Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
In 1817, a 22-year-old poet named John Keats wrote a letter to his brothers to catch them up on what he’d been doing and thinking about. He saw a play, wrote a review for a newspaper, dined with a friend whose company and conversation he very much enjoyed, and dined with some friends whose company and conversation he not so much enjoyed. From all of this, Keats wrote, “several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement.” It was the quality “which Shakespeare possessed so enormously…Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In Courage is Calling, Ryan Holiday writes that courage is like a rare gem—“something we must hold up to inspect from many angles.” I’d like to inspect Negative Capability from many angles…
Steer From Point To Point
I first came across Keats’ idea of Negative Capability in Lincoln by David Herbert Donald. Abraham Lincoln, particularly in times of great uncertainty and doubt, liked to quote these lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will.” He believed that everyone’s life was shaped largely by chance and accident, and therefore, that it’s a good idea to not have fixed plans. “My policy is to have no policy” became his motto. He’d sometimes elaborate with the analogy he used to explain his course on Reconstruction: “The pilots on our Western rivers steer from point to point as they call it—setting the course of the boat no farther than they can see; and that is all I propose to myself in this great problem.” Lincoln would have liked how the novelist and playwright E.L. Doctorow thought about steering his course on writing: “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” To cultivate the quality of Negative Capability, just steer from point to point—particularly in times of great uncertainty, doubt, and fog.
The Central Illusion In Life
Yesterday, I moved boxes out of a storage unit. One box was stamped “fragile” because if it were handled without care, its contents would break. In Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes that anything—ideas, cultures, empires, economies, recipes, humans—that survives is the opposite of fragile: antifragile. An antifragile box would have “please handle carelessly” written on it because if it were, its contents would not just not break, but would benefit. Beyond resilience or robustness, to be antifragilie is to get more upside than downside from volatility, randomness, stressors, setbacks, uncertainties. For example, the body. Whether it’s weightlifting, fasting, ice baths, or saunas: the body gets stronger from stressors and uncertainties. “Crucially,” Taleb writes, “if antifragility is the property of all those natural (and complex) systems that have survived, depriving these systems of volatility, randomness, and stressors will harm them.” Later, he adds that the central illusion in life is thinking “that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing—and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness.” The Stoic philosopher Seneca said no one has it worse than the person who is deprived of randomness: “You are unfortunate [if] you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself.”
It’s All A Crapshoot
Will Ferrell went to college with the dream of being a sportscaster. But at some point, he took a comedy class and three years later, he got a job at Saturday Night Live. He was asked about auditioning for SNL. Since he didn’t have much comedy experience up to that point, why weren’t you terrified? Where did your confidence as a performer come from? “I had the best conversation with my dad,” he said. His dad was a lifelong working musician who never made it big. When Will told his dad he was going to pursue a comedy career, he asked if he had any advice. “You know what? I think you have the skill, but it takes a lot of luck,” Will’s dad said. “If you don’t make it, don’t worry about it. You can just try something else.” Will said he interpreted the advice as, “don’t worry if you fail, because it’s a crapshoot anyway. And so, from that point, I was like, Oh, I’m just playing the lottery here so I might as well just go have fun.”
They’re All Bets
Matt Damon once said something similar. He was asked, what’s the most surprised you’ve been that a movie you’ve been in didn’t work? Damon thinks for a few seconds. It’d be impossible to pick one, he then says. The reception is almost always not what he expected. “They’re all bets to a certain degree…I always tell people, ‘you don’t see the movie before you make it.’ You get the ingredients for whatever you’re cooking, you get to see what ingredients you have to work with, and then you, ‘alright, with all these ingredients, we should be able to make something pretty good.’ But some of them just don’t work.” It’s all a crapshoot.
Maintaining Attitude, Maintaining Direction
When I think about how every career is a crapshoot, I think about An Astronaut’s Guide To Life On Earth. In it, astronaut Chris Hadfield writes about keeping a pessimistic view of ever going to space. Because many of the variables and circumstances that contribute to which astronauts get to leave the planet are random. For instance, after thirty years in service, The Shuttle was retired and replaced with The Soyuz, a much smaller vehicle. “Some astronauts hired during Shuttle era are simply too tall to fly in the tiny Soyuz. The possibility that they’ll leave Earth is currently zero.” Government funding shifts. Programs get canceled. Rockets blow up and space flight gets put on hold for years. A health problem, a family crisis, a new qualification requirement. Astronauts use the word “attitude” when referring to orientation: a vehicle’s direction relative to the Sun, Earth and other spacecrafts. Astronauts use every available technology to monitor and control their attitude. “We never want to lose attitude,” Hadfield writes, “since maintaining attitude is fundamental to success.” The same is true on Earth, he adds. “Ultimately, I don’t determine whether I arrive at the desired professional destination. Too many variables are out of my control. There’s really just one thing I can control: my attitude during the journey, which is what keeps me feeling steady and stable, and what keeps me headed in the right direction.” From point to point, as Lincoln said the pilots on our Western rivers call it.