Tag Archives: life

Our Self-Centered ‘Default’ Worldview: DFW’s Commencement Address

Recent talk of the cor­res­pond­ence bias (here) reminded me of pos­sibly the best com­mence­ment speech that I’ve not yet writ­ten about (and I’ve writ­ten about quite a few): Dav­id Foster Wal­lace’s com­mence­ment address to the gradu­ates of Kenyon Col­lege in 2005.

The speech, often cited as Wal­lace’s only pub­lic talk con­cern­ing his worldview, was adap­ted fol­low­ing his death into a book titled This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Sig­ni­fic­ant Occa­sion, About Liv­ing a Com­pas­sion­ate Life and is essen­tial read­ing for any­one inter­ested in per­son­al choice: the choice of think­ing and act­ing in a way con­trary to our self-centered “default” world­view.

Actu­ally, scrap that, it’s just essen­tial read­ing for every­one.

Because the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long check­out lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a con­scious decision about how to think and what to pay atten­tion to, I’m gonna be pissed and miser­able every time I have to shop. Because my nat­ur­al default set­ting is the cer­tainty that situ­ations like this are really all about me. About MY hun­gri­ness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like every­body else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repuls­ive most of them are, and how stu­pid and cow-like and dead-eyed and non­hu­man they seem in the check­out line, or at how annoy­ing and rude it is that people are talk­ing loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and per­son­ally unfair this is. […]

If I choose to think this way in a store and on the free­way, fine. Lots of us do. Except think­ing this way tends to be so easy and auto­mat­ic that it does­n’t have to be a choice. It is my nat­ur­al default set­ting. It’s the auto­mat­ic way that I exper­i­ence the bor­ing, frus­trat­ing, crowded parts of adult life when I’m oper­at­ing on the auto­mat­ic, uncon­scious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my imme­di­ate needs and feel­ings are what should determ­ine the world’s pri­or­it­ies.

To read the speech I recom­mend the ver­sion from More Intel­li­gent Life linked above as it is true to the speech as it was giv­en. If you prefer a slightly more edited read, The Wall Street Journ­al’s copy and The Guard­i­an’s copy may be more to your taste.

Vonnegut: Narrative Arcs and Why We Love Drama

For mil­len­nia we have told and absorbed fant­ast­ic stor­ies with simple yet strong nar­rat­ive struc­tures, and the struc­ture of these stor­ies is in con­trast to the much less errat­ic “plots” of our own lives. This dis­crep­ancy between the dra­mas present in our stor­ies and our real lives causes many of us to cre­ate unne­ces­sary and non-exist­ent dra­mas in our lives.

That’s Kurt Von­negut’s the­ory for why some people “have a need for drama”, as described by Derek Sivers who atten­ded a talk where Von­negut explained this the­ory through a series of won­der­fully simple dia­grams show­ing the nar­rat­ive arcs of some of our favour­ite stor­ies and com­par­ing them to that of a “nor­mal” life.

Von­negut also dis­cusses and describes these nar­rat­ive arcs through dia­grams in the col­lec­tions Palm Sunday and A Man Without a Coun­try. Aus­tin Kle­on excerpts the former book, where Von­negut writes that this was the top­ic of his rejec­ted Mas­ter­’s thes­is. My favour­ite arc has to be that of Cinder­ella:

Kurt Vonnegut's Narrative Arc Diagram of Cinderella

On read­ing this I was curi­ous as to:

  • why the caus­a­tion must go from the stor­ies we read to our own lives: could it not be that we cre­ated stor­ies filled with drama and nar­rat­ive struc­tures like those described in order to fill a void that the fake dra­mas we cre­ated in real life wer­en’t?
  • how this could relate to the concept of Apol­lo­ni­an and Dionysi­an. Not for long, as a quick search led me to Red­dit user Ghost­s­For­Break­fast’s thoughts on the idea (basic­ally, what I would like to say, but much clear­er).

Advice from Economists

Jim Rogers—co-founder of the Quantum Fund (with George Sor­os), eco­nom­ic com­ment­at­or, guest pro­fess­or of fin­ance at Columbia Uni­ver­sity and author of A Gift to My Chil­dren—provided a short inter­view with the FT dis­cuss­ing his thoughts on mak­ing that first mil­lion, on trav­el­ling, and some gen­er­al advice to the next gen­er­a­tion.

What is the secret of your suc­cess?

As I was not smarter than most people, I was will­ing to work harder than most. I was pre­pared to exam­ine con­ven­tion­al wis­dom.

  • Do not under­es­tim­ate the value of due dili­gence.
  • For [the next] gen­er­a­tion, Man­dar­in and Eng­lish will be the most import­ant lan­guages.
  • If you give chil­dren too much, you will ruin them. I want my chil­dren to be well-edu­cated and exper­i­ence the work­place. [On not passing much fin­an­cial wealth to his chil­dren.]
  • Invest only in things you know some­thing about. […] Stick to what [you] know and buy an invest­ment in that area. That is how you get rich. You don’t get rich invest­ing in things you know noth­ing about.

Fur­ther advice, this from Tyler Cowen:

I told [my step­daugh­ter] to take cal­cu­lus and stat­ist­ics; even if she hates them she’ll know what side of that divide she stands on.  I am encour­aging of learn­ing lan­guages, driv­ing mod­est Japan­ese cars, and order­ing the most unap­peal­ing-sound­ing dish on the menu of a good res­taur­ant.  On invest­ing it’s buy and hold all the way.  Use TimeOut guides when you travel and when you are eat­ing in third world coun­tries avoid walls.  I’m not a big fan of debt; debt is worth it only if you’re earn­ings-obsessed and I don’t recom­mend that for most people.  Don’t expect to be too happy, that is coun­ter­pro­duct­ive.  I’ve men­tioned that future job descrip­tions may be quite flu­id and unpre­dict­able from today’s vant­age point.  Being “good with people,” com­bined with smarts and a focus on exe­cu­tion, will nev­er wear out.

