Reporting Fives—Week One

I trust this finds you in pursuit of wisdom,

Monday, 16 January 2017

Emails from a Stoic

> Each day, too, acquire something which will help you to face poverty, or death, and other ills as well. After running over a lot of different thoughts, pick out one to be digested thoroughly that day.

These are the words of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, from his second letter to Lucilius. It was Seneca’s belief »that no one can lead a happy life, or even one that is bearable, without the pursuit of wisdom«. While few of us would disagree, the pursuit of wisdom costs time most of us don’t afford ourselves. This weekly email exists as an attempt to follow Seneca’s teaching. It is a commitment device.

At the time Seneca wrote Epistulae morales ad Lucilium (moral letters to Lucilius) he was in retirement nearing the end of his life, one might argue this is the perfect condition to seek wisdom. Meanwhile, we have at our fingertips more information than we can consume in a lifetime, but afford ourselves little time to adequately digest it. This paradox brings to mind the American astronomer Clifford Stoll, who famously declared;

> Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, understanding is not wisdom.

Stoll understood that our society misunderstands wisdom and all its dependencies. With each step in the hierarchy established above, the time commitment increases. Synthesising information to knowledge is hard enough, let alone arriving at an understanding. But understanding to wisdom would appear to require a synthesis of not just one topic but many so that unique and insightful connections can be made.

Footnote: In Seneca’s fifteenth letter to Lucilius the retired political adviser reflects on words that most would find familiar; »I trust this finds you as it leaves me, in good health.« Seneca suggests that »Without wisdom the mind is sick...« and therefore it could be said that these customary opening words are equal those used at the top of this email.

Inspired by: Letters from a Stoic

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Remembering the last man on the Moon

With the like of Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin huge strides in commercial spaceflight, it’s easy to forget that in many ways humanity has lost interest in the cosmos. Today the last human to set foot on the moon passed away at age 82. During the final moments of the Apollo 17 mission the late Eugene Cernan spoke these words;

> We leave as we came, and, God willing, we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind.

It’s been 44 years, let’s hope we return soon or set our sights realistically on the red planet or something greater still.

Inspired by: The New York Times

Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The influence of IQ

In 1921, Dr. Lewis M. Terman, a Stanford University psychologist and avid supporter of the American eugenics movement identified 1,521 children from across Californian who came to be known as the ‘Termites’. It was Terman’s belief at the time that his Termites, who had scored above 135 on his then new IQ test, would become great leaders in society. For comparison’s sake, Albert Einstein’s IQ was 150. But instead, many of the ‘Termites’ did not accomplish anything of particular note, while candidates Terman overlooked such as William Shockley went on to win the Nobel prize.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell presents an analysis of why individuals who might have known great success fail to do so. Just as Terman concluded, Gladwell asserts that intelligence itself is not the only trait of successful people. This view is also mirrored by Angela Lee Duckworth who in 2013 gave a TED Talk on her experience as a teacher while observing that her smartest students were not necessarily those with the best results. She goes on to describe the trait that did appear to separate students, grit.

> Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future, day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Neither suggests that intelligence does not play a role in an individual’s success, but rather that it has a threshold. Gladwell explains that above roughly 120, additional points may not be of much help. At this point, other factors become more important determinants of how successful one will become. While some are in our control, others are not, but working hard seems to be a good start as illustrated by this Chinese proverb.

> No one who can rise before dawn 360 days a year fails to make her family rich.

Inspired by: Outliers
Reference: The New York Times

Thursday, 19 January 2017

What’s in a name

Whether or not we like to acknowledge it, how we identify ourselves plays a role in how others perceive us. But few professions suffer the same ambiguity as ‘designers’.

> The crux of the problem appears to be a side effect of using language indiscriminately; we use the word ‘design’ as both a noun and as a verb, describing both the outcome and the process.

So writes Rob Peart for AIGA. He goes on to describe the tendency of designers to call themselves ‘problem solvers’. The newly appointed creative director of Google Creative Labs, Matt Wade agrees that designers do indeed solve problems, »... but so do butchers and bakers and candlestick makers.«

Today, design thinking is penetrating every industry and the definition of design has become so broad that in essence, everyone is a designer. Perhaps this simply makes a case for definitions informed by the product of our labour, rather than our process.

Inspired by: Eye on Design

Friday, 20 January 2017

Putting something back into the world

When Steven Levy interviewed Steve Jobs for Rolling Stone about his new project the Macintosh, the young entrepreneur reflected;

> You know, we don’t grow most of the food we eat. We wear clothes other people make. We speak a language that other people developed. We use a mathematics that other people evolved... I mean, we’re constantly taking things. It’s a wonderful, ecstatic feeling to create something that puts it back in the pool of human experience and knowledge.

The irony of this is that the Macintosh borrowed heavily from technology developed by Xerox PARC and Apple’s own Lisa. Nevertheless, Jobs and the Macintosh team were putting something back into the world because they understood that »real artists ship«. The PARC engineers, on the other hand, saw their ideas and academic papers as products so the Alto would never make the dent that the Macintosh did. By creating a product for the people, Jobs and his team increased the reach of the ideas imagined by arguably more capable people. They did the same years later when the iPhone was revealed to market. Apple did not invent the multi-touch interface, they popularised it. The lesson we can take from this is that no matter how great an idea, it is unlikely to matter until it is released upon the world. We can not succumb to self-censorship, but rather, we must allow the people to assess the validity of an idea.

Inspired by: Insanely Great