The Danger of Stereotyping by Greek Philosopher Seneca

 

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Seneca by Peter Paul Rubens. Via: (Artstor)

 

If there is a book that I treat like a sacred text, it is Letters from a Stoic (Public Library)–a collection of letters originally penned by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC – 65AD), one of the most towering figures in the ancient Greek school of philosophy, Stoicism. Every once when I find myself mortified over trivial things such as a WiFi outage and when a cyclist overtakes me on the road, I think of Seneca and this book. This book, which I revisit frequently, will always bring me solace in the midst of chaos and some new teachings that are extremely practical. Although Seneca was penning all the letters between 4 BC and 65 AD for his own private reflection and for the people that he loved, they surprisingly have survived two millennia later against all odd and have helped modern people to comprehend the notion of what it means to live a meaningful life.

In one of those letters in the book, I came upon a letter titled Letter CXXIII that addresses a problem that so ubiquitous in our modern world. It is our chronic habit to be seduced by stereotypes. Stereotyping someone is not only a pathway to racism, but according to Seneca, once we plant the seed of it in our lives, “the evil would follow us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future”. The letter is not only advising us to avoid the act of stereotyping but also to avoid the people who spread this harmful and misleading association.

Writing the letter to his friend, Lucilius, after a long exhausted journey that he had, Seneca wrote:

[…]

“With all such people you should avoid associating. These are the people who pass on vices, transmitting them from one character to another. One used to think that the type of person who spreads tales was as bad as any: but there are persons who spread vices. And association with them does a lot of damage. For even if its success is not immediate, it leaves a seed in the mind, and even after we’ve said goodbye to them, the evil follows us, to rear its head at some time or other in the future. In the same way as people who’ve been to a concert carry about with them the melody and haunting quality of pieces they’ve just heard, interfering with their thinking and preventing them from concentrating on anything serious, so the talk of snobs and parasites sticks in our ears long after we’ve heard it. And it’s far from easy to eradicate these haunting notes from the memory; they stay with us, lasting on and on, coming back to us every so often. This is why we must shut our ears against mischievous talk, and as soon as it starts, too; once such talk has made its entry and been allowed inside, it becomes a good deal bolder. Eventually it reaches the stage where it says that ‘virtue and philosophy and justice are just a lot of clap-trap’.”

[…]

 

More on Seneca and Stoicism:

  • School of Life, one of my favorite intellectual channels on YouTube discussed this school of philosophy, Stoicism, in a very catchy visual and understandable language:

 

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Tomb of Seneca by Charles Le Brun. Via: (Artstor)

 

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Sokrates and Seneca. This sculpture is owned by Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (Germany). Via: (Artstor)

 

Paul Kalanithi on the Source of Human Knowledge

 

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Paul Kalanithi. Via: (paulkalanithi.com)

 

“In the end, it cannot be doubted that each of us can see only a part of the picture. The doctor sees one, the patient another, the engineer a third, the economist a fourth, the pearl diver a fifth, the alcoholic a sixth, the cable guy a seventh, the sheep farmer an eight, the Indian beggar a ninth, the pastor a tenth. Human knowledge is never contained in one person. It grows from the relationship we create between each other and the world, and still it is never complete. And Truth comes somewhere above all of them, where, as at the end of that Sunday’s reading.

the sower and reaper can rejoice together. For here the saying is verified that “One sows and another reaps.” I sent you to reap what you have not worked for; others have done the work, and you are sharing the fruits of their work.”

Pulled from Paul Kalanithi‘s eloquently crafted memoir When Breath Becomes Air (Public Library). 

Kalanithi’s lung cancer tragically cut short his life. He was only thirty seven when he inhaled and released one last, deep, final breath in the room not too far from where his only daughter, Cady Kalanithi, was born eight months before. It was also the same hospital where he was trained to be a neurosurgeon. In that hospital, he had faced the death of his patients and eventually his. The excruciating pain of his cancer did not deter his vitality from writing this book. He wrote this book because of his cancer and despite of it. This memoir is not just a collection of words and pages. At its core, this is a story of what courage looks like. This is a story of how a man of inexhaustible energy had to commune with his own mortality.

Before he was diagnosed with cancer, Kalanithi knew someday he would eventually die, but he did not know when. After he realized that the cancer had invaded his multiple organ systems, he knew that his “lease” in this world would end really soon, but once again, he did not know when. In those uncertain moments, Kalanithi had lived gracefully and courageously.

 

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Paul Kalanithi. Photograph by Norbert von der Groeben. Via: (The New Yorker)

 

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Dr. Paul Kalanithi with his wife, Lucy, and their daughter. Via: (nytimes)

 

How to Have Original Ideas: Adam Grant on Originality and Creativity

 

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Adam Grant. Via: (Inc.com)

 

In a consolation letter that Mark Twain sent to Hellen Keller after she was being accused of plagiarizing, Twain wrote, “For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources […],” he continued, “when a great orator makes a great speech you are listening to ten centuries and ten thousand men — but we call it his speech, and really some exceedingly small portion of it is his.”

