I believe that if some of the best bishops were asked, “How would you like to step down from all of your honors, and all of your power, and hand the reins over to an excellent successor, and become only the lowest rank of monk at an obscure monastery in the middle of nowhere with no authority over any soul’s salvation but your own—would you take it?” their response might be, “Um, uh… what’s the catch?”
(I deeply respect my heirarch and after a bit of thought, I removed certain remarks because I really think he would rather endure baseless slander than others making a public display of his virtues.)
If I may comment briefly on virginity and marriage: in a culture where you try to rip your opponent’s position to shreds instead of aiming for fair balance in a critique, St. Gregory of Nyssa’s On Virginity is meant to rip marriage to shreds. I don’t mean that, and I would say something that I don’t think needed to be said, or at least not needed to be said, as much: true marriage should be seen as having something of the hallowed respect associated with monasticism. A marriage in its fullest traditional sense, is becoming (or already is) something that should be called exotic if people didn’t look down their noses at it. As far as true marriage relates to monasticism, the externals are almost antithetical but the goal is the same: self-transcendence. The person who said, “Men love women. Women love children. Children love pets. Life isn’t fair,” is on to something. Getting into marriage properly requires stepping beyond an egotism of yourself; raising children, if you are so blessed, requires stepping beyond an egotism of two. And Biblically and patristically, childlessness was seen as a curse; the priestly father to whom one child was given in old age, the Mother of God herself, bore derision even in his high office because people viewed childlessness as a curse enough to be a sign of having earned divine judgment and wrath. And at a day and age where marriage is being torn from limb to limb, it might befit us to make particular efforts to honor marriage alongside monasticism.
There is one advantage to monasticism; actually, there are several, but one eclipses the others, and that is mentioned when St. Paul recognizes that not everyone can be celibate like him, marriage being a legitimate and honorable option. But he mentions a significant advantage to celibacy: the married person must have divided attention between serving family and the Lord, where a celibate person (today this usually belongs in monasticism) is able to give God an undivided attention, enjoying the blessed estate of a Mary sitting at the Lord’s feet as a disciple taking in the one thing that is truly necessary, and not as a Martha who is busily encumbered with many other things. And while St. Paul knows that not everybody can walk the celibate path, he does at least wish that people could offer God an undivided attention. And I have yet to hear Orthodox challenge that any genuine marriage includes a condition of divided attention.
If we leave off talking about bishops just briefly, let’s take a brief look at the abbot next to a simple monk under him (“simple monk” is a technical term meaning a monk who has not additionally been elevated to any minor or major degree of sacramental priesthood). The simple monk has lost some things, but he has in full the benefit St. Paul wants celibates to have: everything around him is ordered to give him the best opportunity to work on salvation. Meanwhile, any abbot who is doing an abbot’s job is denied this luxury. Some abbots have been tempted to step down from their honored position because of how difficult they’ve found caring for themselves spiritually as any monk should, and additionally care for the many needs of a monastery and the other monks. An abbot may not focus on his own salvation alone; he must divide his attention to deal with disciples and various secular material needs a monastery must address. An abbot is a monk who must bear a monk’s full cross; in addition, while an abbot has no sexual license, he must also bear the additional cross of a father who is dividing his attention in dealing with those under his care. He may be celibate, but he effectively forgoes the chief benefit St. Paul ascribes to living a celibate life.
To be a heirarch brings things another level higher. Right now I don’t want to compare the mere monk with a bishop, but rather compare an abbot with a bishop. The abbot acts as a monk in ways that include the full life participation in the services and environment in a monastery. It may be true that the abbot is more finely clad than other monks, but abbot and simple monk alike are involved in the same supportive environment, and what abbot and simple monk share is greater than their difference. By comparison, unless the bishop is one of few bishops serving in a monastery, the bishop may be excused for perhaps feeling like a fish out of water. It may be desired that a bishop have extensive monastic character formation, but a bishop is compelled to live in the world, and to travel all over the place in ways and do some things that other monastics rightly flee. Now the heirarch does have the nicest robes of all, and has privileges that no one else has, but it is too easy to see a bishop’s crownlike mitre in the majesty of Liturgy and fail to sense the ponderous, heavy crown of thorns invisibly present on a bishop’s head all the time. Every Christian must bear his cross, but you are very ignorant about the cross a bishop bears if you think that being a bishop is all about wearing the vestments of the Roman emperor, being called “Your Grace” or “Your Eminence,” and sitting on a throne at the center of everything.
Now it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear a bishop’s robes; for that matter it is possible to be perfectly satisfied to wear an acolyte’s robe or never wear liturgical vestments at all. But I know someone who is really bright, and has been told, “You are the most brilliant person I know!” The first time around it was really intoxicating; by the fifth or sixth time he felt more like someone receiving uninteresting old news, and it was more a matter of disciplined social skills than spontaneous delight to keep trying to keep giving a graceful and fitting response to an extraordinary compliment. Perhaps the first time a new heirarch is addressed as “Your Grace,” “Your Emimence,” or “Vladyka,” it feels intoxicatingly heady. However, I don’t believe the effect lasts much more than a week, if even that. There is reason to address heirarchs respectfully and appropriately, but it is really much less a benefit to the bishop than it is a benefit to us, and this is for the same reason children who respect adults are better off than children who don’t respect adults. Children who respect adults benefit much more from adults’ care, and faithful who respect clergy (including respect for heirarchs) benefit much more from pastoral care.
As I wrote in A Pet Owner’s Rules, God is like a pet Owner who has two rules, and only two rules. The first rule, and the more important one, is “I am your Owner. Receive freely of the food and drink I have given you,” and the second is really more a clarification than anything else: “Don’t drink out of the toilet.” The first comparison is to drunkenness. A recovering alcoholic will tell you that being drunk all the time is not a delight; it is suffering you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. “Strange as it may sound, you have to be basically sober even to enjoy getting drunk:” drunkenness is drinking out of the toilet. But you don’t need to literally drink to be drinking out of the toilet.
There is something like a confused drinking out of the toilet in ambition, and in my own experience, ambition is not only sinful, but it is a recipe to not enjoy things. Being an abbot may be more prestigious than being a simple monk and being a bishop may be more prestigious than being an abbot but looking at things that way is penny wise and pound foolish.
Ambition reflects a fundamental confusion that sees external honors but not the cross tied to such honors. I hope to write this without making married Orthodox let go of one whit of their blessed estate, but the best position to be in is a simple monastic, end of discussion. It is a better position to be a simple monastic than to be an abbot, and it is a better position to be an abbot than a heirarch. Now the Church needs clergy, including abbots and heirarchs, and it is right to specifically pray for them as the Liturgy and daily prayer books have it. Making a monk into a priest or abbot, or bishop, represents a sacrifice. Now all of us are called to be a sacrifice at some level, and God’s grace rests on people who are clergy for good reasons. An abbot who worthily bears both the cross of the celibate and the cross of the married in this all-too-transient world may shine with a double crown for ever and ever. But the lot we should seek for is not that of Martha cumbered about with much serving; it is of Mary embracing the one thing needful.
