Words are the Footprints Of Thought

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…further reflections on book summaries, Socrates, knowledge, and wisdom

It strikes me that words are the footprints of thought. Words aren’t thoughts themselves; words aren’t the things themselves; words aren’t knowledge or wisdom. Words are dead. But if the footprints follow a helpful path, and you follow the path, you may walk the path into wisdom or knowledge as well.

Socrates wasn’t a fan of writing, for much the same reasons I’m somewhat skeptical of book summaries. Indeed, I’d planned, but forgot, to mention his dislike of books in my prior post. Later, when I searched online, I found this excellent article (you should read it; it’s short), with a quote of Socrates from Plato’s The Phaedrus:

[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.

The map is not the territory; the words in a book are not the author’s thoughts. If well-chosen, the words may be helpful guides along a path of thoughts similar to that which the author followed, but knowledge and wisdom are attributes of people, not of words.

In travel, guidebooks and tour guides can be helpful orientations to places, can even in themselves be enjoyable and educational experiences. And yet, a “guided tour” of a place is an entirely different experience than to inhabit that place. Perhaps it’s so with books and authors. The mere act of writing and reading (or speaking and listening) mediates the flow of wisdom and knowledge between two people, perhaps constricting it, certainly re-shaping it.

I’ve visited Darjeeling. It’s a lovely place, with mountain air, wonderful food, old hotels. I could recommend several restaurants, a lovely little hotel, and several experiences to you. Perhaps you could say I know a bit about Darjeeling.

But several years ago, tourism to Darjeeling stopped for a time. A community center was burned; there were burning tires in the streets. I could give you only a laughably sparse sketch of the reasons for this. I don’t know, in any meaningful way, the experience of those who live there, of the tensions within the community in Darjeeling and beyond.

I know a bit about Darjeeling. I’ve been there. But really, I don’t know Darjeeling. Those who live there know the place more than I–but even they know portions of it, from limited perspectives.

If you want to know Darjeeling, go there. Enjoy the experiences. Then seek out the people who live there, across the various ethnicities. Listen deeply to them; learn the joys and frustrations. Live there yourself. And then, you’ll actually know a portion of Darjeeling.

We read books seeking wisdom and knowledge. They’re often amazingly effective as guides of thought, for being only blots of ink on a sheet of plant fiber–but they are guides only, flawed mediators of thought, valuable only insofar as they lead us to “re-think”, or to think anew, things that are valuable.

Seek to think, to learn wisdom for yourself, to discover for yourself–and you’ll find the words on the page to be powerful allies. Seek a shallow knowledge, and you’ll receive it, a gilding for the lead of your being. Your guides will lead you to what you seek.

(Oh, curse self-awareness. The above felt really meaningful while I was writing it, but it faded to glurge. I’m publishing anyway. The core idea is at the start: words are “footprints”, they won’t do the work for you, and if you expect them to do so, you’ll end up with nothing worthwhile. Friends who write: constructive criticism welcome (here or via e-mail). I don’t mind rambling a bit, but how does one ramble well? Perhaps the biggest problem is that I started pontificating somewhere along the way. Generally a bad idea, probably especially when one’s tired.)

Three-Minute Thought: Book Summaries

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Are book-summary services valuable innovation, or valueless semblance of knowledge?

I don’t know the answer. I do, though, have several thoughts.

Against: they’re abominations!

  • My instinct: they’re extreme abridgements, and can’t help but do violence to an author’s message. Shane Parrish, a gent I highly respect, describes book summaries as being put together by 22-year-olds who don’t have your life experience, insight, or context–and as really not useful.
  • They build an appetite for “snacking” rather than for thoughtful engagement. Even if they accurately represent the content, the work of reading is part of actual absorbing what you read in a meaningful way.
  • They kill the aesthetic in favor of the utilitarian.
  • They make you, and others, think you know more than you actually know, offering a shallow appearance of knowledge or wisdom rather than the real thing.
  • More than that, they let others seem more knowledgeable and wiser than they are! Grr!

For: they’re really useful!

  • All reading is skimming. I think that’s actually another insight I gained from Parrish. You’ll never read all the books out there. You might not even finish most books you start. Is it better to not encounter an idea at all, or to encounter it in possibly-distorted, possibly-oversimplified form?
  • Books are often way too wordy. Carol Dweck’s Mindset has a powerful idea, but struck me as stuffed full of fluff. Some other books bearing brilliant ideas have nonetheless been tortuous reads. Summaries get to the point!
  • A summary can be useful as a “preview” of a book, as a roadmap of the author’s ideas and the book’s structure.
  • A summary can be useful for a book you know you’ll never read.

And…

My gut reaction to summary services is abhorrence. And I just now downloaded a number of summaries, and also recently subscribed to a “summary-ish” service. I have getAbstract access through my membership in a professional association, and think I will find value in the summaries. I think there is value in them, in “tasting” books and ideas. But the idea of them is deeply prosaic, deeply “grey”, deeply…well, the medicine one must swallow, not the delightful confection one dreams of. And it’s really sad to have knowledge or insight as “medicine”, not the stuff of delight but the stuff of necessity.

I’m not going to gush over summary services, but I think they have a place, a useful role. And they feel like a desecration of the art of writing. Bah, humbug, and all that.

What are your thoughts?

Three-Minute Thought: Diverse Practice

To build skill of action or thought, don’t focus exclusively on the skill. Explore variations and intersections with other skills.

