But What For Newsletter - No. 012

Feynman, the Volunteer, Military History, Maya Angelou, the 97-year-old Lobsterman and Fear

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Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

Richard Feynman | The Curious Character & Bongo-Playing Physicist

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool!

I don’t like honors… I’ve already got the prize: the prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things.

The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to…. No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

The Volunteer: The True Story of the Resistance Hero Who Infiltrated Auschwitz [Book]

  • Takeaway: The things in life that are worth doing don’t have you at the center of them

“Your Poland is dead forever, and now you are going to pay for your crimes through work,” he declared. “Look there, at the chimney. Look!” He pointed toward a building hidden by the row of barracks. 23 “This is the crematory. Three thousand degrees of heat. The chimney is your only way to freedom.”

Suddenly, he felt he might cry at the sharp reminder that life continued, indifferent to their suffering. Knowing that he’d left his own family in relative safety in Ostrów Mazowiecka was no comfort now that he knew this abhorrent world existed and that at any moment Maria [his wife] might be caught in some roundup and brought to Auschwitz or a place like it. Then he thought of the SS man whose flat they were renovating, how he talked excitedly about his wife’s arrival, no doubt imagining her joy when she saw the new kitchen. Outside the camp this SS officer appeared to be a respectable man, but once he crossed its threshold he was a sadistic murderer. The fact that he could inhabit both worlds at once seemed most monstrous of all.

As the Dutch theologian Willem Visser ’t Hooft wrote after the war, “People could find no place in their consciousness for such an unimaginable horror, and .  .  . did not have the imagination, together with the courage, to face it.” It was possible, Hooft concluded, to live in the “twilight between knowing and not knowing.”

“I have listened to many confessions of my friends before their deaths,” he wrote around then. “They all reacted in the same unexpected manner: they regretted they hadn’t given enough to other people, of their hearts, of the truth .  .  . the only thing that remained after them on Earth, the only thing that was positive and had a lasting value, was what they could give of themselves to others.

Collections: Why Military History? [Link]

  • Takeaway: Don’t neglect to consider that which is uncomfortable

Frequently military history, because it has a large enthusiast and amateur audience, is regarded as an amateur field (something which is not helped by publishers who push quite out reams of quite frankly substandard works of this sort) lacking in sophistication, which is not accurate, but often believed. And perhaps most often, in my experience, these opinions serve as cover for a deeper conviction that studying militaries and warfare is icky and only done by people who like war…

Which brings us to the third reason why we study war and conflict: so that we might have less of it. It should be little surprise that, more than most other areas of history, the study of war is replete with veterans of conflict (if I had to guess very roughly, I’d say about half or so of academic military historians seem to have military experience? perhaps a little bit less?). In speaking, arguing and writing with them I find the common refrain that, as people who experienced war, they do not study it because they like war. Rather military historians study conflict in the same way that doctors study disease; no one assumes that doctors like diseases, quite the opposite…

“Only the dead have seen the end of war.” This is the sad truth that makes military history a necessary, important discipline. It is essential both for understanding our past and our present. Consequently, it is not to be neglected merely because it is uncomfortable.

Maya Angelou on Freedom: A 1973 Conversation with Bill Moyers [Link]

  • Takeaway: Examine what a person does, not who they are

You work all day long and achieve some kind of level of success by nightfall, go to sleep and wake up the next morning with the job still to be done. SSo you start all over again

You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great…

I would say you might encounter many defeats but you must never be defeated, ever. In fact, it might even be necessary to confront defeat. It might be necessary, to get over it, all the way through it, and go on…

All you have to do is put a label on somebody. And then you don’t have to deal with the physical fact. You don’t have to wonder if they are waiting for the Easter bunny or love Christmas, or, you know, love their parents and hate small kids and are fearful of dogs. If you say, oh, that’s a junkie… that’s a Jew, that’s a honkie, that’s a — you just — that’s the end of it…

Life Lessons from a 97-Year-Old Lobsterman [Link]

  • Takeaway: If you love what you do, you might find you have enough of everything else

If the definition of a true outdoorsman is spending more of your life braving the elements than seeking shelter from them, lobsterman John Olson may be the finest example alive…

“My mother wanted me to work in an office,” he says, nudging the boat close to an orange and black buoy bobbing off Griffin Island in midcoast Maine. “But that wasn’t for me.” He snags the buoy with a duct-taped gaff, and the hydraulic hauler whines as it lifts a wire trap with a tangle of lobsters inside.

“How do you know where to find them?” I ask.

“It’s all in here,” John says, pointing a yellow-gloved hand to his head, which, after 97 years, is still covered by a respectable amount of gray hair. “I been over this bottom so many times, it’s imprinted.

Fear Setting [Link]

  • Takeaway: Fear can distort your thinking and inhibit action, so take time to understand what you are afraid of - both in the near-term and long-term

“Run! Ruuuuuuuuuun!” Hans didn’t speak Portuguese, but the meaning was clear enough—haul ass. His sneakers gripped firmly on the jagged rock, and he drove his chest forward toward 3,000 feet of nothing.

He had realized something while arcing in slow circles toward the earth—risks weren’t that scary once you took them… Hans didn’t know exactly what he wanted, but he had tasted it…

I do an exercise called “fear-setting” at least once a quarter, often once a month. It is the most powerful exercise I do. Fear-setting has produced my biggest business and personal successes, as well as repeatedly helped me to avoid catastrophic mistakes…

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.11, translation by Robin Hard

  • Takeaway: Don’t blame others for your mistake - even if they misled you - but rather focus on how you can utilize better judgment in the future

In a word, it is neither death, nor exile, nor distress, nor anything else of that kind, that causes us to do something or not to do it, but rather our judgements and opinions

So in each case, as the causes are, so also are the effects. From this day forth, then, whenever we fail to act rightly, we'll ascribe the blame to nothing other than the judgement that led us to act as we did… In like fashion, we will also ascribe what we do rightly to the same cause.

And no longer will we blame slave, or neighbour, or wife, or children as being responsible for any of our ills, since we're now convinced that unless we judge things to be of a certain nature, we don't carry out the actions that follow from that judgement. Now when it comes to forming a judgement, or not forming one, we're the masters of that, and not things outside ourselves.

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

But What For? For a break from the urgent: Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.