The best approach is to apply full force to seeking everything that is better, and then have God persistently tell us if we are to step in what might be called “the contemplative life perfected in action.”
The Patriarch’s throne, mantle, crown, title, and so on are truly great and glorious.
But they pale in comparison to the hidden Heavenly honors given to a simple monk, an eternal glory that can be present in power here and now.
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A couple of years ago, perhaps, I heard that the pairing of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica and Wounded By Love: The Life and Wisdom of Saint Porphyrios were blasting through the ranks, and the last endorsement I heard for Wounded by Love was earlier the month this article was posted.
Both are associated with precious Elders, and neither is appropriate for most Orthodox to read. Let me explain some of why:
Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives:
It’s an occult book!
I’m not really sure how to explain this. Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives is simply the most occultic book I have read from any canonical author. It never advocates any kind of cursing, but with the terrain it covers, it describes just how someone could kill another in a motorcycle accident by a thought, or three examples of how a subconscious curse of envy could shatter another person’s beautiful objet d’art.
The book and its message are extremely subtle, but that is not a good thing. The snake, we read in Genesis, was extremely subtle. Speaking as the author of The Sign of the Grail, I have read Arthurian legends at length, and Merlin is asked to exercise “subtlety,” with meaning including but not limited to magic powers, but only one version I’ve read (T.H. White’s The Once and Future King) gives any sense of how one might go about achieving the kinds of effects you covet from the never-neverland of the Arthurian literary tradition that flourished in the Middle Ages and remains a name people have heard of.
This book offers an occult dimension that I have failed to see in reading half of the collected works of the Ante-Nicene Fathers and Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. One work whose title I forget discusses sorcerors as charlatan illusionists and then gives the equivalent of how explaining how a modern magic trick works. But even then, I have no Orthodox work which so sensitizes the reader to how one may lay a potent curse.
If we look for parallels Western Christianity, I recall a fantasy-novel-loving friend who read mainstream fantasy at length, but put down a Charles Williams novel because of how much more occultic it was than anything in the fantasy literature she was drawn to. (Charles Williams was a member of the Inklings but tried hard to be a Christian without decisively severing ties to the occult and Rosicrucianism.) I’ve read three of Charles Williams’ novels (that’s about three too many on my part). Those three novels show the closest parallel I am aware of to the subtle and occultic character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives.
This is not to say that the book is 100% false. Precious few of even the worst books are 100% false, and cultivating inner calm in chaotic circumstances with eyes fixed on God and the Light is a very valuable lesson, but there are better and less occult Orthodox treatments of the matter.
One example of a cleaner source for peaceful thoughts is Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims, of which #52 is, “Focus exclusively on God and light, not on sin and darkness.” A slightly longer form is available in an Ancient Faith Radio podcast on Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims:
“Focus exclusively on God and light. Never focus on darkness, temptation, and sin. That’s classic teaching. Fill yourself with good things. Don’t be mesmerized by dark things. Don’t meditate on evil things. Meditate on good things, and God will take care of the rest.”
Wounded by “Wounded by Love:”
There is such a thing as Too Much Information (TMI). Perhaps the most common way of violating a listener’s boundaries with TMI is to provide excessively visceral details, and Wounded by Love does not vividly describe carnal temptations or the like, even though we may assume that someone who grew up as an incredibly strong and rugged mountain man presumably faced certain temptations common to men with a decent amount of testosterone.
But that is not the only form of TMI. There is a rather strong rule, violated especially at the end of this title, that monastics do not share their esoteric experiences with laity, period, and even in the book the elders advise the future monastic elder not to speak of at least some spiritual experiences and charisms strictly to them: the demons might hear. But he, or rather the sisters whom he oversaw, placed things in public sight that should never have been leaked outside monastic circles. As I wrote to my spiritual father:
The latter divulges esoteric monastic experiences in ability including an Abbot traveling spiritually without having left his monastery physically for decades, and a kind of limited omniscience where the protagonist could see through anything (late in life and physically blind, he did perhaps chastely the work of a water witch, although it might be better to suggest that the latter is demonic parody of a legitimate aspect of charism).
Christ told people to do their good works in secret, and this applies much more forcefully to monastic spiritual experiences. Monastics normally view the parading of their intimate experience before the public eye to be a great misfortune, and I believe the rule is much more intended for the benefit of laity than for monastics themselves. It is a rule of mystagogy that you do not mock people with realities they are not ready to cope with, and one minor application is the advice that if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if told, you do not tell the other person that truth. It’s better for the other person before Christ’s Judgment Throne not to have rejected the truth, and it is better for you not to have pushed the other person into that position. And that is really just the least, most diluted shade of mystagogy as it can and should in Orthodoxy. Molesting the reader with monastic TMI is simply not needed.
Beware of all fashions
Peter Kreeft, one amiably writing Roman apologist, discussed at some point differences between ancient and modern concepts of authorship. The modern concept, especially if we forget the hard work of editors who try to make authors look better in print, tends to say, “If it has your name on it, you are responsible for 100% of its content,” where the ancient conception can admit many hands and classic books are more the work of a school of people sharing the same sympathies than one individual. What is interesting is the remark that follows: Kreeft does not state that the ancient fashion is better, or for that the matter that the modern fashion is better, but advises us to beware of all fashions.
The spiritually questionable character of Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives and Wounded by Love is not really a feature of Orthodoxy; it is a feature of fashion. It applies to the two books that were fashionable five years ago, and it applies to the one or more ebooks that will be fashionable five years in the future. Fashions really exist in Orthodoxy as much as NPR, and they are no more helpful. But this is not any reason to throw up our hands in despair.
One thing I explained to a newly illumined Orthodox about reading recommendations, as another person explained to me when I was myself newly illumined, is that I should have a relationship with a priest who could provide helpful books to read. If you are a bookworm, part of your spiritual father or parish priest’s job description is to recommend good books. And indeed a priest who knows you personally and hears your needs in your confessions may be the best person in the world to give you something better than you could know to ask for. (Now it is entirely possible for a parish priest to recommend an obvious dud, but that is much less serious of a problem than any problem that is seductive in character.) However much parish priests may be wrong about the helpfulness of the occasional dud, they are usually familiar with many books and human spiritual needs, and they are significantly more often right than the rumor mill is.
A dark memorial, and a warning sign
I would suggest that these two books by Orthodox elders be remembered.
