging rights” if they haven’t done those things with some degree of skill? Anyone can imagine that they can be like someone else, but in the absence of the particular qualities that make the other person who they are, can anyone else truly achieve such an aim? Of course, sometimes we need to try something out to determine if we have an aptitude for it. This is fine—as long as we are honest with ourselves about our abilities once our prospects become clear. In such situations, there is nothing wrong with consciously deciding to engage in an activity for enjoyment alone—without expectation of accolades. When self-assessment is more difficult for us, we are haunted by the fact that there have been many great artists who have persevered in their work despite negative feedback and/or repeated rejection. Such artists weathered criticism and ostracization until their talents were finally recognized (sometimes, acknowledgement did not occur until after their deaths). We ask ourselves whether we should abandon our dreams given the examples of these artists’ lives and their ultimate vindications. How can we know if we are, or aren’t, one of these types of individuals? In short, we can’t know for certain. Nevertheless, here is a good way to escape this quandary (and it is somewhat unintuitive): ask yourself in any situation if what you are doing is imperative because of the benefit to you, or the benefit to others (be honest with yourself about this). If the latter is primarily true, keep doing it. If the former is primarily true, assess whether you should keep doing it.
"Anyone can do anything at all…if they do it badly."
Well, I’ve exhausted my initial store of aphorisms and witticisms that I had created over the years. For the last few months, I’ve been posting one each work day, but alas there are no more…for the moment. Going forward, I will post items as they occur to me—which may be quite infrequently. Thanks to all of you for reading and commenting on the posts. It was great fun for me and I benefited from your wise observations. I hope you enjoyed reading them, too.
This is an easy one to misinterpret. Living a lie is not always the same as lying. There are circumstances in which lying is a moral obligation. In WWII, in Nazi occupied territories, Jews were often faced with the choice of either lying about their identities or risking being murdered. A decision to lie was supported by the importance placed on preserving a human life. On the other hand, living a lie entails the acceptance of a lie as being intrinsically “right”, such that the lie justifies certain behaviors and becomes a part of a person’s permanent identity. The above distinction between living a lie and lying is critical, insofar as a person can emerge whole from an “acceptable” lie when circumstances permit them to once again assert their true self, whereas a person who has integrated a lie into the very core of their being has little hope of such redemption—ever. So, do not convince yourself that you agree with something that your conscience tells you is wrong. Do not deny your feelings or convictions just because society has repudiated who you are or what you believe. Assert who you are as long as you can…and then when such action becomes futile or dangerous, make a conscious decision whether to continue the fight or to live to fight another day. Either decision is valid. But if you choose the latter, don’t find refuge in mindless conformity. Instead, tell a lie—but never believe that lie—and wait patiently for better times.
Who are your friends…and how do you tell? The answer: by testing them from time to time. In saying this I am not suggesting that you should create an artificial situation or request, and then challenge your friends to see who “performs” as expected. Rather, I am referring to a situation in which you need something (emotional support, a favor), and you would like to ask a particular friend to help you. If you are reticent to ask that person’s help because you are afraid that they might consider it an imposition, or because you are concerned it might somehow endanger the relationship, consider testing the friendship by making the request despite your apprehension. If your friend accommodates your request, this tells you that you matter to them. If your friend refuses your request with good reason, this is acceptable—provided that it does not become a pattern with future requests. If they refuse without good reason, you have an acquaintance (at best)—not a friend.
There is nothing wrong with having acquaintances, but it is always better to be clear-eyed about who your friends are and who your acquaintances are. Why? Because if you are unsure about who is who, you are likely to eventually find yourself with only acquaintances. Developing friendships means occasionally making sacrifices for your friends—and them making sacrifices for you—all within reason. Sure, you will need to protect yourself against that type of friend who attempts to take advantage of you. If you see things going in this direction, challenge your friendship with such a person by refusing to accommodate their requests.
I have noticed that many people speak freely about the number and quality of friends they have (strangely, this often seems to occur when a person is referring to the “important people” they count among their friends). However, the human animal is not wired to have a large number of close friends—the emotional and intellectual capacities just aren’t there for this to happen. If you have five people in the world who are true friends you are lucky. So, test your friendships—judiciously, sincerely, and courageously—when the situation calls for it. In approaching a friend for help, their stature or obligations should be of little importance. In a certain sense, you are doing them a favor, for how would they ever develop friends of their own if they aren’t given a chance to respond to such requests?