Some Timeless Wisdom from Samuel Johnson on Reading, Curiosity, and Knowledge

 

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Samuel Johnson. Painted by William Doughty. 1779. Via: (Artstor)

 

 

We all know that if someone is being featured on Google Doodle, there is something extraordinary about that person. In September 18th, 2017, Google Doodle celebrated what would have been the 308th birthday of Samuel Johnson (18 September 1709 – 13 December 1784). A prodigious British writer and thinker, Johnson had produced some of the most captivating writings that were widely read during the Enlightenment such as The History of Rasselas: Prince of Abissinia (1759) (Amazon). If there’s one more work that catapulted him into fame, it’s his Dictionary of the English Language –a final product of nine year of rigorous work, and now is considered as one of the most influential dictionaries in the history of the English language.

Johnson might have been dead for more than three hundred years, but his words have the uncanny power to outlive his own life. Even he is often considered as the second most quoted Englishmen, according to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. A classic book titled Wit and Wisdom of Samuel Johnson (Public Domain) (Public Library) is a record of some of Johnson’s famous sayings, organized neatly by George Birkbeck Norman Hill.

Here are some of my favorites of his sayings, touching on the topics such as reading, curiosity, and knowledge.

On reading:

‘He said that, for general improvement, a man should read whatever his immediate inclination prompts him to; though to be sure, if a man has a science to learn, he must regularly and resolutely advance. He added, “what we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.” He told us he read Fielding’s Amelia through without stopping. He said, “If a man begins to read in the middle of a book and feels an inclination to go on, let him not quit it to go to the beginning. He may perhaps not feel again the inclination.” ‘

On Knowledge:

“Of whatever we see we always wish to know; always congratulate ourselves when we know that of which we perceive another to be ignorant. Take therefore all opportunities of learning that offer themselves, however remote the matter may be from common life or common conversation. Look in Herschel’s telescope; go into a chemist’s laboratory; if you see a manufacturer at work, remark his operations. By this activity of attention you will find in every place diversion and improvement.”

On Curiosity:

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last; and perhaps always predominates in proportion to the strength of the contemplative faculties.”

On Dialogue and Action:

“It is indeed much more easy to form dialogues than to contrive adventures. Every position makes way for an argument, and every objections dictates an answer. When two disputants are engaged upon a complicated and extensive question, the difficulty is not to continue, but to end the controversy. But whether it be that we comprehend but few of the possibilities of life, or that life itself affords little variety, every man who has tried knows how much labor it will cost to form such a combination of circumstances as shall have at once the grace of novelty and credibility, and delight fancy without violence to reason.”

 

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)

 

Seth Godin on the Trouble of “waiting to be discovered”

 

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Seth Godin. Photograph by Bill Wadman. Via: (OnTakingPictures)

 

If you haven’t subscribed to Seth Godin’s daily (Yes, daily!) newsletter, I hate to say that you are missing on some of the most provocative and powerful ideas on education, the purpose of customer service, how do ideas spread, self-learning, dancing with fear, and other important things that circulate around our lives and works.

When we look up at the mountaintop looking for a mighty calling from God to fulfil the gaps in our lives, Godin reminds us to look down and start what can be started with any resource that we own, today, not tomorrow. Godin hates when someone is being lazy because of course it’s obvious, what can you accomplish if you’re being lazy? He despises life-hack articles because he thinks those are toxic and to trick your customers is a short-term gain but a terrifying long death sentence. Moreover, waiting for someone to discover our talents is disturbing and it’s a way to suffocate our talents. This particular topic on “waiting to be discovered” is the highlight of this post as I have been pondering about this topic lately.

From his daily newsletter, Godin wrote a short article titled “On Being Discovered” on August, 16th 2017:

“[…]

The thing about being discovered is that in addition to being fabulous, it’s incredibly rare. Because few people have the time or energy to go hunting for something that might not be there.

The alternative?

To be sought out.

Instead of hoping that people will find you, the alternative is to become the sort of person these people will go looking for.

This is difficult, of course, because it means you have to create work that might not work. That you have to lean out of the boat and invest in making something that’s remarkable. That you have to be generous when you feel like being selfish. Difficult because there is no red carpet, no due dates, and no manual. But that’s okay, because your work is worth it.”

Speaking the same truth in conversation with The Great Discontent (TGD) on our laziness to lift ourselves up to reach our highest potential, Godin said:

TGD: If you could give one piece of advice to someone starting out, what would you say?

Godin: […]

The opportunity of a lifetime is to pick yourself. Quit waiting to get picked; quit waiting for someone to give you permission; quit waiting for someone to say you are officially qualified and pick yourself. It doesn’t mean you have to be an entrepreneur or a freelancer, but it does mean you stand up and say, “I have something to say. I know how to do something. I’m doing it. If you want me to do it with you, raise your hand.”

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Seth Godin. Photograph by Bill Wadman. Via: (OnTakingPictures)