Ursula K. Le Guin on The Human Spirit

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In her acceptance speech for the National Book Foundation’s 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, Ursula K. Le Guin offered this soul-touching look at humanity.

I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies, to other ways of being. And even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom: poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality. Right now, I think we need writers who know the difference between production of a market commodity and the practice of an art. The profit motive is often in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings. … Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words. I’ve had a long career and a good one, in good company, and here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. … The name of our beautiful reward is not profit. Its name is freedom.

After doing some research on her, I found Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places — a 1989 collection of speeches and essays that looks magnificent.

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Albert Einstein on Sifting the Essential from the Non-Essential

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Charlie Munger once said: “We have a passion for keeping things simple.”

Einstein says, “I soon learned to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.” Most of us try to consume more information, thinking it will lead to more signal, without thinking about how we filter and how we process the information coming in.

Knowing some basic principles helps as does knowing how to combine them. As Einstein says “A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its area of applicability.”

It wasn’t because he understood more about the complicated than other people, as John Wheeler points out in his short biographical memoir on Einstein:

Many a man in the street thinks of Einstein as a man who could only make headway in his work by dint of pages of complicated mathematics; the truth is the direct opposite. As Hilbert put it, “Every boy in the streets of our mathematical Gottingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, despite that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.” Time and again, in the photoelectric effect, in relativity, in gravitation, the amateur grasped the simple point that had eluded the expert.

Where did Einstein acquire this ability to sift the essential from the non-essential? For this we turn to his first job.

In the view of many, the position of clerk of the Swiss patent office was no proper job at all, but it was the best job available to anyone with (Einstein’s) unpromising university record. He served in the Bern office for seven years, from June 23, 1902 to July 6, 1909. Every morning he faced his quote of patent applications. Those were the days when a patent application had to be accompanied by a working model. Over and above the applications and the models was the boss, a kind man, a strict man, a wise man. He gave strict instructions: explain very briefly, if possible in a single sentence, why the device will work or why it won’t; why the application should be granted or why it should be denied.

Day after day Einstein had to distill the central lesson out of objects of the greatest variety that man has power to invent. Who knows a more marvelous way to acquire a sense of what physics is and how it works? It is no wonder that Einstein always delighted in the machinery of the physical world—from the action of a compass needle to the meandering of a river, and from the perversities of a gyroscope to the drive of Flettner’s rotor ship.

Who else but a patent clerk could have discovered the theory of relativity? “Who else,” Wheeler writes, “could have distilled this simple central point from all the clutter of electromagnetism than someone whose job it was over and over to extract simplicity out of complexity.”

Charles Munger speaks to the importance of sifting folly.

Part of that (possessing uncommon sense), I think, is being able to tune out folly, as distinguished from recognizing wisdom. You’ve got whole categories of things you just bat away so your brain isn’t cluttered with them. That way, you’re better able to pick up a few sensible things to do.

Learned Helplessness

The Ability to Choose Greg McKeown

That quote sounds like something Viktor Frankl would say only it’s Greg McKeown in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less.

How is it that we forget our ability to choose?

One important insight into how and why we forget our ability to choose comes out of the classic work of Martin Seligman and Steve Maier, who stumbled onto what they later called “learned helplessness” while conducting experiments on German Shepherds.

Seligman and Maier divided the dogs into three groups. The dogs in the first group were placed in a harness and administered an electric shock but were also given a lever they could press to make the shock stop. The dogs in the second group were placed in an identical harness and were given the same lever, and the same shock, with one catch: the lever didn’t work, rendering the dog powerless to do anything about the electric shock. The third group of dogs were simply placed in the harness and not given any shocks.

Afterwards, each dog was placed in a large box with a low divider across the center. One side of the box produced an electric shock; the other did not. Then something interesting happened. The dogs that either had been able to stop the shock or had not been shocked at all in the earlier part of the experiment quickly learned to step over the divider to the side without shocks. But the dogs that had been powerless in the last part of the experiment did not. These dogs didn’t adapt or adjust. They did nothing to try to avoid getting shocked. Why? They didn’t know they had any choice other than to take the shocks. They had learned helplessness.

We’re much the same way — this reminds me of the fixed versus growth mindset. If you try something and never get better you eventually give up, believing that nothing you do will matter. Grit, the ability to muddle through that without giving up, is more important than IQ. And best of all, you can develop it.

What does learned helplessness look like in organizations?

When people believe that their efforts at work don’t matter, they tend to respond in one of two ways. Sometimes they check out and stop trying, like the mathematically challenged child. The other response is less obvious at first. They do the opposite. They become hyperactive. They accept every opportunity presented. They throw themselves into every assignment. They tackle every challenge with gusto. They try to do it all. This behavior does not necessarily look like learned helplessness at first glance. After all, isn’t working hard evidence of one’s belief in one’s importance and value? Yet on closer examination we can see this compulsion to do more is a smokescreen. These people don’t believe they have a choice in what opportunity, assignment, or challenge to take on. They believe they “have to do it all.”

Stephen King’s Top 10 Favorite Books

Stephen King, author of Carrie and The Shining, has said that we don’t challenge ourselves enough while reading.

Found in the 2007 book, The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, King reveals what he likes to read. Certainly not what I expected.

  1. The Golden Argosy, The Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language – edited by Van Cartmell and Charles Grayson
  2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
  3. The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie
  4. McTeague – Frank Norris
  5. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
  6. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
  7. 1984 – George Orwell
  8. The Raj Quartet – Paul Scott
  9. Light in August – William Faulkner
  10. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

King has also suggested that good fiction is the truth inside of a lie.

(h/t csmonitor)

Albert Einstein: Haters Gonna Hate

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“One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.” — Marie Curie

“Few persons contributed more to the general welfare of mankind and to the advancement of science than the modest, self-effacing woman whom the world knew as Mme. Curie.” That’s from the obituary of Nobel winning Marie Curie — the only person so far to win a Nobel in two difference Sciences.

Things, however, were not always easy for her.

In 1911, Curie was facing relentless attacks on her personal life saying that she “tarnished the good name” of her late husband Pierre Curie. She was denied a seat in the French Academy of Sciences in January 1911 for reasons that probably included gender and religion.

Albert Einstein took to the pen and paper and offered her some sage advice that is still relevant today. Not only did Einstein have a big brain, but he had a big heart.

The letter is part of nearly 5,000 of his personal papers that can be found online in The Collected Papers of Albert Einstein.

Highly esteemed Mrs. Curie,

Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. However, I am convinced that you consistently despise this rabble, whether it obsequiously lavishes respect on you or whether it attempts to satiate its lust for sensationalism!

I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.

With most amicable regards to you, Langevin, and Perrin, yours very truly,
A. Einstein

The advice reminds me of something Maya Angelou said, “The problem I have with haters is that they see my glory, but they don’t know my story.”

If you’re interested in learning more check out Madame Curie: A Biography.