This post is pretty long overdue, but here is a compilation of some of the most important quotes I’ve jotted down in the last couple months since September. Overall, I’d say that this semester was full of introspection, so let’s consider the theme of this post to be about self-improvement. There’s lots of it.
1). Flags would ideally always be either red or green, but sometimes a flag might be yellow, or even holographic, appearing green to some participants and yellow or red to others. Sometimes there are also multiple flags that conflict with each other.” — Vitalik Buterin.
This little snippet was captured from Vitalik’s blog, where he discusses the game theoretic effects of signaling on blockchain governance. The quote highlights how startlingly complicated it can be for a decentralized population of actors to coordinate, interpret, and execute a collective movement, even if the movement entails something as simple as heeding a “Let’s Go!” signal. His signal flag analogy was super cool — I found it to be a good metaphor for those situations where everybody’s looking at the same complex issue, but seeing it in wholly different ways, and from every different angle of interpretation.
2). “It was not that age automatically conferred wisdom. On the contrary, he thought the old were more given to vanities and imperfections than the young. /…/ Old age provides an opportunity to recognize ones fallibility in a way youth usually finds difficult. Seeing one’s decline written on body and mind, one accepts that one is limited and human. By understanding that age does not make one wise, one attains a kind of wisdom after all. Learning to live, in the end, is learning to live with imperfection in this way, and even to embrace it. Our being is cemented with sickly qualities. Whoever should remove the seeds of these qualities from man would destroy the fundamental conditions of our life.” — Sarah Bakewell
I always thought that wisdom isn’t something that simply sprouts out of people’s heads as they get older, like gray hair. Instead of seeing one’s level of wisdom as a function of age, I see it as a function of introspection, conscious effort, and active experience. Time, I think, lets a person steadily expand the upper bound of wisdom that they can potentially achieve, but it doesn’t promise self improvement for those who remain idle and live thoughtlessly. It was a pleasant surprise, then, that I came across this excerpt in Sarah Bakewell’s book about Montaigne. Finger snaps and vigorous head nods in agreement to this!
3). “His skepticism makes him celebrate imperfection, the very thing Pascal as much as Descartes wanted to escape but never could. To Montaigne, it would be obvious why such escape would be impossible. No one can rise above humanity! However high we ascend, we take that humanity with us.” — Sarah Bakewell, on Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne has got to be one of our age’s most likable, relatable, irreverent thinkers. I’d like to think of him as one of the first bloggers of our time, given by how he offers his audience such a candid and playfully honest view into his life. He was also, apparently, a huge pain in the butt of the more mathematically-minded idealists of his time. As Montaigne would’ve believed, humans just aren’t about perfection, and any bold attempt to exalt them as something more than the fumbling and contradictory apes they are would be an exercise of some serious self-delusion. Somehow, I find this emoji right here to be apt: :P
4). “I am not a visionary. I do not have a five-year plan, I don’t have a moon shot. I’m an engineer. I’m perfectly happy with all the people who are walking around and just staring at the clouds and looking at the stars and saying, “I want to go there,” but I’m looking at the ground and I want to fix the pothole that’s right in front of me before I fall in.” — Linus Torvalds’ TED interview
Now, this quote has marked a pretty important point of development for me this semester. I’ve become a little more skeptical about sensational things, and I’m trying to eat more (metaphorical) knowledge vegetables. I’m not gonna lie: TED talks have rocked my world since middle school (Susan Cain’s talk about the power of introverts was the first one I’ve ever watched). Those, and books by pop science writers had me weak in the knees with wonder, having artfully weaved together science with storytelling. Each 17 minute sound bite, each espresso shot of information I’d hear on a podcast made me hungry for more ideas and earth-shattering insights. A couple months ago, it dawned on me that a large part of actually doing the science that made for such smashing good TED talks was pretty unsexy work, and I realized that I often had a pretty hollow understanding about the stuff I often raved about, at best. I figured that if I were to do anything really useful with my career, it’d start with me being mentally prepared to see the beauty of things while crawling in the weeds.
5). “Apparently, the fact that a strong majority of people has some preference does not mean that their opinion is informed. As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding. “ — Steve Sloman
Scary, isn’t it?
6). “Freedom saddles us with the burden of having to know what we want.” — Esther Perel
Speaks for itself, I think. Esther Perel is a relationship expert, and she did say this in the context of finding a romantic partner, but this quote rings true for so many other things. I’ve added this on to the list of all the other goals I want to strive for this year: understanding myself better, so that I have a better grasp of what I want.
7). “ When we imbue our partner with godly attributes, and we expect him or her to uplift us from the mundane to the sublime, we create, as Johnson puts it, an unholy model of two holy loves, that cannot help but disappoint.” Not only do we have endless demands, but on top of it all, we want to be happy! That was once reserved for the afterlife! We’ve brought heaven down to the earth, within reach of all, and now happiness is no longer just a pursuit, but a mandate.” — Esther Perel in The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity
This excerpt was pretty illustrative, to me, that feeling entitled to happiness can create quite a few problems in our lives. More and more, we’re engineering the things around ourselves to deliver exactly what we want, and satisfy our ever-taller orders of demands, because we can, and we deserve happiness. Perel brought up a pretty poignant fact that these heightening expectations don’t do us any favors when we’re searching for life partners, who will be inevitably human and imperfect, as humans are.
8). “You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it. It was a brilliant idea. You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing./…/ I am what I am, and if they expected me to be good, and they’re offering me some money for it, it’s their hard luck.” — Richard Feynman
Here, Richard Feynman was describing his experience of being caught at the center of an aggressive bidding war between Cornell University and Caltech, which both tried to win him over with ever more handsome and prestigious offers of professorship. As accomplished as he was, he felt that he couldn’t live up to other people’s inflated and absurdly idealized opinions of him. There was something deeply comforting and empowering about this quote. It marked the point where Feynman flipped the script, and realized that it wasn’t his responsibility to uphold other people’s illusions about him. I’ve always struggled with my subconscious urge to keep up a good performance for the people who think highly of me. I never see myself as a person who has ever obsessed over my reputation or public image, yet I would too often notice myself trying way too hard to appear like some calm and collected presence who always has something smart to say. I think this comes out of my desire to please people, and a reluctance to reveal the sides of myself that don’t really fit into a conveniently unblemished box. But that’s exhausting. And unnecessary. I’m not really sure what to do about this, but I’ll try something from now on.