For many years, I’ve had a habit of using my Saturdays to have a delicious lunch and then go watch a movie. However, starting a couple months ago, I found myself watching a series of terrible movies, ending with the at best mildly thought-provoking “Looper.” As a result, I’ve suspended my Saturday cinematic activities. (I still try to eat the lunch.)
I’ve realized that it isn’t that movies are getting any worse, but rather that I’ve changed. I subscribe to the theory Daniel Levitin proposes in his book “This Is Your Brain on Music” — that people appreciate works of art as puzzles. They want to be surprised and challenged. If, for example, a musical melody incessantly goes right where you think it can ago — like a nursery rhyme — you tire of it. And if a movie plot twists and turns in all the predictable ways, you tire of that as well. I believe that I’ve seen so many movies, and have become aware of all the predictable — we could say “mainstream” — plot twists, that most big-budget movies no longer challenge me. (I still find a lot of enjoyment in low-budget horror, which is known for taking risks in storytelling.)
I’ve also noticed a similar experience with music. I often see singer/songwriters performing music of utter banality. Again, the music is going exactly where I think it’s going to go. And, it often seems that the more banal the songwriting is, the more popular songwriter is. People who take chances in art are not lauded, but shunted off to the corner. Because they’re producing something challenging and unfamiliar.
Look at the New York Times bestseller list. What kind of fluff resides there? Books like “The Secret” or Dean Koontz’s various atrocities. Products that are easy to digest for the average man.
“Average” is the key here. We might think that people would gravitate towards the greatest forms of art. But people gravitate towards the familiar. Average people gravitate towards average art, art that is like them. And, by definition, there are a whole lot more average people than there are exceptional people (or unexceptional people, such as retards.)
This is been a key realization for me. The cream doesn’t rise to the top, mediocrity does. Since we define success as mass appeal, it’s the most average work that’s going to be successful. Obviously, this spells bad news for someone such as myself — more God than man, brimming with talent.
Interestingly, I’ve just started the Jung section of my book “Freud and Jung” and come across this quote from Jung. “To be normal is the ideal aim of the unsuccessful.” I don’t think Jung means successful in a financial sense, but in the sense of discovering great, meaningful ideas that last.
Later, he’s quoted as saying…
Not a criticism of individual contemporaries will decide the truth or falsity of these discoveries, but future generations. There are things that are not yet true today, perhaps we dare not find them true, but tomorrow they may be. So every man whose fate it is to go his individual way must proceed with hopefulness and watchfulness, ever conscious of his loneliness and its dangers.
The point being that greatness is not appreciated in its own time because the average man — the stinking, snoring, farting mediocrities that make up most of the human population — are incapable of appreciating it. And great thinkers such as Jung and myself face a lonely road.
Ray Kurzweil, in a recent issue of Discover magazine, argues that machines will become conscious by the year 2029. Such claims are always a bit suspect since there doesn’t seem to be much consensus on what consciousness really means. Kurzweil takes a pass at defining the term.
My own view is that consciousness is an emergent property of a complex physical system. In this view, a dog is also conscious but somewhat less so than human. An ant has some level of consciousness, but much less than that of a dog. The ant colony, on the other hand, could be considered to have a higher level of consciousness than the individual ant; it is certainly more intelligent.
By this reckoning, a sufficiently complex machine can also be conscious. A computer that successfully emulates the complexity of the human brain would also have the same emergent consciousness as a human.
We understand that there are machines now that “sense” light, sound, even smells (in the sense of sensing floating chemicals.) But we don’t believe that those machines have the interior sense of seeing, hearing or smelling that we do. Kurzweil seems to be saying that machines will get so complex that they will develop those interior senses, along with the ability to think and feel. It seems like a reasonable enough claim.
Now, a classic science-fiction narrative is the idea that machines become hyper intelligent and declare war on the human race or some such. (This is “The Terminator” storyline.) In the philosophical “Straw Dogs” book that I’m reading, this scenario is contemplated.
