Philosophy Tuesday

Very little in our lives resolves itself perfectly like math.

Including, as it turns out, math instruction or even math itself.

It’s all to easy to get caught in a binary/one-right-answer thinking for many of the things we face in our lives, and fail to recognize that not only is there a gradient but also multiple answers that can be ‘correct’ at the same time.

Being mindful and willing to dance in that space opens up many new possibilities, peace of mind, and, ultimately, paths forward.

Philosophy Tuesday

To riff a bit from last week’s post regarding the “safety to fail” to further encompass the broader thing going on right now of “look at my triumph” articles.

Because we ought to be especially wary of stories about super successful young entrepreneurs, or about those who paid off their mortgage when they were 22, or about other kinds of “glorious success” stories that have this “if I can do it, you can do it to!” backhanded* motivational bent to them.

If the article/story/etc you are reading doesn’t mention the whole of the context around it, then they are likely, in a fashion, lying.  Or at least fibbing through omission/obfuscation.

What’s needed is including the whole context.  Even better is calling direct attention to said context.

As examples, one young entrepreneur story had the individuals proudly proclaim they had built their company from scratch at the end of high school, starting in the basement on weekends and such, and now they were financially very well off.  Look at us!   The article, fortunately, helpfully (and rightfully) pointed out that the first client for their software was their father, who happened to be the CEO of an international corporation.  Definitively a leg up when trying to market your unknown and untested software!  Not to mention the leeway to fix any bugs in the software while being guaranteed a paycheque.

For the mortgage story, it turned out that the one who was chiding others for not being able to pay off their house a) their mother paid for the down payment on their place b) they could live with their grandmother rent free (and perhaps grocery bill free?) during the time and, to top it all off, c) were hired right out of school by their mother at her company.  So, very much a safe place from which to accomplish their “hard work miracle.”

This is nothing to say of the stories where someone decries “if only kids wouldn’t spend their money on lattes these days, they’d be more well off!” only to let slip “Why, when I graduated I got a 2M dollar loan from my uncle and I took that money and got myself going…”  Turns out most people don’t have uncles with 2M to lend or to give. **

I’m never going to be one to diss on anyone who’s willing to be responsible for their success and doing the work to earn a good living (provided, of course, that this doesn’t injure/harm/disempower/create hardship/screw over the environment/etc).  But for those to be acknowledged the whole context needs to be acknowledged.  And if that whole context shows that the work maybe wasn’t so hard or so gifted or even so lucky then let’s apportion the acknowledgement and avoid incorrect lauding and putting on a pedestal while also, especially, avoid crapping on others for not being so fortunate.


* I say backhanded because they often have this tinge of “you must be a doofus for not being able to have done/accomplished what I did” to them.

** This one’s a bit different, but there was a senator recently decrying the push for a $15 minimum wage, stating that when they started out they only made $6 an hour and they were fine.  Of course, adjusting for inflation, they were making well OVER $15 an hour.

Philosophy Tuesday

There’s a big… not exactly sure what to call it, perhaps movement, perhaps idea, perhaps something else, but a big whatever over the past decade about “embracing failure.”  That is, being willing to fail and fail and even fail again to get somewhere and to create something awesome.  It’s not new, of course – IDEO (the famous industrial design company) had their own version of it several decades ago that went: “Fail often to succeed early.”

And, for certain, developing an empowering context around failure, being resilient, and adopting a growth mindset are all very powerful things.  Highly encouraged!

But there’s another side to this, especially in the context this new-found expression of Failure Embracement™ that is espoused within the business or start-up or millionaire or celebrity circles.  Where their success, sold as being born of perseverance in the face of failure, is not so much celebrated as it is held aloft as a measure of superiority and lorded over those who “played it safe.” (And, therefore, deserve to be poor/under duress/a loser/etc.)

And that side is this:  Failure embracement mostly works only when and/or if you can safely fail.

In many areas of life, it can be much easier to fail (nor will it necessarily even feel like a failure) when you have a safety net or support system to fall back on if the risky moves don’t pan out, whether that be financially, emotionally, physically, or what have you.  Building that company in your garage only works a) if you have access to a garage b) have the means to support yourself during that time and c) the means to recover and change course before things become dire.

To ignore otherwise can lead one to dismiss the role fortune has in all of our lives.  And to use it in a haughty way to tout yourself and/or to use it as a cudgel against others is definitively leading away from humility.

Philosophy Tuesday

“I don’t think of the arts as competitive at all, I really don’t.

It was such a relief to get out of a world where it was that kind of base competition, zero-sum competition.

The arts are… it’s personal.  You’re just trying to actualize yourself and make the best art you can, and someone else’s victory isn’t your defeat, the way it is in sports.”

Richard Linklater

Philosophy Tuesday

“And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.

Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand.

I hope you’ll think hard about that, honey bun. If you had a two-sided chalkboard in your living room I’d write humility on one side and surrender on the other for you. That’s what I think you need to find and do to get yourself out of the funk you’re in. The most fascinating thing to me about your letter is that buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing, there’s arrogance at its core… You loathe yourself, and yet you’re consumed by the grandiose ideas you have about your own importance. You’re up too high and down too low. Neither is the place where we get any work done.

We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to. The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce. You have limitations. You are in some ways inept. This is true of every writer, and it’s especially true of writers who are twenty-six. You will feel insecure and jealous. How much power you give those feelings is entirely up to you.

Writing is hard for every last one of us… Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you’re so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you’re here to do. And when people are here to do that they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.”

