Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Generally Speaking

It's hard being right, it really is.

Not so hard as being wrong, but people who are often wrong usually don't know it. Most of them aren't bright enough. So maybe overall it's easier being wrong a lot. Maybe even most of the time. Because if you are you can't tell anyway.

Can't tell left from right, up from down, inside from outside, fur from feathers. Notice the worst singers auditioning for "American Idol". Or the worst of anyone trying to do anything. They can't tell how bad they are because part of being bad is being so bad that you have no clue whatsoever. It's been proven by science.

Being right is frustrating but satisfying.

Frustrating because people don't give a flying fork. Tell someone where they're wrong and they'll turn on you faster than a pit bull on a baby. No perspective. Except the one that says my idea is right because it floated through my brain and if you prove it's wrong then I will have to hate you. Because you are wrong to tell me something like that. Where are your manners, fool?

So cool.

In that vein I recently heard a brief interview with a Hispanic woman who was virulently against Barack Obama. Her reasoning was that he had repudiated the statements of a longtime pastor and had parted ways with the man. Therefore, in her mind, he was faithless since she stood by the Roman Catholic Church no matter what evil might be perpetrated by some of its staff, and he wasn't doing the same.

OK so far, if she really wants to go there. None of my business. But then she said that if he would do a thing like that he would also lie about his true religion and therefore he was really an anti-American terrorist Muslim. In secret. And she hated him for that. Which is a prime example of both being wrong and being stupid.

I'm really not political. At all. It's part of being right.

If you are political then you are about power. About having power, or wanting it, or wanting to be near it, or wanting someone you think deserves it to then have it. But you don't get to be right. Because being right gets in the way. Being right means that you have to work to understand things, think them through, and often rule against yourself. In politics you never give an inch. Unless you give an inch today to become a snake in the grass and take a mile tomorrow.

The only power I really want is over my own life, and that starts with understanding it. With understanding me, myself and I. And my context. And understanding it turns out to be a lot more important than having power. Because you can't have any power at all of any kind if you're stupid and ignorant and keep your mind closed.

You don't get to be powerful and wealthy (two views of the same puppet show) if you are stupid and ignorant and keep your mind closed, or if you do you can't hold onto either one for long. You don't necessarily get to be either powerful or wealthy if you are smart, or well educated, or think a lot. But you do come to some conclusions. And can do whatever you want with some real chance of success.

And a lot of those conclusions are right.

No one is right all the time. Ever. But if you pay attention and stay honest with yourself you get close.

Way back when was when I started asking myself questions. Like "Why is that?" or "How does that work?" And so on. Way back. In my teens. And after the question I'd arrive at an answer. Most often it would pop into my head. I imagine that it happens that way with most everyone. First a question and then an answer, out of particularly nowhere.

And then I'd ask myself why the answer was right. Sometimes I had to change my answer. Because the answer wasn't right, it was only something that I felt good about or liked or wanted to be right or was prejudiced in favor of. Only because it floated through my head.

And I'm still not right all the time, and you aren't either. Though I do like people who are right about things, especially if they're more right than I am. Because then I can learn how to think better. Quicker, more deeply, more imaginatively, more honestly.

The hard part is really the honesty.

If you keep hacking at something you'll eventually get through the crusty old useless parts. Your habits, your preferences, your desires, the way people around you think, what's good for your finances, or what's consistent with what you said or thought or did yesterday. Once you get through to the soft tender sensitive parts underneath, then you can do some real work.

But you have to be honest. Until it hurts, and then some. Until it bleeds. Honesty will take you places you've never been. Sometimes it's surprising. Most always. Because honesty and a little clear thinking will make you pry up stone after stone until you finally do find the real answer.

The fun part is adapting to it. It can be hard.

I was on a hike with someone once who said she didn't want to know the names of plants and trees because it would take away the magic. I've had that idea too. About a lot of things. It doesn't work. Knowing is much more fun, and more magical too.

Not knowing is easier in some ways, but it's being ignorant. And being ignorant is a lot like being stupid, which is a lot like being wrong. Which is a lot like waking up in the morning with bad breath, flat greasy hair and gummy eyes. It's better to have a fresh, awake mind in full possession of the facts. And have non-gummy eyes.