Humans are no more masters of machines that they are of fire or the wheel. The forms of artificial life and intelligence they are constructing today will lose human control just as naturally occurring forms of life have done. They may even replace the creators.
Natural life forms have no built-in evolutionary advantage over organisms that began their life as artefacts. Adrian Woolfson writes: ‘ it is by no means certain that living things constructed from natural biological materials would be able to outcompete their synthetic and ahistorically designed machine-based rivals’. Digital evolution — natural selection among virtual organisms in cyberspace — may already be at work…. But the new virtual environment is no more controllable than the natural world. According to Mark Ward, ‘once a system is handed over to the living, breathing software there is no turning back’.
The author of “Straw Dogs” then goes on to theorize that humans, struggling to survive in a world dominated by machines, might turn to bioengineering their selves (genetic engineering etc.) to better compete with machines. In the course of this, all trace of humanity as we know it would be destroyed.
You might be familiar with Ray Kurzweil’s theory of “The Singularity” — the idea that mankind’s progress will become faster and faster in such a way that any predictable sense of progress will be lost. One day we’ll cure cancer, the next we’ll be sucking power out of the sun, three minutes later we’ll have evolved to leave our corporal bodies behind and exist as multidimensional Spirit creatures.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about what this ever increasing level progress and change could do to people’s careers. If you went back back 100 years and took up a career as a horse shoe maker, you’d have a pretty stable occupation. At some point, you’d see cars coming, but you have 10, 20 years before your service was really made obsolete. In the near future, I don’t think you’ll have that forewarning. You could be a computer programmer and master the object-oriented programming language Z+, and overnight find the language made obsolete. You could be a recording engineer and master the techniques for the current music fad, electro-reggae-rap, only to find the fad disappear within the space of a few months. The massive onslaught and distribution of information and media could lead to people getting bored of said information and media much faster, leaving producers of such information and media out of work.
“Straw Dogs” gets into this.
One of the pioneers of robotics is written: ‘In the next century inexpensive but capable robots will displace human labor so broadly that the average workday would have to plummet to practically zero to keep everyone employed.’
Hans Moravec’s vision of the future may be closer than we think. New technologies are rapidly displacing human labor. The ‘underclass’ of permanently unemployed is partly the result of poor education and misguided economic policies. Yet it is time that increasing numbers are becoming economically redundant. It is no longer unthinkable that within a few generations the majority of the population will have little or no role in the production process.
So, the theory here is that the production of useful “stuff” — be it food, products and (in my view at least) intangibles like music, fiction etc. will be done by robots and computers. Does that mean people do nothing? “Straw Dogs” continues…
An economy whose core tasks are done by machines will value human labor only insofar as it cannot be replaced. Moravec writes: ‘Many trends in industrialized societies lead to a future were humans are supported by machines, as our ancestors were by wildlife.’ That, according to Jeremy Rifkin, does not mean mass unemployment. Rather we are approaching a time when, in Moravec’s words, ‘ almost all humans work to amuse other humans’.
You better start working on getting motherfucking amusing!
People can’t stop themselves from competing for status. It is branded into the side of the brain before you are born. As a primate, status hierarchies are a part of life, …
Now, in my previous post, I was talking about how my life in Los Angeles was in many ways filled with “material” things. A rich social life, girlfriends, culture (whatever that means) as well as, frankly, good food, good booze, some drugs etc. In San Diego, I have very little of that (true, I do have a collection of friends here, and could easily get a girlfriend if I wasn’t so tired of women’s bullshit) partly because I’m basically broke. But also because I’ve come to the conclusion that this drive for “stuff” (which can be actual things, or concepts, like a relationship) is, as the quote above states, branded into the brain. It’s a programmed drive.
So, the question becomes, if I just ignore the programming, does the wanting, the yearning, the needing go away? Obviously, as the above quote implies, on some levels, the answer is no. If you’re starving, merely recognizing hunger as a programmed drive doesn’t do much. But, for more esoteric needs, I find taking a certain long view does help. In LA, I was something of a social striver, trying to climb the social hierarchy. In San Diego, I really couldn’t care less about such things, mainly because I recognize they’re fundamentally meaningless and transient. A lot of the wants people seem to have — for more money, bigger house, a great family — seem also meaningless to me. Not because I’m some brilliant spiritual guru (well, partly that), but because I see that the need really being fulfilled is not the understood need. Nobody really needs a bigger house; people have bigger houses to symbolize their increased social status etc. My suspicion is that if you don’t work and worry yourself to death in the effort to get a big house, you could actually live a pretty comfortable, enjoyable life.
So, on some level, knowledge is power. But it can’t completely do away with the sting of defying these drives built into us. Interestingly, a section I was reading in “Straw Dogs” today talks of these very drives.
The lesson of evolutionary psychology and cognitive science is that we are descendents of a long lineage, only a fraction of which is human. We are far more than the traces that other humans have left in us. Our brains and spinal cords are encrypted with traces of far older worlds.
The point being that the drive for a big house does not come from our caveman or even monkey ancestors. It comes from primitive bacteria who themselves worked shitty accounting jobs and strived to deftly play office politics so that their wife could host fancy cocktail parties for the neighborhood. It’s time to set your inner primitive bacteria free!
As I’ve reiterated endlessly on this blog and in other writings, several years ago I developed a severe case a repetitive strain in my forearms which was then topped off with an overnight onset of a mysterious malady consisting of unbalance and extreme fatigue. As a result, I had to largely stop working, leave Los Angeles and the friends and life I had there, and move in with my dad in San Diego.
But, about a year into my stay in San Diego I became convinced that I had figured out that my dizziness was due to a disorder of the vestibular system. Despite the fact that no doctors agreed with me, the theory made a lot of sense. I eventually met with a doctor who specialized in that system and he confirmed my hypothesis. This actually gave me a great sense of victory; using only my wits and Internet research, I had figured out the cause of an ailment that had beguiled several specialists and doctors I’d seen.
But the more I thought about it, the more I became rather dismayed. In truth, vestibular malfunction was the obvious culprit. It wasn’t that I was so smart, it was that these doctors were that dumb. Now, I’d always been someone who — within reason — respected and even deferred to authority figures like doctors. But as I looked around, I could see that authority figures were failing left and right. This was right around the economic recession of 2008: why had so few economists foreseen it coming? This was also when many Catholic priests were finally being punished for pedophilia — if that’s not an example of mendacious and evil abuse of authority then I don’t know what is. (Currently, we’re watching the implosion of Lance Armstrong, which further drives home the point that our heroes are shams.)
The lesson seemed to be: you can’t trust the experts, you have to do it yourself. Intrigued by what I’d learned about the vestibular system, I dove into the topic of neuroscience. That led me to genetics and physics and all sorts of interesting sciences. Topics that once seemed arcane and impossible to understand became digestible and appealing. I would say science became the second great love of my life, after music. I’ve even questioned whether, on some level, it was all worth it — while I’d had to leave Los Angeles, the location of what I would call the happiest years of my life, I had gained quite a lot in knowledge, in understanding of the universe. And by realizing that so many authority figures are basically retards, I gained a certain sense of self autonomy and freedom.
But, I can’t deny that there’s something unfulfilling about knowledge. You can’t deny that most science presumes that the universe is rather meaningless. In Los Angeles, I had friends, girlfriends, culture* etc. and, while I see those things now as somewhat unreal, you can’t deny their pleasures.
*This is not to say that San Diego doesn’t have culture, just that I’ve lost interest in culture in general.
I’m reading an interesting book now called “Straw Dogs” by a rather dour philosopher, John Gray. He confronts this conundrum — that truth doesn’t lead to happiness — head on. First he summarizes, then rejects, the views of Socrates.
[Socrates says that]… When humans live the unexamined life they run after illusions. They spend their lives searching for pleasure or fleeing pain, both of which are bound to pass away. True fulfillment lies in changeless things. An examined life is best because it leads us into eternity.
We need not doubt the reality of truth to reject this Socratic faith. Human knowledge is one thing, human well-being another. There is no predetermined harmony between the two. The examined life may not be worth living.
From there, Gray makes a point I’ve seen made by others. That science, rather than being a rejection of religion, evolved out of religion. And whereas we used to look to religion as a source of eternity, truth and freedom, we now look to science. But, Gray argues, science does not offer that.
Modern humanism is the faith that through science humankind can know the truth — and so be free. But if Darwin’s theory of natural selection is true this is impossible. The human mind serves evolutionary success, not truth. To think otherwise is to resurrect the pre-Darwinian error that humans are different from all other animals.
Again, a point I’ve seen made before, but an interesting one: “survival of the fittest” does not mean “survival of those who best know the truth.” In fact, it might mean the exact opposite.
Darwinian theory tells us that an interest in truth is not needed for survival or reproduction. More often it is a disadvantage… Among humans the best deceivers are those who deceive themselves: ‘we deceive ourselves in order to deceive others better’, says Wright*. A lover who promises eternal fidelity is more likely to be believed if he believes his promise himself; he is no more likely to keep the promise. In a competition for mates, a well-developed capacity for self-deception is an advantage**. The same is true in politics, and many other contexts.
*This brings to mind one of the great quotes from Seinfeld’s George Costanza. “Remember Jerry… it’s not a lie if you believe it.”
** I recall a line to this effect from Gene Simmons’s autobiography (addressing his phenomenal success with women), “I’m probably one of the few people who thinks he’s better looking than he actually is.”
If this is so, the view that clusters of false beliefs — inferior memes — will tend to be winnowed out by natural selection must be mistaken. Truth has no systematic evolutionary advantage over error. [My italics.] Quite to the contrary, evolution will ‘select for a degree of self-deception, rendering some facts and motives unconscious so as not to betray — by the subtle signs of self-knowledge — the deception being practiced’. As Herbert points out, evolution favors useful error: ‘the conventional view that natural selection favors nervous systems which produce ever more accurate images of the world must be a very naïve view of mental evolution’.
The take-away being that the Socratic notion that the truth will set you free is wrong. Knowledge does not equal happiness, and the unexamined life may well be worth living, and in fact, be preferable.
I’m not quite sure I buy all of this, but it’s certainly food for thought.
Years ago, when I left Los Angeles, I mentioned that the fact that the fact that so much of media can be digitized means that individuals can live simpler less cluttered lives. For instance, I could (theoretically) take all my movies, books, CDs etc. and digitize them and not need to lug them around whenever I move.
At the time, I wondered if this would lead to a new kind of decentralized lifestyle for humans. With less stuff anchoring us in one place, we could be freer to travel, wander etc.
Related to all this is what is called “the tiny living” movement. It’s basically about everything I’ve just discussed: getting rid of crap, taking up less space etc. One of the most interesting things I’ve seen at a website called thetinylife.com is this: a tiny, portable apartment. It’s called the Zen cube, and it’s extremely elegant and could theoretically be set up in any work loft area.
I’ve had a few more thoughts on the topic of how our internal state of mind affects our art. But first, take a look at these two pictures.
At the left is a photo of Milan’s Duomo (originated in the 14th century). The second a modern skyscraper (I’m presuming it’s an artist’s rendering.)
Yesterday I was commenting on the constant interruptions of daily life. The phone calls, the nagging emails, our screaming, annoying children, television blowhards freaking out about this or that etc. Those are, of course, external distractions. But we’ve got internal distractions as well. I was just reading an old interview with the stress doctor Jon Kabat-Zinn who sums these up nicely.
A thought comes up and you’ll say, “Oh, I’ve got to do this,” and you run to do that. Then the next thought comes, and you say, “Oh, I’ve got to do that,” and you run to do it.
From “Healing and the Mind” by Bill Moyers
I read this and thought, “Boy, that is exactly how I think.” Then I thought, “Shit, I’ve gotta check for that email!”
So we’ve got two different kinds of distractions: external (which we have limited control over) and internal (which we have – one hopes – some control over.) I would also surmise that our internal state is “trained” by our external environment. If we are constantly being interrupted in the “real world,” soon our own mind will only be able to focus for short periods (because it’s anticipating the interruptions it’s so used to.)
Now, as I was saying yesterday, in the past we had less external interruptions. In 1450, there wasn’t much to do. If you wanted to write a piece of music (and were lucky enough to have your sustenance needs taken care of) you could sit and write for hours/days without phone calls, emails, facebook updates, television blather, etc. And I presume this lack of external interruption led to “quieter” minds that were less prone to self interruption (of the type described by Kabat-Zinn above.) As a result of all this, people could really focus produce artistic media with tremendous detail: 12 foot tall paintings with all sort of hidden objects and figures (and obtuse religious connotations), ornate, sky high cathedrals covered with miniature statues of golems and maidens, 20 minute sonatas in which themes are developed via endless variation of tempo, melody, harmony etc.
And a calmer mind isn’t required just to create this art; it’s required to even appreciate it! I get about three minutes into most 20 minute sonatas and my mind is already wandering. I usually don’t have the focus to stay with it.
To recap: in earlier eras people had calmer minds. But, as time went on – as society industrialized, as we became better able to keep precise measurement of time (and thus create the great evil that is the daily organizer), as communication methods expanded from a single town crier to pony express to telegraph to telephone and then instantaneous email – our minds became more and more deluged with interruption.
So how did that affect art? Well, take a look at the above pictures again. The second building is much less ornamental, much simpler, much easier to digest. You can look at that building from a distance and basically “get it,” as opposed to the Duomo which you really have to view up close to appreciate the detail.
Now, if you landed on an alien planet and saw that second building you might think, “Wow, this such serene architecture; I bet these aliens are calm, peaceful creatures with minds devoid of incessant inner chatter.” But I’m thinking that the exact opposite is true. As the mind gets more cluttered, art gets simpler. Why? Because we don’t have the time to focus on creating detailed art, and frankly, we don’t have the time to appreciate it.
Now, as I’ve said before, I’m not knocking minimalism. I like minimalism and I’m not a great fan of ornamentalism (though I’m not virulently opposed to it.) But my larger point here is that what goes on “in here” (pointing to head) has an effect on what shows up “out there.” And it’s an inverse effect. Busy minds = simple art and vice versa*. To examine the history of art is to examine the changing state of the human mind. (To put it another way, “Art history is a subset of psychology.”)
*Obviously this is a broad statement with many exceptions. I also realize that simple, minimalist art is not that simple. But you get my point.
One thing that always impresses me about classical music is the great depth of its construction. Such tremendous care was taken to place interlocking melodies together in precise ways. And then, on top of it, some of these pieces go on for 20 minutes. And this approach is prevalent in much of the art of that era (I guess were talking about the 14th to 18th centuries.) That’s when you had the epic novels that went on for 2000 pages detailing the rise and fall of a family. Or gigantic paintings that were detailed down to the quarter square inch. Or ornate cathedrals covered with miniature sculptures that are themselves works of art. (The epitome of this in my mind is always the Duomo in Milan.)
It’s really the extended focus required to create such works that impresses me. It’s hard to conceive of spending 8 to 10 hours a day for weeks, months, perhaps years, working on the same thing.
Of course, when you think about life back then, it becomes easier to understand. After all, what was there to do? You had to take care of your meals, and maybe chat with neighbors, but if you were a professional composer or painter, you had a large chunk of basically uninterrupted time to fill. And there was no television, radio, Internet midget porn or telephone to fill it.
My suspicion here is that people of this era — an era devoid of many of our modern distractions — were capable of much greater focus and constant attention than we are. In our era — whether we want to focus on something or not — it’s inevitable that we will be distracted by some piece of meaningless bullshit. (It’s no coincidence that I got started thinking about this topic while working on a piece of music and being interrupted by two telephone sales calls in the space of five minutes.) And I think the art of our era has been affected by this. Our songs are shorter and require less attention to detail; our “stories”, which are mainly our movies, are totally immersive, but also take much less time to consume then a 16th century novel. Our architecture largely lacks the ornamentalism of previous eras.