If all ideas are second-hand, why are we obsessed with originality? There is nothing in this world that is completely original. All of our ideas have been influenced by other ideas, big or small, significant or superficial. In other funky words: everything is a remix.

When it comes to deconstructing the mystery of originality, no one can better explain it than Adam Grant, one of the most influential organizational psychologists. Through his second book titled Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (Public Library), Grant unearths some of the most powerful and surprising findings about what does it mean to be an original and to have original ideas.

On the definition of originality, Grant writes:

“Originality is taking the road less traveled, championing a set of novel ideas that go against the grain but ultimately make things better.

[…]

Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there. Originals are people who take the initiative to make their visions a reality.”

This process to make our “visions a reality” is a circuitous and complex process. However, one of the steps that we can do to ignite our creative minds is “finding the faults in defaults”. 

Grant writes:

“The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists.

[…]

The starting point is curiosity: pondering why the default exists in the first place. We’re driven to question defaults when we experience Vuja de, the opposite of Deja vu. Deja vu occurs when we encounter something new, but it feels as if we have seen it before. Vuja de is the reverse–we face something familiar, but we see it with a fresh perspective that enables us to gain new insights into old problems.

[…]

When we become curious about the dissatisfying defaults in our world, we begin to recognize that most of them have social origins: Rules and systems were created by people. And that awareness gives us the courage to contemplate how we can change them.”

This notion of Vuja de is the engine that fuels the conception of Warby Parker–an online eyeglasses company (A worth to read interview with one of the founders–Neil Blumenthal). In the book, Grant shares the story of Warby Parker’s creation. Initially, it started when the four founders were enraged with the price of eyeglasses. As one of them stood in line at the Apple store to buy an iPhone, he wondered why a pair of eye-glasses could cost more than an iPhone. Everything started to change after they realized that an European company named Luxottica dominated the eye industry business and was taking advantage of its monopoly status by “charging twenty times the cost”. Understanding that there was a monopoly was an “eureka” moment for them. They realized that they had never questioned the origin of the price of eyeglasses before. Looking with a new perspective to “the thing” that they had always taken for granted, Warby Parker eventually came to existence.

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George Washington’s spectacles. “Silver-rimmed spactacles, worn by George Washington. Washington commenced to wear eye-glasses in the year 1778. This pair is said to have been used by him on the occasion of his reading his Newburg address./ Presented by Captain Henry N. Marsh. S. 45,001.” Via: (NYPL Digital collections)

 

Prior to reading this book, I used to think that we lived in the age of ideas scarcity. Grant shattered my false assumption by explaining that the real issue in our world was not the absence of ideas, but the ideas selection.

He writes:

“But in reality, the biggest barrier to originality is not ideas generation–it’s idea selection. In one analysis, when over two hundred people dreamed up more than a thousand ideas for new ventures and products, 87 percent were completely unique. Our companies, communities, and countries don’t necessarily suffer from a shortage of novel ideas. They are constrained by a shortage of people who excel at choosing the right novel ideas.”

To recognize ideas that are not only novel, but also have a potential to make our world a better place is a difficult practice. Grant presents two theories that capture our weakness to recognize original ideas from conventional ones. First, is a false positive, expecting something to be a transformative idea, but it turns out to be a miss. Second, is a false negative, which means believing an idea will fail but it turns out blossoming. All of these are very common. One of the greatest TV series in America, Seinfeld, was a false negative. So was J.K Rowling’s Harry potter series.

Originality conjures up images of Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs for the most of us. These extraordinary figures have dominated our world with their staggering and novel inventions. We feel their success is unattainable. One of the most hopeful things that Grant writes in the book is originality can be exercised like a muscle, a concept that reminds me of Carol Dweck’s research on the difference between “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. The more we exercise “it”, the stronger “it” becomes. The seed to be an original thinker is found in everyone of us, if only we nurture it and let it grow.

“Originality is not a fixed trait. It is a free choice. Lincoln wasn’t born with an original personality. Taking on controversy wasn’t programmed into his DNA; it was an act of conscious will. As the great thinker W. E. B. DuBois wrote, ‘He was one of you and yet he became Abraham Lincoln.’ “

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Abraham Lincoln, 1809-1865. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

The twentieth century is the golden age of entrepreneurship, a term that was coined by Richard Cantillon, which means “bearer of risk”. The media loves to share entrepreneurs’ success stories by highlighting the bold risks that they have conquered. This media framing tricks us into thinking that all entrepreneurs are not risk-averse. To make it worse, there’s a lot of motivational quotes scattered around the internet that encourage people to be fearless when taking risks. Though, I agree that we need to have a certain degree of risk-taking attitude to achieve our goals, according to Grant, blind risk-taking is a very dangerous strategy for entrepreneurs.