As with all art­icles that dole out advice, there’s some gold in the com­ments.

Jim Rogers inter­view via Tim Cold­well

Life Advice

Not from a life coach, per­son­al devel­op­ment guru, or some oth­er self-pro­fessed expert on life, but from those whose advice I think it’s actu­ally worth pay­ing atten­tion to: those older than you.

First is Life Advice From Old People (via Kot­tke)–a video blog con­tain­ing noth­ing but inter­views with a wide range of ‘old’ people, includ­ing Farm­er Tom, Jon Voight and Errol Mor­ris.

Some more col­our­ful advice comes from The Musty Man (via Ben Cas­nocha) who, on his 30th birth­day, decided to offer some no-non­sense advice to those liv­ing in their 20’s. The best of the Musty Man’s advice I’ve read is on rela­tion­ships, although it’s all great.

As is the stand­ard at MeFi, the advice offered to this recent gradu­ate is more func­tion­al and emin­ently use­ful. This is one piece of advice I sub­scribe to whole­heartedly:

Make your bed every day – as soon as you get up. Some­thing about that one small thing sets the tone for the rest of the day; are you going to be lazy, or are you going to get some­thing done?

More con­cisely, this list of 30 pieces of advice for young men from an old man is fairly good, espe­cially the last item:

97% of all advice is worth­less. Take what you can use, and trash the rest.

As for advice from meta-career­ists; Ben Cas­nocha’s thoughts mir­ror mine per­fectly:

The best advice on net­work­ing will come from someone who is not a pro­fes­sion­al net­work­er. The best advice on entre­pren­eur­ship will come someone whose entre­pren­eur­ship is not selling books and work­shops about entre­pren­eur­ship. Writers who write about any­thing oth­er than writ­ing for a liv­ing usu­ally have the best advice on writ­ing.

Like many oth­ers in my situ­ation (someone attempt­ing to fig­ure out the dir­ec­tion they want their life to go in) I love hear­ing advice from a diverse range of people. If you have some, or even just a choice quote, please offer it up in the com­ments. I would appre­ci­ate it more than you can ima­gine.

Debating Cryonics

Cryo­n­ics: the low-tem­per­at­ure pre­ser­va­tion of humans and anim­als that can no longer be sus­tained by con­tem­por­ary medi­cine until resus­cit­a­tion may be pos­sible in the future.

When one dis­cusses cryonics, top­ics as diverse as futur­o­logy, medi­cine, tech­no­logy and philo­sophy are debated. A few weeks ago a num­ber of high–profile blog­gers, headed by the excel­lent Over­com­ing Bias, have been doing just that. Here are a few posts in the con­ver­sa­tion:

We Agree: Get Froze (Robin Hanson, Over­com­ing Bias)

Even with mod­ern anti-freezes, freez­ing does lots of dam­age, per­haps more than whatever else was going to kill you. But bod­ies frozen that cold basic­ally won’t change for mil­len­nia. […] Since most folks who die today have an intact brain until the rest of their body fails them, more likely than not most death vic­tims today could live on as (one or more) future ems. And if future folks learn to repair freez­ing dam­age plus whatever was killing vic­tims, vic­tims might live on as ordin­ary humans.

Cold Spouses (Bry­an Caplan, Lib­rary of Eco­nom­ics and Liberty)

One unpleas­ant issue in cryo­n­ics is the “hos­tile wife” phe­nomen­on. The authors of this art­icle know of a num­ber of high pro­file cryo­n­icists who need to hide their cryo­n­ics activ­it­ies from their wives and ex-high pro­file cryo­n­icists who had to choose between cryo­n­ics and their rela­tion­ship. We also know of men who would like to make cryo­n­ics arrange­ments but have not been able to do so because of res­ist­ance from their wives or girl­friend­s… As a res­ult, these men face cer­tain death as a con­sequence of their part­ner­’s hos­til­ity.

You Only Live Twice (Eliez­er Yudkowsky, Over­com­ing Bias)

Hated Because It Might Work (Robin Hanson, Over­com­ing Bias)

The Best Sen­tence I Read Yes­ter­day (Tyler Cowen, Mar­gin­al Revolu­tion)

[On cryo­n­ics] my cur­rent view is this: one’s atten­tion is extremely scarce and lim­ited, as are one’s affiliations.  Inso­far as you have the lux­ury of think­ing “big­ger thoughts,” those thoughts should be dir­ec­ted at help­ing oth­ers, not at help­ing one­self. […] Fur­ther­more the uni­verse (or mul­ti­verse) may be infin­ite, so in expec­ted value terms it seems my cop­ies and near-cop­ies are already enjoy­ing a kind of col­lect­ive immortality. […] What prob­ab­il­ity of future tor­ture would cause us to wish to die forever rather than be resurrected?  And should I there­fore be scared by the idea of an infin­ite universe?  Do Dar­wini­an selec­tion pres­sures – defined in the broad­est pos­sible way – sug­gest it is worth spend­ing energy on mak­ing entit­ies happy?  Or do most entit­ies end up as suf­fer­ing slaves?

Tyler on Cryo­n­ics (Robin Hanson, Over­com­ing Bias)