Monthly Archives: January 2008

The Years Are Short

My friend Gretchen Rubin, of the Happiness Project, posted a great one-minute video titled "The Years Are Short." Awesome pictures of New York City with one of those relaxing soundtracks that always puts me at ease. Oh, and the idea that "the days are long, but the years are short" is worth remembering. Well done, Gretchen.

Obviousness Hinders Your Persuasion Ability

Last weekend I spent one full day at a liberal event / conference and one full day at a conservative event / conference. They were unrelated but happened to be on consecutive days. It was fascinating to get inside the heads of people who are leading the political movements on both ends of the spectrum.

The line of the weekend came at the conservative event, where one person said: "Organized and wrong beats unorganized and right, election after election." Translation: We may have the better ideas, but if we don’t organize ourselves we’re still going to lose.

It sparked a somewhat related idea. Sometimes we get so enamored with our ideas — so convinced of their moral goodness! — that we forget about actually trying to convince those who do not just "get it".

The more obvious something is to you, the worse a persuader you are to the uninitiated. Because of its obviousness to you, the harder it is to really truly actually understand how someone arrives at the idea through deliberation versus common sense snap judgment.

Assuming you seek to convert skeptics, the best evangelists, then, are not necessarily the most passionate believers in the cause / product, but rather those who took some convincing in order to see it your way.

In other words, an environmental organization that seeks to engage new, uninvolved people in their movement should hire someone who used to be an uninvolved person. Someone who needed to be persuaded, as then they can employ the same logic unto others. Yet I’m guessing most environmental organizations are headed by life-long tree huggers, who probably have a hard time seeing the world any other way.

Tell ‘Em What You’re Gonna Tell ‘Em, Tell ‘Em…

And then tell ’em what you told them. That’s a presentation / public speaking golden rule.

The easy way to incorporate this principle into persuasive speaking is to be very explicit about all the stages of your presentation and then announce when you’re in each stage.

Here’s one reason why. While listening to someone speak the other day, I zoned out. I disengaged. When I was ready to re-engage in her talk, I didn’t know where she was — I had no guidepost — and so it was harder to know how and when to start focusing again. So, I stayed “checked-out” for the rest of her speech. My take-away: A great way to keep the attention of your audience over a longer talk is to break your speech into chunks and announce when you’re entering a new chunk, which is like offering a life raft to someone who wants to re-enter the concentration zone at the beginning of a thought, rather than in the meandering middle.

Optimize Activity for Location

A few weeks ago Auren made a point that I always think about when I’m on airplanes and see people squeeze their elbows in and struggle to open and use their laptops. Unless you’re in a spacious first class cabin, working on your laptop during a flight is almost always sub-optimal from a productivity perspective.

Your efficiency at the activity is affected by the physical environment you find yourself in. Flights can be bumpy, elbow room skimpy, and wi-fi or power sources non-existent. Yet many people make it a habit to work on their laptop all during a flight. Sure, there are some times when you absolutely have to get some work done, but this isn’t every day.

The single most efficient activity to do on a plane, in my opinion, is reading. I get tons of reading done of a flight, due to my physical immobility, consistent light, and general quiet (especially if you’re wearing a Bose headset).

To take the reading point one step further, some types of reading are better for different environments. I usually read harder stuff / academic books on airplanes because I have maximum concentration. I usually read magazines and lighter fare (paperback) on the stationary bike because there are noises and, well, I’m exercising. In the car I listen primarily to fiction audiobooks, because I have less a desire to underline / take notes with fiction. In bed I read hard stuff (and anything I want to remember — we remember that which we read / do right before going to bed). At restaurants or cafes, when I’m reading alone, I usually bring magazines or articles because they’re easier to fold and place on a table while you’re eating (impossible with hardbacks).

So, when thinking about what you’re going to do, think about where you’re going to be, and how that place will affect your productivity at completing the activity.

The Illusion of Knowledge

The illusion of knowledge is worse than knowledge itself.

One risk when receiving a broad, liberal arts education, replete with generalist courses like “Questions of Civilization,” is that it’s tempting to believe that the two days your Civ class spends on the Koran is all you need to know. In other words, you spend a couple days on the Koran, and then move on, and in your mind you check the “Koran” box, and don’t feel it necessary to really dig into it later on.

Sure, perhaps that limited exposure actually motivates you to dig into the text in a way blind ignorance would not. But I’m not so sure.

I think chipping away in superficial, very high level way at a massively complex topic or book can almost be worse than spending no time on it at all. I’d rather have college students walk around knowing they were completely ignorant about the Koran than think they even understand something.

I prefer knowingly ignorant to superficially informed. Of course it’s possible to be both superficially informed and aware of that fact, which is the best of these worlds, but I wouldn’t place this bet on a typical college campus.

Helping Students Find Their Way

Seth Roberts posts an email from someone who thinks college-age students need outside help to figure out the best career path:

I believe a large fraction of people around ages 16-22 are ignorant of what kinds of work environments and activities will make them happy and productive later in life. Current classroom-based training structures do not provide exposure to work environments. The cultural and social pressures from media, family and friends can be overwhelming and can often lead to people being very confused, and hence, making poor choices. I’ve seen that people tend to get very limited and highly biased information that leads to making training choices and work choices early in their life that are often not well matched for the person’s individual genius. By mid 20’s and 30’s, getting out of these poor choices is extremely difficult, as financial requirements as one ages grow and available time to retrain diminishes. Expectations of experience grow as one gets older, and the neural ability to quickly learn and master new skills diminishes, especially much later, after 40 or 50 years. All of these factors point toward a critical need to have experienced, outside input into making early choices about career paths, and what types of experiences individuals would benefit from most. Such advice is available, and can be found – but it is not commonly accepted that expert outside opinion is the best source for career and training choices for young people. Kids get it mostly from their parents and friends – neither of which are consistently accurate, trained in normal psychology, or unbiased in their assessments. …

All good points. I would add the following:

1. Parents and friends are indeed most consulted on this front, as the emailer says, but maybe for good reason: they know you better than any outsider ever will. That said, he is right that students underweight bias. The strongest bias in parental advice is probably their focus on risk mitigation. I believe you should take risks when you’re young because the cost of failure is low. I believe you should try more experimental jobs, or jobs for which there’s a lot of uncertainty about how it will work out.

2. Peer advice is also a double edged sword. Their familiarity with who you are can be helpful. However, a lot of college-age students simply project what they would do onto your situation. (The most explicit example of this is advice prefaced with, "If it were me, I would…") I think this is a developmental thing — it’s really hard to analyze options from somebody else’s perspective.

3. Lack of imagination also contributes to young people choosing work environments and activities that don’t make them happy. It’s hard to think of different types of jobs. Especially in non-vocational schools, we have limited exposure to professions beyond what our parents do and what our friends’ parents do. So, I think simply exposing students to more types of jobs would go a long way.

4. Your career path is not chosen at age 22 and then set in stone. We should de-emphasize the importance of your first job and celebrate the fact that switching careers is possible.

Book Short: Libertarianism: A Primer

I was in Washington, D.C. last week and met tons of interesting people. One of them was David Boaz, Executive Vice President of the Cato Institute. David is author of probably the best introduction to libertarianism. The book is called Libertarianism: A Primer.

It is an excellent survey of the intellectual roots of libertarianism as well as commentary on current issues. In the introduction David defines libertarianism thusly:

Libertarianism is the view that each person has the right to live his life in any way he chooses so long as he respects the equal rights of others. Libertarians defend each person’s right to life, liberty, and property — rights that people possess naturally, before governments are created. In the libertarian view, all human relationships should be voluntary; the only actions that should be forbidden by law are those that involve the initiation of force against those who have not themselves used force — actions like murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, and fraud.Most people habitually believe in and live by this code of ethics. Libertarians believe this code should be applied consistently — and specifically, that it should be applied to actions by governments as well as by individuals. Governments should exist to protect rights, to protect us from others who might use force against us. When governments use force against people who have not violated the rights of others, then governments themselves become rights violators. Thus libertarians condemn such government action as censorship, the draft, price controls, confiscation of property, and regulation of our personal and economic lives.

I highly recommend this book.

***

For a simpler definition of libertarianism, enter Auren Hoffman:

Democrats say — “Give a man a fish.”
Republicans say — “Teach a man to fish.”
Libertarians say — “Go fish!”

“Our Technology is Disruptive”

I sense a rise in popularity of a buzzword / phrase in entrepreneurial circles. It’s the entrepreneur’s elevator pitch including the catch-all: “Our technology is very disruptive.”

Whoop-de-do. Most of us have read or heard of Clayton Christensen’s theory of disruptive technology.

The problem is people are throwing around “disruptive” as if it has inherent meaning as a word. But it is not terribly helpful by itself in terms of understanding what the technology actually is or does. For an elevator pitch, better to show not tell: what’s a quick anecdote or story that illustrates how your technology is going to upend the status quo in industry X?

So yes, we know your technology is disruptive, your revenue numbers are conservative, and you have a team of rock star engineers. Let’s get to the meat!

Best Excerpts from the Best American Essays 2007

I already posted my favorite excerpts from the The Best American Essays of 2001. Below are my favorite excerpts from the Best American Essays of 2007.


“Loaded” by Garrett Keizer in The New Republic

A pro gun-rights essay that’s eloquent and persuasive (without really meaning to be). He says to talk about guns in America is to talk about race, as guns were the great equalizer among whites and blacks in the slave era. Keizer, of course, owns a gun today, and here’s what he says about it:

I hope that I shall never have to confront anyone with my gun, but owning a gun has forced me to confront myself. Anyone who owns firearms for reasons other than hunting and sport shooting (neither of which I do) has admitted that he or she is willing to kill another human being — as opposed to the more civilized course of allowing human beings to be killed by paid functionaries on his or her behalf. Owning a gun does not enhance my sense of power; it enhances my sense of compromise and contingency — a feeling curiously like that of holding down a job. In other words, it is one more glaring proof that I am not Mahatma Gandhi or even Che Guevara, just another soft-bellied schlimazel trying to keep the lawn mowed and the psychopaths off the lawn.

At the end of his essay, he somewhat leaves his gun argument and says that, contra Saul Alinsky, “we are in need of a liberalism that goes back into the room and starts the fight. We are possibly in need of some civil unrest.” He says he doesn’t come to this conclusion lightly; he’s historically been a nonviolent noncooperator. But times change. His last graf is a call to action, of sorts:

The harvest is great but the laborers are few. Still, if asked to choose between an urban guerilla armed with an AK-47 and a protester armed with a song sheet and a map showing how to get to the designated “free speech zone,” I would decline on the grounds of insufficient faith and negligible inspiration. Rather, give me some people with very fanatical ideas about the sanctity of habeas corpus and the length of time an African American or any other American ought to have to wait on line to vote. Give me some people who are not so evolved that they have forgotten what it is to stand firm under fire or even to squat near the fire in a cave. Give me an accountant who can still throw a rock.


Iraq: The War of the Imagination” by Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books

A 12,000 word overview of how and why America got entangled in the Iraq war. Brilliant. Comprehensive in its analysis. He deconstructs how smart individuals can be made stupid when operating as a collective in the warped hallways of Washington bureaucracy. The most jaw-dropping part of the essay for me was the backstory to Paul Bremer’s taking over Baghdad. Here’s a guy who knew absolutely nothing about the Middle East — his foreign experience was limited to running the embassy in the Netherlands! — and on his very first day, he carried out orders to “de-Baathify” Baghdad In other words, fire all the Baathists — who mostly held leadership positions — in the government and military. It proved a colossal mistake which plunged Baghdad into chaos almost immediately.