There are many strands within Judaism, but 6,000,000 is the first number a Jewish child hears, and the sense is not just, “This happened in the past,” but “This could happen again.” And recent events do nothing to prove this to be groundless paranoia or confusion between what is past and what is future. Dietrich Bonhoeffer watched one professor he admired after another rally behind the swastika. (On a much lesser scale, I’ve watched one theology professor after another sign a petition, older than a certain rainbow-colored Supreme Court judicial legislation, demanding that organizations extend any benefit extended to married couples to same-sex couples even if their religious tradition and conscience simply reject such vindication of others’ inimical demands.) In my mind the question is not why so many theology professors Bonhoeffer admired stood behind the Nazi flag; it is why that one person, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, bucked an overwhelming consensus. Something similar is akin to my puzzlement, not about how innumerable Protestant efforts to reconstruct the ancient Church went awry, but how the one such effort I know well, the Evangelical Orthodox Church which entered canonical Orthodoxy and provided one of my dear past parish priests, got it right.
The Orthodox Church remembers the bloodshed of its members across the centuries, many of whom are commemorated in the saints’ lives, but the Eastern Orthodox Church’s “This could happen again” is not about bloodshed. “This could happen again” is about heresies. One Subdeacon, a little bit lightly, said, “Arius gets it worse in the Liturgy than Judas,” and founders of subsequent heresies such as Nestorius are said to be “taught by Arius.” Arius was not the first heretic by any means, and St. Irenaeus’s long and dull Against Heresies predates Arius by over a century. However, there is reason to call Arius the father of heretics. The Orthodox Presbyterian Church was formed after some vein of Presbyterianism ordained someone who denied that Jesus was the Son of God, and Protestants I know from mailing lists have, without even needing to know post-Biblical Orthodox texts, that Arianism is not just one heresy among others; it is the one heresy that keeps on popping up, possibly comparably to gnosticism. And if the Jewish population is sharply aware that genocide has happened in the past and could happen again, this is not odd; what is odd to me historically is not that a genocide was started, but that a genocide was stopped. But the Orthodox consciousness is not as much of bloodshed, but of heresy and heterodoxy.
And all in this lie two little books that have swept Orthodoxy as a fad, both written by monastic elders. Perhaps they are not front and center as far as problems go. But they show much less about healthy Orthodoxy than healthy fads, and there is a warning about whatever next flourishes in the rumor mill.
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There was one moment of brilliance, I was told, when a North American missionary visiting in Latin America was asked if clothing and sheets lasted longer in her first-world home. The question was not surprising and it reflected cross-cultural understanding: bedsheets and clothing in the U.S. can last for quite some time, while bedsheets and clothing in the host country wear out quickly, perhaps in a few weeks, and it is nickle-and-dime drain on none-too-deep pockets to keep replacing them. The question, perceptive enough, was a question about privilege and easy living.
The missionary’s response was astute. She thought for a minute, and then said that yes, sheets in her home area lasted much longer than several weeks if properly cared for… and continued to explain, in addition, what people wore when they were all bundled up for bitter cold. Winter clothing normally goes well beyond what is needed for modesty, and gloves, hats, and scarves (or, today, ninja masks) exist because on the very worst days every square inch of exposed skin will be brutally assaulted. The conversation ended with a slight degree of pity from people who only wore clothes for modesty realized that yes, as they had heard, bedsheets and normal clothing lasted much longer than several weeks, but there were some other price tags to pay. The missionary’s communication was in all sympathetic, human, and graceful.
Something similar may be said of the degree of IQ where you learn firsthand that being making other people envious is not a good thing, and where it happens more than once that you need to involve authorities or send a C&D letter for harassment to stop, and where others’ insecurities leave you socially skating on thin ice surprisingly often. Nonetheless, what may be the most interesting social lesson may have every relevance to “UX,” or User eXperience, and it has to do with what is called “theory of other minds“. The normal conditions for developing “theory of other minds” can run into difficulties, but there is something very valuable that can happen.
Theory of other minds,
Split into “theory of like minds”, and:
“theory of alien minds”:
A Copernican shift
One classic developmental step in communication is developing a “theory of other minds”, meaning that you relate to people as also having minds, rather than as some sort of thing that emits what may be inexplicable behaviors instead of acting out of human motives and beliefs.
Part of how the normal “theory of minds” develops is that children tend to give adults gifts they would like to receive themselves, such as colorful toys rather than books. At a greater stage of maturity, people can go from giving gifts they would themselves like to receive, to giving gifts they would not want as much themselves, but another person would. However, in normal development this is an advanced lesson. For most people, the baseline is assuming that most people think like them most of the time.
For outliers in some dimensions, this simple picture does not work. People start with the same simple assumption: that you can relate to people as basically thinking like you. But if you’re different enough, you’ll break your shins with this approach. Perhaps outliers communicate markedly better if they know one person who starts on the same page, but communication is harder.
The crucial distinction I would draw is between theory of like minds and theory of alien minds. Both theory of like minds and theory of alien minds relate to others as having minds. But theory of like minds is based on the assumption that other people think as you do. Theory of alien minds also really and truly relates to others as having minds, but it is based on a realization that you are not the center of the universe, others often do not think like you, and you need to build bridges.
“Theory of like minds” says, “Other people have minds that are basically just like mine.”
“Theory of alien minds” takes a step back, saying, “Other people have minds, and they have minds whether or not they’re basically just like mine.
This Copernican shift has every relevance to “Let’s not forget the user” disciplines in UX.
So what does a “theory of alien minds” really look like?
Let me provide several examples, before getting into what it has to do with UX:
Hayward has worked long and hard to communicate well.
Many people might guess that the features of his [giftedness] would bring benefits…
…but few guess how much.
The same kind of thing goes with excellent communication. When a friend came from out of town to live in a local apartment, quite a few friends gathered to help unload the moving van.
Hayward, asked for an assignment, expecting to be asked to carry something. Instead, for reasons that are still not clear, she handed him a leash and asked him to look after a dog she has introduced as not at all comfortable around men. And the dog very quickly moved as far away as his leash would allow. But Hayward worked his magic… and half an hour later, he was petting the dog’s head in his lap, and when he stood up, the dog bounded over to meet the other men in the group.
In another setting, Hayward was waiting for labwork at a convenient care center, when a mother came in, with a four-year-old daughter in tow. The girl was crying bitterly, with a face showing that she was in more pain than she knew how to cope with, and an ugly bulging purple bloodblister under her thumbnail. Hayward understood very well what was going on; his own experience as a child who smashed a thumbnail badly enough to get a bloodblister underneath, was the most pain he had experienced yet in his life.
When the convenient care staff threw the mother a wad of paper to fill out before treatment (as opposed, for instance, to first just administering anaethesia and only after that detain the mother with paperwork), she left the child crying alone in a chair. Hayward walked over, wanting to engage the girl in conversation in the hopes of lessening her pain. He crouched down to be at eye level, and began to slowly, gently, and calmly speak to the child.
Some time later, Hayward realized two things.
