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Tuesday, March 27, 2012

How to Live: Inventing on Principle, Part II

image via Creative Commons
Worldly success is incidental for the successful. That was how I ended my last post. How noble. How sublime. How true.

Yet everyone who says this has worldly success. I mean, maybe lots of other people say it, too, and they have no worldly success. We don't hear them. Or if we do, we don't really believe them when they claim there are more important things to life than worldly success.

But these successful people who deflect the question of worldly success have my ear because of their, uh, worldly success. It's great to know they have these underlying principles. But to implement them, they need a little cash. Cash-olla. Cash flow. Le money.

Which reminds me of a recent article in the New Yorker about a positive rash of books on success being published in China. Most of these books are about--everyone, all together now--climbing the corporate ladder, getting rich, getting powerful, getting WORLDLY SUCCESS. These things have been pumped out to the people for a few years now, instilling the values of getting ahead and the principle of every person for his- or herself. The standard model of success.

I'm not linking to this article because I can't remember my password to my online New Yorker account and I'm too lazy to figure it out. So trust me when I tell you this.

The author (Leslie T. Chang, if you want to look it up on YOUR online accounts, my dozens of readers) points out that the Chinese rash of pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps books parallel a similar surge in American books of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries here in the USA. Horatio Alger books, for example, all about making it in the working world. The standard model of success.

Yes, well, there was a lot of poverty around then, and a lot of people needed to accumulate a basic level of comfort. So it made sense. And it makes sense in China, too.

But once the standard of living rose to a pretty decent level for most people in the US, the tone and tenor of these books changed. The self-helpers started urging the self-helpees to remember that there is more to life than work and making money.  People started to realize that the principles of getting ahead extolled in these up-by-your-bootstraps stories don't foster the best in people. It's hard to switch gears from scramble-up-the-ladder-gear to make-the-world-better-for-everyone else gear until you have some basic amenities, though. Yet the gear always does change.

And according to this article in the New Yorker, there's a faint note of the same refrain sounding now in China.

I'd say that people like Bret Victor and his ilk are playing that tune loud and clear. But it hard to have principles other than earning money unless you have some.

I'm not saying they're wrong. I'm saying they're right. I'm saying there's more to success than money. But first you need some money to believe it.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Live: Inventing on Principle, Part I

I know indisputably successful people. I'm not going to drop names, so you'll just have to believe me when I say you see some of them on the front page of the New York Times or on the lists of winners of Important Prizes.

And I've read a lot of books about success. I know you'll trust me on that.

The books, and the successful people, all sing the same tune: money isn't the object, because money is not a real motivator. One old friend who has become very successful says his goal is to try and make the world a little better. One Important Prize winner says that people place too much emphasis on Success, meaning on it's outward trappings, and that the best thing to have is work that feels meaningful.

And Stephen Covey says if you center your life on money, you've placed it on a false center.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What's It All About, Alfie?

After yet another too-early wake-up powered by anxiety about college, I browsed through my Facebook links and found this short video by Dr. Ned Hallowell about raising successful children. If you don't want to watch, which takes about 9 minutes, you can skip right to my insightful summary.

What does he mean by successful? What we all mean, really, when it comes down to it: happy, healthy, productive, engaged in society, moral.

Monday, March 5, 2012

How to Live

image via Wikipedia through Creative Commons
I once considered majoring in Classics. For some reason, admitting this embarrasses me. Probably because it reminds me of my huge, thick glasses and my complete set of railroad tracks, and my adolescent earnestness in search of Wisdom. I distinctly recall telling my interviewer at Wellesley that I'd like to start a Latin club.

Which I did not. I took a final semester of Latin. I'd been hoping for a class on Catullus' dirty poetry; but they didn't offer it. A semester translating 80-line chunks of Pastoral poetry was the fork in the road for me.

What I loved about the classics, though, was that all these guys were busy thinking about how to live, a topic that appealed to me then as much as it does now. Although most of those guys were Greek, and I didn't read Greek. I read them in English.

I touched on this in another post—how it’s easier to admit to materialism (I love my iPhone4s)  than to an interest in wisdom or meditation or things that might be grouped under spirituality.  That in our culture—or at least in my subsection of it—that kind of talk just doesn’t happen. You’ve got your psychological and your rational and your political conversations. It’s harder to get to those other kind,  the How to Live conversations.

So the other day I came across a book called How to Live in our local indie bookstore. It’s by Sarah Bakewell. How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty-One Attempts at an Answer.

How could I resist? It's philosophy, after a fashion, not self-help. But, after all, the essense of most of these self-help books on success is really about how to live in a way that makes success more likely. And that way usually involves delving into what really matters to you, what is most important, so that you can shape your goals around that.