“Afternoon of the Sex Children” by Mark Greif in N+1

This is a long, complicated, at times inaccessible essay on the sexualization of youth. I didn’t understand the big picture point, but some paragraphs jumped out at me:

The college years — of all times — stand out as the apex of sex childhood. Even if college is routinized and undemanding, it is still inevitably residential, and therefore the place to perfect one’s life as a sex child. You move away from home into a setting where you are with other children — strangers all. You must be patient for four years just to get a degree. So there can be little to do but fornicate. Certainly from the wider culture, of MTV and rumor, you know four years is all you will get. The semester provides an interruption between institutionalized sex jubilees: spring break, or just the weekends. The frat-house party assumes a gothic significance, not only for the prurient adults but for the collegians themselves, who report, on Monday, their decadence.

As a college student today, you always know what things could be like. The “Girls Gone Wild” cameras show a world where at this very moment someone is spontaneously lifting her shirt for a logoed hat. You might think the whole thing was a put-on except that everyone seems so earnest…The new full-scale campus sex magazines — for example, Boston University’s Boink (2005) and Harvard’s H-Bomb (2004) — seek truth in naked self-photography and accounts of sex with strangers, as if each incident were God’s revelation on Sinai. The lesson each time is that sleeping with strangers or being photographed naked lets the authors know themselves better. Many of these institutions are driven by women. Perhaps they, even more than young men, feel an urgency to know themselves while they can, since America curses them with a premonition of disappointment: when flesh sags, freedom will wane.


“Disappointment” by Richard Rodriguez in California

A pessimistic piece on the idea of California. This noted California writer says:

The traditional task of the writer in California has been to write about what it means to be human in a place advertised as paradise. Not the Buckeye or the Empire, not the Can-do or the Show-me, California is the Postlapsarian State. Disappointment has always been the theme of California….Disappointment continued to be mined in California’s literature throughout the twentieth century. Joan Didion gave us domestic broken dreamers, not so much driven as driving. In the great Didion essays of the sixties, the dystopian mother abandons her daughter on the median of the San Bernardino freeway; dirty dishes pile up in the sink; the hot wind blows from the desert.

I like that last image – hot wind blowing from the desert. Rodriguez’s downtrodden theme continues:

Americans feel disappointment so keenly because our optimism is so large and is so often insisted upon by historians. And so often justified by history. The stock market measures optimism. If you don’t feel optimistic, there must be something wrong with you. There are pills for disappointment.

The California Dream was a codicil to the American Dream, an opening. Internal immigrants sought from California at least a softer winter, a wider sky, at least a thousand miles’ distance between themselves and whatever dissatisfaction they felt with “home”.

And on literature:

In the time of your life, live was Saroyan’s advice. I believe the difference between the literature of California’s past and the literature to come will be the difference of expectation. There are children growing up in California today who take it as a given that the 101 North, the 405 South, and the 10 East are unavailable after two in the afternoon.

An essay I don’t happen to agree with, but that last sentence is just perfect.

Best Excerpts from the Best American Essays 2001

Anthologies of essays are good to read when traveling — if one essay is bad, you simply skip it. If the novel you bring on your trip is bad, you’re screwed. I recently read The Best American Essays of 2001 and the Best American Essays of 2007. All in all, about 40 essays on a range of topics. Below are my favorite excerpts from the 2001 edition. In another post, I’ll excerpt my favorites from the 2007 edition.


“India’s American Imports” by Adam Hochschild in The American Scholar

Hochschild, an American, observes how pervasive his own country’s values, brands, and dreams are in India, where he lived and lectured for a year. His moment of insight came watching a Hindi-language film in a poor town in the North. The story was about India, but the images, not so much:

But the West itself, paying no fee, was the real product placement, from the California-sleek furnishings of the characters’ homes to the distinctly un-Indian rolling green pastures of the hero’s imagined ream landscape, through which the heroine runs in a gauzy white dress. So: an Indian film without India in it.