First of all, his attempt to get the girl to talk were a near-total failure. He had started by asking her favorite color, and she was able to answer that question. But essentially every other age-appropriate prompt was met with silence: “Q: What kind of instrument does a dog play?”—”A: A trom-bone.” (But maybe her pain was too great to allow regular conversation.)
Second of all, she had stopped crying. Completely. And her face no longer showed pain. He had, partly by his nonverbal communication, entirely absorbed her attention, and she was unaware of pain that had her bawling her eyes out some minutes before. Hayward realized this with a start, and tried to keep up the conversation such as it was, regardless of whether he had anything to say. A rather startled Hayward did his best not to break the illusion, and did so smoothly enough that she seemed not to notice.
Some time later, Hayward was called for his blood draw. He returned to find the mother comforting her daughter, as she had not done before. The little girl was crying again, but it was a comforted crying, a world of difference from when she was alone with really quite vile pain. The mother seemed awestruck, and kept saying, “You have a very gentle way about you.”
Another time, Hayward was asked to substitute-teach a class for parents of English as a Second Language students. He was provided an interpreter who spoke Spanish and English, and the class met all objectives…
And Hayward didn’t really use the interpreter. He adapted to language and culture to bring an enjoyable class for everyone.
When studying abroad, Hayward was quite pleasantly surprised (and very much surprised) when a Ghanain housemate said Hayward had challenged some assumptions, saying Hayward was “like a white American, and like a black African, closer than an African brother…” and from that point on he enjoyed insider status among Ghanian friends. He has perhaps never received a greater compliment.
Hayward thinks at a fundamentally different level, and he needs to build bridges. But the good news is that he has been working on bridge-buildling for years and built bridges that span great differences. Being in a situation where has to orient himself and bridge a chasm doesn’t really slow him down that much.
In addition, these “super powers” can have every relevance to business work. No employer particularly cares if he can read ancient and medieval languages: but one employer cared that he could easily read bureaucratic documentation that was incomprehensible to everyone else.
No employer really cares that at the age of 13 Hayward crafted crafted a four-dimensional maze, worked on visualizing a 4-cube passing through 3-space, and looked at a data visualization in his calculus book and (re)invented iterated integration…
But some employers care a great deal that he can take a visualization project, start work along the lines suggested by Tufte’s corpus of written work, and start to take steps beyond Tufte.
No employer really seems to care that he has studied at the Sorbonne, UIUC, and Cambridge (England) in three very different fields: but co-workers have been puzzled enough that he so effortlessly shifts his communication and cultural behavior to have a colleague and immigrant ask him why he relates to Little Russia’s culture so well.
But some employers appreciate his efforts to listen and understand corporate culture. In serving like a consultant for a travel subsidiary, Hayward’s contacts within the organization that picked up he was trying to understand their language on their terms, and the Director of Sales and Marketing half-jokingly asked, “Do you want to be a travel agent?” Hayward perhaps would not be an obvious fit for personality factors, but she picked up a crystal-clear metamessage: “I want to understand what you are saying, and I want to understand it on your terms.”
Furthermore, while no employer has yet to care about Hayward’s interest in writing, one employer cared a great deal that he took a high-value document concerning disaster recovery and business continuity, valuable enough that it would be significant for the employer to file with e.g. their bank, and took it from being precise but awkward and puzzling to read, to being precise, accessible, simple, and clear.
What does this communication across barriers have to do with UX?
I’ve had postgraduate training in anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, philosophy, and psychology, and I consider “theory of other minds” communication to be out-and-out the central skill in UX. Perhaps the most structural of these disciplines is anthropology, and a training in anthropology is a training in understanding across differences.
Once anthropologists found difference by crossing the Pacific and finding aboriginal people untainted by modern technology. Now anthropologists find difference by crossing the street. But the theory of alien minds is almost unchanged.
Jakob Nielsen has been beating for essentially forever the drum of “You are not a user”. Perhaps his most persistent beating of his drum is:
One of usability’s most hard-earned lessons is that ‘you are not the user.’ If you work on a development project, you’re atypical by definition. Design to optimize the experience for outsiders, not insiders.
What this means, in competency, is “Communicate out of a theory of alien minds.” Or, if you prefer, a theory of “outsiders”, but don’t assume that deep down inside “outsiders” are really just like “insiders.” Exercise a theory of alien minds.
What Nielsen is telling people not to do is coast on a “theory of like minds,” and assume that if a user interface is intuitive and makes sense to the people who built it, it will just as much make sense to the audience it was built for. It won’t. You have to think a bit differently to build technology, and that means you need a theory of alien minds. Assuming that you are the center of the universe, even if it’s unintentional, is a recipe for failed UX. We all want better than that.
An opening “Heads up!”
This article is intended to do something that is usually best avoided, at least in the context of an article.
Some students of culture describe semiotic frames that define a society’s possibles et pensables: they shape what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable within a society. And it is usually preferable to handle communication so that you aren’t asking people to overhaul their mental frameworks: if you can think far enough outside the box that you find possibles et pensables the sort of thing that can be easily brought into question, that’s a wonderful thing to be able to do, but it is usually best kept under wraps, and usually best kept in a back pocket.
This piece is designed to delve into deeper work and not be as quickly digested as other fare. It’s harder to process than an article intended to persuade you between two options that we both already understand well enough. I tried to think about how to make my point while dodging working on what is seen as possible and what is even thinkable, and I don’t see how to eliminate that work from my point. I want to revise what is seen as possible and what is thinkable about branding today.
Where did branding come from anyway?
To the best of my knowledge, and to only present the beginning and end of a story, branding was once what happened when cattle owners would use a hot iron symbol to brand an identifying mark on cattle they owned, to be able to claim whose cattle they were if there were any question. There is a fairly close equivalent to this in the modern business world, but the equivalent isn’t really “how a company communicates itself and its offering to the outside world.” It’s really much more the unsexy practice of attaching metal tags to valuable company equipment that say, “This is property of XYZ corporation, serial number 12345.” And while there may be good reasons for engaging in this part of due diligence, it is hardly that interesting or deep.
Not so with real branding in today’s business world, not by any stretch. As I have prepared and thought about the question, I’m not sure I can think of an equally significant concept that I have met. To pick two examples from my own field in information technology, Agile development and open source software may be significant concepts, but I do not see the same niches and layers. There is some theory about open source software as such, and people may complain that a company that releases software under an open source license but “drops patches [external contributions] on the floor” isn’t really walking the walk, but in my experience the theory that most open source software developers are interested are the computer science and software engineering issues concerning their tools and pet projects, and you simply don’t have subspecialized high value consultants on the theory and ideology of open source. But branding is in fact a very big concept, and you do have high-value consultants actively engaged for their expertise in some specialization or subspecialization somewhere under the “branding” umbrella.