He writes:

“Economists find that as teenagers, successful entrepreneurs were nearly three times as likely as their peers to break rules and engage in illicit activities. Yet when you take a closer look at the specific behaviors involved, the adolescents who went on to start productive companies were only taking calculated risks.

[…]

To become original, you have to try something new, which means accepting some measure of risk. But the most successful originals are not the daredevils who leap before they look. They are the ones who reluctantly tiptoe to the edge of a cliff, calculate the rate of descent, triple check their parachutes, and set up a safety net at the bottom just in case. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in the New Yorker, “Many entrepreneurs take plenty of risks–but those are generally the failed entrepreneurs, not the success stories.”

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Marie Curie. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

This notion of “calculated risk” is in fact not new at all. Half a century ago, a theory called “an innovative theory of risk” was developed by University of Michigan psychologist Clyde Coombs (Another research done by Coombs and Bowen titled “Additivity of Risk in Porfolios”). This theory can be understood as embracing risk in one area and exercising safety in another. 

One might think that entrepreneurs or creative people who practice this concept of “risk portfolio” don’t take their business seriously because they are playing it safe and not fully immersing themselves in it. However, this strategy is in fact benefiting them.

Grant writes:

“Common sense suggests that creative accomplishments can’t flourish without big windows of time and energy, and companies can’t thrive without intensive effort. Those assumptions overlook the central benefit of a balanced risk portfolio: Having a sense of security in one realm gives us the freedom to be original in another.”

Then Grant cites a captivating study by two management researchers Joseph Raffiee and Jie Feng in which “from 1994 until 2008, they carefully tracked a nationally representative group of over five thousand Americans in their twenties until fifties who became entrepreneurs.” In the research, Raffiee and Feng asked a question: when people start a business, are they better off keeping or quitting their day jobs?

Combining the research from Raffiee and Feng, Grant deduces:

“Entrepreneurs who kept their day job had 33 percent lower odds of failure than those who quit.

[…]

After inventing the original Apple 1 computer, Steve Wozniak started the company with Steve Jobs in 1976 but continued working full-time in his engineering job at Hewlett-Packard until 1977. And although Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin figured out how to dramatically improve internet searches in 1996, they didn’t go on leave from their graduate studies at Stanford until 1998.”

[…]

This habit of keeping one’s day job isn’t limited to successful entrepreneurs. Many influential creative minds have stayed in full-time employment or education even after earning income from major projects.

[…]

Grammy winner John Legend released his first album in 2000, preparing PowerPoint presentations by day while performing at night. Thriller master Stephen King worked as a teacher, janitor, and gas station attendant for seven years after writing his first story, only quitting a year after his first novel, Carrie, was published. “

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Artwork by Austin Kleon. Via: (Austin Kleon’s Tumblr)

 

Einstein once said, “Combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought.” In this book, Grant shares the same idea on creativity with Einstein. He argues that creativity doesn’t necessarily spring from a single profound expertise, but it emerges when one is actively connecting one’s mind with ideas outside of one’s expertise. As he said, “A unique combination of broad and deep experience” is necessary for the nourishment of creative thinking. In order to understand the effects of  “combinatory play”, Grant turns his attention to Nobel-Prize winning scientists, in which he argues:

In a recent study comparing every Nobel Prize-winning scientist from 1901 to 2005 with typical scientists of the same era, both groups attained deep expertise in their respective fields of study. But the Nobel Prize winners were dramatically more likely to be involved in the arts than less accomplished scientists. “

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This picture was taken from page 47 of the book

 

How does this hunger in the arts help them to spark their creative insights?

Grant answers:

“Interest in the arts among entrepreneurs, investors, and eminent scientists obviously reflects their curiosity and aptitude. People who are open to new ways of looking at science and business also tend to be fascinated by the expression of ideas and emotions through images, sounds, and words. But it’s not just that a certain kind of original person seeks out to exposure to the arts. The arts also serve in turn as a powerful force of creative insight.”

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Painter at His Studio with Guests. Artist: Bundrone, G. Via: (NYPL Digital Collections)

 

Reading Originals has altered the way I view creativity, the world, and myself. Though this book is brimming with scientific information, the way Grant weaves together scientific findings and personal narratives in this book is enchanting and digestible. The rest of the book, Grant explores creativity in the workplace, family, school, and truly reveals every layer of creativity that we have never seen before.

Adam Grant’s Ted-Talk on this topic is a worth to watch:

 

And, if you always find yourself hesitant to share your ideas because you think they are insignificant or “too obvious to you”, Derek Sivers has something to say: