The Impossibility of Meritocracy

In Paul Willis’s 1970s classic Learning to Labor: How Working Class Kids Get Working Class Jobs, he ends with a series of recommendations, one of which is that as a society we must learn to “recognise the contradiction of a meritocratic society and educational system where the majority must lose but all are asked in some way to share in the same ideology.


This is a powerful statement which I would like to work to unpack. A meritocratic society or meritocracy is one where an individual’s success and advancement are determined by one’s talents and abilities. Thus, the hardest working and the smartest can be successful and rise to the top. Which is all great – people should be rewarded according to their talents and efforts, right?

The only other element to consider though is that just as a meritocracy creates and propels winners, it also creates losers. A lot of losers.

And the dangerous thing about living in a society based on meritocratic principles is that it creates the illusion that poor outcomes are deserved. It encourages the judgement that an individual without strong prospects or with a poor educational track record is in their situation because of the choices they’ve made. The individual and their choices are largely to blame. The wealthy are wealthy because they deserve to be wealthy. And the poor are poor because they deserve to be poor.

But is a true meritocracy even possible? Alain de Botton in a TED talk states it well, ” I think it’s insane to believe that we will ever make a society that is genuinely meritocratic; it’s an impossible dream. The idea that we will make a society where literally everybody is graded, the good at the top, bad at the bottom, exactly done as it should be, is impossible. There are simply too many random factors: accidents, accidents of birth, accidents of things dropping on people’s heads, illnesses, etc. We will never get to grade them, never get to grade people as they should.” In a true meritocracy, one would have to account for one’s genes, one’s starting point in life, the quality of one’s teachers. We don’t, because we can’t.

Willis in his book tries to answer the questions, why is it that working class kids grow up to take on working class jobs and why is it that middle class kids grow up to take on middle class jobs? His answer more or less is that we live in a society that only purports to be meritocratic – but is actually far from it. In fact, Willis looks specifically at one of the institutions that should be a main engine and proponent of meritocracy, the educational system, and argues that in many ways our schools do the very opposite.

learning to labor

The educational system is a true vehicle of growth and class movement for some. Some students from poor and disadvantaged backgrounds obtain good grades, get into good schools, and have successful careers, enabling them to reach middle class or even higher. However, as Willis states quite aptly,

“To the individual working class person, mobility in this society may mean something. Some working class individuals do ‘make it’ and any particular individual may hope to be one of them. To the class or group at its own proper level, however, mobility means nothing at all.

Although individuals from a lower socioeconomic class may find success, success for a few individuals does not equate to success for the wider class. In fact, in some ways the success of a few individuals of a lower socioeconomic class serves both to legitimize the existing system (as in “See, – it works!) and condemn those who have not succeeded (“See, like him, you could have ‘made it’ but you didn’t – and so it’s your fault”).

The middle class comfort themselves by believing that they got to where they are through hard work, good grades, and their own intelligence. Which they have – except they don’t perhaps consider where they would have gotten had they started from a position of lesser advantage. Or how much further they could have gotten had they started from a position of greater advantage.

And those that are worse off either accept the ideology of the meritocracy which in the worst cases, in the words of Alain de Botton, “leads to increased rates of suicide. There are more suicides in developed, individualistic countries than in any other part of the world. And some of the reason for that is that people take what happens to them extremely personally — they own their success, but they also own their failure.”

Or, as Paul Willis found in his work, when they don’t accept the ideology, it leads to a sense of alienation from society and a rejection of its values. Willis found this sense of unfairness to be a source of rebellion in the classroom, “The refusal to compete, implicit in the counter-school culture, is therefore in this sense a radical act: it refuses to collude in its own educational suppression.” But such rebellion can be, as Willis describes, a ‘self-damnation’ of sorts. In rejecting and refusing to participate in a system that they recognize as unfair and oppressive, they further cut themselves off from society and decrease their chances at success. It is a dangerous cycle and one that is difficult to escape or recover from.

The idea of meritocracy can be damning to the weakest in society. It can serve to provide a sense of personal failure (even in cases where luck or circumstance are more to blame) or to alienate them. On the other hand, the idea of meritocracy comforts those of us who are better off. It creates the illusion that we are where we are because we deserve it, and others don’t. A sense of unearned privilege can be uncomfortable. But earned privilege feels fair. It provides a certain sense of comfort and helps to quiet our sense of obligation to help others.

So let’s just not fool ourselves. We don’t and never will live in a meritocracy. Perhaps we deserve what we have, but perhaps we don’t.

In Search of Short Stories: A Navigation Guide (sort of)

Finding books you like can take hard work, huge emphasis here on the you. Because chances are, what you like isn’t necessarily the same as what your mother likes or what your friend likes or what a New York Times critic likes or even what the judges of the Man Booker prize like. My point being, our tastes are all our own. The secret to enjoying reading is to know what you like – and then how to find it.

Thankfully, for books, there are some great tools out there to help us. There’s the popular Goodreads as well as the popular-among-librarian-types LibraryThing. Both websites have in their databases pretty much every in-print book out there (barring the very obscure and very old) along with a synopsis, user ratings, and user reviews. The sites will suggest similar titles to a book. They’re excellent resources. With a bit of work, you can more or less comb through the plethora of books out there, cherry-picking the ones that might appeal to you, based on real data.

safariIt is a different story unfortunately for shorter works – short stories and creative nonfiction articles specifically (hereon, for simplicity’s sake, both are referred to as ‘short stories’). I have yet to find a resource out there that makes it easy – or forget easy, possible, to comb through the content out there to find pieces that will speak to you.

In my mind, here is the current landscape: In order to obtain an overview of current short stories, one would have to manually check a multitude of websites, magazines, and lit journals. To catch even a sampling of what exists would mean regularly checking dozens of websites on a regular basis.

Like with books, there are various ‘gold standards’ one can refer to that do some of the curation work for you, that select from the sludge piles the ‘best of the best’ – lists of award winning short stories, anthologies of ‘the best’ short stories of 2017, noteworthy magazines, etc. But as with books, I buy very much into the theory that tastes differ and tastes matter. So – how then to find what we like?

The current landscape of the short story world to me is books pre-Goodreads, music pre-Spotify, and recipes pre-Pinterest. It is a cumbersome, manual business to sift through and find what one likes.

An ideal scenario would be the existence of some sort of platform that allowed users to rate and review short stories, tag them according to subject matter, mood, or other descriptive terms (ex: funny, historical, grief), keep track of what they’ve read and liked, and receive suggestions for new pieces they might like based on past activity. Sadly, I have yet to find such a tool.

So while I wait, I’m still finding short stories that speak to me and am still very grateful for the content and authors out there. I just have to work a little harder to find them. Here’s my current approach.

The Work I do to Find Short Stories

My Tool of Choice: Surprisingly, Twitter. Why Twitter? Most magazines, online literary journals, and authors themselves will promote new content on Twitter. By following these various accounts, you can quickly build up a constantly updated feed of new short work to consider – your pool. (Medium, WordPress, and others are also options – but I’ve found publications/authors are more likely to have Twitter accounts than accounts on other platforms.)

Cast a Wide Net: At time of writing, I currently follow 1,186 accounts. Is this too many? Quite possibly to almost definitely. However, whenever I come across a writer, magazine, or website that I think I *might* be interested in, I follow them. My theory is: cast a wide net and then from that, filter. I’d prefer to be able to consider and then rule out something rather than not consider it at all (and potentially miss something good).

Go Down Those Rabbit Holes: How do you find the right accounts/writers/magazines to follow? First, start with following a couple of accounts of names you know (look for a favorite magazine or author). From there you have a few options.
– Twitter is great at suggesting new and similar accounts to follow. Sometimes these suggestions are terrible, and sometimes they’re good.
– Look at the feed of an account you’re following. Who are they retweeting? Whose tweets are they liking? Which Twitter accounts do they follow? Could these be possible accounts you might be interested in? Has anyone added the account you’re following to a List of accounts? If so, could other accounts on this List also be interesting?
– Whenever you come across an author, magazine, or website whether on Twitter, elsewhere online, or offline, check to see if there are related Twitter accounts you can follow.

