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)