Author Archives: Farnam Street Team

Ryan Holiday on Reading, What it Means to be a Stoic, and How to Take Notes

On this episode of The Knowledge Project, I talk reading and so much more with Ryan Holiday.

Ryan Holiday is the author of Trust Me I’m Lying, The Obstacle is the Way, and Ego is the Enemy.

On this episode you’ll learn how he reads, what it means to be a Stoic, the two sides of Seneca, dealing with over-work, what he learned from working with Robert Greene and his system for taking notes.

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Listen

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Books Mentioned:
Marcus Aurelius Meditations
Diogenes Laertius Lives of Eminent Philosophers (Stoics in Book 7)
Robert Greene The 48 Laws of Power
James Romm Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero
Pierre Hadot The Inner Citadel
Robert Caro The Years of Lyndon Johnson

 

Transcript:
A complete transcript is available for members.

The HP Way: Dave Packard on How to Operate a Company

In 1960, David Packard gave an informal speech that wasn’t originally intended for publication. In fact the speech only surfaced again during the debate over the merger between Hewlett Packard and Compaq. At the time the leadership of HP portrayed themselves as doing exactly “what Dave Packard would have done.”

As a rebuttal to this dubious use of language, David Packard Jr. published a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal (March 15, 2002) reprinting a wonderful speech his father gave in the ’60s to a group of HP managers. Nothing could be better evidence of the philosophy than the words, delivered on the job from his father.

The speech, which can be found in The HP Way: How Bill Hewlett and I Built Our Company, dealt with a number of subjects including why a company exists, the difference between management by objective and management by control, how to manage people, the importance of financial responsibility and more.

Packard opens his speech by saying “I think this is going to be crucial in determining whether we are able to continue to grow and keep an efficient organization and maintain the character of our company”.

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When discussing why a company exists in the first place, Packard writes:

I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively which they could not accomplish separately. They are able to do something worthwhile— they make a contribution to society (a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental).

[…]

So with that in mind let us discuss why the Hewlett-Packard Company exists. I think it is obvious that we started this company because Bill and I, and some of those working with us in the early days, felt that we were able to design and make instruments which were not as yet available. I believe that our company has grown over the years for that very reason. Working together we have been able to provide for the technical people, our customers, things which are better than they were able to get anywhere else. The real reason for our existence is that we provide something which is unique. Our particular area of contribution is to design, develop, and manufacture electronic measuring instruments.

[T]he reason for our existence and the measure of our success is how well we are able to make our product.

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As for how the individual person fits into these efforts, Packard hits on the difference between management by objective and management by control:

The individual works, partly to make money, of course, but we should also realize that the individual who is doing a worthwhile job is working because he feels he is accomplishing something worthwhile. This is important in your association with these individuals. You know that those people you work with that are working only for money are not making any real contribution. I want to emphasize then that people work to make a contribution and they do this best when they have a real objective when they know what they are trying to achieve and are able to use their own capabilities to the greatest extent. This is a basic philosophy which we have discussed before— Management by Objective as compared to Management by Control.

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Continuing, Packard hits on the notion of what it means to supervise someone:

In other words when we discuss supervision and management we are not talking about a military type organization where the man at the top issues an order and it is passed on down the line until the man at the bottom does as he is told without question (or reason). That is precisely the type of organization we do not want. We feel our objectives can best be achieved by people who understand what they are trying to do and can utilize their own capabilities to do them. I have noticed when we promote people from a routine job to a supervisory position, there is a tremendous likelihood that these people will get carried away by the authority. They figure that all they have to do now is tell everyone else what to do and quite often this attitude causes trouble. We must realize that supervision is not a job of giving orders; it is a job of providing the opportunity for people to use their capabilities efficiently and effectively. I don’t mean you are not to give orders. I mean that what you are trying to get is something else. One of the underlying requirements of this sort of approach is that we do understand a little more specifically what the objectives of the company are. These then have to be translated into the objectives of the departments and groups and so on down.

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While Steve Jobs famously said that focus is the ability to say no, Packard approached focus from another angle:

The other objective which is complementary to this and equally important is to try to make everything we do worthwhile. We want to do our best when we take on a job. … The logical result of this is that as we concentrate our efforts on these areas and are able to find better ways to do the job, we will logically, develop a better line of general purpose measuring instruments.

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Getting the product to the customer is only half the job.

In engineering, there are two basic criteria that are uppermost in the definition of what we hope to be able to do. As we develop these new instruments, we hope they will be creative in their design, and they will provide better ways of doing a job. There are many examples of this— the instruments our engineers have developed this last year give us some good examples. The clip-on milliammeter, the new wave analyzer, the sampling scope— all are really creative designs. They give people who buy them methods of making measurements they could not make before those instruments were available. However, creative design alone is not enough and never will be. In order to make these into useful devices, there must be meticulous attention to detail. The engineers understand this. They get an instrument to the place where it is about ready to go and the job is about half done. The same applies in the manufacturing end of the program. We need to produce efficiently in order to achieve our slogan of inexpensive quality. Cost is a very important part of the objective in manufacturing, but producing an instrument in the quickest manner is not satisfactory unless at the same time every detail is right. Attention to detail is as important in manufacturing as it is in engineering.

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It’s not about what you sell, it’s about the problems you solve.

We certainly are not anxious to sell a customer something he does not want, nor need. You may laugh, but this has happened— in other companies of course, not ours! Also, we want to be sure that when the instrument is delivered, it performs the function the customer wanted.

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Packard, ever the financial conservative, offers a timeless lesson on financial responsibility:

Financial responsibility is equally important, however different in nature. It is essentially a service function to see that we generate the resources which make it possible for us all to do our job.

These things translated mean that in addition to having the objective of trying to make a contribution to our customers, we must consider our responsibilities in a broader sense. If our main thought is to make money, we won’t care about these details. If we don’t care about the details, we won’t make as much money. They go hand in hand.

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On the company’s responsibility to employees:

We are not interested only in making a better product. We feel that in asking you people to work for us, we in turn have an obligation. This is an important point and one which we ask each of you to relay to all the employees. Our first obligation, which is self-evident from my previous remarks, is to let people know they are doing something worthwhile. We must provide a means of letting our employees know they have done a good job. You as supervisors must convey this to your groups. Don’t just give orders. Provide the opportunity for your people to do something important. Encourage them.

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On the contentious question of whether a manager needs to understand the realities of their people, Packard offers a clear rebuttal of the argument that management skills are sufficient.

Some say you can be a good manager without having the slightest idea of what you are trying to manage, that the techniques of management are all important. There are many organizations which work that way. I don’t argue that the job can’t be done that way but I do argue strongly that the best job can be done when the manager or supervisor has a real and genuine understanding of his group’s work. … I don’t see how a person can even understand what proper standards are and what performance is required unless he does understand in some detail the very specific nature of the work he is trying to supervise.

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As to what traits management should exhibit

Tolerance is tremendously significant. Unless you are tolerant of the people under you, you really can’t do a good job of being a supervisor. You must have understanding— understanding of the little things that affect people. You must have a sense of fairness, and you must know what it is reasonable to expect of your people. You must have a good set of standards for your group but you must maintain these standards with fairness and understanding.

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Lest you think Packard was a socialist, he argues that profits are the only path towards achieving the management philosophy he laid out.

I want to say that I have mentioned our primary objectives, but none of these can be accomplished unless the company makes a profit. Profit is the measure of our contribution to our customers— it is a measure of what our customers are willing to pay us over and above the actual cost of an instrument. Only to the extent that we can do something worthwhile, can provide more for the customer, will he year in and year out pay us enough so we have something left over. So profit is the measure of how well we work together. It is really the final measure because, if we cannot do these things so the customer will pay us, our work is futile.

 

If you liked this you’ll love:

11 Simple Rules For Getting Along With Others — More timeless advice from David Packard deepening our understanding of his philosophy on work and life.

The Four Types of Relationships and the Reputational Cue Ball — Thinking about the fundamental lesson of biology — the need to survive — offers a potent lens through which we can view our relationships.

The Difference Between Love and Tolerance

“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
— Alice Walker

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New Jersey Senator Cory Booker‘s new book United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good offers a welcome refuge from the day-to-day politics that splash across the headlines. Booker shares his wisdom on the difference between love and tolerance, why cynicism is a refuge for cowards, an important lesson his father taught him, and the reason that, while we’re indebted to the past, we must pay it forward.

Booker offers a distinction between love and tolerance:

Tolerance is becoming accustomed to injustice; love is becoming disturbed and activated by another’s adverse condition. Tolerance crosses the street; love confronts. Tolerance builds fences; love opens doors. Tolerance breeds indifference; love demands engagement. Tolerance couldn’t care less; love always cares more.

We stand on the shoulders of giants, Booker professes:

I’ve said many times of my generation that we drink deeply from wells of freedom and opportunity that we did not dig, that we eat from tables prepared for us by our ancestors, that we sit comfortably in the shade of trees that we did not cultivate. We stand on the shoulders of giants.

[…]

We do owe a debt that we can’t pay back but must pay forward.

Adding to the belief in small acts of kindness, Booker observes:

[A]lways remember that the biggest thing you can offer on any given day is a small act of kindness.

On an important lesson his father taught him:

Son, there are two ways to go through life, as a thermometer or a thermostat. Don’t be a thermometer, just reflecting what’s around you, going up or down with your surroundings. Be a thermostat and set the temperature.

And finally, in an interview, he boldly admonishes people hiding behind cynicism.

We all have so much power that we don’t use. And I think it’s because of cynicism, which is a toxic spiritual state. Cynicism is a refuge for cowards.

How (Supposedly) Rational People Make Decisions

There are four principles that Gregory Mankiw outlines in his multi-disciplinary economics textbook Principles of Economics.

I got the idea for reading an Economics textbook from Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett. He said:

Economics was always more multidisciplinary than the rest of soft science. It just reached out and grabbed things as it needed to. And that tendency to just grab whatever you need from the rest of knowledge if you’re an economist has reached a fairly high point in Mankiw’s new textbook Principles of Economics. I checked out that textbook. I must have been one of the few businessmen in America that bought it immediately when it came out because it had gotten such a big advance. I wanted to figure out what the guy was doing where he could get an advance that great. So this is how I happened to riffle through Mankiw’s freshman textbook. And there I found laid out as principles of economics: opportunity cost is a superpower, to be used by all people who have any hope of getting the right answer. Also, incentives are superpowers.

So we know that we can add Opportunity cost and incentives to our list of Mental Models.

Let’s dig in.

Principle 1: People Face Trade-offs

You have likely heard the old saying, “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” There is much to this old adage and it’s one we often forget when making decisions. To get more of something we like we almost always have to give up something else we like. A good heuristic in life is that if someone offers you something for nothing, turn it down.

Making decisions requires trading off one goal against another.

Consider a student who must decide how to allocate her most valuable resource—her time. She can spend all of her time studying economics, spend all of it studying psychology, or divide it between the two fields. For every hour she studies one subject, she gives up an hour she could have used studying the other. And for every hour she spends studying, she gives up an hour that she could have spent napping, bike riding, watching TV, or working at her part-time job for some extra spending money.

Or consider parents deciding how to spend their family income. They can buy food, clothing, or a family vacation. Or they can save some of the family income for retirement or for children’s college education. When they choose to spend an extra dollar on one of these goods, they have one less dollar to spend on some other good.

These are rather simple examples but Mankiw offers some more complicated ones. Consider the trade-off that society faces between efficiency and equality.

Efficiency means that society is getting the maximum benefits from its scarce resources. Equality means that those benefits are distributed uniformly among society’s members. In other words, efficiency refers to the size of the economic pie, and equality refers to how the pie is divided into individual slices.

When government policies are designed, these two goals often conflict. Consider, for instance, policies aimed at equalizing the distribution of economic well-being. Some of these policies, such as the welfare system or unemployment insurance, try to help the members of society who are most in need. Others, such as the individual income tax, ask the financially successful to contribute more than others to support the government. Though they achieve greater equality, these policies reduce efficiency. When the government redistributes income from the rich to the poor, it reduces the reward for working hard; as a result, people work less and produce fewer goods and services. In other words, when the government tries to cut the economic pie into more equal slices, the pie gets smaller.

Principle 2: The Cost of Something Is What You Give Up to Get It

Because of trade-offs, people face decisions between the costs and benefits of one course of action and the cost and benefits of another course. But costs are not as obvious as they might first appear — we need to apply some second-level thinking:

Consider the decision to go to college. The main benefits are intellectual enrichment and a lifetime of better job opportunities. But what are the costs? To answer this question, you might be tempted to add up the money you spend on tuition, books, room, and board. Yet this total does not truly represent what you give up to spend a year in college.

There are two problems with this calculation. First, it includes some things that are not really costs of going to college. Even if you quit school, you need a place to sleep and food to eat. Room and board are costs of going to college only to the extent that they are more expensive at college than elsewhere. Second, this calculation ignores the largest cost of going to college—your time. When you spend a year listening to lectures, reading textbooks, and writing papers, you cannot spend that time working at a job. For most students, the earnings they give up to attend school are the single largest cost of their education.

The opportunity cost of an item is what you give up to get that item. When making any decision, decision makers should be aware of the opportunity costs that accompany each possible action. In fact, they usually are. College athletes who can earn millions if they drop out of school and play professional sports are well aware that the opportunity cost of their attending college is very high. It is not surprising that they often decide that the benefit of a college education is not worth the cost.

Principle 3: Rational People Think at the Margin

For the sake of simplicity economists normally assume that people are rational. While this causes many problems, there is an undercurrent of truth to the fact that people systematically and purposefully “do the best they can to achieve their objectives, given opportunities.” There are two parts to rationality. The first is that your understanding of the world is correct. Second you maximize the use of your resources toward your goals.

Rational people know that decisions in life are rarely black and white but usually involve shades of gray. At dinnertime, the question you face is not “Should I fast or eat like a pig?” More likely, you will be asking yourself “Should I take that extra spoonful of mashed potatoes?” When exams roll around, your decision is not between blowing them off and studying twenty-four hours a day but whether to spend an extra hour reviewing your notes instead of watching TV. Economists use the term marginal change to describe a small incremental adjustment to an existing plan of action. Keep in mind that margin means “edge,” so marginal changes are adjustments around the edges of what you are doing. Rational people often make decisions by comparing marginal benefits and marginal costs.

Thinking at the margin works for business decisions.

Consider an airline deciding how much to charge passengers who fly standby. Suppose that flying a 200-seat plane across the United States costs the airline $100,000. In this case, the average cost of each seat is $100,000/200, which is $500. One might be tempted to conclude that the airline should never sell a ticket for less than $500. But a rational airline can increase its profits by thinking at the margin. Imagine that a plane is about to take off with 10 empty seats and a standby passenger waiting at the gate is willing to pay $300 for a seat. Should the airline sell the ticket? Of course, it should. If the plane has empty seats, the cost of adding one more passenger is tiny. The average cost of flying a passenger is $500, but the marginal cost is merely the cost of the bag of peanuts and can of soda that the extra passenger will consume. As long as the standby passenger pays more than the marginal cost, selling the ticket is profitable.

This also helps answer the question of why diamonds are so expensive and water is so cheap.

Humans need water to survive, while diamonds are unnecessary; but for some reason, people are willing to pay much more for a diamond than for a cup of water. The reason is that a person’s willingness to pay for a good is based on the marginal benefit that an extra unit of the good would yield. The marginal benefit, in turn, depends on how many units a person already has. Water is essential, but the marginal benefit of an extra cup is small because water is plentiful. By contrast, no one needs diamonds to survive, but because diamonds are so rare, people consider the marginal benefit of an extra diamond to be large.

A rational decision maker takes an action if and only if the marginal benefit of the action exceeds the marginal cost.

Principle 4: People Respond to Incentives

Incentives induce people to act. If you use a rational approach to decision making that involves trade offs and comparing costs and benefits, you respond to incentives. Charlie Munger once said: “Never, ever, think about something else when you should be thinking about the power of incentives.”

Incentives are crucial to analyzing how markets work. For example, when the price of an apple rises, people decide to eat fewer apples. At the same time, apple orchards decide to hire more workers and harvest more apples. In other words, a higher price in a market provides an incentive for buyers to consume less and an incentive for sellers to produce more. As we will see, the influence of prices on the behavior of consumers and producers is crucial for how a market economy allocates scarce resources.

Public policymakers should never forget about incentives: Many policies change the costs or benefits that people face and, as a result, alter their behavior. A tax on gasoline, for instance, encourages people to drive smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. That is one reason people drive smaller cars in Europe, where gasoline taxes are high, than in the United States, where gasoline taxes are low. A higher gasoline tax also encourages people to carpool, take public transportation, and live closer to where they work. If the tax were larger, more people would be driving hybrid cars, and if it were large enough, they would switch to electric cars.

Failing to consider how policies and decisions affect incentives often results in unforeseen results.

Is Human Progress Real or An Illusion?

Against the historical backdrop of nations, morals and religions that rise and fall, “the idea of progress finds itself in dubious shape”, according to Will and Ariel Durant in their amazing book The Lessons of History. Allow me to explain.

The core idea of their work is that man’s nature hasn’t changed all that much throughout history. Technical advances remain but must be “written off as merely new means of achieving old ends— the acquisition of goods, the pursuit of one sex by the other (or by the same), the overcoming of competition, the fighting of wars.”

Science has no morals, it can heal as well as kill. Science can build and, more easily, destroy. The Francis Bacon motto that “Knowledge is power,” doesn’t fully explain the situation. Power rests in the hands of humans – it is our nature that drives the ends to which we wield it.

Sometimes we feel that the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which stressed mythology and art rather than science and power, may have been wiser than we, who repeatedly enlarge our instrumentalities without improving our purposes.

The Durants make an interesting argument that our comforts and conveniences, largely the result of technological progress, have “weakened our physical stamina and our moral fibre.”

We have immensely developed our means of locomotion, but some of us use them to facilitate crime and to kill our fellow men or ourselves. We double, triple, centuple our speed, but we shatter our nerves in the process, and are the same trousered apes at two thousand miles an hour as when we had legs. We applaud the cures and incisions of modern medicine if they bring no side effects worse than the malady; we appreciate the assiduity of our physicians in their mad race with the resilience of microbes and the inventiveness of disease; we are grateful for the added years that medical science gives us if they are not a burdensome prolongation of illness, disability, and gloom. We have multiplied a hundred times our ability to learn and report the events of the day and the planet, but at times we envy our ancestors, whose peace was only gently disturbed by the news of their village. We have laudably bettered the conditions of life for skilled workingmen and the middle class, but we have allowed our cities to fester with dark ghettos and slimy slums.

History affords us the opportunity to draw any conclusion we wish.

History is so indifferently rich that a case for almost any conclusion from it can be made by a selection of instances. Choosing our evidence with a brighter bias, we might evolve some more comforting reflections.

So we must first define progress.

If it means increase in happiness its case is lost almost at first sight. Our capacity for fretting is endless, and no matter how many difficulties we surmount, how many ideals we realize, we shall always find an excuse for being magnificently miserable; there is a stealthy pleasure in rejecting mankind or the universe as unworthy of our approval. It seems silly to define progress in terms that would make the average child a higher, more advanced product of life than the adult or the sage— for certainly the child is the happiest of the three. Is a more objective definition possible? We shall here define progress as the increasing control of the environment by life. It is a test that may hold for the lowliest organism as well as for man.

At any point in time some nations are progressing and some are regressing. Adding even more nuance, nations and people may advance in one area and recede in another.

America is now progressing in technology and receding in the graphic arts. If we find that the type of genius prevalent in young countries like America and Australia tends to the practical, inventive, scientific, executive kinds rather than to the painter of pictures or poems, the carver of statues or words, we must understand that each age and place needs and elicits some types of ability rather than others in its pursuit of environmental control. We should not compare the work of one land and time with the winnowed best of all the collected past. Our problem is whether the average man has increased his ability to control the conditions of his life.

The unhappiness of undertakers as a measure of progress.

The lowliest strata in civilized states may still differ only slightly from barbarians, but above those levels thousands, millions have reached mental and moral levels rarely found among primitive men. Under the complex strains of city life we sometimes take imaginative refuge in the supposed simplicity of pre-civilized ways; but in our less romantic moments we know that this is a flight reaction from our actual tasks, and that the idolizing of savages, like many other young moods, is an impatient expression of adolescent maladaptation, of conscious ability not yet matured and comfortably placed. The “friendly and flowing savage” would be delightful but for his scalpel, his insects, and his dirt. A study of surviving primitive tribes reveals their high rate of infantile mortality, their short tenure of life, their lesser stamina and speed, their greater susceptibility to disease. If the prolongation of life indicates better control of the environment, then the tables of mortality proclaim the advance of man, for longevity in European and American whites has tripled in the last three centuries. Some time ago a convention of morticians discussed the danger threatening their industry from the increasing tardiness of men in keeping their rendezvous with death. But if undertakers are miserable progress is real.

It is no trivial achievement that famine has almost been eliminated and many of the viruses that killed millions worry us not. And yet the probability is that our civilization will die. As Frederick asked his retreating troops at Kolin, “Would you live forever?”

Perhaps it is desirable that life should take fresh forms, that new civilizations and centers should have their turn. Meanwhile the effort to meet the challenge of the rising East may reinvigorate the West.

But great civilizations do not entirely die, they leave fragments. These fragments are the connective tissues that bind us together.

Some precious achievements have survived all the vicissitudes of rising and falling states: the making of fire and light, of the wheel and other basic tools; language, writing, art, and song; agriculture, the family, and parental care; social organization, morality, and charity; and the use of teaching to transmit the lore of the family and the race. These are the elements of civilization, and they have been tenaciously maintained through the perilous passage from one civilization to the next. They are the connective tissue of human history.

If education is the transmission of civilization, we are unquestionably progressing. Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again. So our finest contemporary achievement is our unprecedented expenditure of wealth and toil in the provision of higher education for all.

This calls into question the role of education.

None but a child will complain that our teachers have not yet eradicated the errors and superstitions of ten thousand years. The great experiment has just begun, and it may yet be defeated by the high birth rate of unwilling or indoctrinated ignorance. But what would be the full fruitage of instruction if every child should be schooled till at least his twentieth year, and should find free access to the universities, libraries, and museums that harbor and offer the intellectual and artistic treasures of the race? Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

The fragments we transmit to the current generation are richer than ever before. We stand on the shoulders of those that have come before us and in assuming the new height, we attempt to allow others to stand on our shoulders. If we see farther, it is because of this.

If progress is real despite our whining, it is not because we are born any healthier, better, or wiser than infants were in the past, but because we are born to a richer heritage, born on a higher level of that pedestal which the accumulation of knowledge and art raises as the ground and support of our being. The heritage rises, and man rises in proportion as he receives it.

History is, above all else, the creation and recording of that heritage; progress is its increasing abundance, preservation, transmission, and use. To those of us who study history not merely as a warning reminder of man’s follies and crimes, but also as an encouraging remembrance of generative souls, the past ceases to be a depressing chamber of horrors; it becomes a celestial city, a spacious country of the mind, wherein a thousand saints, statesmen, inventors, scientists, poets, artists, musicians, lovers, and philosophers still live and speak, teach and carve and sing. The historian will not mourn because he can see no meaning in human existence except that which man puts into it; let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death. If a man is fortunate he will, before he dies, gather up as much as he can of his civilized heritage and transmit it to his children. And to his final breath he will be grateful for this inexhaustible legacy, knowing that it is our nourishing mother and our lasting life.

If you liked this post, you’ll love these two:

The Three Lessons of Biological History — Human history is a fragment of biological history. If we are to learn enduring lessons it is best to go back in time.

What History Teaches us about The Concentration of Wealth — Assuming practical ability differs amongst people, the majority of whatever society values will always rest with the minority of men.

Agnes Martin on The Secret of Happiness

“The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone.”

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Agnes Martin was a famous abstract painter and minimalist.

In this short interview with Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama from her studio in 1997, the 85-year-old Martin shares the secret of happiness, and some wisdom on solitude.

On happiness …

There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know — exactly what you want. … That’s the way to be happy.

Later in the interview she turns the table and asks Smith if he feels like he’s doing what he was born to do. When he responds in the affirmative, she replies “that’s the way to be happy.” (This runs counter Cal Newport’s stark opposition to not follow your passion.)

On the worst thing to think about — you:

The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself. … (because when you do) you make mistakes.

Another interesting part of the interview is when she responds to the question on how she feels when the painting is done. She fails to let herself decide right away … instead she waits.

Once the painting is done … I ask if it was a good painting. But I also wait three days before I decide.

While we’re not advocates of the stop-thinking approach, there are opposing ends of the spectrum and thinking too much or even being too rational is not always the best way to live. Martin gave up meditation when she trained herself to stop thinking.

Before you train yourself to stop thinking … I don’t believe what the intellectuals put out. The intellectuals discover one fact and then another fact and then another and they say from all these facts we can deduce so-and-so. No good. That’s just a bad guess. Nothing can come but inaccuracy.

The last point is perhaps the most important. This one strikes at the heart of today’s culture and into the value of an empty mind — free from busyness and distractions. Martin believes that when you have an empty mind, you can see things when they come into it. Imagine the freedom of an empty mind — one not bound by to-do lists, meetings, work and the other muck we dump into it. When the mind is full our attention revolves around the meaningless. And yet attention is perhaps the most valuable thing we have.

I’m reminded of the words of W.H. Auden

“Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.”