And I’m not necessarily knocking the art of our era. I tend to find ornamentalism unnecessary and ostentatious. And I love pop music and movies partly because they get right to the point. But, I can’t deny that I’m kind of jealous of artists of earlier eras. I’d like to be able to sit down and really focus attention on a single project all day, for days or weeks. I imagine that there would be a real catharsis in letting the outside world drift away as you focus on your work. On rare occasions I have managed something like this for short periods and there indeed was a kind of bliss to it. You become so focused on the act that you’re not even thinking about it. You’re just doing it.
I’m reminded of something I blogged about before. There’s a particular historian who’s argued that as recently as 3000 years ago, the average man did not have consciousness. This seems hard to fathom. After all, these people had created some technology and culture and how can one create anything without consciousness? But maybe I’m misinterpreting what consciousness is. We’re certainly aware that we have a kind of inner dialogue which we use to keep track of what we’re doing, where were going, what’s coming up etc. It’s a constant mental chatter, and probably only getting more spastic as we are interrupted by ever-increasing communications and channels of information. So let’s envision a world 3000 years ago. Again, no phones, no TV, no Facebook, no e-mails etc. Maybe there was simply much less of a need for this mental chatter. In fact, maybe there was no need at all. People were able to place such focus on whatever they were doing, that they simply did it without thinking about it. Maybe that’s what a lack of consciousness is.
Over the past years, as I’ve been reading these various texts on psychology, neuroscience and psychosomatic pain, I’ve been bothered with one thought: If all this stuff is true, I think, then it just seems like most of humanity would have to be screwed up. By this I mean that if we presume correct the idea of a subconscious that torments its owner, or that mental disarray causes physical pain, then it seems like the average joe would be a mess. And this perplexed me because, for the most part, the average joe seems all right.
But in the past couple months I’ve really opened my eyes. And I’ve I realized that most people are fucked! For instance – and I know I’m ranting about a topic I’ve ranted about before – what’s with all these morbidly obese people? That’s beyond mere physical unhealthiness and getting into some kind of warped psychological drive to consume everything in one’s path, a gastronomical death wish. And I’m also struck by a tendency you see among so many – myself at one point – to worry obsessively about largely meaningless things (sports scores, job problems that can clearly be solved, bullshit politics.) It strikes me now that the point of such behavior isn’t any kind of productive worrying (e.g. heading off an actual impending problem), it’s simply worrying to avoid responsibility. If the disaster does happen these people/I can say, “Well I was worrying about it – you saw me!” This kind of behavior, like overeating, is clearly insane. (There’s a flip side to the worrying issue as well: people are not worrying about activities such as eating themselves to death, or not sleeping enough (things they can do something about), that clearly are problems.)
It’s possible Devo was right – we’re moving backwards, de-evolving.
In truth, I think humanity will muddle through as it always does. But I’m no longer struggling with the idea that most people are insane wackos (myself included.) It’s clearly the case.
You know, while we’re on the subject, here’s a great Devo song with a psychological bent.
Many years ago, when I was in Seattle, I took a class at the community college on public speaking. In this class there was an older guy, kind of white trashy, who seemed almost functionally retarded. He would constantly interrupt the teacher with totally asinine comments which she responded to with either mild amusement or annoyance.
One day, during a class exercise, this guy gave a speech on what he did for a living. He explained that he would go to government auctions and buy vehicles that had been impounded by the police, repair them, and then resell them for a hefty profit. I don’t think this made him exactly wealthy, but he was certainly doing all right, which was all the more impressive due to the fact that he was a complete moron.
Now, recently I was talking to a guy I know about a business venture he is engaged in, and he was reporting quite a bit of success. I don’t consider this guy to be a moron, but he’s not Einstein either. He’s a person of average intelligence. So I was driving home last night and thinking, “You know, I’m always going on about what a genius I am (not to mention incredibly good-looking and possessing vast physical prowess) but I’m largely unsuccessful. Why don’t I try one of these relatively simple business ventures?” The answer arrived pretty quick. I have considered such ideas in the past, and I almost invariably overthink and outthink myself. I consider a scheme — at one point I was thinking of starting a business doing consulting for speech recognition software — and then I sit around thinking about all the things that could go wrong, and essentially talk myself out of it. My vast intelligence — my ability to analyze problems and concepts to an almost granular level (you could say I’m doing it right now) — is actually a detriment. I’m the opposite of the moron from my public speaking course who probably thought, “Hey, I could buy used cars and resell them,” and then just went out and did it.
Okay, so hold on to that thought. Recently I’ve started reading a new book from the general ouvre of books related to Dr. John Sarno’s theories of the psychosomatic causes of pain. This book is called “The Great Pain Deception,” and from what I can tell it’s self published by the author. He does have a nice chapter length overview on Freud’s theories (id, ego and superego etc.) and at one point discusses how people inhibit their own success.
Some people unconsciously set themselves up to repeatedly fail… This can be accomplished through repetitive obsessive behavior or more commonly to a lesser extent, by procrastination. Things such as cleaning and re-cleaning, thinking and rethinking, or doing and re-doing or checking and re-checking, or practicing and re-practicing are avoidance-flight mechanisms.
Now, I read that point about “thinking and rethinking” and thought, “This is exactly what I do and exactly what I was thinking about while driving home last night.”
Do I have a problem with procrastination as well? Hmm, maybe, I don’t know…
Well, I think I’ll get around to finishing this blog post later…
But, seriously: of course I have a problem with procrastination. (As well as general time management.)
Why would I and others tend to outthink ourselves from pursuing ideas that might succeed? The conventional response would be we have some kind of fear of failure — we don’t want to waste time and resources on something that won’t pan out. This book argues the opposite — it posits that procrastination/overthinking is a fear of trying and succeeding. But why fear success? The answer comes easily if you’re familiar with Freud. Freud argued that we have an id — an inner child full of insatiable wants and desires — and a superego, which is essentially the voice of society. These two modular components are always clashing. The id wants success. But the superego does not, because it knows success will offend and engender jealousy in those around us. The superego wants to be “one of the people.”
This struck me as quite interesting, and I actually ran through a short mental list of people I know who have been successful versus people who have not, and I have to say, the people who have been successful clearly are not particularly bothered by the wants of the superego, or larger society. And the inverse is true with the unsuccessful.
So, am I constrained by my superego? Overall, I would say I have become less and less so as the years have gone by, particularly the last three or four. But I would surely say that in my childhood and even 20s I was bound by my superego. Or more correctly, there was a definite clash between my rebellious id and my parental superego. (A guy too concerned with fitting in probably wouldn’t start a blog called “My So-Called Penis.”)
The main thought here is that the id wants glory and is not ashamed about it. To add some ammunition to this point, consider children. Children are thought to be largely id-based creatures, and experienced no shame in taking glory in the most miniscule of accomplishments (such as successfully stacking colored blocks on top of each other.) Toddlers are largely unaware of the needs of others, and thus have to be trained, often violently so, to respect those around them. (To throw some neuroscience in here: generally speaking, the superego part of the mind is presumed to exist in the frontal cortex of the brain, and this brain area doesn’t really “activate” until many years after birth. We can also recall the famous case of Phineas Gage, a responsible, dutiful worker (e.g. dominated by superego) who, after having chunks of his frontal cortex removed in an accident, became a childish brute (e.g. dominated by id).)
Of course, there’s an additional component to this. I’m not sure “success” (which I’m generally defining as wealth, status and nailing a lot of babes) equals “happiness.” When I run down that mental list of successful people I mentioned above, I’m not sure I would describe all of them as happy. (Some I would though.)
I’ll end with an interesting quote mentioned in the book, from new agey author Marianne Williamson.
Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure… we ask ourselves, who am I to be this brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? But actually, who are you not to be?… Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.