And with this significance comes something else, maybe something less attractive: however useful or prominent it may be, it is far from a worldwide universal, and I am not aware of any Great Teachers who have thought in terms of branding. Not only that, but Socrates might very well have lived to a ripe old age, instead of being condemned to death, if he had lived a brand that would have been socially acceptable to the citizens of his city. (The entire story of his gadfly’s teaching and life is an example of how to avoid branding yourself if you want to succeed and live.) Discussion of branding may be anachronous if applied to Socrates, but the principle justifies such an intrusion.
Two seismic shifts, one after another
In the popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, that a shift had taken place in wisdom literature: that is, what people have written about how to succeed as a person; one definition offered for such wisdom is, “skill for living.” Whenever the text was written, the author had apparently read a great deal of wisdom literature over time and made a cardinally important distinction between a character ethic and a personality ethic. Up until about World War II, the basic framing assumption in wisdom literature in the U.S. is that success is success arising from character. One needs to be diligent, and humble, and merciful to others, and so on. In short, we need virtuous living to get ahead. These virtues may include practices: Ben Franklin’s “A penny saved is a penny earned” is an exhortation to the virtue of thrift. But success is acquired through growing as a person, by growing in virtue.
The subsequent sub-par personality ethic was much more superficial; it offered tips and tricks to get ahead, while avoiding anything calling for real internal transformation. And while there are definitely mere practices that we could do better (I could smile more), most of my problems aren’t on the level of personality, but where I need to do more inner work. The shift Covey documents is a seismic shift, and it is difficult to overstate its significance. Something like the character ethic and the personality ethic exist at least to some extent side-by-side in information technology: there are people who have been educated in computer science and software engineering, and who maintain a lifelong curiosity towards those areas as well as working their way through fads and individual tools, and there are educational programs that just teach buzzwords and individual tools with only incidental coverage of deeper issues in theory. A manager who has dealt with both kinds of programmers will know the difference well.
I would posit, or rather point out, that there has been a second shift after a shift from a character ethic to a personality ethic: a shift from a personality ethic to a (personal) brand ethic. There are books I’ve read that offer an induction into a brand ethic in ways that someone who’s not already an insider will understand: but I don’t remember anything I’ve read treating as a live question whether we need a brand ethic or a personality ethic, or whether we need a brand ethic or a character ethic. Personality has a place: it has a place because a personal brand on Twitter that incorporates some amount of what feels like personality is a stronger brand than one that is one-dimensional. The place for personality is neither more nor less than what the brand ethic calls for. And that’s odd.
But you, C.J.S. Hayward, have a brand!
In one sense, at least some people will say that I have a brand, and one that I have consciously contributed to. This blog’s background, for instance, is one touch out of many things that provide a sense of brand. Old-fashioned, exaggeratedly recognizable links could be called another. None the less, I meet the concept of a personal brand with some degree of puzzlement. I’ve written dialogues before, but I’m drawing a blank at how to flesh out a dialogue with pretty much any of the world’s great teachers about marketing-style branding as a paradigm for how to relate to others. I do not find branding in the Sermon on the Mount, I have difficulty envisioning what Sun Tzu or other sages would say, and for that matter I do not think that Muhammad would have understood the concept, and if he had understood it, would find it to be extremely offensive: much as democracy’s foundational attitude that you have a say in things is profoundly un-Islamic (when George Bush was pushing to endow Iraq with democracy, my comment to friends was, “I wish that Bush would herald a goal that would be less offensive to Muslims, like a hambone in every pot.”).
It is possible for brands to be layered. It is possible for brands to have depth. It is possible for brands to present a tip of an iceberg with lots of room to dig. However, I would pick as a particularly bad piece on personal branding a book chapter which advised the reader to pick three positive adjectives on the list, and simply decide, “These will be my brand.” And this isn’t just one book. When a company has announced that XYZ represent its values, it gives the impression of something arbitrarily chosen and tacked on, something plastic, something that would really make Michael Polanyi squirm.
Our close contemporary Michael Polanyi (Wikipedia), to pick one of the achievements he is best known for, argued essentially that knowledge is not something separate from people. When people are initiated into a tradition of expert practice, there is knowledge tacitly held by those who are already insiders in the culture of expert practics, and this knowledge is tacitly transmitted to people who are being trained to become insiders, without ever being held or passing consciously to those in either role. He comments that swimming coaches and swimmers alike breathe differently from non-swimmers in that they expand their lungs to hold more air when they breathe in, and they keep more air in their lungs when they breathe out, using their lungs this way for added buoyancy. Other explanations may be available in this case, but, the broader picture is one that uses tacit knowledge, or to take the deliberately chosen title of his magnum opus, Personal Knowledge, and recognize that we have many layers beyond the surface. And I’m trying to imagine Polanyi reading a text telling him to pick three adjectives that should identify him as his personal brand. I see him squirming, much like the Far Side cartoon entitled, “Baryshnikov’s ultimate nightmare” that shows a square dance caller saying, “Swing your partner ’round and ’round, now promenade left and don’t fall down…”
However, the concern I raise, which may or may not be terribly distinct from Polanyi, isn’t just that a personal brand is shallow, or at least has been shallow in every book I’ve read telling me I need a personal brand. It’s also designed as artificial and plastic, not real and alive. It may have an alive motif, like the handmade-looking lettering and art in cookie-cutter Starbucks locations. But it is what Neal Stevenson described in In the Beginning was the Command Line, in describing a mediated and vicarious experience waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland:
The place looks more like what I have just described than any actual building you might find in India. All the stones in the broken walls are weathered as if monsoon rains had been trickling down them for centuries, the paint on the gorgeous murals is flaked and faded just so, and Bengal tigers loll amid stumps of broken columns. Where modern repairs have been made to the ancient structure, they’ve been done, not as Disney’s engineers would do them, but as thrifty Indian janitors would–with hunks of bamboo and rust-spotted hunks of rebar. The rust is painted on, of course, and protected from real rust by a plastic clear-coat, but you can’t tell unless you get down on your knees.
And on this point I’d like to mention a point from The Cost of Discipleship. I don’t know now whether I’d agree with the suggestion Bonhoeffer makes, but he highlights that the Sermon on the Mount says both Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven, and also that we are to conceal our good deeds: But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth. Asking how these two incongruous commands fit together, Bonhoeffer says that we should do good deeds but hide them from ourselves, that we should reach a state of doing goodness that we do it without being aware of it. Now whether that should exactly be believed in reference to the Gospel, I don’t know. But something like that is true of some secular skill. I remember a conversation with a Unix professional who said that in a job interview he had claimed to be a Unix wizard because that was required in that social situation, but it would have been “an outright lie” for him to make that claim among his peers. I assure you he was very competent. But his competency had reached a level where (among other things) he knew how little he knew and how much more there was to know, and like almost any good Unix wizard, he found calling himself a Unix wizard to feel like an outright lie. When I was asked in high school as the school’s student Unix system administrator, I hesitated, and I was both surprised and delighted when a friend said “Yes” for me; I would have been making an outright lie (in my mind) to make that claim. Nor is this a specific local feature of Unix wizardry. That is just an example close to my experience, and it seems that nobody considers themselves what in H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine terms would be called Morlocks. There is a kind of “reverse hypocrisy” here. A Morlock, to expert practitioners, is someone else at a higher level of skill. (Linus Torvalds has voiced confusion about why others consider him technical.)
The general rule is that the most confident in their performance are usually the most-overconfident, and the most competent are actually less confident; unlike the over-confident, they are guided by a sharply tuned inner self-criticism, the same self-criticism that in any competent practice of classical music means that musicians hear their performance mistakes more quickly than even the most discerning audience members. What is going on here is the same thing as was told to me as a child, which I’ll leave in politically incorrect terms:
An Indian and a white man were standing on a beach, and the white man drew a small circle and said, “This is what the Indian knows.” Then he drew a larger circle around it and said, “This is what the white man knows.” Then the Indian drew a huge circle encompassing both other circles and said, “This is what neither the Indian nor the white man knows.”
And this quality, of seeing a huge encompassing circle of things that none of us know, is foundational to being a genuine expert almost anywhere. Hence a high school biology text compares the discipline of biology to trying to discern the characters, plot, and themes of a long and intricately complex movie, when all you have is half a dozen stills in varying conditions. Hence one biology teacher I remember fondly saying very emphatically that we don’t know what’s going on: all that biologists know now is only a tiny slice of the truth.
So what does this all mean for branding? It means a couple of things, and perhaps it may be good to have three positive adjectives you seek to represent. But one thing it means is that people are often not aware of their good (and bad) properties, or at least not all of them. This might be true morally, but it is also true in terms of professional competence. I remember going to a presentation on getting a government job and the “stupid questionnaire” (the presenter’s preferred term) where you were asked to rate yourself from 1 up to 5 on different areas of competency. Now coming from a business background where I had been asked to rate myself 1 to 10 in competency and advised the higher self-rating I gave, the harder test questions would be asked of me, thought of rating myself mostly 3’s with a couple of 4’s on the ones I was strongest, the presenter made crystal-clear that that was not going to work. The only acceptable answer was a 5, or maybe you could get away with one or possibly two self-ratings of 4. And that’s not selecting for competency. It is selecting for overconfidence, and for gaming the system. For someone who is genuinely competent, and is not aware of how and why to game the system here, giving a sincere and well-thought-out self-evaluation is a recipe for elimination even if that employee’s past five supervisors would mark the person as a clear 5 across the board.
The title I’ve been mulling over, The Twitter Job Search Guide, is part of the cohort of books where branding is bedrock. It also suggests that Twitter competencies expand outside of Twitter, so that a cover letter is composed of a few tweets and a resume is composed of a few more tweets. Now that’s an idea I’d be cautious about dismissing; communicating value concisely is a valuable skill, and in some sense Twitter might be seen as a Toastmasters of written communication. Toastmasters’ Competent Communicator course trains people with five to seven minute speeches addressing core competencies in speaking (plus a couple of other details), and the thought is not exactly that participants will only need to give speeches of that length, but rather to lay a foundation that is explicitly intended to be adaptable to longer or shorter speeches. And Twitter is not always 140 characters of nothing; there are profound contributions made, and it is a valuable skill, and one quite often present among the most
competent gifted, to make a significant point clearly and concisely. For a business world that just wants the time, not the whole process of a watch being built, it may be good discipline and skill to be able to write a six tweet cover letter and twelve tweet resume. But I am concerned when this all falls under the aegis of branding. And in The Twitter Job Search Guide, the tweets for a cover letter and resume all fall under the heading of communicating a brand. Though there is (for instance) discussion of what constitutes a good ratio between professional and personal tweets, I’ve read two thirds of the text and I haven’t yet seen advice to tweet or communicate something that does not fall under the aegis of your personal brand. The beginning, middle, and end of what you are advised to communicate is brand. There is no other way to relate to others, it seems, and this is a plastic form of life.
Now before going further, there is one point I would like to clarify about boundaries (a topic that I believe is ill-framed, but that is not my interest here). One professor, addressing graduate students who were or probably would be teaching assistants, talked about “being the same on the outside and on the inside.” She went on very directly to state that this did not mean “letting it all hang out”; that was precisely what it was not. Normal social interactions embody both what is anthropologically called “positive politeness” and “negative politeness”, and on this point I would recall another professor talking about appropriate communication in crossing cultures. He gave some examples of positive politeness, things like saying “Hello!” to a friend (the sort of examples of politeness that jump to mind). Then he said that when strangers approach each other and look down at the sidewalk when they’re a few meters apart, that’s politeness. It is a refusal to wantonly intrude; it says, “You have not invited me in and I will not presume where I am not invited and I do not belong.” And that is politeness. He mentioned, to drive the point a little bit further, that he had one good friend he visited, and though he did not do so at this visit, he would have thought nothing of opening his friend’s refrigerator and helping himself to anything inside. The principle of negative politeness is that you do not do things without invitation; one may surmise that some point along the way the professor’s friend gave one or several invitations to rummage through the fridge without asking specific permission, and I would be almost certain that the professor had not asked permission to arbitrarily rummage his friend’s fridge; he had presumably been given that permission as the friendship developed. And outside of a few exceptions like this, it is a significant violation of negative politeness to rummage through someone’s fridge without asking.
Socially appropriate relations, or boundaries, or negative politeness, or whatever you want to call it, applies; that can and should mediate our interactions, and brands that have any sense to them will stay within these boundaries. However, while I believe we need the mediation of negative (and positive) politeness, there is something plastic about the mediation of brands. It’s good not to give TMI, but a personal brand is neither the only nor the best way to communicate within positive and negative politeness that respects boundaries.
I’m not sure this addresses all of branding; I’d expect that someone who knew branding well could point to currents within branding that survive this critique. I’ve picked examples that struck me as silly; I haven’t discussed the silliness I see about corporations picking three identifying values, and in much more mainstream and professional venues than a book in a career center offering a list of positive adjectives and an invitation to pick three as defining your personal brand. But for what I’d like to see instead, I don’t have a big program to offer, just appropriate social interaction: social interaction that is appropriate to degree of relationships and the roles of the participants. Others have written The Clue Train Manifesto; I have not examined that manifesto in depth but its opening words about a human voice suggest I’m not the only person, nor the first person, concerned with human communication.
My personal unbrand
I wanted to give a bit on my personal brand, or rather unbrand, or, if you prefer, ersatz brand. You’re welcome to say, if you like, that it is in fact just a personal brand, only a personal brand that embodies at least one classic and cardinal mistake. Or at least two mistakes, apart from the easily digested simplicity of an effective brand, the bulk of my effort is growing in terms of both who I am as a person, and how I can achieve deeper competence. Some attention is given to appearance, but a brand works primarily on image management. Skills one acquires, for instance, are there because of their usefulness to a branded image. But let’s return to the other basic attribute in what makes sense in a brand.
One of the parameters that is desired in a brand is doing one thing well, simplicity. There may be contours to the brand’s landscape, but if you are a jack of all trades you are assumed to be a master of none. One part of a brand’s job description, personal or otherwise, is to present a simple core, perhaps one core feature that offers a value proposition with one core benefit. Or, perhaps, there are a few pieces working together, but if you can’t write it on the back of a business card, you have failed. And in fact this is not restricted to branding. Good to Great talks about good companies that became great companies having and/or discovering a core “hedgehog concept” that they keep returning to, and while such a general title on business has to assume marketing and with it branding as part of the picture, I do not recall the emphatic “hedgehog concept” discussion portraying it as a particular issue for marketing and branding. In Good to Great, the “hedgehog concept” defines a one-trick pony that fundamentally outperforms Renaissance man opponents.
In my own case, what I offer is a profoundly gifted portfolio of interconnected skills. Want to know what reading Latin and Greek has to do with the business world? At a competitive local exchange carrier, we were working with an upstream provider who did business with us because they were required to by law, even though they didn’t want to, because they saw us as cream-skimmers. Nobody else in my group could make sense of their opaque, bureaucratic communication. I could, and there wasn’t much of a hiccup when my boss, with my consent, added communication with that provider to my responsibilities. I don’t know if any of my bosses have cared that I enjoy writing, but several have cared that I could create and edit clear and high-value documents. I don’t know whether any of my bosses have particularly cared that I’ve received rankings as high as 7th in the nation in math contests, but they do care when I apply that to solo programming that hits the ball out of the park. In the positions I’m focusing on now in User Experience, I don’t really expect my prospective bosses to care that I have postgraduate coursework in essentially all major User Experience disciplines: anthropology, cognitive science, computer science, linguistics, philosophy, and psychology, with a distinctive work addressing something at the core of User Experience competency. However, once I am hired and running usability tests, I expect they’ll care how much that background lets me draw out of a test.
And, to dig a bit deeper, the achievements I value are not because of intelligence, but communication. I’ve calmly spoken to a bawling four-year-old with an extremely painful blood blister under her thumbnail, until she she had stopped completely. I’ve been asked why I know how to relate to Ukrainians. I’ve been told, “You are like a white American and like a black African, and closer than an African brother.” I’ve communicated across large gaps with remarkable success.
And, to give one last detail, I’ve had many projects and there is a common thread running through virtually all the ones I’ve liked most: I’ve reduced user pain, or made something a joy to work with. To pick one example from when I had just started a new job, I was given a four-word spec before my boss left for his vacation: “Get [name of employee] off overtime.” The employee was a revenue assurance auditor who was trying to keep on top of a provider who was slipping us inappropriate charges, a responsibility that had him on heavy overtime in a company which normally stuck with a 40 hour workweek. And I winced when I saw what he was doing. I respected him and his actions as a team player, but he was cutting a steak with a screwdriver because that was the only game in town, and I wanted to give a razor-sharp knife, designed for him personally. When he said he was perfectly willing to do drudge work, my unspoken response was, “I appreciate and respect that you’re willing to do drudge work. I still want to get it off your plate.” And I drew on Edward Tufte’s principles and made a carefully chosen greyscale (instead of numbers) system that cut his involvement down to 40 hours a week, then further down so only part of his time was spent keeping on top of this responsibilities, and he was in a position to engage other responsibilities that were out of the question earlier. At a certain point into the process, I told him, “The only reason I ever want you to do us the old tools is because you want to,” and he very quickly answered, “I don’t want to!” In other words, the new tool completely superseded prior methods, which is a rarity. I don’t remember exactly how far along we were when my boss returned from vacation, but the employee told me he was raving to my boss, and in that whole position my boss never really showed much inclination to micro-manage me. (He described me as “nearly self-managing.”)
These and other things could be a basis for a number of personal brands that I could treat as my working contract with the professional world. However, it is my preference not to have my dealings mediated by a constructed personal brand. I’d like to give my friends and employers alike the real “me”, and while I will act differently with friends, family, church, and an employer, I don’t want people dealing with an artificially infused personal brand. I want them to deal with me. And while one friend explained that a fellow graduate student in psychology who dealt in measuring psychological traits answered a questionnaire for a job application, she understood exactly how the test worked, answered like the personality profile that the company wanted, and just made sure to act like the profile they wanted while she was at work. I don’t want to judge, but I find something very sad about the story. And it has everything to do with working with a personal brand.
This is not as crystalline as a normal brand. That’s intended.
Back to a character ethic…
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1: Focus exclusively on God and light, and never on darkness, temptation and sin. Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. A vacation, besides taking you somewhere exotic, puts good before your eyes: but you can do that here and now, without even needing anything exotic. Fix your gaze on what is most worthy of your attention.
2: Remember that nothing can injure the man who does not harm himself. St. Job the Much-Suffering may have suffered terribly, but there was only one thing that could do him final harm: his own sin, and he would have been lost if he yielded to his wife’s temptation, “Curse God and die.” St. Job suffered terribly, and unlike us, the readers of his story, he is never told that he has served as God’s champion. However, everything the Devil did added jewels to St. Job’s royal and Heavenly crown.
3: Know that Satan is on a leash. People of the Lie, in many ways a perceptive book, argues that evil is terribly out of control, and that is understandable for a psychiatrist who faces full force a kind of evil in a profession where the very belief in a Devil is rare enough to be exotic. But God help us if that were the case; none could be saved if we were tempted as much as the devils want. The Philokalia talks about how, if we know what burdens a beast of burden can bear, God knows and cares all the more what we can bear. Everything that happens is either a blessing from God, or a temptation that has allowed for our strengthening; the concept of a temptation, rightly understood, encompasses both things that make sin look attractive, and trials and tribulations, or something where both contribute to a single nasty whole. In medieval theology that I haven’t been able to trace, Satan is called God’s jester, because his foolishness with us is something that God takes up in glory, and a glory that can work in us.
4: Expect not to understand. One author I remember said that Christ’s disciples were not so much sinful as thick-headed. I would be a bit careful about saying that, unless I say that I am thick-headed, too. God said through Isaiah, For my counsels are not as your counsels, nor are my ways as your ways, saith the Lord. But as the heaven is distant from the earth, so is my way distant from your ways, and your thoughts from my mind. One British preacher (this doesn’t work as well as with U.S. pronunciation) said that the name “Isaiah” is basically like saying, “Eyes higher!” And we are called to have our eyes higher, including in Isaiah, which has been called the Fifth Gospel and may be the most Messianic book the Old Testament offers.