— Cheryl Strayed

(Adapted from the amazing original essay which can be found here and was republished in the equally amazing book Tiny Beautiful Things.  The essay in its totality is a wonderful and powerful completion for this mini-series on humility (part one; part two), the getting down to the ground understanding on what humility is, how to harness it in our lives, and what wonders it makes possible for us all.)

Philosophy Tuesday

Continuing from last week…

The other thing about humility that really trips us up is its seeming proximity to humiliation.  While the words do share a common Latin root, their meanings are, however, far apart.  While in some ways humiliation might help prompt us to be humble, being humble is not the same as the harsh, floor-dropping, painful loss of pride, self-respect, or dignity of humiliation.

And let’s be frank here for a moment – being humiliated hurts.  It’s not a pleasant time.  No wonder we’d avoid humility if it even carries a whiff of that floor-dropping monster!  Being humiliated leaves us feeling lonely, unworthy, and unwanted.  We are excluded.  It is a break in belonging.

So it’s good to make clear the distinction (again, despite the fact they sound similar) between the unpleasant humiliation and the centering and peaceful realm of being humble.

There’s a really funny bonus thing here though: all that unpleasant stuff about humiliation?  That is exactly what being humble prevents, for if we don’t have some overblown, aggrandized, conceited view of our self, then we can’t be knocked down.  So while we often think that humiliation is foist upon us by others, the agency is really ours by choosing humility.  If we don’t put on airs, the floor can’t open up beneath us – we’re already grounded.

Being humble connects us to others.  It allows us to be related to one another, without the specter of better/worse, or worthy/unworthy.  Though cultivating humility, we get to share in our common humanity through our unique self-expressions.

(One more bit next week to finish off this triptych.)

* An interesting addition:  Arrogant (ie non-humble) people who feel threatened (and thus are in fear of being humiliated) will lash out to attack or humiliate others in an effort to retain their fragile façade.  Again, a humble person is resistant to being humiliated, for with a level-headed view of themselves there’s nothing to shatter.

Philosophy Tuesday

Humility.  Something we often have a rather… odd relationship with.  Starting with: What is it even?

One thing it is not is about erasing ourselves.  It is not about the total diminishment of the self.  It’s not about becoming invisible or meek.  I think it is often viewed in this way thanks to a false-dichotomy trap of taking humility as being the “opposite” of conceited, arrogant, self-absorbed, dismissive, and cocky.

But it is not.  Instead, humility is being modest and about being real.

I would instead place humility as being on the middle path.  It is between being arrogant and being effacing.  I am reminded of a phrase we used at our Kung Fu school: “Practice with a confident, not conceited, attitude.”  When we are being humble we can still be confident, and participatory, and legit, and opinionated, and all of those things.  At the same time, we also stay mindful of our level of expertise, of what we don’t know and of what we can learn (and that we can ALWAYS learn), of the contributions of others, of the role fortune plays, and so on.

In this way we contribute and express ourselves within, and conscious, of the larger game.  We assert ourselves while remaining respectful, open, and in tune with what’s so.  We simply have a modest opinion of our own importance – neither overblown nor undervalued.

More next week….

Philosophy Tuesday

“Here’s what I have learned after 40 years of making stuff for a living.  I can break a milling bit on this mill, I can be really REALLY mad at myself and the world at the fact that this screw-up has taken me more time and I gotta redo this thing and I can feel all those feelings and I can still, in the mist of that emotional turmoil, walk over to my end mills by 64th drawer and pick up another one and bring it back over and take out the old one and toss it out, put this back in… Just perform the actions.  I don’t feel good, but I don’t necessarily have to feel good in order to proceed.”

Adam Savage


What I love about this quote is how it expresses the beauty that comes from integration.  To experience all of our humanness, without denying anything, without resisting anything (and giving them unforeseen control), and without capitulating to anything (and giving them foreseen control).  To be whole and not suffering, engaging all of ourselves as we move forward, creating as we go.

Philosophy Tuesday

Everything you know about the three laws of motion is a lie.  Not all things follow Newton’s laws.  When objects approach the speed of light… or when they get close to a black hole… or when we are dealing with atoms or sub-atomic particles… everything falls apart.  Fool on you for believing that one!

Except… of course… those are pretty damn small exception cases.  We’re unlikely to find ourselves doing any of those things anytime soon.  Newton’s laws have both predicted the motion of planets and let us build rockets to get to said planets.  They are invaluable in biomechanics.  They have let us build impressive structures.  Really, there’s so much of our current daily life that Newton’s laws have made possible.  Even if they don’t perfectly describe sub-atomic lightspeed black-hole surfing.

For us to stop using Newton’s laws for these everyday uses would be foolish.

And so I submit that it is equally weird for us to do the same in the philosophical realms.

Look, as noted before, many insights do come in the form of “bad news insights”, so perhaps it’s not such a surprise that our identities and calculating selves can go onto full alert before their dirty laundry is revealed.  They’ll see it as a threat.  And the last-ditch defense is to engage our mighty capacity to be dismissive, using a small nit to ignore the whole.

But using minute exception cases – or, more commonly, some nebulous or borderline case – to avoid insight and new possibilities is, if we are interested in transformation, self-cultivation and growth, just as misguided as abandoning Newton’s laws just because they eventually break down at the edges.


(And if we ever do need to address those edges, then so be it!  They can be addressed just as Relativity and Quantum Mechanics did/do.)