Tag Archives: value

‘If you were as smart as I am …’

Every so often, certain ideas and stories pop up from my memory and come to my attention, and sometimes these ideas seem more profound, more true, now than they did when I first heard them.

One of these is a story my former boss at WILL-AM radio, Charles Lindy, told me. A smart, and also wise, man, Charlie told me that he had first gone to college to get an engineering degree, but he left that path and pursued other things — including doing theater for children and eventually becoming a reporter, jobs that may not have paid as well as engineering jobs, but things that Charlie really enjoyed doing.

Charlie said that a relative had questioned his decision to quit engineering by saying, “If I were as smart as you, I’d have become an engineer and made a lot of money,” to which Charlie answered, “If you were as smart as I am, you’d see how little money matters.” (Or maybe the line was: “If you were as smart as I am, you’d see how little money has to do with happiness.”)

He told this to me as if it were an anecdote about a snappy comeback, but I think Charlie really did believe the value choice there. He also said this as a person whose family sometimes did struggle to get by on the modest salary of a public radio reporter/editor (a rough comparison: I knew teachers with the same years of experience as Charlie who had salaries twice as large as the one he earned).

And every so often, especially after reading news stories about people getting paid very well for jobs that I myself probably could have chosen to do, I’ll think that maybe I should have taken a different job in order to have made more money. But then I’ll think that I would not have been happy in most of those high-paying jobs, and that the life I’m living is probably the one I would be happiest living — that what I have become, and what I routinely do in my life, are things that fit me very well. Not having a plan for what I should become, I became who I am anyway. What I was doing — even before I knew it was right for me — was right for me all along.

And at these times, I’ll remember Charlie’s story and think that my life experience bears it out as well — true wisdom lies not in using one’s intelligence to amass a pile of currency but in using one’s intelligence to figure out how to live.

P.S.: Charlie passed away almost 12 years ago, at age 50, of cancer. He’s someone from whom I learned a lot — I was lucky to get a mentor like Charlie when I was so early into my own adult life. We were colleagues and friends, and knowing him was an honor. (I’m tempted to praise him more, but that’s kinda beside the point. Somehow it seems easier to say wonderful things about a person once that person has died, which always seems weird to me — why not tell people how great they are when they can still hear it?)

I have had lots of great people in my life, and I don’t mean to short-change any of them by praising one of them here. I tell the story above because sometimes there are stories that resonate in my mind — and maybe these stories resonate because they are important.

Links: Art & doubt

An interesting post in the NYTimes asserting that Andy Warhol’s conception of art, which included art attributed to Warhol that he didn’t actually construct but was merely aware of, questioned the modernist view of art:

whole generations of art lovers have been trained in modernist dogma, and arts institutions’ access to various forms of state or foundation support depend on it completely. One goes to the museum to gasp at stunning works of incomparable, super-human genius by beings who are infinitely more exalted and important than the mere humans staring at their paintings. That’s why ordinary people staring at a Picasso (allegedly) experience a kind of transcendence or re-articulation of their lives and world.

This view of art, writer Crispin Sartwell says, promotes the “aura” of the original work of art, which, being one of a kind, can then be given one-of-a-kind prices, and this serves economic interests of many in the professional art world.

But Warhol was representing a different concept of art:

It is quite plausible to assert that, unlike most modernist masterpieces, a decent reproduction of a Warhol is as a good as an “original,” or for that matter is just as original. In virtue of what, precisely, would you distinguish them aesthetically? Is it that the original was brushed at a distance of some miles by Andy Warhol’s awareness?

Warhols are, to put it in Walter Benjamin’s terms, “works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.” Benjamin famously asserted that, in a situation in which images could be copied cheaply and en masse, works of art were losing their “aura”: the sense of mystery and transcendent value that attended them. But aura is associated with rarity and preciousness: it limits supply and hence enhances or exponentially increases price. So, for those who stand to profit from postmodern art, the aura has to be imposed, invented, or (dis)simulated.

I would like to add here that this “aura” is something that I, in becoming an artist myself, have questioned.  In order for me to become an artist, I needed to define for myself what “artist” meant. Those great artists revered by experts are unassailable, and I needed to take them down from their pedestal–in my own mind–in order for me to have a place for myself, to be able to be bold enough to attempt to create.

Making art is the process of asking questions. If certain artists and artworks are revered, questioning them seems rude. We need to be able to forget all that has come before (an impossible task, of course) in order to create anew today — which new creating is of course never completely original, is indebted to previous works — but the mind engaged in creating is in a perpetual present-moment.

And a recent article in the New Yorker describes doubt in the thinking of Albert Hirschman:

doubt was creative because it allowed for alternative ways to see the world, and seeing alternatives could steer people out of intractable circles and self-feeding despondency. Doubt, in fact, could motivate: freedom from ideological constraints opened up political strategies, and accepting the limits of what one could know liberated agents from their dependence on the belief that one had to know everything before acting, that conviction was a precondition for action.

Also,

The phrase that Hirschman and Colorni would repeat to each other was that they hoped to “prove Hamlet wrong.” Hamlet shouldn’t have been frozen by his doubts; he should have been freed by them. Hamlet took himself too seriously. He thought he needed to be perfect. Colorni and Hirschman didn’t. Courage, Colorni wrote, required the willingness “to always be on guard against oneself.”

And:

Hirschman would come to recognize that action fuelled by doubt allows for failures to be left behind. [The Spanish Civil War] was a tragedy, but it was also, for him, an experiment, and experiments go awry. Hirschman liked to say that he had “a propensity to self-subversion.” He even gave one of his books that title. He qualified and questioned and hedged as a matter of habit. He never trusted himself enough to indulge in grand theorizing. He pursued the “petite idée,” the attempt, as he said, “to come to an understanding of reality in portions, admitting that the angle may be subjective.”

And:

Writing to her parents about the family’s decision to move to Colombia, which was then in the midst of a civil war, Sarah [Hirschman’s wife]explained, “We both realize that you should think of the future—make plans for the children etc. But I think we both somehow feel that it is impossible to know what is best and that the present is so much more important—because if the present is solid and good it will be a surer basis for a good future than any plans that you can make.” Most people would not have left a home in Chevy Chase and the security of a job in Washington to go to a Third World country where armed gangsters roamed the streets, because they would feel certain that Colombia was a mistake. Hirschman believed, as a matter of principle, that it was impossible to know whether Colombia would be a mistake. As it happened, the four years the family spent in Bogotá were among its happiest. Hirschman returned to Latin America again and again during his career, and what he learned there provided the raw material for his most brilliant work. His doubt was a gift, not a curse.

Links: 10 Jan. 2013

It seems I’ve got several things I want to post, and not much time tonight in which to post them:

1. Paul Krugman makes an interesting philosophical point about value, drawing a distinction between those who see value as coming from someplace beyond the human realm, and those who see humans as the arbiters of value. He’s talking about money, yes, but also more than just money — and I think this idea of value, of where it comes from, and along with it, meaning, coming from outside vs. coming from within is a valuable one (he said, siding with the later distinction).

2. Anachronistic words in the “Lincoln” movie.

3. An article about a new book by Danny Gregory, about his wife’s death. I had really enjoyed finding and reading his book “Everyday Matters,” which contained his writing and drawings about his life with his family after his wife’s paralysis, and I felt sad today to hear that she had died, and that his new book is about his grief. I’m eager to read the new book. Here’s also his web site with his other work.

4. “Why teachers secretly hate grading papers.” (“Secretly?” is what I’ve been wanting to say since I thought of posting this.) This experienced teacher makes a good point about the drudgery — well, no: let’s say, it’s the burden of grading. It isn’t always drudgery — sometimes I find some terrific student writing — and it wouldn’t necessarily be a burden if there were more time in the day to do it. But, eh, I ought not complain; teaching is still a pretty great job.

5. Search not for happiness, but for meaning.

6. Tidbits about typefaces.

7. Hollywood’s story biases, based on:

the ways in which its business model—which is entirely dependent upon big money and even bigger audiences—determines the risks it will and won’t take, the questions it will and won’t ask, and the answers it will and won’t provide.

8. Hagel vs. Hegel. I’ve been thinking of this sound-alike since Mr. Hagel’s been in the news recently. Plus, this link has my favorite Monty Python sketch ever: German vs. Greek philosophers in a football match.

9. Some research about best and worst learning methods.

10. Musician Beck published his new album as sheet music in a throw-back move. One thing this article lists is how publishing sheet music instead of a recording allows Beck’s fans to get more actively involved in his music. I wonder if there’s some way for people to do that with writing. Obviously, sheet music is a little like poetry, in that both can be performed, but I’m wondering if there are other ways to get readers more actively involved. Mad Libs, perhaps?