But What For Newsletter - No. 013

Hanoi Hilton, the Volunteer, One Thing, Courage, Writing & Thinking for Yourself

Welcome to all our new subscribers! I write a weekly newsletter, sent out every Sunday, with curated quotes and one-line takeaways from material that I think is worth reading. Occasionally, I share my own thoughts, inspired by others’ writings, on Tuesdays. If you enjoy our newsletter, please share it with a few friends/colleagues or follow me on Twitter.

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Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

No new article last week (sorry!); however, this one from a while back did get picked up on Reddit last week and I thought it was worth re-linking for our recent subscribers

Stockdale had no reason to think that the day’s mission was to be anything unique.

The flight in September 1965 was part of his third combat tour of North Vietnam, serving as Wing Commander of the aircraft carrier Oriskany. Despite his misgivings about the purpose of him being in Vietnam, he was a competent and skilled career fighter pilot. Nothing suggested he shouldn’t expect to make it back home that day – let alone that decade.

But sometimes life deals you a lousy hand, and it dealt Stockdale quite an unfair one.

While trying to aid trapped American soldiers on the ground, he was suddenly falling out of the sky and hurtling towards a small Vietnamese village. His plane was on fire, the control system shot out by North Vietnamese who had used the grounded soldiers as bait, and he didn’t have much choice beyond punching out of the plane.


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

  • Takeaway: It is better to fail to reach a goal that does something for others than it is to achieve one which only benefits you

Those who entered the hospital as patients rarely left alive. Besides, most of his recruits were in worse shape than he was. “How would it have looked if just once I had complained that I felt bad .  .  . or that I was weak .  .  . and that I was so overwhelmed with work that I was looking for anything to save myself?” he wrote later. “It was obvious that then I would be unable to inspire anyone else or require anything of them.”

He had been a prisoner for two years and lost almost a hundred men to executions, phenol injections, and sickness over the past year, many, like Stasiek, his closest collaborators. He wasn’t prepared to launch an uprising and risk a bloodbath and yet at the same time the Nazis’ atrocities were escalating at an incredible rate. It was obvious that the Germans meant to kill every Jew they could lay their hands on.

Witold nearly laughed in shock. The men standing with him looked as though they had been punched. Their reports, the atrocities—their lives—dismissed with a shrug [by word from outside the camp that no help was being sent, despite the numerous reports of atrocities Witold and his men managed to smuggle out of the camp]. Stanisław bid his farewell and left Witold with his mind racing over what to do. He couldn’t go on pretending that the uprising was imminent or ask his men to die in vain without Warsaw’s support. But closing down the possibility created a new dilemma. The mission he’d asked each man to risk his life for was suddenly meaningless. Morale was already fragile. Absent a purpose, he worried that the underground would fracture.

“By my death,” he [Szmul Zygielbojm] said, “I wish to give expression to my most profound protest against the inaction in which the world watches and permits the destruction of the Jewish people.”

  • Takeaway: Make sure you focus on being good at one thing before moving on to something else - but also make sure that one thing is worth being good at

In investing, and in life, the more extraordinary results are, the more likely they are to be the result of getting literally one thing right. Google beat Yahoo because Yahoo had everything—sub-portals devoted to news, entertainment, sports, stocks, an email service, and a search engine—while Google spent all its early efforts on exactly one thing, making the best possible search engine. Early Facebook had a minimalist interface compared to other search engines, and a more restrictive approach to identity, but it was the one place online that was most likely to have a digital representation of your real-world friends…

Even when the outputs don’t follow this extreme distribution, you can step back one level and find a single determining factor... Stephen King and Danielle Steel show, in an entirely different domain, that while the N of publications is large enough that no one book defines their careers, their book production function, with an N of 1, is career-defining…

  • Takeaway: The best way to teach others is to live what you teach

I had been in the navy for twenty years and scarcely ever out of a cockpit. In 1962, I began my second year of studying international relations so I could become a strategic planner in the Pentagon. But my heart wasn’t in it… I knew how political systems operated; I had been beating systems for years.

Then, in what we call a “feel out pass” in stunt flying, I cruised into Stanford’s philosophy corner one winter morning. I was gray-haired and in civilian clothes. A voice boomed out of an office, “Can I help you?” The speaker was Philip Rhinelander, dean of Humanities and Sciences, who taught Philosophy… At first he thought I was a professor, but… within fifteen minutes we’d agreed that I would enter his two-term course…

Did I preach these things in [that Vietnamese] prison? Certainly not. You soon learned that if the guy next door was doing okay, that meant that he had all his philosophical ducks lined up in his own way. You soon realized that when you dared to spout high-minded philosophical suggestions through the wall, you always got a very reluctant response.

  • Takeaway: When you write, first and foremost you are writing for yourself

Writing clarifies and sharpens your thoughts in a way that is superior to merely articulating them in a conversation. It allows you to look at your ideas more objectively, almost as if they were from another person. You can then examine them and think about if what you have written down is really true.

However, more often than discovering that your ideas are wrong, you will discover something different: that you do not know what you think. Sure, you have some vague idea, and you believe that there is a chain of reasoning that leads to a certain conclusion. But what you will discover is that this chain of reasoning is mostly not existent. At best, it has many holes and maybe leads not where you think it does. This discovery is, of course, very unpleasant and sometimes even painful. In a sense, you have lied to yourself by thinking you have thought through this specific topic when, in reality, you have only copied the opinion of someone else.

This process requires an immense amount of honesty because nobody likes to feel stupid. Either you do not know what you think, in which case you feel stupid. Or it turns out that what you believed to be your opinion does not really make sense, is logically inconsistent, and mostly copied from someone else, in which case you feel stupid as well. However, the reward for all this exhausting work is clarity and simplicity… 

  • Takeaway: Spending time with people who are different from you can make you more you

It matters a lot who you surround yourself with. If you're surrounded by conventional-minded people, it will constrain which ideas you can express, and that in turn will constrain which ideas you have. But if you surround yourself with independent-minded people, you'll have the opposite experience: hearing other people say surprising things will encourage you to, and to think of more…

It also works to go in the other direction: as well as cultivating a small collection of independent-minded friends, to try to meet as many different types of people as you can. It will decrease the influence of your immediate peers if you have several other groups of peers. Plus if you're part of several different worlds, you can often import ideas from one to another…

You can expand the source of influences in time as well as space, by reading history. When I read history I do it not just to learn what happened, but to try to get inside the heads of people who lived in the past. How did things look to them? This is hard to do, but worth the effort for the same reason it's worth traveling far to triangulate a point…

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.12, translation by Robin Hard

“But I want whatever I wish to happen indeed to happen, regardless of how I arrive at that wish.”

You’re crazy, you’re out of your mind! Don't you know that freedom is a precious and admirable thing? But for me to desire arbitrarily that things should happen as I arbitrarily decide risks being not merely far from admirable, but even exceedingly reprehensible.

Consider, now, how do we proceed when it comes to writing? Do I write the name ‘Dion’ just as I wish? Of course not, I'm taught to want to write it as it ought to be written. And when it comes to music? The same applies. And in general, with regard to any of the arts and sciences? The same applies. Otherwise, there would be no point in trying to gain knowledge of anything, if it could be adapted to fit everyone's individual wishes.

Is it, then, only in this most grave and important matter, that of freedom, that it is possible for me to desire according to my whim? In no way, but rather true education consists precisely in this, in learning to wish that everything should come about just as it does.

It is with this order of things in mind that we should approach our education, and not so as to change the existing order of things (for that has not been permitted to us, nor would it be better that it should be), but rather, things around us being as they are and as their nature dictates, so that we for our part may keep our will in harmony with whatever comes to pass.

Well then, what have they [the gods] made you accountable for? Only for what lies within your power, the right use of your impressions. Why do you charge yourself, then, with things for which you’re not accountable? You’re merely creating trouble for yourself.

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

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