Understanding the Flame of Anger: Three Contemporary Philosophers on Anger

 

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Intersection. Photograph by Several Seconds. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Growing up, I knew two different forms of anger: my mom’s anger and my dad’s anger. My mom’s anger is vocal. Her anger was very reactive. Sometimes she would use a physical aggression to extend her rage. On the other hand, my dad, expressed his anger very quietly. His face would look very upset but he knew how to prevent himself from being engulfed by his anger wholly.

Even when anger was a common experience of my childhood, and often it fuels my acts and thoughts, I believe that it is more than just the obscenities of our language to communicate our feelings. I know it’s more than that because people just don’t flare up in fury abruptly. There has to be something that drives them to strike out, to punch, and to curse.

Here are some problems that we have in our society about anger: once we see anger displayed in public, we step away from it. We dismiss and judge it because it’s too terrifying to go near it, and we believe there is nothing good that comes out of it. It’s hard to pause and reflect on what anger wants or what anger truly means when we are too often caught up in its “flame.”

Therefore, to help us to understand what anger wants and means, here I gathered three of my favorite contemporary philosophers:

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum. Via: (FLICKR)

 

Martha Nussbaum, a professor of Law and ethics at The University of Chicago, in her essay Beyond Anger, argued that anger contains a sort of strike back tendency. This is an idea that she drew from Aristotle. Nussbaum writes:

“Aristotle says that anger is a response to a significant damage to something or someone one cares about, and a damage that the angry person believes to have been wrongfully inflicted. He adds that although anger is painful, it also contains within itself a hope for payback. So: significant damage, pertaining to one’s own values/circles or cares, and wrongfulness. All this seems both true and uncontroversial. More controversial, perhaps, is his idea (in which, however, all Western philosophers who write about anger concur) that the angry person wants some type of payback, and that, this is a conceptual part of what anger is. In other words, if you don’t want some type of payback, your emotion is something else (grief, perhaps), but not really anger.”

This wish for payback is deeply human but it doesn’t always make sense according to Nussbaum. The example that she brings in her essay is if we saw someone who has been raped, we focus our attention on the wrongdoer, hoping he gets a “deserving” payback from what he’s done. We want the wrongdoer to be instantly punished and jailed. Though punishing the wrongdoer is a necessary step to do, especially if there’s a law for it, Nussbaum believes that there are other necessary solutions that we need to talk about such as how we can prevent future rapes or how we can restore the victim’s life. This concept of  payback or “blood for blood” will not solve the root problem, and is a short-sighted way of looking at problems. At the end of the essay, she says, “the arguments proposed by anger will be clearly seen to be pathetic and weak, while the voice of generosity and forward looking reason will be strong as well as beautiful.”

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Alain de Botton. Photograph by Charlotte de Botton. Via: (alaindebotton.com)

 

If Nussbaum understands the desire for “pay-back” in anger, another philosopher that we need to look at is Alain de Botton. In his short but powerful essay titled On Anger, he realizes that the root cause of anger is optimism. We get angry when we are excessively optimistic with our plans and then suddenly they are not working. This is when anger starts to leak out and control our behaviors.

de Botton writes succinctly:

“Anger begins with the many imperfections of existence: the internet connection has failed, the plane is delayed again, someone is driving too slowly. It is fair enough to take a negative view of these things. But in order for them to make us angry–rather than merely sad–there is something else at work: we break, kick, slam, and accelerate because we are, at some level, horribly optimistic. Though the angry may seem negatively predisposed to life, they are in their hearts recklessly hopeful. Recklessly because how badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal. We may be irritated that it is raining, but our pessimistic accommodation to the likelihood of showers means we are unlikely ever to respond to one by screaming. Our annoyance is tempered by what we understand we can expect from the climate, by our melancholy experience of what it is normal to hope for from the skies. We are not overwhelmed by anger whenever we don’t get something we want; we do so only when we first believed ourselves fundamentally entitled to secure it–and then oddly did not. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground-rules of existence.”

What de Botton says is reminding me of Daniel Kahneman’s assertion of the danger of overconfidence. He says, “Overconfidence is associated with a failure of imagination.” When what we believe to be true turns out to be false, sometimes anger becomes the expression of our dissatisfaction.