Sort and Categorize: Now that you have all these accounts that you follow, make it easier on yourself and categorize them into your own Lists on Twitter. Are there natural groupings that occur – possible distinctions could be by account type: ‘Writers’ versus ‘Lit Magazines/Sites’ or by work type, ‘Short Story’ versus ‘Creative Nonfiction.’ You may pull out a few you love especially and create a ‘Favorites’ List.

Read: Read through your feed and Lists. Look for tweets that are linking you to possible new material. Follow a link. Browse through the piece. If you enjoy it, ‘like’ the tweet. This will also bookmark it for you under your likes.

Weed Regularly: This is the part I could be better at. In addition to looking for accounts and pieces to love, be on the constant lookout for accounts that just aren’t working for you. After a couple of irrelevant or disappointing tweets, consider unfollowing an account.

Repeat: Keep adding new accounts, keep updating your lists, keep finding new material you like, review your likes every now and again for clues as to which accounts you’re liking again and again (and which you can then bump up to a ‘favorites’ List), weed out/remove accounts that don’t match your tastes.

This process saves me the work of one-by-one checking a very long list of websites. Again, it’s definitely not perfect, not by a long shot. A few notable downsides: I’m only considering online free material, and material not backed somehow by an active twitter account is significantly handicapped. I also don’t use this method exclusively. In addition, I subscribe to the mailing lists and newsletters of sites that I know I love.

Still looking for a better way – so if someone has ideas – or wants to invent something (an app of Goodreads quality or higher?!), I’m all ears.

As a side note, here are a few great sites out there that I’ve stumbled across as well as a few pieces I really enjoyed in 2017.

Sites I frequent:
Hippocampus Magazine – “an exclusively online publication set out to entertain, educate and engage writers and readers of creative nonfiction. Each issue features memoir excerpts, personal essays, reviews, interviews and craft articles”
Catapult – “produces an award-winning daily online magazine of narrative nonfiction and fiction”
Guernica – “a magazine of global arts and politics”
Narrative Magazine – “A renowned modern library of fiction, poetry, essays, and visual art by celebrated and emerging artists, provided free to readers.”
The Rumpus – “features interviews, book reviews, essays, comics, and critiques of creative culture as well as original fiction and poetry”
Dear Damsels – Dear Damsels is an online platform championing young female voices – a place where women can come together online, to read and write about the things that matter to them

A few great pieces:
“Ice” – River Teeth Journal
“Woven” – Catapult
“Zhiyu/Jerry” – The Rumpus
“I Knew She Was Beautiful” – The New Yorker

What I’ve Discovered in 2017 (the bookish version)

I’m a list-maker. I love lists, and I make lots of them. As a kid, I think I once tried to inventory everything that was in my parents’ home (down to the number of pencils and spoons). This project, unsurprisingly, was never finished. And so here is a different list.


It is not a Best Books of 2017 list. I don’t read nearly enough newly published books to even attempt such a list. In fact, I have trouble making ‘best-of’ lists in general. Don’t they imply that you’ve somehow read/experienced/tasted/watched the gamut? I have not. And so this list is less ambitious. Out of all of the things I have come across and experienced this year, this list details what I have been most happy to discover.

EDIT: My initial list of things discovered was far too long. This is the abridged book/reading-related version.

What I’ve Discovered in 2017 (the bookish version)

1. You don’t have to finish the books you start

I used to have some pretty heavy guilt if there were books sitting on my shelves that I either hadn’t gotten to yet or hadn’t finished. This was most severe if the book was a classic, a recommendation from a friend, or ‘supposed to be really good’ by any other standard. But reading without enjoyment seems to me to defeat the entire purpose of reading (save of course what we have to trudge through during school and study). Reading without enjoyment also prevents you from getting to other books you’ll enjoy more. There are millions and millions of books out there – far more than you can ever hope to get to within your lifetime. Why waste your time on books that for whatever reason just aren’t interesting to you? Since embracing the idea that not finishing books is indeed okay, I have read far far more this year than I have in previous years – frankly because every (well, most) pages were enjoyable – and when they stopped being enjoyable, I just put the book down. See my previous post for more elaboration on the reasons why it doesn’t always make sense to finish the books that we start.

This habit of starting and stopping and abandoning books also works best when the books are free – as in, borrowed from a library, which brings me to my next point.

2. I love libraries

It’s not that I didn’t like libraries before – I just don’t think I’d ever been exposed to them in the right way and/or given them a true chance. I have fond (as well as tormented) memories of studying in the library while in university and I loved the Black Diamond Royal Library while I was living in Copenhagen. But I loved those libraries in the same way I like a nice bookstore or a cozy coffeeshop – as a space to sit.

This year though, thoughtlessly, I fell into libraries. It started with wanting a place to sit and read and work that was quieter than the coffeeshop I’d been frequenting – and where I didn’t feel guilty about staying past finishing my latte. And then I found so much more than a nice place to sit, namely:

A Few Reasons Why I Love Libraries

ONE: The obvious (but perhaps overlooked, at least by me) fact that you have access to basically any book you could want, for free. I’m lucky to live in a city with a well-funded and large library system. We can get from within our library system (or request via Interlibrary Loan) more or less any book title. For free. In my particular library system, this means I can check out 100 books at a time, with 3 week loan periods and the possibility to renew up to 6 months (provided nobody else is waiting on my copy). Sometimes, I just don’t understand why libraries aren’t a bigger threat to booksellers. That said, before 2017, I hardly went to the library. The biggest difference though is that before, I read much much less. I also ‘tried out’ books less. Today, I usually check out 6-7 books a week. I will browse through all of these, decide not to read 4-5 of them, actually read 2 from front to cover, – and then check out 6 more books the next week. If we assume that each book costs a (conservatively low) $15, that equates to a whopping $4,680 yearly book habit had I been buying instead of borrowing books.

TWO: Libraries are the last (truly) public indoor spaces. In many communities, libraries are the only indoor public spaces where you can spend as much time as you want and where there isn’t an expectation for you to purchase anything or spend any money. Coffee shops, bars, and shopping malls are all great places to meet up with friends, socialize, or just sit – but there is always the expectation of the purchase. And there is always the sense of outstaying one’s welcome should no purchase be made. In this sense, libraries are glaringly unique.

THREE: Libraries are putting on amazing events and programs. I was surprised by how many events my local library holds. From story time for kids to free yoga to knitting clubs to homework help sessions to family craft nights to writing workshops and local history lectures, they host such an impressive slew of free events on a daily basis. In this way, they’re becoming places not only to read but also to learn, to interact with others, to create and to make.

FOUR: They have the potential to be even more. Libraries in general are moving away from their traditional function – of being a building that houses books – and towards being a collaborative community space that facilitates learning. And learning can take place in many shapes and forms – from the reading of books to the usage of databases to the participation in classes to the joining of groups to meeting others with like-minded interests. The Aspen Institute’s 2014 Report, Rising to the Challenge: Re-Envisioning Public Libraries states it beautifully. On page 5, I found this quick and perfect summary that captures the role public libraries can play in today’s changing world and economy:

What People and Communities Need to Flourish in the Knowledge Economy


LIFELONG ACCESS to an ever-increasing and ever-changing body of knowledge and tools to ensure that their skills remain relevant to the current economy as it continues to evolve

mounds of links and piles of data that provide too much information and too little knowledge

THE ABILITY TO USE, UNDERSTAND AND PROCESS INFORMATION IN MANY DIFFERENT FORMS including text, data, audio and video and to evaluate the quality of information from different sources and understand its relevance.

PLACES TO GATHER, collaborate and contribute to knowledge development

ACCESS TO CONVERSATIONS AMONG CREATIVE PEOPLE in their areas of interest so that they
can innovate and develop or maintain a competitive advantage in the knowledge economy

People and communities need PUBLIC LIBRARIES.

3. I can store, organize, search, and remember – what I’ve read

For the full, lengthy original post, click here. This year, Zotero has been my godsend. In short, it’s a research tool traditionally primarily used by students and researchers to keep track of journal articles and other documents read as part of academic research. I use it as a tool to keep track of what I read. When I come across things I read that I want to remember, I categorize, tag, and store these quotations and snippets of text within Zotero. I add notes and there’s a logical structure within which my excerpts are sorted so that I can find them later. Now, a year into using Zotero, I have thousands of quotations and excerpts all catalogued and searchable of all the things that I’ve read, loved, and wanted to remember. I can search – say using the tag – ‘creativity’ and find 20 different excerpts I’ve come across in the past year. I absolutely love this system.

4. Text Mining of literature is a very cool thing

My two favorite things are probably books and data. So, needless to say, it was a very good day when I learned about text mining and its application in analyzing literature, done through institutions such as the Stanford Literary Lab. The general idea behind text mining is that there are so many books that have been published and that are still being published that it’s impossible to expect to be able to read them all. How then can anyone expect to gain a comprehensive overview of ‘literature’ considering that a single person can only hope to read a slim portion of ‘literature’? Further, today through various efforts including Project Gutenberg, much of the literary classics (that are no longer covered by copyright) are digitized and freely available. This presents a new opportunity to analyze these texts using traditional data methods. The text can be ‘tokenized’ into measurable units, either words or short word-pairings so that they are then readable as data and able to be studied through programs like R & Python.

Examples of possible analyses include looking at word frequencies or lengths of sentences within a novel. Or to ask, are there more words with positive connotations during certain portions of a novel? Or, do male and female characters use different types of words? The Stanford Literary Lab has done some fascinating work. One of its pamphlets looked at the ‘Emotions of London‘ as expressed in literature. Place names were identified throughout a broad corpus (data set) of novels and the adjectives used to describe those place names were coded as positive or negative in emotion. The result of the project was a fascinating map of London color coded to display the breadth of emotion associated with each area as expressed in literature.

The possibilities for analysis, I think, are endless. Novels to some degree are a record of the feelings and thoughts of the time in which they were written. You could search within thousands of novels for the changing depiction of marriage, fidelity, and infidelity. You could analyze changing thoughts about death and the afterlife. You could look at conversations between servant and master, mother and child. Basically any analysis that has been done through close examination and careful scrutiny of a few texts can now be attempted through digital analysis of a large swath of texts. In a very nerdy sort of way, I find that all really exciting.

Journey of the Universe: A Lyrical Ode to the Role of Wonder in Human Understanding

Journey of the Universe reads like a poem to the beauty of life. It tells, in breathtaking prose, the creation story of our universe. From detailing the Big Bang to the first signs of life to the evolution of mammals, humans, and the development of human consciousness, Journey of the Universe reads less like a textbook but more like a lyrical celebration of our world and how we got here. It was such a refreshing and moving take on a story we all may think we’re familiar with, but perhaps, as I learned, have never truly stopped to appreciate.


And the difference between Journey of the Universe and many other tellings of the same story, is wonder. While all great science is driven by curiosity and the desire to know, Journey of the Universe feels especially imbued with a sense of wonder and awe.

As a process – say photosynthesis – is described (as below), you cannot help but to feel the authors marvel and to marvel yourself at something you somehow never realized was so splendid.

[On photosynthesis] “After the emergence of life itself, one of the most stunning manifestations of this deepening communion is that of photosynthesis. The key construction, requiring perhaps tens of millions of years, was a molecular assembly capable of an elegant resonance with sunlight. Like tuning forks shaped to vibrate in the presence of certain sorts of music, these special molecules, called chlorophyll, glow with energy when the light from our Sun falls upon them. The photons, when captured, lift electrons to a higher energy state, which immediately sets off a cascade of chemical events leading to the creation of powerhouse molecules within every cell. Life thus found a process of feeding upon the Sun in a direct way, drawing in sunlight and using its energy to synthesize its component parts.”

And being in awe and in appreciation of a concept is what fuels a true desire to understand and to learn. In the same way that Bill Nye’s science experiments aim to ‘wow’ middle grade students in science class, authors Brian Swimme and Mary Tucker seem to aim to awaken us adults to ‘wow’ at our world. Understanding fueled by a sense of wonder is passionate, creative, and driven. Wonder marks the difference between the rote memorization, recitation, and regurgitation of facts versus self-led discovery fueled by one’s one curiosity.

Along similar lines, philosopher Hannah Arendt in The Life of the Mind wrote,

It is wonder that sends the scientist on his course of “dispelling ignorance” and that made Einstein say: “The eternal mystery of the world [i.e., the universe] is its comprehensibility.

Authors Swimme and Tucker are patently aware of the role of wonder. Wonder, in their eyes, is what has made humans unique and is what has led us to seek to understand. They write,

“Wonder is a gateway through which the universe floods in and takes up residence within us. Consider the stars. They shined down on Earth for four and a half billion years. Then these new creatures emerged, these humans. What was different about them is that they were amazed every time they beheld the stars. Their amazement inspired works of art and science. Hundreds of thousands of years later, humans discovered that it was these stars that forged the elements of their bodies.

By dwelling in a world of wonder, humans were led to realize that they were children of the stars – something intuited in early myths and uncovered by modern science.”

On a deeper level, Swimme and Tucker argue that wonder is also what makes us human. And a continuing sense of wonder allows us today to move forward in further understanding exactly what being human in the context of our universe means.

“Wonder is not just another emotion; it is rather an opening into the heart of the universe. Wonder is the pathway into what it means to be human, to taste the lusciousness of sun-ripened fruit, to endure the bleak agonies of heartbreak, to exult over the majesty of existence.

The universe’s energies penetrate us and awaken us. Through each moment of wonder, no matter how small, we participate in the entrance of primal energies into our lives.

However insignificant we may feel with respect to the age and size of the universe, we are, even so, beings in whom the universe shivers in wonder at itself. By following this wonder we have discovered the ongoing story of the universe, a story that we tell, but a story that is also telling us.”

Similarly, I love these simple lines from the Tao Te Ching:

From wonder into wonder

Existence opens.

On Finally Appreciating, “How are you?”

It’s taken me a while to appreciate the question, “How are you?” For the longest time, it bothered me. At work, I would pass someone in the hall. As we walked towards each other, I’d hear a “Hey Jennifer, how are you?” but before I could answer we’d already have passed each other and I’d mumble a “Fine, thanks” into an empty hallway.

Or on the phone with a supplier, “Hi Jennifer, how are you?” “I’m good, thanks. How about you?” “Yeah, doing well.” Great. Glad we got that useless nothing out of the way.


It just seemed pointless, fake. A shallow pretense of caring without the appropriate goodwill and feelings behind it. I preferred my conversations to be authentic. As in, please don’t ask me how I’m doing unless you genuinely care.

My non-American friends seemed to agree. Together we’d complain about this strange American thing that we didn’t understand. Until lately.

I work now in a library in a small town. Jones, Oklahoma. Population 2,600. People like to say that if you blink while you’re coming down the road, you’ll miss it. There’s a Sonic Drive-Thru, a Dollar General, and not too much else.

People here really like the whole “How are you?” thing. I’m expected to ask it. And so I do. At first, it was with a heavy dose of awkwardness and uncomfortableness that was not entirely all in my head. I’d have customers tilt their heads and ask me, “What was that?” Really, it’s not a question I’ve been used to asking. And there’s a whole art to asking it at the right time, at the right volume, with the right inflection.

But now that I have a few months of practice under my belt (timing, volume, and inflection are thankfully coming along), I see the question as holding so much more.

Most importantly, I see it now as an invitation to connect and share that can be accepted or politely declined. What I mean by this is that a lot of time, people don’t need in that moment the “How are you?” They answer it just like I usually do – with a “Fine, thanks” and the conversation stops there.

But sometimes, I’ll ask the question and you see them pause and there’s a change in the eyes. And they share. We’ll spend five minutes talking about the difficulties of having a child with ADHD or a member’s failing vision and their fears of losing independence in driving. An older gentleman will brag about his young granddaughter and a middle aged woman will prattle off each and every dish she and her family had for Thanksgiving. Without that “How are you?’ though, there is no invitation to share. There is no possibility for connecting. When you say “How are you?” I feel like what you’re really saying is, “I have time today to talk to you, and if you want to talk, we can. What’s on your mind?”

I’ve never been one to naturally share, and so excluding conversations with friends and family, I’ve don’t really myself take others up on the invitation. But many people do. I’m always surprised by how many people just seem to want to talk – and for a long time. If the library is quiet, we’ll speak for ten or fifteen minutes just going through whatever’s on their mind.

And if the question is never asked, there is no possibility really, of connecting. I’ll get them their books and we’ll tell each other the rote “Have a nice day,” but without anything more. An opportunity missed.

The Experts Weigh In – on Disagreeing

Nuggets of wisdom on How, Why, and To What Ends we disagree from some of my favorite writers and philosophers.

As horribly conflict-averse as I am (I suffer from a crippling tendency to be a people pleaser), disagreement has been on my mind lately. I wonder about the best way to disagree, why we can disagree so strongly on things that seem so trivial, and how it is possible that we can disagree so fundamentally and irreconcilably when it comes to some of the most important of issues (think pretty much the entire political landscape in 2017).

And so I have mined from what I’ve read some nuggets of wisdom on disagreeing – among which, fittingly, there is somewhat a lack of consensus. Take from it what you will.


Bertrand Russell on How to Overcome our Biases

The below is taken from Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy in which Russell strives to objectively describe the contributions made by key individuals in Western philosophy. Early on in the book, Russell acknowledges the challenges of bias and outlines a methodology useful for considering the ideas of others objectively, despite any disagreements we may have with their ideas.

Although the context here is studying the contributions of philosophers, I think this approach could be used in a variety of settings, including those of a political nature where it is often so challenging for one side to truly understand the viewpoints of the other.

“In studying a philosopher, the right attitude is neither reverence nor contempt, but first a kind of hypothetical sympathy, until it is possible to know what it feels like to believe in his theories, and only then a revival of the critical attitude, which should resemble, as far as possible, the state of mind of a person abandoning opinions which he has hitherto held.

Contempt interferes with the first part of this process, and reverence with the second.”

All in all,

Two things are to be remembered:

1) A man whose opinions and theories are worth studying may be presumed to have had some intelligence

2) No man is likely to have arrived at complete and final truth on any subject whatever.

And further,

When an intelligent man expresses a view which seems to us obviously absurd, we should not attempt to prove that it is somehow true, but we should try to understand how it ever came to seem true. This exercise of historical and psychological imagination at once enlarges the scope of our thinking, and helps us to realize how foolish many of our own cherished prejudices will seem to an age which has a different temper of mind.”

Eckhart Tolle on How Much Can Seem at Stake Even in the Most Trivial of Arguments

[From Eckart Tolle’s A New Earth]

“What is an argument? Two or more people express their opinions and these opinions differ. Each person is so identified with the thoughts that make up their opinion, that those thoughts harden into mental positions which are invested with a sense of self. In other words: Identity and thought merge. Once this has happened, when I defend my opinions (thoughts), I feel and act as if I were fighting for survival and so my emotions will reflect this unconscious belief. They become turbulent. I am upset, angry, defensive, or aggressive. I need to win at all cost lest I become annihilated.”

Tolle captures perfectly how even the simplest and most trivial of issues can create the most heated of arguments. In these situations, the actual issue at stake is less what is being argued over – but more likely pride, identity, and one’s need to feel right and validated.

Alain de Botton’s excellent The Course of Love carries similar insights in its exploration of the ups and downs in romantic relationships.

Daniel Kahneman on How Facts Don’t Actually Always Matter

In a recent episode of Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast she interviewed Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who has won the Nobel Prize in economics and the author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Together, they discussed how our beliefs – and therefore our disagreements are in many ways fundamentally irrational.

Kahneman is quoted below,

“When I ask you about something that you believe in — whether you believe or don’t believe in climate change or whether you believe in some political position or other — as soon as I raise the question why, you have answers. Reasons come to your mind. But the way that I would see this is that the reasons may have very little to do with the real causes of your beliefs. So the real cause of your belief in a political position, whether conservative or radical left, the real causes are rooted in your personal history. They’re rooted in who are the people that you trusted and what they seemed to believe in, and it has very little to do with the reasons that come to your mind, why your position is correct and the position of the other side is nonsensical. And we take the reasons that people give for their actions and beliefs, and our own reasons for our actions and beliefs, much too seriously

Even if you did destroy the arguments that people raise for their beliefs, it wouldn’t change their beliefs. They would just find other arguments…

The reason [people] don’t change their minds is that facts don’t matter, or they matter much less than people think.

Theodore Zeldin on the Benefits of Disagreement

And finally, ever the idealist (see Zeldin’s hopes for the future of creativity and cooking here), Theodore Zeldin describes quite beautifully a different image of disagreement – one in which there is opportunity for growth, conversation, and an expansion of what we had previously considered possible.

“Disagreement forces us to clarify our thoughts, to put thoughts into words, and to discover new questions. Without disagreement, there would be no reflection, no search for truth, no enlivening conversation; humans would have nothing to dissuade them from constantly repeating the same platitudes, nothing to expand their tastes and their sense of wonder.”

(from The Hidden Pleasures of Life by Theodore Zeldin)


Bullet in the Brain, David Hume, & What Makes Us Curious

Certain facts, certain books, certain entire fields of study leave us unfazed, unstimulated, and generally uninterested. And yet, sometimes something – anything – a mere phrase, can arrest the attention and set the mind reeling.


There is a short story by Tobias Wolff called “Bullet in the Brain” about a man named Anders, a book critic, who is shot in the head during a bank robbery gone wrong. As the bullet enters his brain, it fires off all sorts of synapses and moments of his life flash before him. Despite everything that he has experienced in his life, what he remembers, rather than his marriage, the birth of a child, and his achievements – is playing baseball and a phrase one of the kids said:

“Short stop,” the boy says, “Short’s the best position they is.”

Anders was struck by this phrase. He was “strangely roused, elated, by those two final words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.”

The story ends with Anders in his final moments replaying the words, “They is, they is, they is.

I love this short story and I love thinking about how some things can capture our attention in ways that sometimes feel mysterious. Certain things just appeal to us and we’re left wondering why.

I recently came across this statement about curiosity and the ideas that interest us.

Not every fact elicits our curiosity, but occasionally one will become sufficiently important, “if the idea strikes us with such force, and concerns us so nearly, as to give uneasiness in its instability and inconstancy.” (Quote attributed to David Hume, found in Curiosity by Alberto Manguel)

While the statement leaves unanswered why certain facts might ‘strike us with such force,’ I am interested in the second part of the phrasing: as to give us uneasiness in its instability and inconstancy. Interesting facts are interesting to us partly because they contain some instability or inconstancy so as to cause us uneasiness.

This feels true. I think we can be most interested in things we don’t fully understand – as children we are drawn to the possibility of magic and fairy tales. As adults, what we don’t fully understand can be religion, other human beings and psychology, outer space and mankind’s place in the universe, natural disasters, modern evils – ISIS, terrorism. We understand enough to know that there is so much more that we don’t understand. And what we are able to understand feels tenuous next to all that we do not know. The idea doesn’t feel complete, but yet it feels important – and so we are curious. There is a yearning to complete the idea and to complete the understanding.

We can be interested in and drawn to the ideas that do not fully fit into our previous conceptions of how things are or how they should be – whether in our contemplations on new scientific theory or on the unexpected music of they is, they is, they is.