many goods are incommensurable

There are many simple ways of saying things pretty similar to what I’m saying here, such as:

  • To each his own.
  • One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.
  • It’s apples and oranges.
  • It’s all good.

But I don’t like these easy sayings, because it’s not all good – what I’m trying to get across is hard to understand and hard to live, and has little relation to the soft-headed permissiveness implied in those easy clichés.

This happens to be the only life lesson that I actually learned in a classroom as the direct subject of a lecture, and this lecture justified a year of college tuition all on its own.  “Incommensurability” is a simple enough concept – it just means that there are things that do not share a common standard of measurement, like the proverbial apples and oranges.

Apples aren’t oranges, could anything be simpler?  But it struck me as a thunderbolt to understand how this affects the search for the good life.  I’d always thought that the task of living a good life was largely about understanding the difference between good and bad.  Maybe I’ve got a moral compass that doesn’t have a reliable fix on true north, but that difference hasn’t always been obvious to me.

As life goes on, it has become easier to tell the difference between good and bad – or rather, it’s become harder to delude myself into believing that that there isn’t a difference or that I can’t see it.  Now I can see that choosing between good and bad was simply the entry-level exam for the good life.  The hard task of living a good life is to choose among things that are good that can’t be compared with one another.

Choosing among incommensurable goods is sad because you are by definition choosing not to do things that are good.  You know that the choices you make will sacrifice things that you would also like to have.  The good things you choose may be vastly outnumbered by the good things that you gave up.  And yet, your choices are a triumph that isn’t second-best to any other set of choices.

One of the great things about understanding this is that you won’t be limited, as many people are, to only having friends who have generally made the same moral choices that you have.  You’ll be able to see that others chose among the same set of incommensurable goods that you did, and even if they made different choices, they are still people who share a common sense of good with you.

Just to make sure that this isn’t interpreted with a mushy morality that I actually despise:  This doesn’t mean that everything and everyone is all good, it doesn’t mean that any set of choices is as good as any other, it doesn’t mean that you can be friends with anyone, it doesn’t mean that there’s no difference between good and bad.  It just means that many goods are incommensurable, and you should think carefully about what that means as you make your choices for a good life.

intelligence is a crutch

Being smart is a good thing, as any smart person will tell you more times than you care to hear. And being really smart is like some kind of weird superpower. If you’ve ever been at the head of your class, or the smartest person in the room, or even just the subject matter expert in conversation with the uninitiated, you know what it feels like to not only have every answer but anticipate every question – it almost seems like being able to bend space, time and reality to your will.

Now, maybe you’ve never had that superpower smartness – that’s also a good thing. Because that means you may have had a chance to observe really smart people at the height of their powers, glorying in their intelligence and in love with their knowledge of the world. And you may have achieved a striking insight that is beyond the understanding of many smart people, a special insight that seems to routinely escape the most massive intellect. This insight is painfully obvious to everyone else: Smart people suck.

Intelligence is a largely genetic trait that is also substantially influenced by environment and circumstance. In this way, it’s a lot like height. So before we talk more about smart people, let’s talk about tall people for a bit. Tall people get some pretty nice prizes from winning the genetic lottery. Tall people make more money and find more attractive mates. Height provides some advantage in many sports, and is a virtual requirement for success in some. So being tall is overall a good thing.

And here’s the point: Tall people know they’re lucky. They know that they have an advantage in life that others don’t have, and they know that they did very little to secure this advantage. They also know that to maximize their advantage, they have to add their own efforts – if they want to make the team, get the job, get the girl or guy – they have to eat right, work out, study hard, take care of their skin, hair and personality.

Not so with smart people. Even though smart people are generally aware of the genetic, environmental and circumstantial contributions to their intelligence, they rarely think of these as luck. Instead, smart people tend to think they’re better than other people because they’re smart, not because they’re lucky. And smart people often think that the world owes them something merely for being smart, as opposed to being diligent, sincere or personable. Smart people think that being smart should be enough, where tall people know that being tall is just a start.

The problem with intelligence is that it does, to some extent, make up for the absence of other admirable qualities. Smart people can get the same or better results as others even when they work less, care less and cooperate less. Intelligence is a crutch. And a smart person who leans on that crutch to the detriment of other important traits can become a monstrously malformed person. Intelligence is used worst when it’s used as a crutch to escape the hard work of being human.

four for forty

I’m four days from my fortieth birthday, and thinking hard about what I’ve learned over the past four decades. Over the next four days, I’m going to write about the four lessons that were hardest for me to learn – these are not necessarily the most important, or the most valuable, or the most insightful. They were just goddamn hard to learn, and in fact I’m still struggling to get them right.

People who give advice usually believe that some particular experience has given them an authority that others might want to regard seriously. That isn’t the case with me: although I’ve had many instructive experiences, I don’t think my historical record is what makes me qualified to give advice, and I don’t think everyone should take my advice seriously. Instead, what makes me qualified to give advice is that I am spectacularly bad at taking it.

I’ve had the great good fortune of having many wise people tell me many wise things, and my usual practice is to squander that good fortune by refusing to take even the best advice at face value. Instead, I question, I doubt, I criticize, I experiment, I delve down dark alleyways of impulse and instinct – and in the end I painfully find that I should have listened to the wisdom of my betters.

The problem with wise advice is that you have to have wisdom to appreciate it beforehand. And if you had the requisite wisdom in the first place, you wouldn’t need the advice so badly.  I never understand good advice until I’ve had the opportunity to fail to follow it. Only by living the bad consequences first-hand can I understand the underpinning that upholds solid wisdom.

Let’s hope that my misfortune is your bounty in these next four posts.

  1. Intelligence is a crutch.
  2. Many goods are incommensurable.
  3. We are all authors of our own lives.
  4. You gotta love yourself.

career two by four

Lately I’ve had occasion to give advice to a few people who are early in their careers.  I always find myself amusingly inept at this activity – the more actual experience I have, the more young people think I have something useful to tell them, but the further I am from the time when I was actually making the decisions they face, so the less accurate my recollection is, and the more my advice is colored by soft nostalgia rather than rooted in hard facts.  The wisdom of experience turns into the banality of platitudes.

Of course, none of this stops me from spouting on and on about how to manage your early career.  One set piece I often relate is that there are only four personal characteristics that can advance your success: Intelligence, Diligence, Personality and Mentality.  Many people get very far early on with just one of these characteristics, and so they begin to believe that this characteristic is the most important or even the only important one.  When they begin to fail, they double down on the characteristic that they believe in, which only deepens their failure.

To understand why this is true, consider the other side of this same advice, which applies to people just learning how to manage teams.  There are few things as destructive to a team as the person who has one of the characteristics in spades, but lacks any useful amount of the others.  The brilliant genius who can’t get along with others, the guy who works terribly hard but always on the wrong things, the “people person” who plays politics rather than solves problems, the hard charger who plays to win at any cost – these are all different forms of the same cancer, and they must be excised from the team as soon as they are identified.

So development of the four characteristics rules both sides of the management divide.  And on either side, you have to have great strength in more than one of these characteristics, and you have to understand how all of them contribute to success.

know thyself

I am fascinated by a concept I recently came across in Eating The Dinosaur.  Author Chuck Klosterman and documentary filmmaker Errol Morris discuss whether people have “privileged access” to their own minds.

Privileged access is a weighty philosophical matter that is popularly stated as a question of whether a person has special access to his or her own thoughts that other people do not have.  An intuitive answer is, “Of course I know my own thoughts better than anyone else does!”  But this isn’t simply a question of what you are thinking at any given moment; it’s about whether what you think about yourself is more accurate than what any other people think about you.

Here’s a thought experiment:  Do you know what you would do if you found a paper bag containing $10,000?  What amounts would lead to a different decision, and why?

I think I would keep it. I would rationalize this action (which is probably illegal) by noting that there is almost never a legitimate reason to carry around that much in cash in a paper bag – this is almost certainly drug dealer money, and why should I give drug dealers a chance to recover it?

I would definitely keep, say, five dollars – maybe I would give it to a panhandler, maybe I would buy a sandwich, but I wouldn’t leave it on the ground.  Unless someone nearby might have dropped it, I wouldn’t consider trying to find the owner, or turning the money in to the police – no one will ever come to claim $5.  In contrast, if I found $100,000, I would definitely turn it in.  When that much money gets lost, someone will look for it hard enough to make me uncomfortable – I don’t want to end up in jail, or worse, facing the guys who stole this money before I did (these guys would give up on $10K, but they would seek $100K with violent diligence).  Even more complicated, I think that I would turn in $5000.  There are plenty of legitimate reasons that a law-abiding person could be carrying that amount around, and I would want that person to have every opportunity to recover that money.

So in short, I think I would make a risk and fairness assessment, and act with a mixture of pragmatism and greed.  (Don’t get me wrong – none of this is what I want to do.  I want to believe that I would ignore any amount too small to turn in, and turn in any amount too large to ignore.  But I’m not so self-deluded to think that I always live up to my ideal self-image.)

This thought experiment has one more part:  If you polled a dozen people who know you best on the same questions, what would they say you would do?  Who is likelier to be right, them or you?

I think the majority of this group would say I would turn in the $10K.  In fact, I would guess that a plurality of people would say I would keep or ignore any amount under $100 and turn in any amount over $1000 – their assessment would be closer to my own ideal self, which I feel quite certain is not accurate.  Their reasons for my choices would vary broadly, much more broadly than the pragmatic greed I expressed, and would include reasons that I would not expect.

Is this group likelier to be right about me than I am myself?  I can’t answer that with an intuitive “I know my thoughts – I know myself – better than anyone else.”  There have been too many times when I have been surprised to discover that someone was a better predictor of my actions than I was.

Now, I don’t think that I have particularly poor self-knowledge.  In fact, as this post perhaps deplorably illustrates, I can examine my own navel to exacting excess.  But where does that leave me if the fact that I know myself particularly well only means that I am especially aware that I don’t know myself any better than other people do?  Makes my head hurt.

the iron quadrangle

I was talking with a friend tonight about “The Iron Quadrangle” – my name for a concept that I’ve read about and pondered over the years.  Unfortunately, I can’t remember where I first saw it; happily, we agreed that this means I can restate it without attribution . . .

So here is the rule of the Iron Quadrangle:

Friends, family, work and health are the four most meaningful areas of pursuit in life.  The very best that most people can achieve is to be outstanding in two areas, mediocre in one, and barely tolerable in the last.

Be wary of any advice that rigidly proclaims to know which combination is best for everyone.  For example, a lot of well-meaning homilies put family and health above all other values.  But the Iron Quadrangle means that all four values are connected; activity in any one informs all of the others.

Keep in mind that health includes physical and mental health; and that work includes all vocation, whether in pursuit of profit or pursuit of a cause.  Meaningful and lasting friendships are a critical contributor to lifelong health.  Pursuit of your true calling in work should be both emotionally enriching and intellectually revitalizing.

So maximizing your pursuit of family and health, to the exclusion of full effort with friends and work, can limit your achievement in the areas you would want to advance the most.  Would you have given all that you could to your life partner and your children if you never tested your mettle with the greatest challenges at work, or failed to develop rich friendships outside of your family?

Some will try to argue for picking work and family, or friends and family, or health and friends.  Some would claim that the limitation to two outstanding areas is false.  But in my experience and observation, the Iron Quadrangle is pitiless and brooks very few exceptions – and what exceptions I have seen are more a result of extremely fortuitous circumstances than the result of thought and effort.

This isn’t a pessimistic message, but rather a reflection on avoiding regret.  Many high-achieving people in every area look upon their accomplishments with regret for the areas in which they did not excel.  I think regret is only appropriate where people made choices while lying to themselves about the consequences for the other areas.