In his essay, de Botton looks beyond the root of anger. He finds that if we can look at the angry thoughtfully, we can learn something from them. He writes:

“Behind their outburst, the angry are trying to teach the world things: how to run an airline, how to drive, how to make decent dinner-time conversation… However, they are exceptionally bad teachers because too much is at stake for them. They lack the basic psychological resource of good teachers: a relative indifference to the success or failure of their lessons.”
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David Whyte. Photograph by Christopher Michel. Via: (FLICKR)

 

In addition to Martha Nussbaum and Alain De Botton, another thoughtful philosopher that we need to discuss is David Whyte. In his book titled Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words, with his poetic and philosophical eyes, Whyte is able to see the most tender part of anger that we don’t always see. He believes that anger is coming from a place of deep compassion. People who are angry, if we can reframe our point of view, they are profoundly compassionate and working to protect the things they care about. This sense of compassion is sometimes too intense and they cannot contain it within themselves. Then anger becomes a way for them to reduce its intensity.

Whyte writes beautifully:

“ANGER is the deepest form of compassion, for another, for the world, for the self, for a life, for the body, for a family and for all our ideals, all vulnerable and all, possibly about to be hurt. Stripped of physical imprisonment and violent reaction, anger is the purest form of care, the internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for. What we usually call anger is only what is left of its essence when we are overwhelmed by its accompanying vulnerability, when it reaches the lost surface of our mind or our body’s incapacity to hold it, or when it touches the limits of our understanding. What we name as anger is actually only the incoherent physical incapacity to sustain this deep form of care in our outer daily life; the unwillingness to be large enough and generous enough to hold what we love helplessly in our bodies or our mind with the clarity and breadth of our whole being.”

It’s important to refuse to internalize anger as what it displays in our lives. The language and the physical aggression of anger give us nothing but its extreme cruelty and its chaos. When we resist its superficiality and chose to find its meaning beyond what is visible, we can start to understand that anger is more complex and more fluid than what we always see. To see anger beyond what is visible is the beginning of wisdom.

Nobel-Winning Psychologist Daniel Kahneman On the Danger of Overconfidence

 

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Nassim Taleb and Daniel Kahneman speaking at NYPL. 2013. Via: (FLICKR)

 

In a conversation with Krista Tippett, Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize in economic science in 2002, the author of Thinking Fast and Slow, talked about the danger of overconfidence.

The transcript:

Krista Tippett: One thing you’ve also said is that if you had a magic wand, overconfidence is the thing you would banish. Would you explain that?

Daniel Kahneman: Well, and I’m–I did say that, but I’m not sure I was right. But what I meant to say was that when you look globally at people’s actions, overconfidence is endemic. I mean we have too much confidence in our beliefs, and overconfidence really is associated with a failure of imagination. When you cannot imagine an alternative to your belief, you are convinced that your belief is true. That’s overconfidence. And overconfidence–whenever there is a war, there were overconfident generals. You can look at failures, and overconfidence had something to do with them. On the other hand, overconfidence and overconfident optimism is the engine of capitalism. I mean entrepreneurs are overconfident. They think they’re going to be successful. People who open restaurants in New York think they’ll succeed; otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. But at least two-thirds of them have to give up within a few years–more than two-thirds, probably.

Krista Tippett: Well, and too, what’s also baked into that is, we reward overconfidence. We celebrate it.

Daniel Kahneman: Absolutely, we want people to be overconfident. We want our leaders to be overconfident.

To devour Kahneman’s insights on the mystery of human thought and behavior, listen to the podcast below:

 

Maybe, after all, what we need to tell people, especially aspiring creators, is that confidence is not the prerequisite for any creative endeavor. It is courage that counts–the engine that propels us to take the first step of anything unfamiliar and scary. In a conversation with Chase Jarvis, Debbie Millman, who got inspired by Dani Shapiro’s notion of confidence, said eloquently about the necessity to be courageous. She said:

“I believe that the act of being courageous—taking that first step—is much more critical to a successful outcome than the notion of feeling confident while engaged in the process. Courage requires faith in your ability before you experience any repeated success. But that doesn’t mean taking that first step will be easy. It won’t. Taking ANY step for the first time is difficult and there is a tremendous amount of vulnerability and nervousness you are likely going to experience. But experiencing that vulnerability and nervousness doesn’t give you an excuse not to take the step.”

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: