No Risky Chances: The Conversation That Matters Most

Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to the very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by medicine, technology, and strangers.


Atul Gawande is one of my favorite writers. Aside from the amazing work he did getting us talking about the power of simple checklists, he’s also pointed out why most of us should have coaches. Now he’s out with a new book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, which adds to our ongoing conversation on what it means to be mortal.

I learned about a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them.

Although I was given a dry, leathery corpse to dissect in anatomy class in my first term, our textbooks contained almost nothing about aging or frailty or dying. The purpose of medical schooling was to teach how to save lives, not how to tend to their demise.

I had never seen anyone die before I became a doctor, and when I did, it came as a shock. I’d seen multiple family members—my wife, my parents, and my children—go through serious, life-threatening illnesses, but medicine had always pulled them through. I knew theoretically that my patients could die, of course, but every actual instance seemed like a violation, as if the rules I thought we were playing by were broken.

Dying and death confront every new doctor and nurse. The first times, some cry. Some shut down. Some hardly notice. When I saw my first deaths, I was too guarded to weep. But I had recurring nightmares in which I’d find my patients’ corpses in my house—even in my bed.

I felt as if I’d failed. But death, of course, is not a failure. Death is normal. Death may be the enemy, but it is also the natural order of things. I knew these truths abstractly, but I didn’t know them concretely—that they could be truths not just for everyone but also for this person right in front of me, for this person I was responsible for.

You don’t have to spend much time with the elderly or those with terminal illness to see how often medicine fails the people it is supposed to help. The waning days of our lives are given over to treatments that addle our brains and sap our bodies for a sliver’s chance of benefit. These days are spent in institutions—nursing homes and intensive-care units—where regimented, anonymous routines cut us off from all the things that matter to us in life.

As recently as 1945, most deaths occurred in the home. By the 1980s, just 17 percent did. Lacking a coherent view of how people might live successfully all the way to the very end, we have allowed our fates to be controlled by medicine, technology, and strangers.

But not all of us have. That takes, however, at least two kinds of courage. The first is the courage to confront the reality of mortality—the courage to seek out the truth of what is to be feared and what is to be hoped when one is seriously ill. Such courage is difficult enough, but even more daunting is the second kind of courage—the courage to act on the truth we find.

A few years ago, I got a late night page: Jewel Douglass, a 72-year-old patient of mine receiving chemotherapy for metastatic ovarian cancer, was back in the hospital, unable to hold food down. For a week, her symptoms had mounted: They started with bloating, became waves of crampy abdominal pain, then nausea and vomiting.

Her oncologist sent her to the hospital. A scan showed that, despite treatment, her ovarian cancer had multiplied, grown, and partly obstructed her intestine. Her abdomen had also filled with fluid. The deposits of tumor had stuffed up her lymphatic system, which serves as a kind of storm drain for the lubricating fluids that the body’s internal linings secrete. When the system is blocked, the fluid has nowhere to go. The belly fills up like a rubber ball until you feel as if you will burst.

But walking into Douglass’ hospital room, I’d never have known she was so sick if I hadn’t seen the scan. “Well, look who’s here!” she said, as if I’d just arrived at a cocktail party. “How are you, doctor?”

“I think I’m supposed to ask you that,” I said.

She smiled brightly and pointed around the room. “This is my husband, Arthur, whom you know, and my son, Brett.” She got me grinning. Here it was, 11 at night, she couldn’t hold down an ounce of water, and she still had her lipstick on, her silver hair was brushed straight, and she was insisting on making introductions.

Her oncologist and I had a menu of options. A range of alternative chemotherapy regimens could be tried to shrink the tumor burden, and I had a few surgical options too. I wouldn’t be able to remove the intestinal blockage, but I might be able to bypass it, I told her. Or I could give her an ileostomy, disconnecting the bowel above the blockage and bringing it through the skin to empty into a bag. I would also put in a couple of drainage catheters—permanent spigots that could be opened to release the fluids from her blocked-up drainage ducts or intestines when necessary. Surgery risked serious complications—wound breakdown, leakage of bowel into her abdomen, infections—but it was the only way she might regain her ability to eat.

I also told her that we did not have to do either chemo or surgery. We could provide medications to control her pain and nausea and arrange for hospice care at home.

This is the moment when I would normally have reviewed the pros and cons. But we are only gradually learning in the medical profession that this is not what we need to do. The options overwhelmed her. They all sounded terrifying. So I stepped back and asked her a few questions I learned from hospice and palliative care physicians, hoping to better help both of us know what to do: What were her biggest fears and concerns? What goals were most important to her? What trade-offs was she willing to make?

Not all can answer such questions, but she did. She said she wanted to be without pain, nausea, or vomiting. She wanted to eat. Most of all, she wanted to get back on her feet. Her biggest fear was that she wouldn’t be able to return home and be with the people she loved.

I asked what sacrifices she was willing to endure now for the possibility of more time later. “Not a lot,” she said. Uppermost in her mind was a wedding that weekend that she was desperate not to miss. “Arthur’s brother is marrying my best friend,” she said. She’d set them up on their first date. The wedding was just two days away. She was supposed to be a bridesmaid. She was willing to do anything to make it, she said.

Suddenly, with just a few simple questions, I had some guidance about her priorities. So we made a plan to see if we could meet them. With a long needle, we tapped a liter of tea-colored fluid from her abdomen, which made her feel at least temporarily better. We gave her medication to control her nausea. We discharged her with instructions to drink nothing thicker than apple juice and to return to see me after the wedding.

She didn’t make it. She came back to the hospital that same night. Just the car ride, with its swaying and bumps, made her vomit, and things only got worse at home.

We agreed that surgery was the best course now and scheduled it for the next day. I would focus on restoring her ability to eat and putting drainage tubes in. Afterward, she could decide if she wanted more chemotherapy or to go on hospice.

She was as clear as I’ve seen anyone be about her goals, but she was still in doubt. The following morning, she canceled the operation. “I’m afraid,” she said. She’d tossed all night, imagining the pain, the tubes, the horrors of possible complications. “I don’t want to take risky chances,” she said.

Her difficulty wasn’t lack of courage to act in the face of risks; it was sorting out how to think about them. Her greatest fear was of suffering, she said. Couldn’t the operation make it worse rather than better?

It could, I said. Surgery offered her the possibility of being able to eat again and a very good likelihood of controlling her nausea, but it carried substantial risk of giving her only pain without improvement or adding new miseries. She had, I estimated, a 75 percent chance that surgery would make her future better, at least for a little while, and a 25 percent chance it’d make it worse.

The brain gives us two ways to evaluate experiences like suffering—how we apprehend such experiences in the moment and how we look at them afterward. People seem to have two different selves—an experiencing self who endures every moment equally and a remembering self who, as the Nobel Prize–winning researcher Daniel Kahneman has shown, gives almost all the weight of judgment afterward to just two points in time: the worst moment of an ordeal and the last moment of it. The remembering self and the experiencing self can come to radically different opinions about the same experience—so which one should we listen to?

This, at bottom, was Jewel Douglass’ torment. Should she heed her remembering self—or, in this case, anticipating self—which was focused on the worst things she might endure? Or should she listen to her experiencing self, which would likely endure a lower average amount of suffering in the days to come if she underwent surgery rather than just going home—and might even get to eat again for a while?

In the end, a person doesn’t view his life as merely the average of its moments—which, after all, is mostly nothing much, plus some sleep. Life is meaningful because it is a story, and a story’s arc is determined by the moments when something happens. Unlike your experiencing self, which is absorbed in the moment, your remembering self is attempting to recognize not only the peaks of joy and valleys of misery but also how the story works out as a whole. That is profoundly affected by how things ultimately turn out. Football fans will let a few flubbed minutes at the end of a game ruin three hours of bliss—because a football game is a story, and in stories, endings matter.

Jewel Douglass didn’t know if she was willing to face the suffering that surgery might inflict and feared being left worse off. “I don’t want to take risky chances,” she said. She didn’t want to take a high-stakes gamble on how her story would end. Suddenly I realized, she was telling me everything I needed to know.

We should go to surgery, I told her, but with the directions she’d just spelled out—to do what I could to enable her to return home to her family while not taking “risky chances.” I’d put in a small laparoscope. I’d look around. And I’d attempt to unblock her intestine only if I saw that I could do it fairly easily. If it looked risky, I’d just put in tubes to drain her backed-up pipes. I’d aim for what might sound like a contradiction in terms: a palliative operation—an operation whose overriding priority was to do only what was likely to make her feel immediately better.

Being Mortal

She remained quiet, thinking.

Her daughter took her hand. “We should do this, Mom,” she said.

“OK,” Douglass said. “But no risky chances.”

When she was under anesthesia, I made a half-inch incision above her belly button. I slipped my gloved finger inside to feel for space to insert the fiberoptic scope. But a hard loop of tumor-caked bowel blocked entry. I wasn’t even going to be able to put in a camera.

I had the resident take the knife and extend the incision upward until it was large enough to see in directly and get a hand inside. There were too many tumors to do anything to help her eat again, and now we were risking creating holes we’d never be able to repair. Leakage inside the abdomen would be a calamity. So we stopped.

No risky chances. We shifted focus and put in two long, plastic drainage tubes. One we inserted directly into her stomach to empty the contents backed up there; the other we laid in the open abdominal cavity to empty the fluid outside her gut. Then we closed up, and we were done.

I told her family we hadn’t been able to help her eat again, and when Douglass woke up, I told her too. Her daughter wept. Her husband thanked us for trying. Douglass tried to put a brave face on it. “I was never obsessed with food anyway,” she said.

The tubes relieved her nausea and abdominal pain greatly—“90 percent,” she said. The nurses taught her how to open the gastric tube into a bag when she felt sick and the abdominal tube when her belly felt too tight. We told her she could drink whatever she wanted and even eat soft food for the taste. Three days after surgery, she went home with hospice care to look after her.

Before she left, her oncologist and oncology nurse practitioner saw her. Douglass asked them how long they thought she had. “They both filled up with tears,” she told me. “It was kind of my answer.”

A few days later, she and her family allowed me to stop by her home after work. She answered the door, wearing a robe because of the tubes, for which she apologized. We sat in her living room, and I asked how she was doing.

OK, she said. “I think I have a measure that I’m slip, slip, slipping,” but she had been seeing old friends and relatives all day, and she loved it. She was taking just Tylenol for pain. Narcotics made her drowsy and weak, and that interfered with seeing people.

She said she didn’t like all the contraptions sticking out of her. But the first time she found that just opening a tube could take away her nausea, she said, “I looked at the tube and said, ‘Thank you for being there.’ ”

Mostly, we talked about good memories. She was at peace with God, she said. I left feeling that, at least this once, we had done it right. Douglass’ story was not ending the way she ever envisioned, but it was nonetheless ending with her being able to make the choices that meant the most to her.

Two weeks later, her daughter Susan sent me a note. “Mom died on Friday morning. She drifted quietly to sleep and took her last breath. It was very peaceful. My dad was alone by her side with the rest of us in the living room. This was such a perfect ending and in keeping with the relationship they shared.”

I am leery of suggesting that endings are controllable. No one ever really has control; physics and biology and accident ultimately have their way in our lives. But as Jewel Douglass taught me, we are not helpless either—and courage is the strength to recognize both of those realities. We have room to act and shape our stories—although as we get older, we do so within narrower and narrower confines.

That makes a few conclusions clear: that our most cruel failure in how we treat the sick and the aged is the failure to recognize that they have priorities beyond merely being safe and living longer; that the chance to shape one’s story is essential to sustaining meaning in life; and that we have the opportunity to refashion our institutions, culture, and conversations to transform the possibilities for the last chapters of all of our lives.

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

To Give or Take? The Surprising Science Behind Success

Adam Grant - Give and Take

​​“The principle of give and take; that is diplomacy—give one and take ten” — Mark Twain

Was Twain right? It certainly seems so. The world is full of people who operate with that fuel. For them it’s all about taking. Lest you lose your faith in humanity, the world is also full of people who believe that on some level, karma or otherwise, it pays to be nice. The question arises as to which is the better strategy. Is it better to take or to give?

So much of life depends on how we interact with others. We all want to be friends with givers. We have a way of eliminating takers from our social circles and generally filtering them out of our life. Yet when it comes to the workplace, things change. We can’t rid ourselves of the takers and they often seem to get ahead at the expense of the givers. Even givers often behave differently in the workplace, argues Adam Grant in Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success.

According to conventional wisdom, highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity. If we want to succeed, we need a combination of hard work, talent, and luck. [Yet there is] a fourth ingredient, one that’s critical but often neglected: success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people. Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make: do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying about what we receive in return?

And part of how we approach our interactions with others has to do with our preference for reciprocity — our desired mix of taking and giving.

Grant introduces us to two kinds of people that fall at opposite ends of the reciprocity spectrum: givers and takers.

Takers have a distinctive signature: they like to get more than they give. They tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others’ needs. Takers believe that the world is a competitive, dog-eat-dog place. They feel that to succeed, they need to be better than others. To prove their competence, they self-promote and make sure they get plenty of credit for their efforts. Garden-variety takers aren’t cruel or cutthroat; they’re just cautious and self-protective. “If I don’t look out for myself first,” takers think, “no one will.”

[...]

In the workplace, givers are a relatively rare breed. They tilt reciprocity in the other direction, preferring to give more than they get. Whereas takers tend to be self-focused, evaluating what other people can offer them, givers are other-focused, paying more attention to what other people need from them. These preferences aren’t about money: givers and takers aren’t distinguished by how much they donate to charity or the compensation that they command from their employers. Rather, givers and takers differ in their attitudes and actions toward other people. If you’re a taker, you help others strategically, when the benefits to you outweigh the personal costs. If you’re a giver, you might use a different cost-benefit analysis: you help whenever the benefits to others exceed the personal costs. Alternatively, you might not think about the personal costs at all, helping others without expecting anything in return. If you’re a giver at work, you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them.

… being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice. It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others, such as by giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others. Outside the workplace, this type of behavior is quite common. According to research led by Yale psychologist Margaret Clark, most people act like givers in close relationships. In marriages and friendships, we contribute whenever we can without keeping score.

In the workplace things change. Things get more complicated. Subconsciously employing game theory, we become matchers.

Professionally, few of us act purely like givers or takers, adopting a third style instead. We become matchers, striving to preserve an equal balance of giving and getting. Matchers operate on the principle of fairness: when they help others, they protect themselves by seeking reciprocity. If you’re a matcher, you believe in tit for tat, and your relationships are governed by even exchanges of favors.

Despite that, we develop a “primary reciprocity style” at work, which “captures how (we) approach most of the people most of the time. And that style can play as much a role in our success as hard work, talent, and luck.”

If you were to guess who was to end up at the bottom of the success ladder, what would you say? Givers? Takers? Matchers?

Research demonstrates that givers sink to the bottom of the success ladder. Across a wide range of important occupations, givers are at a disadvantage: they make others better off but sacrifice their own success in the process.

But if givers are at the bottom, who is at the top? It’s the givers.

This pattern holds up across the board. The Belgian medical students with the lowest grades have unusually high giver scores, but so do the students with the highest grades. Over the course of medical school, being a giver accounts for 11 percent higher grades. Even in sales, I found that the least productive salespeople had 25 percent higher giver scores than average performers—but so did the most productive salespeople. The top performers were givers, and they averaged 50 percent more annual revenue than the takers and matchers. Givers dominate the bottom and the top of the success ladder. Across occupations, if you examine the link between reciprocity styles and success, the givers are more likely to become champs—not chumps.

A lot of life strategies that work in the hundred-yard dash fail in the marathon. Grant convincingly argues that we underestimate the success of givers. We stereotype them as “chumps and doormats,” yet they also turn out to be some of the most successful people. So what separates the champs from the chumps?

The answer is less about raw talent or aptitude, and more about the strategies givers use and the choices they make. … We all have goals for our own individual achievements, and it turns out that successful givers are every bit as ambitious as takers and matchers. They simply have a different way of pursuing their goals.

Givers are the win-win people. When takers win, someone loses. As the venture capitalist Randy Komisar remarks, “It’s easier to win if everybody wants you to win. If you don’t make enemies out there, it’s easier to succeed.” Or as Charlie Munger says, “The best way to get success is to deserve success.”

Givers are non-linear.

[g]ivers, takers, and matchers all can—and do—achieve success. But there’s something distinctive that happens when givers succeed: it spreads and cascades. When takers win, there’s usually someone else who loses. Research shows that people tend to envy successful takers and look for ways to knock them down a notch. In contrast, when [givers] win, people are rooting for them and supporting them, rather than gunning for them. Givers succeed in a way that creates a ripple effect, enhancing the success of people around them. You’ll see that the difference lies in how giver success creates value, instead of just claiming it.

And, Grant argues that we live in a world where giving matters more than ever.

The fact that the long run is getting shorter isn’t the only force that makes giving more professionally productive today. We live in an era when massive changes in the structure of work—and the technology that shapes it have further amplified the advantages of being a giver.

Givers thrive in teams, takers as the lone wolf. As the structure of success changes—as we move out of school and into the workplace—a new sense of teamwork emerges that favors the givers. Takers focus on wealth, power, pleasure, and winning. Values that are constantly getting attention from the media. Givers are interested in helping, being dependable, social justice, and compassion (notably things that get much less attention in today’s sensationalist page-view world.)

In the first part of Give and Take, Grant shows us what makes giving “both powerful and dangerous.” The second part shows us the benefits and costs of giving and how they can be managed. Before you put the book down, you’ll be rethinking your assumptions about success.

What Book has the Most Page-for-Page Wisdom?

Here is what happened when I asked twenty-seven thousand people “What is page for page the book with the most wisdom you’ve ever read?”

My thinking was, and still is, that you need to filter what you read. Reading, I mean really reading, is not simple. It’s time consuming. So aside from finding time and remembering what you read, you want to make sure you’re reading the right things. There are a few approaches to this filtering. One is to employ the Lindy Effect. But another approach that I use personally is, and this is really going to sound simple, to ask smart people what they’re reading, what they learned from, or, in this case, what book has the most page-per-page wisdom.

The results are often surprising and I usually find one or two books that I’ve never heard of that offer a lot of value.

In no particular order, here is what twitter had to say:

Seeking Wisdom, by Peter Bevelin
This is number 8 on the list of books that changed my life. It is also the book I give away most often, sending innumerable copies around the globe.

Cosmos, by Carl Sagan
This is one of the best-selling science books of all time. I’ve never read it, so I ordered it after reading the blurb: “retraces the fourteen billion years of cosmic evolution that have transformed matter into consciousness, exploring such topics as the origin of life, the human brain, Egyptian hieroglyphics, spacecraft missions, the death of the Sun, the evolution of galaxies, and the forces and individuals who helped to shape modern science.”

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
A book that a lot of people, myself included, talk about but have never read. It’s time to change that.

Do the Work!, by Steven Pressfield
I liked Pressfield’s, The War of Art enough to pick this manifesto arguing that ideas are not enough, you actually have to do the work.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig
I’ve picked this book up at least 3 different times in my life and stopped reading it for one reason or another. Considered a cult classic by many, I haven’t found the right time to read it … yet.

The Conquest of Happiness, Bertrand Russell
First published in 1930, this book attempts to “diagnose the myriad causes of unhappiness in modern life and chart a path out of the seemingly inescapable malaise.” The book remains as relevant today as ever, and in this edition Daniel Dennett, who showed us how to how to criticize with kindness, re-introduces Russell’s wisdom to a new generation of readers and thinkers calling the work “a prototype of the flood of self-help books that have more recently been published, few of them as well worth reading today as Russell’s little book.”

This is Water by David Foster Wallace
This is one of the best things you will ever read (and hopefully periodically re-read). I wholeheartedly agree with this selection.

Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
Another of the books that changed my life and also one of the books that I gave away at the Re:Think Innovation workshop. Translation matters enormously with this book, get this one.

Letters from a Stoic, Seneca
Love love love. As relevant today as it was when it was written.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert Cialdini
The person who recommended this book said “you can’t throw away any one page of this book.” You can read a quick overview of the book, but I’d recommend digging in.

Dr Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!
I agree. Don’t write it off because it’s a kids’ book. I love this book.

An Intimate History of Humanity, by Theodore Zeldin
I’d never heard of this work exploring the evolution of emotions before. Time magazine called it “An intellectually dazzling view of our past and future.”

The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck
I’d never heard of this book (seriously) either and it’s sold 7 million copies. A book to “help us explore the very nature of loving relationships and lead us toward a new serenity and fullness of life.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
“For all the answers, stick your thumb to the stars!”

Google and Combinatorial Innovation

Innovaiton
In his new book, How Google Works, Eric Schmidt argues that “we are entering … a new period of combinatorial innovation.” This happens, he says, when “there is a great availability of different component parts that can be combined or recombined to create new inventions.”

For example, in the 1800s, the standardization of design of mechanical devices such as gears, pulleys, chains, and cams led to a manufacturing boom. In the 1900s, the gasoline engine led to innovations in automobiles, motorcycles, and airplanes. By the 1950s, it was the integrated circuit proliferating in numerous applications. In each of these cases, the development of complementary components led to a wave of inventions.

Today’s components are often about information, technology, and computing.

Would-be inventors have all the world’s information, global reach, and practically infinite computing power. They have open-source software and abundant APIs that allow them to build easily on each other’s work. They can use standard protocols and languages. They can access information platforms with data about things ranging from traffic to weather to economic transactions to human genetics to who is socially connected with whom, either on an aggregate or (with permission) individual basis. So one way of developing technical insights is to use some of these accessible technologies and data and apply them in an industry to solve an existing problem in a new way.

Regardless of your business there is a core of knowledge and conventional wisdom that your industry is based upon. Maybe it’s logistics, maybe it’s biology, chemistry or storytelling. Whatever that core is, “that’s your technology. Find the geeks, find the stuff, and that’s where you’ll find the technical insights you need to drive success.”

That’s also the area to look for where conventional wisdom might be wrong. What was once common sense becomes common practice. When everyone agrees on some fundamental assumption about how the industry works, the opposite point of view can lead toward disruption.

Another possible source of innovation is to start with a solution to one problem and then look at ways to use the same solution on other problems.

New technologies tend to come into the world in a very primitive condition, often designed for very specific problems. The steam engine was used as a nifty way to pump water out of mines long before it found its calling powering locomotives. Marconi sold radio as a means of ship-to-shore communications, not as a place to hear phrases like “Baba Booey!” and “all the children are above average.” Bell labs was so underwhelmed by the commercial potential of the laser when it was invented in the ‘60s that it initially put off patenting it. Even the Internet was initially conceived as a way for scientists and academics to share research. As smart as its creators were, they could never have imagined its future functionality as a place to share pictures and videos, stay in touch with friends, learn anything about anything, or do the other amazing things we use it for today.

Schmidt gives his favorite example of building upon a solution developed for a narrow problem.

When Google search started to ramp up, some of our most popular queries were related to adult-oriented topics. Porn filters at the time were notoriously ineffective, so we put a small team of engineers on the problem of algorithmically capturing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of porn, “I know it when I see it.” They were successful by combining a couple of technical insights: They got very good at understanding the content of an image (aka skin), and could judge its context by seeing how users interacted with it. (When someone searches for a pornography-related term and the image is from a medical textbook, they are unlikely to click on it, and if they do they won’t stay on the site for long.) Soon we had a filter called SafeSearch that was far more effective in blocking inappropriate images than anything else on the web—a solution (SafeSearch) to a narrow problem (filtering adult content).

But why stop there? Over the next couple of years we took the technology that had been developed to address the porn problem and used it to serve broader purposes. We improved our ability to rate the relevance of images (any images, not just porn) to search queries by using the millions of content-based models (the models of how users react to different images) that we had developed for SafeSearch. Then we added features that let users search for images similar to the ones they find in their search results (“I like that shot of Yosemite-go find more that look just like that”). Finally, we developed the ability to start a search not with a written query (“half dome, yosemite”), but a photograph (that snapshot you took of Half Dome when you visited Yosemite). All of these features evolved from technology that had initially developed for the SafeSearch porn filter. So when you are looking at screen upon screen of Yosemite photos that are nearly identical to the ones you took, you can thank the adult entertainment industry for helping launch the technology that is bringing them to you.

How Google Works is full of interesting insights into the inner workings of a company we’re all fascinated with.

Chimamanda Adichie: The Danger of a Single Story

Our lives, our cultures, are composed of many overlapping stories. Novelist Chimamanda Adichie, author of Americanah, one of The New York Times’s ten best books of the year, tells the story of how she found her authentic cultural voice — and warns that if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.

I was 19. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my “tribal music,” and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. … She assumed that I did not know how to use a stove.

What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning, pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa. A single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her, in any way. No possibility of feelings more complex than pity. No possibility of a connection as human equals.

I must say that before I went to the U.S. I didn’t consciously identify as African. But in the U.S. whenever Africa came up people turned to me. Never mind that I knew nothing about places like Namibia. But I did come to embrace this new identity. And in many ways I think of myself now as African. Although I still get quite irritable when Africa is referred to as a country. The most recent example being my otherwise wonderful flight from Lagos two days ago, in which there was an announcement on the Virgin flight about the charity work in “India, Africa and other countries.”

So after I had spent some years in the U.S. as an African, I began to understand my roommate’s response to me. If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner. I would see Africans in the same way that I, as a child, had seen Fide’s family.

This single story of Africa ultimately comes, I think, from Western literature.

E.B. White’s Beautiful Letter to Someone Who Lost Faith in Humanity

eb white

In March of 1973, a Mr. Nadeau sent a letter to E. B. White, the author of greats such as Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, expressing his bleak hope for humanity.

White’s beautiful reply, found in Letters of Note, attempts to raise the man’s spirits.

North Brooklin, Maine,
30 March 1973

Dear Mr. Nadeau:

As long as there is one upright man, as long as there is one compassionate woman, the contagion may spread and the scene is not desolate. Hope is the thing that is left to us, in a bad time. I shall get up Sunday morning and wind the clock, as a contribution to order and steadfastness.

Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer. I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly. It is quite obvious that the human race has made a queer mess of life on this planet. But as a people we probably harbor seeds of goodness that have lain for a long time waiting to sprout when the conditions are right. Man’s curiosity, his relentlessness, his inventiveness, his ingenuity have led him into deep trouble. We can only hope that these same traits will enable him to claw his way out.

Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.

Sincerely,
E. B. White

David Foster Wallace on Argumentative Writing and Nonfiction

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

In December 2004, Bryan A. Garner, who had already struck up a friendship with David Foster Wallace, started interviewing state and federal judges as well as a few key writers. With over a hundred interviews under his belt by January 2006, he called David to suggest they do an interview. So on February 3, 2006 the two finally got together in Los Angeles for an extensive conversation on writing and life that offers a penetrating look into our collective psyche. Their conversation has been captured in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.

Very few things get me more excited than reading one smart person interview another. I mean, we’re not talking TV puff pieces here, we’re talking outright depth with an incisive look at culture.

For context, Garner is the author of a book that, admittedly, I have a hard time not opening on a weekly basis: Garner’s Modern American Usage, which helps explain some of the insightful banter between the two.

When asked if, before writing a long nonfiction piece, he attempts to understand the structure of the whole before starting, Wallace simply responded “no.”

Elaborating on this he goes on to say:

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.

If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know— and people are always interested and want to know what you do— most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Were it me, I see doing it in the third or fourth draft as part of the “Oh my God, is what I’m saying making any sense at all? Can somebody who’s reading it, who can’t read my mind, fit it into some sort of schematic structure of argument?”

I think a more sane person would probably do that at the beginning. But I don’t know that anybody would be able to get away with . . . Put it this way: if you couldn’t do it, if you can’t put . . . If you’re writing an argumentative thing, which I think people in your discipline are, if you couldn’t, if forced, put it into an outline form, you’re in trouble.

Commenting on what constitutes a good opening in argumentative writing, Wallace offers:

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

Garner, the interviewer, follows this up by asking “Do you think of most pieces as having this, in Aristotle’s terms, a beginning, a middle, and an end—those three parts?”

I think, like most things about writing, the answer lies on a continuum. I think the interesting question is, how much violence do you do to the piece if you reprise it in a three-act . . . a three-part structure.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other— and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument— and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

Why are transitions so important?

[pause] Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating. My own guess is that at just about the point where that amount— the amount of time that you’re spending on a sentence, the amount of effort— becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students’ papers begin getting marked down by the prof. Right?

But one of the things I end up saying to the students is, “Realize your professors are human beings. They’re reading these things really fast, but you’re often being graded down for reasons that the professor isn’t consciously aware of because of an immense amount of reading and an immense amount of evaluation of the quality of a piece of writing, the qualities of the person producing it, occur below, just below, the level of consciousness, which is really the way you want it. And one of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.”

That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it— the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

One of the things that makes a really good writer, according to Wallace, is they “can just kind of feel” when to make transitions and when not to.

Which doesn’t mean such creatures are born, but it does mean that’s why practicing and paying attention never stop being important. Right? It’s because we’re training the same part of us that knows how to swing a golf club or shift a standard transmission, things we want to be able to do automatically. So we have to pay attention and learn how to do them so we can quit thinking about them and just do them automatically.

In case you’re wondering, it was Tense Present, DFW’s review of Garner’s book that sparked their friendship. The full article, before Harper’s cuts, appears in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Quack This Way is an insightful interview by two terrific minds.

An Antifragile Way of Life

hydra

“How can you think yourself a great man, when the first accident that comes along can wipe you out completely.” — Euripides

Buster Benson with some excellent thoughts on how to live an antifragile life.

An antifragile way of life is all about finding a way to gain from the inevitable disorder of life. To not only bounce back when things don’t go as planned, but to get stronger, smarter, and better at continuing as a result of running into this disorder.

First, here are some principles that come from Antifragile:

  • Stick to simple rules
  • Build in redundancy and layers (no single point of failure)
  • Resist the urge to suppress randomness
  • Make sure that you have your soul in the game
  • Experiment and tinker — take lots of small risks
  • Avoid risks that, if lost, would wipe you out completely
  • Don’t get consumed by data
  • Keep your options open
  • Focus more on avoiding things that don’t work than trying to find out what does work
  • Respect the old — look for habits and rules that have been around for a long time

The general underlying principle here is to play the long game, keep your options open and avoid total failure while trying lots of different things and maintaining an open mind.