(Just a few “inspirational” posts)
504. Meetup post
“Persevere.” It’s a piece of advice you’ll get from a whole lot of high achievers in a whole lot of disciplines. I didn’t understand it at all, at first.
At first, I thought “perseverance” meant working 14-hour days. Apparently, there are people out there who can work for 10 hours at a technical job, and then, in their moments between eating and sleeping and going to the bathroom, seize that unfilled spare time to work on a book. I am not one of those people—it still hurts my pride even now to confess that. I’m working on something important; shouldn’t my brain be willing to put in 14 hours a day? But it’s not. When it gets too hard to keep working, I stop and go read or watch something. Because of that, I thought for years that I entirely lacked the virtue of “perseverance”.
That was when I realized that “perseverance” applied at multiple time scales. On the timescale of seconds, perseverance is to “not to give up instantly at the very first sign of difficulty”. On the timescale of years, perseverance is to “keep working on an insanely difficult problem even though it’s inconvenient and you could be getting higher personal rewards elsewhere”.
To do things that are very difficult or “impossible”,
First you have to not run away. That takes seconds.
Then you have to work. That takes hours.
Then you have to stick at it. That takes years.
Of these, I had to learn to do the first reliably instead of sporadically; the second is still a constant struggle for me; and the third comes naturally.
I suck at all of them, but the third is by far the hardest.
Words of wisdom by Phil Goetz:
“Thousands of years ago, philosophers began working on “impossible” problems. Science began when some of them gave up working on the “impossible” problems, and decided to work on problems that they had some chance of solving. And it turned out that this approach eventually lead to the solution of most of the “impossible” problems.”
“A ‘strong’ effort usually results in only mediocre results”—I have seen this over and over again. The slightest effort suffices to convince ourselves that we have done our best.
There is a level beyond the virtue of tsuyoku naritai (“I want to become stronger”). Isshoukenmei was originally the loyalty that a samurai offered in return for his position, containing characters for “life” and “land”. The term evolved to mean “make a desperate effort”: Try your hardest, your utmost, as if your life were at stake.
…In the West, there is a saying: “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
In Japan, the corresponding saying runs: “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
This is hardly an original observation on my part: but entrepreneurship, risk-taking, leaving the herd, are still advantages the West has over the East. And since Japanese scientists are not yet preeminent over American ones, this would seem to count for at least as much as desperate efforts.
Anyone who can muster their willpower for thirty seconds, can make a desperate effort to lift more weight than they usually could. But what if the weight that needs lifting is a truck? Then desperate efforts won’t suffice; you’ll have to do something out of the ordinary to succeed.
…This is not included in isshokenmei, or Japan would be a very different place.
So then let us distinguish between the virtues “make a desperate effort” and “make an extraordinary effort”.
And I will even say: The second virtue is higher than the first.
The second virtue is also more dangerous.
…I am not fool enough to make plans that depend on a majority of the people, or even 10% of the people, being willing to think or act outside their comfort zone. That’s why I tend to think in terms of the privately funded “brain in a box in a basement” model. Getting that private funding does require a tiny fraction of humanity’s six billions to spend more than five seconds thinking about a non-prepackaged question. As challenges posed by Nature go, this seems to have a kind of awful justice to it—that the life or death of the human species depends on whether we can put forth a few people who can do things that are at least a little extraordinary. The penalty for failure is disproportionate, but that’s still better than most challenges of Nature, which have no justice at all. Really, among the six billion of us, there ought to be at least a few who can think outside their comfort zone at least some of the time.