I just started on David Epstein’s book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World. He starts out with a comparison of Roger Federer (early “generalist”, non-driven approach to sports) with Tiger Woods (prodigy, parentally driven).

It reminded me of an idea I read in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (nice summary here, interesting-looking podcast episode here) several years ago. That is: if you want to build skill, mix up your practice. To get really good at one particular thing, practice a lot of variations around it, let it marinate in your mind, do other things “further afield” to distract your conscious mind. The book gives an example of a study in which kids practiced throwing bean bags into baskets at various distances. Some practiced with a single target distance, while others practiced at other distances, but not at the target distance. Ultimately, the “varied practicers” were more skilled at the “target distance”, and presumably at other distances as well.

“Learn all the skills, but learn them slant.”

Three-Minute Thought: On Facts and Understanding

It strikes me that to “know” something without a rich set of context is, at best, a weak and impoverished knowledge. It’s not a binary thing; all of us are imperfect “knowers”. But the more we rely on what we “know that we know” to order the world, the higher the barriers we erect to our own learning, and the further behind our potential we will fall. Books that come to mind:

  • Changing On the Job, by Jennifer Garvey Berger, on “forms of mind”.
  • The Great Divorce, by C. S. Lewis, a speculation on life and afterlife as fulfillment of one’s desires. Offers a rich analogy with the “mundane” domain of knowledge.
  • Questions Are the Answer, by Hal Gregersen, a book I highly recommend that argues for the importance of seeking out “unknown unknowns” and that offers some tools to do so.

Musings on Leadership

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I subscribed, a couple of weeks ago, to a product marketed to “leaders”, or those who hope to be leaders. The content looked interesting, and it has indeed been well worth the investment of time and treasure–but I’m also reminded of my deep ambivalence about “leadership”.

Niccolo Machiavelli, in the 15th and 16th century, had some powerful insights about how to exercise a kind of leadership. My memory of The Prince is vague, but one bit of advice surfaces (likely imperfectly) from memory as particularly wise counsel. A prince, he said, should not harm potential opponents in ways from which they can recover. Either leave them in peace, or destroy them; don’t leave them hurt, insulted, and able to avenge themselves. It’s wise advice, effective for the prince who wishes to retain power, and quite possibly good for his kingdom, in the stability it provides. It’s also quite “cold”, and the negative associations of Machiavelli’s name today are not entirely without reason.

Jim Jones was a highly successful leader, if one looks at the depths of his followers’ commitment. Demagogues, from the ancient world to the present, have often been successful, building broad, passionate support and stamping the world deeply with their imprints. Preachers wealthy from “shearing” their flocks are, by some standards, successful influencers. The captain and the chaplain behind the massacre at Mystic were quite effective in leading others to fulfill their objectives.

The thing is, leadership isn’t inherently positive. Influence, vision, motivation, strategy, changemaking, persuasion, and efficacy can all be horrible things.

A lot of leaders shouldn’t be leading. Many are leading toward harmful goals. Many are “leading” for the side benefits: the prestige, the identity validation, the economic gain. And some lead with positive goals, but lead poorly, negating the value they might offer to humanity.

Could it be that leadership would benefit from being a profession, with gated admission, a code of ethics, and competency requirements? “Mr. Smith, after reviewing your objectives and actions and surveying your colleagues, the review board has imposed a mandatory suspension of your leadership responsibilities and influence. An application for resumption will be considered if submitted within three months. The application should include both a demonstration of the social good of your objectives and a specific plan for remediation of the issues addressed in the attachment.”

A “leadership profession” is hardly likely, to be sure, and probably a bad idea. But how might things change if each of us established a “review board” inside their head? This “board” would enforce a basic set of leadership standards on ourselves, and coach us through improvement when we fail. When others “betray the leadership profession”, we’d help them redirect, or work to de-legitimize them as leaders if they reject such standards? How would we keep that ethos from turning into a circular firing squad?

What would a foundational set of leadership standards look like? Is a shared set of standards even possible?

I don’t know. I do think, though, that a story about Jesus sheds light for me. The story goes that his apprentices were with him, and jockeying among themselves for status. And Jesus sees this happening (they were all together), and he gets up, grabs a towel, and starts washing the besandaled, road-dirty feet of every one of his apprentices who were with him. The teacher, stooping in front of each apprentice and scrubbing his polluted feet! They were, of course, appalled, even shamed, that he was doing this to them. And then he told them: “You know that those who lead ‘out there’ can do whatever they want, and other people call them great and good. But among you–someone who is ‘great’ will be a servant to others.”

What does a foundational set of leadership standards look like? What distinguishes a good leader from one who shouldn’t lead? How might we, collectively, increase the prevalence of beneficial, competent leadership?

Three-Minute Thought: The Skills of Miners and Mongols

One pattern of learning is to delve deep into a subject, going far beneath the surface to find the treasures that no one else sees. These mines hold treasures, and they’re unassailable–but it’s easy to block the entrance to the “surface” world.

Another pattern is that of the Mongol hordes. Their pattern was to move fast, spend a bit of time securing the territory, and then sweep onward, taking with them a harvest of intellectuals and craftsmen from the conquered cities. They were formidable…and as they went, their culture changed to something new.

The Mandelbrot set, a fractal, is infinite in detail, yet it fits in a constrained space. Yeast also grows in fractal fashion, yet in expansionary mode.

The empire of the mind needs to produce its own treasure. The empire needs intellectual raiders.