Learning things is hard but you don't have to learn everything. And you can't anyway. You can at least learn a lot. And when you do learn you start understanding things. Everything suddenly gets a face and a story The world becomes bigger, not smaller. And you find doorways leading places you could not have imagined before.

I've always been a generalist. A friend once described himself as a dilettante. Sort of proudly. In a way. Normally that's something you don't brag about. It doesn't sound great, like saying in public that when you're eating at home you spill so much food that you just eat off the floor. But he said it. Sort of proudly. He was doing a little tail pulling but he meant it.

He worked for many years as a newspaper reporter and did it well. Being a generalist was good, even if someone might call him a dilettante in a not nice way. He knew a lot. He was on top of it.

Generalists generally are. The real ones.

You get to be a generalist by paying attention. Because you can't help it. You like stuff. You like ideas, and people, and events. You do different jobs in different parts of the country in different decades. Your bookshelves at home look like a cross section of the public library. No one can figure out who you are by the books. You see more possibilities and have wider tastes that way. You end up knowing more. Hands down.

There are lots of people out there who are absolute screaming experts at blade thin areas of knowledge and most of them are bright. And true dullards.

Duds. Dorks. Stupes. Dolts. Bores. Spores. Pod people.

Being an expert can do that to you. Being a generalist will not, though mostly the specialists get paid better. Too bad for me, eh? Blame my English degree.

I couldn't have gotten to be as good a generalist and as clear a thinker without the English degree. I got it because I couldn't decide what to be when I grew up. So 30 years later, plus one, I still have the degree and still can't decide, but I learned a lot along the way.

The next time they give you all that civic bullshit about voting, keep in mind that Hitler was elected in a full, free democratic election. -- George Carlin

You can learn a lot from writers. If you don't believe that then turn on your TV set. See a movie. Watch a play. Read a book. It's all about writers. I suspect few know. Even reality shows ("reality" shows) have writers. Writers run everything. Without a plan you have bunches of people running around and bumping into each other. And mumbling a lot.

Writers weave it.

Writing and reading and thinking about writing and reading have ways of honing thought. You find ideas and take pleasure in them. You can come home with pockets full of them and sit in the sun and endlessly turn them over, and over again, and again. And sort them and stack them and play, and decide which are the real and good and true. And from that learn to make your own.

Like math without the math. Also pure thought but accessible to everyone. Open ended. You grow big invisible feelers that sound warnings when things aren't right. Sometimes people call these B.S. detectors. Handy. When they are in "off" position they will often turn their gaze back toward you, and that's one way you learn to think better. You think a thought and arrive at a conclusion and then you hear this funny buzzing sound, and that's when you know you have more work to do. Your feelers tap dance on your head until you catch on.

That's your next step into the world of honesty.

You may adapt but not everyone will love you. Because you'll want to share. Honesty is hard to accept. And people will feel threatened. Because (a) they haven't thought at all, or (b) they have a vested interest in how things are.

It was like that on my last job. They were rebuilding a computer system. I came in at iteration three. After a year of working in good faith it became clear that it was a waste of time. They were only working on an extended failure. My feelers were aching. All day and all night. I started talking. No one wanted that.

They carried on for another four years or so and finally threw out six years of work. After deciding it was really was a failure. And then they started over and threw that one out too. And now I hear they're at it again.

It's hard being right, it really is. But it's wrong to be willfully stupid.

I'm still mad about that one. Two of us, with help from three or four carefully chosen others, could have built a bare bones version of the system that was needed. Solid, rock solid and reliable. Squeaky clean. Bare bones but rock solid, and a good platform for extension. We could have finished it by early 2004, maybe sooner.


They didn't want to be right. Everyone made more money from extending the gig than I did, but I have my integrity, such as it is. It's hard though. And most of them, if they remember me at all, hate me. Because for them it hurt too much to think. And hurt too much to change. Even though they eventually were allowed to change their minds. When management said it was the new policy.

So what's the right answer, then?


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