But What For Newsletter - No. 009
Lobsters & Books, Good Omens, Delta Force, the Worst Man, the Inner Ring, and Jack London
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Latest from But What For?
(Underlined titles are links to full articles)
Lobsters are interesting animals, but most people don’t think about them too often. While they may not be immortal as many like to think, they never stop growing and can regenerate lost limbs. Unfortunately for them, they taste good with butter - but let’s circle back to lobsters here in a minute.
In the early 1900s, an Italian engineer, sociologist, economist, political scientist, and philosopher (but he was probably no fun at parties, so you got him there) named Vilfredo Pareto became fascinated by the ideas of wealth and power - namely, how is wealth distributed across society? (Interestingly, he did not start this work until his forties, so it is never too late to make a difference.)
Ever diligent, he pulled data from the 1400s through his modern times and found the same pattern everywhere. Whereas people had previously assumed that wealth would be distributed in a flat, upward-sloping line from poor to rich, what Pareto found was in fact a hockey stick - a small percentage of the population holds a majority of the wealth…
“Trigger warning: These are the most terrifying books I have encountered” - Jordan Peterson
(Underlined titles are links to sources)
Good Omens [Book]
Takeaway: We are not all made the same - it is fine to define your success differently than others define theirs
“I thought your side disapproved of guns,” said Crowley. He took the gun from the angel’s plump hand and sighted along the stubby barrel.
“Current thinking favors them,” said Aziraphale. “They lend weight to moral argument. In the right hands, of course.”
Form shapes nature. There are certain ways of behavior appropriate to small scruffy dogs which are in fact actually welded into their genes. You can’t just become small-dog-shaped and hope to stay the same person; a certain small-dog-ness begins to permeate your very Being… He’d already chased a rat. It had been the most enjoyable experience of his life.
Inside Delta Force [Book]
Takeaway: Stay focused on your own goals and keep moving toward them without comparison to how others are progressing toward their own
Inherited wealth may be something easily squandered, but inherited poverty is a legacy almost impossible to lose.
It is important to realize that we have the ability to manufacture our own fate when we want to. We can… proceed when things look bad, or we can find plenty of reasons to quit if we don’t want to go forward.
As the truck rumbled off, I looked at the other group, but they were still sitting there. I quickly wondered which of us was going where, and just as quickly dismissed the thought. The men in the other group weren’t my concern, and as for me, I’d know the destination when I got there.
What was the lesson here? Simple. Don’t quit. Never quit no matter what. Keep going until someone tells you to sit down. Keep going as long as you’re able to move, no matter how poorly you think you may be doing. Just don’t quit.
Think about it! All that was lacking was the guts to try.
But What For? Post on Insider Delta Force can be found here: Perseverance is Great, but Don’t Forget to Prepare.
Takeaway: Regardless of your shortcomings, perseverance in combination with genuine interest can create masterpieces
While praise for the work is universal, the main question commentators try to answer is this: how did the worst man in the world manage to write the best biography?…
He was a slave, proud of his servitude, a Paul Pry, convinced that his own curiosity and garrulity were virtues, an unsafe companion who never scrupled to repay the most liberal hospitality by the basest violation of confidence, a man without delicacy, without shame, without sense enough to know when he was hurting the feelings of others or when he was exposing himself to derision; and because he was all this, he has, in an important department of literature, immeasurably surpassed such writers as Tacitus, Clarendon, Alfieri, and his own idol Johnson…
Of the talents which ordinarily raise men to eminence as writers, Boswell had absolutely none. There is not in all his books a single remark of his own on literature, politics, religion, or society, which is not either commonplace or absurd… Logic, eloquence, wit, taste, all those things which are generally considered as making a book valuable, were utterly wanting to him. He had, indeed, a quick observation and a retentive memory. These qualities, if he had been a man of sense and virtue, would scarcely of themselves have sufficed to make him conspicuous; but, because he was a dunce, a parasite, and a coxcomb, they have made him immortal…
The Inner Ring by C.S. Lewis [Link]
Takeaway: Don’t let your desire to be accepted by others compromise your character
And the prophecy I make is this. To nine out of ten of you the choice which could lead to scoundrelism will come, when it does come, in no very dramatic colours. Obviously bad men, obviously threatening or bribing, will almost certainly not appear. Over a drink, or a cup of coffee, disguised as triviality and sandwiched between two jokes, from the lips of a man, or woman, whom you have recently been getting to know rather better and whom you hope to know better still—just at the moment when you are most anxious not to appear crude, or naïf or a prig—the hint will come. It will be the hint of something which the public, the ignorant, romantic public, would never understand: something which even the outsiders in your own profession are apt to make a fuss about: but something, says your new friend, which “we”—and at the word “we” you try not to blush for mere pleasure—something “we always do.”
And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world. It would be so terrible to see the other man’s face—that genial, confidential, delightfully sophisticated face—turn suddenly cold and contemptuous, to know that you had been tried for the Inner Ring and rejected. And then, if you are drawn in, next week it will be something a little further from the rules, and next year something further still, but all in the jolliest, friendliest spirit. It may end in a crash, a scandal, and penal servitude; it may end in millions, a peerage and giving the prizes at your old school. But you will be a scoundrel…
Takeaway: Life doesn’t always move in a straight line
Through the window of a small plane, I look out over the vastness of the Yukon Territory—an area bigger than California with only 33,000 residents. It’s an austere landscape of glaciated mountain ranges, frozen lakes, ice fields and spruce forests. Then the mountains are behind us, and there are low hills and tundra to the horizons, and a big frozen river starting to melt.
It was this stark wilderness that 100,000 prospectors tried to cross on foot, and in homemade boats, during the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s. The “stampeders,” as they were known, were desperate to reach the gold fields around Dawson City, but the journey took more than two months, and was so punishing and dangerous that only 30,000 made it through. In the first wave was a tough, stocky 21-year-old from San Francisco named Jack London.
Questing for gold, what he found instead was inspiration and material for one of the most successful literary careers of all time… [But] the best story that Jack London never wrote, at least not in full, was a factual account of his time in the Far North.…
Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.8, translation by Robin Hard
Takeaway: Don’t mistake skill with words to mean thoughtful with ideas, especially in yourself
Why is it, then, that we fail to train ourselves and one another in this way [in rhetoric]? … what should we expect if we undertake this work in addition? And especially because this would not only be a further activity that would distract us from more essential studies, but it would also give occasion for vanity and conceit, and in no small way. For logical and persuasive reasoning can exercise a powerful effect, especially if they're developed through training and are lent further plausibility through the skilful use of language. The fact is that, as a general rule, every capacity that is acquired by uneducated people of weak character tends to be dangerous for them, in so far as it makes them conceited and presumptuous in that regard. For how on earth can one persuade a young man who excels in these studies that he should not become an appendage to them, but rather make them an appendage to himself? Won't he trample all these appeals underfoot, and walk about among us full of pride and puffed up with conceit, never being willing to allow that anyone should try to remind him of his shortcomings, and of where he has gone astray? …
[regarding why some philosophers are skilled in rhetoric] Why, then, do you confuse things that come to be found together by accident in the same individual? If Plato was strong and handsome, is it necessary that I too, sitting here, should toil to become strong or handsome, as though that were essential to philosophy just because a certain philosopher happened to be strong and handsome as well as being a philosopher? Don't you want to understand and distinguish what qualities people require in order to become philosophers, and what other qualities may be present in them accidentally? Come now, if I could be counted as a philosopher, would you need to become lame like me?
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