My Icons

When I mourned the death of a hero last year, my friend Eliezer Yudkowsky left a comment:

Don't overlook that being able to be awed in someone else's presence is one of life's joys. Some people never get to experience that.

It got me thinking. Who else leaves me awed? Who are my icons? To shamelessly copy my friend Colin Marshall, I made a black-and-white portrait of nine people whose ideas or life-paths loom large in my own life, even if I don't know them personally or they are no longer alive. Click to enlarge the portrait.


"The people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do."

        – Steve Jobs


"The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing…It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out."

        – David Foster Wallace


"It's the ride that counts."

        – Brad Feld


"Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time."

        – John Stuart Mill


"Men want the same thing from their underwear that they want from women: a little bit of support, and a little bit of freedom."

        – Jerry Seinfeld


"Neuroscience is showing that all aspects of mental life — every emotion, every thought pattern, every memory — can be tied to the physiological activity or structure of the brain. Cognitive science has shown that feats that were formerly thought to be doable by mental stuff alone can be duplicated by machines, that motives and goals can be understood in terms of feedback and cybernetic mechanisms, and that thinking can be understood as a kind of computation."

        – Steven Pinker


"I suppose the basic intuition that I have about it is very simply, this is a world in which there is a possibility of things going extraordinarily well or extraordinarily badly, where both the good things and the bad things are bigger than people think."

        – Peter Thiel


"When we look up into the stars, we can choose among different feelings. On the sadder side, we can see emptiness and feel destruction and loss. But when I look up at the sky and gaze at the stars, I am joyful. I see a happy ending. I see interiority."

        – Tyler Cowen


"If you would not be forgotten
As soon as you are dead and rotten,
Either write things worthy reading,
Or do things worth the writing." 

        – Benjamin Franklin

14 comments on “My Icons
  • I wonder if that comment by Yudkowsky was a subtle pat on his own back – or did he mean to imply failure on the part of the un-awed person?

  • Ben, Love you and greatly admire Peter Thiel and others on your Top Nine. Can’t help but notice that they are all white guys. No one of color, no women? Gotta be one! Donna

  • You could take the comment in a number of ways, and I don’t remember which one I was thinking of at the time.

    I’m awed by E. T. Jaynes, but he died before I ever had a chance to meet him. (So did Laplace.)

    I met Douglas Hofstadter in the flesh once or twice… and I *wanted* to be awed, and I *am* still awed by his past books, but I got the feeling he was past his prime. It’s not fair to expect Hofstadter to be as brilliant as GEB, every day, all the time, but it still diminished it for me, somehow. It probably shouldn’t have, but it did.

    I have a friend who met John Conway and who says that Conway is *still* awesome… but I’ve never had a chance to meet Conway myself, because I don’t travel a lot. If you’ve met a lot of your heroes in person, you are much luckier than average.

    And then there are people who insist on being cynical about everything, or who insist that being awed by anyone makes you a cult victim – so if you can take pleasure in people’s virtual presence, you’re lucky.

    Some of us are nitpickers and we won’t be able to be properly awed in the presence of a great physicist because they once said something stupid about MWI or God – I fall about midway into this category myself.

    But I do honestly feel that being able to be awed in someone’s presence is one of life’s joys. I’ve met people who are better off than me in this dimension, and I’ve met people who are worse off.

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