Thursday, February 18, 2016

Axiomatic Living

As a guest speaker addressing a graduating class I am bound to advance, in addition to well-deserved congratulations, something helpful about navigating the future. There likely isn't anything in this life which hasn't been said before and I can pretty much guarantee you won't hear anything novel from me. There are however certain truths which bear repeating and I would like to share them with you. I propose to set out ten concise principles for daily living. These principles are what I call axioms, adages which are not only undeniably true by definition (such as 1 + 1 = 2) but importantly are self-fulfilling prescriptions for success.

By way of introduction and to provide an overview of the flavour of these principles consider this brainteaser. It's a reminder that things are not always what they appear:
If a baseball and a bat cost $1.10 together, and the bat costs $1.00 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

While you cogitate upon that (and hopefully without diverting yourself from attending what else I have to say) permit me the effrontery to say I have welcome news for you; namely, life doesn't have to be hard. An outsider looking at this privileged assembly might readily be forgiven thinking that not one of you has reason to be wary. If as I suspect you don't wholeheartedly embrace that unqualified proposition I'd like to share indicia which might persuade you otherwise.
Deciphering these axiomatic principles is the unglamorous scientific method of applying thought to the raw material of day-to-day events. Thoughtful analysis will elevate what at first glance appears tawdry empirical data about everyday occurrences to scientific knowledge about the universe. That is, there is (1) an objective reality which is (2) governed by natural laws that are (3) discoverable through observation.
What distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge or philosophy is that it is testable and reliable. The study of human conduct, however, lends itself less agreeably to the methodology. Human conduct can become mired in convolutions. It seems hardly possible to provide any really useful insight into the governance of one’s life (assuming there is any such inclination in the first place) in view of what is frequently the illogical enterprise of living. I mean to say, living your life is not like running a business. Or is it? Can there be rules applicable to the fruitful conduct of one’s life in much the same way as there are dependable business models? Is there an ascertainable hierarchy which stimulates and regulates our lives? Or are the so-called secrets of living merely standardized franchise, a potentially dampening throttle upon what should be an adventure not a prediction?
The scientific method is a disciplined way to study the natural world, an attempt to correspond the phenomena of the material universe with its laws. Admittedly there is a tendency for the pursuit of knowledge (which is what the Latin word “scientia” means) to become bogged down in what is charitably called “formal science” as opposed to the less abstract “applied science”. An example of applied science is the practical question of the best way for a human being to live, the very object of philosophy as touted by Socrates notwithstanding that his student Aristotle chose to maintain a sharp distinction between science and practical knowledge (which he somewhat snobbishly considered as less lofty). My own inclination is against theoretical deduction and more for reliance upon raw data to establish universal rules.
Well, that's unquestionably a heady beginning for what started out as an entertaining enquiry about the cost of a baseball.  Before addressing that particular enquiry I should divert myself to give a synoptic account of my inglorious past. I attended St. Andrew's more than fifty years ago. Here's what matters about that:

. the Beatles hit North America in 1963 and appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show";

. in 1963 US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; I recall Headmaster Robert Coulter summoning the entire school to assemble in the Chapel where I saw the American boys weep when the announcement was made;

. in 1964 the Ford motor company began producing the Mustang, the automaker's most successful launch since the Model A; I recall riding up the hill from the Front Gates in a red Mustang convertible owned by my roommate's father;

. J. D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye" was being read in Lower Sixth Form at a time when several U.S. high school teachers who assigned the book were fired or forced to resign for censorship reasons which included repetitive coarse language and references to prostitution and flatulence; I have since thought that the only other book of equally compelling persuasion which I would like to have seen on the SAC reading list is "Up from Slavery" by Booker T. Washington because of its universal themes of hope and ability.

It would be over 30 years before the events of the world again touched me so personally as they had at St. Andrew's. By then it was the advent of the fax machine, computers, SmartPhones and the Internet.  Word processing and on-line commerce changed my life - this from someone who remembers using a pay phone and for whom television was until then the greatest technological invention.

As for the baseball bat and ball question, the answer (as you probably know) is that the ball cost 5 cents.
The test was designed by Professor Shane Frederick of the MIT Sloan School of Management in America, who claims the question is easy in that the solution is easily understood when explained. To arrive at the right answer candidates need to suppress the first response that springs to the mind and instead work it out logically. But of the 3,000 students Professor Frederick tested, fewer than half gave the correct answer to the question about the relative cost of the bat and a ball.
This simple test illustrates that as patent as life may appear - and in the end it is - it nonetheless requires some thought to obtain the correct result.

Undoubtedly most people, given the choice, would opt for a simple code of conduct over a complicated one. Relying upon self-evident truths provides an artless guide.  It helps to have some direction about where to look for the goods.  As I was told years ago in the Chapel at St. Andrew's, "There are two ways to get down a river: Either you know where to go or where not to go". It's a simple as that.  Life in its most abstract distillation is strangely binary.

Let’s take a run at how to get down that river by looking at 10 short principles:
1. Do what you do best. This has been repeated by many people including no less than the late Steve Jobs. There is a corollary which frequently attends; namely, “Do what you do best and out-source the rest”. Either way it is a mandate to avoid things you dislike, things you find hard to do, things that you cannot perform either expediently or qualitatively. It is axiomatic that if you do what you like, you’ll like what you do.
2. Listen to your instincts. Living intuitively is not exactly what has been fostered by our educational system. For years we are taught to be cerebral not visceral. The emphasis is on rationality not impulsiveness. Nonetheless I am a firm believer in the validity of innate non-rational thinking. We are foremost animals, and like animals we have to train ourselves to trust and rely upon the notions which are deeply encoded, ideas which often only become clear with time (hopefully not when you find yourself saying, “I knew I shouldn’t have done that!”). Acknowledging our inherent aptitudes takes practice and requires routine cultivation, not just lip service.
3. Any damn fool can make money but it takes a smart man to keep it. It may sound trivial to drag money into the subject, but ignorance of this important subject is not bliss. Too many people aggravate their lives by side-stepping this fundamental edict. If we kept our minds more upon debt reduction and less upon acquisition we would sleep a great deal better and be none the worse for it. I can further recommend P. T. Barnum's (of the Circus fame)  book "The Art of Money Getting" for some golden rules for making money.
4. Be nicer to others than necessary. As improbable as it may seem, everybody without exception is fighting a battle of one sort or another. Don’t be fooled by appearances. Besides, often the cost of being kind is so much less than the effort required to mount an offensive. You might be quite surprised by the return upon the investment.
5. If she knows why she loves him she doesn’t. I frequently entertain myself by asking people to tell me why they are so fond of one person or another. This conniving enquiry can often lay bare some candid conclusions.
6. Criticism is the best autobiography. There is a fine line between careful commentary and self-reflective abuse. In most instances the author of the invective has no idea what he or she is saying about himself or herself rather than the purported object of the slight.
7. You can’t give what you don’t have. Normally this is an over-riding principle of contract law but it can be poignant in many other circumstances.
8. Believe what you see. Credibility is a two-way street. If we are to build dependable and reliable relationships we must strive for authenticity. Accepting what we see in others legitimizes them and can help us avoid a lot of foolishness and subsequent misunderstandings.
9. The harder I work, the luckier I get. This is one of those blunt and unavoidable truths. For as long as I have known, there is nothing like elbow grease to get things moving. Mere intelligence and wit sadly have little to do with sustained accomplishment.
10. Honesty is the best policy as long as you’re not in trouble. Sometimes the truth can do more harm than good. I’m not here counseling scandalous lies; but the occasional bit of taradiddle never hurts. It is possible to be more serious about life than warranted. This prescript is along the lines of not being reluctant to crawl when you're wrong.  It's just good practical sense and eliminates so much unnecessary fuss.

That concludes what I have to say.  You'd be right if you imagine that I have tried to relate the sum of my lifetime experience.  I consider it an obligation of older people to share with younger people what knowledge they have. I trust you'll agree that the application of those principles is very much in your hands.  Good luck and congratulations upon your graduation!

I must include one further example from the "Tricky Questions" department:

 'Total number of each animal that Moses took on the ark with him during the great flood.' Jennings lost the buzz to Matt Kleinmaier, a medical student from Chicago, who answered, 'What is two?' It was wrong. Jennings, aware that it was supposed to be tricky, noticed that it asked for 'each animal' instead of 'each species.' He buzzed for a second chance at the clue and answered, 'What is one?' That was wrong, too. The correct answer, which no one came up with, was 'What is zero?'

"Jennings and Kleinmaier had fallen for a trick. Each had focused on the gist of the clue -- the number of animals boarding the biblical ark -- while ignoring one detail: The ark builder was Noah, not Moses. This clue actually came from a decades-old psychological experiment, one that has given a name -- the Moses Illusion -- to the careless thinking that most humans employ.

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