This reminds me of when I watched a film in a Bombay movie theater. The moviegoers were traditionally dressed, middle class Indians. The content of the movie, however, surprised me: tons of skin, promiscuity, expensive cars and houses. Staggering poverty lay just outside the theater, and hardly anyone dressed provocatively. At times I turned my eyes from the screen and watched the conservatively dressed women in the seats next to me. How were they reacting to such blatant sexualized themes, such Western shows of material excess?

Hochschild continues:

But travel anywhere for an American today involves getting to know not something totally unfamiliar but a combination, often an uneasy one, of the unfamiliar and the familiar.

True. And then the money line:

To a country like this, what gets imported is seldom America at its best: a commitment to human rights, American informality and skepticism toward authority, equality between men and women, a school system that values individual creativity more than rote learning. Instead, cultural imports are mainly those things that someone can make money selling. Ideas travel slowly. The desire for objects travels at the speed of a TV transmission.


“Refugium” by Barbara Hurd in The Georgia Review

An essay about refuge by explaining how minks live in swamps. She connects refuge with solitude:

Those who are fond of various retreats — writers, ecstatics, parents with young children — often comment on the silence such time away allows. Silence becomes something present, almost palpable. The central task shifts from keeping the world at a safe decibel distance to letting more of the world in. Thomas Aquinas said that beauty arrests motion. He meant, I think, that in the presence of something gorgeous or sublime we stop our natterings, our foot twitchings and restless tongues. Whatever our fretful hunger is, it seems momentarily filled in the presence of beauty. To Aquinas’s wisdom I’d add that silence arrests flight, that in its refuge our need to flee the chaos of noise diminishes. We let the world creep closer; we drop to our knees as if to let the heart, like a small animal, get its legs on the ground.

Beautiful. Later, more on being alone:

Part of the appeal of a refuge is surely its isolation. There nobody can see you still weeping over a lover who hunched off with another some thirty years ago. Nobody is there to notice whether you stand straight or slouch, or how you suck your stomach in. Or don’t. A refuge is like a locked bathroom door where you can practice the fine art of extending your tongue until you can finally touch the tip of your nose, which you also feel free to pick as thoroughly as you want. Nobody’s watching; you can do whatever you want.


“On Impact” by Stephen King in The New Yorker

King tells the story of how he was hit by a car and almost died. At the end of his essay, he tells how he began writing again, and there are some beautiful sentences:

On some days, that writing is a pretty grim slog. On others — more and more of them, as my mind reaccustoms itself to its old routine — I feel that buzz of happiness, that sense of having found the right words and put them in a line. It’s like lifting off in an airline: you’re on the ground, on the ground, on the ground…and then you’re up, riding on a cushion of air and the prince of all you survey.


“Facing the Village” by Lenore Look in Manoa

Her story about going with her father to visit the remote Chinese village that was his birthplace. A second generation immigrant to America, she writes about how she tried to shed her Chinese heritage, a process made easy in a country where “remaking oneself is nearly a national religion.” When she and her parents decided to visit her father’s village, she thought of it opportunistically — maybe there’s a novel or story in the trip. But when she arrives, she discovers the powerful tug of physical roots:

Ironically, it was my arrogance that had brought me to the village: I came looking for what I could take from it. Details for a novel in progress. But somewhere between my desire and the fulfillment of it, I fell into an abyss. Like my father, I heard my name called in that place — audible only to my ears perhaps, but maybe not — and I tumbled headlong after him into that strong morning light, undeserving. In that place full of beginnings and ends and everything in between, I knew that I, too, had come home. Here was the home that I sought. I cannot turn from it — it is more than I deserve, and it is enough.