About 15 years ago, I put together a 'hyperbio' which was about 300 phrases, each tied to a specific memory, that I had grouped into about 7 phases of my life. At the height of my corporate professional career and the beginning of my corporate management career I considered adding the 8th phase. In 2000 I got ganked by the Feds and in 2001 I got laid off from Hyperion and there was 9/11 of course. I still hadn't gotten full custody of my son, and I had lost my last grandmother. So thinking about how to end phase 7 and begin phase 8 meant that now that I was over 40 I was going to have to consider death, loss and failure. So what to call phase 7? Should that include the death loss and failure through 2001 to start anew with phase 8, or should it end on a high note and phase 8 be the beginning of death, loss and failure? It was a lot on my mind as I flew Southwest Airlines every week with bumpy landings at BUR.
I didn't resolve the ontology problem, but I did change the way I think. Ever since 9/11 I have asked, as a part of my morning routine, what broke while I was sleeping? And those of you who have worked with me may recognize that hangdog look on my face, and how I actually brighten up slightly when I am working on something that's broken. Failure makes me laugh, because in some ways it is the comeuppance of incompetence. Except, of course in IT, you generally don't get to know exactly who screwed the pooch, how or when. We're all organizationally firewalled and only blame goes over the transom. So I came to expect SNAFU, even find comfort in it. It's a horrible dualism to deal with in a world of technological improvement where people want ever increasing slices of their lives digitized. It is at once progress and chaotic dissolution.
When I was the admin at Xerox Centre, I had the audacity, just ask David Bradley, to wear a disk drive head assembly on my keychain. it was my digital red badge of courage, having mounted a disk pack incorrectly and listening to flying heads grind into the platters and then crash in a cyclone of crumbled bits of aluminum and burning FeO2. Somewhere around that time, in the late 80s, I was losing my patriotism over the flubs of the Reagan Administration in disbelief over news reports about the runways lengths in Grenada and then finally over Iran Contra. But I was still much too young to be a stoic - I lived at the beach.
But now I understand that thing Taleb calls the Dumbell Strategy, which is to pursue seeminly contradicting aims simultaneously in recognition that he who plays both sides manages risk. But it is not being two-faced, but being antifragile, the difference between which are the stuff of wisdom. There's no easy way to explain it, and I won't until I read his book which is due out in six months or so. But I am indeed finding parallels of this thinking in history and coming to terms with what has been said by the likes of Epictetus and Cryssipus as well as the gods of OODA.
I am of the opinion that all human folly ends in war, if the folly is big enough. That is because stupidity rarely fails from killing things and epic stupidity, that which is powerful and sustained by cowardice and/or credulity inevitably kills people. Evil *is* rather banal in that you can see it coming a mile a way. Stupidity, on the other hand, usually presents with the symptoms of inattention. Expect Inattention; it is legion.
What does it all mean? It means that when I have a miserable week, as I had just the other week, starting with a funeral I really was unprepared for, a backlog of work I had committed to and failed to deliver, and an increasingly busified schedule full of tasks everyone hates like auto repair, tax preparation and helping kids study for finals at midnight; there is a solution. That solution is to listen to the tribulations of the thousands of Bolsheviks being falsely accused, tortured into confession, summarily tried and executed of being bourgeois nationalists, which is basically everything I ever wanted to be. Robert Conquest is my staid and sometimes deeply ironically arch guide through that horror - the details of which when I first encountered them 9 years ago sent me to sleep weeping. And now, like the whiskey I once could not stomach, I consume it for comfort.
I'm OK. I can handle it.
I try to be both concerned and unworried. What I hate most of all is not the bad news, but being blindsided by it. I am comfortably down Miller's Alley and concerned (but not worried) about those things that are reasonably within my ambit of capacity to change. I reckon that to be a Stoic approach, but I'll let you know how Stoically correct I am. At the same time, I'm a Californian which means I do not intend to be fat or lazy or overly concerned with the quality of affairs in the public square, that which our meddlesome liberal friends insist on calling 'Zocalo', and will, I suppose until their Yankee inflected Spanish fails to deliver them from being dragged foot-first up the coming ziggurats of political human sacrifice ot the greater glory of La Raza. I'm going to the jazz concert anyway. I'm going jogging anyway. I'm going to eat in my walled garden like an Epicurean anyway. That's how I roll.
I'm becoming convinced, as I'm sure the Stoics were, that Vulgaris populus ago in obscurum. Ordinary people live in darkness. Being OK is slightly better than that, especially for one such as I who is not likely to curse the darkness. That's part of the dumbell strategy. That is part of living up to Boyd's theory of liberty.
“The most important thing in life is to be free to do things. There are only two ways to insure that freedom — you can be rich or you can you reduce your needs to zero.”
But Taleb adds the kicker. He imagines, and we expect that he will describe, systems that benefit from failure - not creative destruction, but perhaps one can think of them as twin OODA loops, one for success and one for failure. Here is Taleb:
Seneca was the wealthiest man in the world. He had 500 desks, on which he wrote his letters talking about how good it was to be poor. And people found inconsistency. But they didn't realize what Seneca said. He was not against wealth. And he proved effectively that one philosopher can have wealth and be a philosopher. What he was about is dependence on wealth. He wanted the upside of wealth without its downside. And what he would do is--he had been in a shipwreck before. He would fake like he was a shipwreck and travel like he was a shipwreck once in a while. And then he would go back to his villas and feel rich. He would write off every night before going to bed his entire wealth. As a mental exercise. And then wakes up rich. So, he kept the upside. In fact, what he had, my summary of what Stoics were about is a people who really had, like Buddhists, an attitude. ...
And my definition is a Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking. Very different than the Buddhist idea of someone who is completely separated from worldly sentiments and possessions and thrills. Very different. Someone who wanted the upside without the downside. And Seneca proved it. And the way you get there, Seneca is suggesting, is through mental exertion. Through renunciation--some of it's action, but some of it is the way you look at your life and what you prepare yourself for and how you affect your expectations.