To pick one example of what might be called thick-headedness for people who do not understand that “the prophet sees through a glass, darkly, while the archivist sees through a microscope, sharply,” we have in retrospect that Christ gave decisively clear predictions of his death and resurrection. However, St. Mary Magdalene came to Christ’s tomb for one and only one reason: to offer a last, singularly miserable service to a man dear to her, by embalming his body with aromatics. She was shocked at the empty tomb, and the only thing in her mind was disappointment that someone had seemingly stolen Christ’s body and was depriving her even of that last painful service she came to offer Christ. What had actually happened was utterly beyond her reckoning, but the Truth came to her: the grave was empty, defeated, with Christ resurrected beyond all earthly triumph. Much the same is true on the road to Emmaus, when Christ was quickening his disciples all along the way, and when their eyes were finally ready to be open to him, he vanished. Between the Resurrection and Ascension Christ was weaning his faithful to new ways of relating to him, ever beyond their initial reach. And even before then, he was trying to wean people off expectations of a political savior and an earthly king. He came to offer something fundamentally deeper than his disciples (or we) could look for.
I remember one couple who unhappily introduced their three-year-old boy as “an accident”, and complained about how hard it was to live their lives the way they wanted with him in the picture. I wanted to ask them, “Why must you look on the means of your deification as a curse?” Having children, whether we intend what God intends, is an opportunity for self-transcendence, where people who have transcended selfishness enough to love another are now given opportunity to transcend a selfishness of two. We may see a lot of other things that violate rights we think we have, and wonder where God is in all of this, but God is present all along; some have said that he is more visibly present in hard times than times of ease. Even if hard times shock us.
5. Love and respect others. “Blessed is the man who loves all men equally,” said St. Maximus Confessor. We are missing something if we say that some have given themselves to good deeds and some have given themselves to evil: all of us can make an eternal choice between Heaven and Hell because we are made in the image of God, and the most disfigured of us cannot completely exterminate the original beauty. All of us are constituted by the presence of God in the image. There is no shallow obligation to think the best of everyone, let alone whitewash sins. However, even when all sin is taken into account, we are members of the royal race. What sins a person may be rightly judged for are God’s concern, and God has not asked our help judging anyone. What divine image, and room for divine transformation, may exist in the vilest other are ours to respect and pray for.
Children who have been taught to respect adults may be more pleasant for adults to deal with, but the point of teaching children to respect adults really is not for the sake of adults, but for the sake of children to be able to benefit from adults. Ecclesiastical title and robes also don’t really exist for the wearer’s sake. Calling a priest ‘Father’ and the connected respect helps laity towards a position where they can benefit from clergy and their role.
6. Don’t wait on living until you have it all together. You probably never will. Abdicate from being in control of things. If there is a term for being in complete control of your life, it is probably “Hell” or “Gehenna”. The Sermon on the Mount speaks at length about being as the birds of the air or the grass of the field, and we, of the royal race, are of inestimably more value than plants and animals, venerable as they may be. There is only one Life: you’re in Him, or you’re not, and being in self-contained control over your life even if you can achieve it is not just dubiously achievable: it is dubiously desirable because you want to be independent of the one Life. The alternative is to dance the Great Dance, or as the Sermon on the Mount addresses our much more basic interests:
No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.
Therefore I say unto you, Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment? Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them. Are ye not much better than they? Do you think you can add one single hour to your life by taking thought? You might as well try by taking thought to work your way into being a foot taller!
And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: And yet I say unto you, Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. Wherefore, if God so clothe the grass of the field, which to day is, and to morrow is cast into the oven, shall he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?
Therefore take no thought, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or, ‘What shall we drink?’ or, ‘Wherewithal shall we be clothed’? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
Christ speaks and assures us of our most basic material needs. There are other and more interesting needs, the need to grow in the divine Life and be freed from domination by our passions. But Christ here highlights things on a more basic level: not only does God wish to lead us in the Great Dance, but he also knows we need food and drink and offers practical care on his terms. The one petition out of the seven petitions in the Our Father, “Give us this day our daily bread”, is exaggeratedly modest, or seems such: “Hallowed be thy name” is an earth-shaking desire, as is “Forgive us our trespasses.” Asking for just enough providence for today is in fact more significant than asking, “Set providence for my whole life before me now.” The smallness of the request is like the Virgin’s womb: it is more spacious than the Heavens because it contained One that the Heavens of Heavens cannot contain.
7. Guard your heart. The Fathers talked about the importance of working, and monastics have worked to support their own needs, or even made baskets that were burned at the end of the year so that they would not be idle. In ancient times, the preferred handicraft for monastics was basketweaving; in modern times, apart from writing icons, one preferred handicraft for monastics is making incense. In both cases, it may be missing the point to say that it is menial work, and monastics humbled themselves to do menial work. Though I have tried my hand at neither craft, the simple repetitive motions involved appear to be deeply meditative, a project of choice to employ the hands while the heart is at prayer. Now monastics can and have chosen the worst that was available to them in their humility, but the constant basketweaving of the Fathers may have been a best known option to occupy the hands while drawing the heart further into prayer.
In any case, and not just for monastics, one tenth of what we do is external action, and nine tenths of the work is guarding a heart at prayer. Today’s respected forms of work like computer programming may present a bigger challenge to do prayerfully than tasks like janitorial work that are looked down on, but people in either line of work should make 9/10ths their effort to be at peace and at prayer, and 1/10th the external deliverable.
Furthermore, we should beware of all temptation, which starts as a spark and end, if not stopped, as a raging fire. Love keeps no record of wrongs, and remembrance of wrong is a self-torment; we make what was painful when we went through it to be present to us all again. In this case it may be helpful to silently pray the Jesus Prayer and attend to that rather than leave things to their course and re-attend painful memories.
8. Expect a road of pain and loss. Fr. Thomas said, “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath.” Christ’s own comment cuts deeper into why: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit.” There can and should be other things beyond temptation and loss; God is good, and it’s meaningless or awfully close to meaningless to say that because God is good any evil that could possibly happen to us is harmless. However, if we “Have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to your last breath” and “Do the most difficult and painful things first,” and recognize that we have no rights, the very letters will begin to shimmer and change. If we recognize that we do not have rights, instead of seeing rights of ours that are violated we may begin to see graces extended to us that we have no right to expect. If we have no expectations except to be fiercely tempted to our last breath, we may recognize graces contrary to these expectations. The pain and the loss are real, and we may be shocked at times by what painful things God allows us. But the journey is purifying, and the God who prunes us does so that we may bear more fruit, and with it a fuller joy.
9. Observe Orthodox mystagogy, at least on one lesser point. There is such a thing as a book, or a teaching, that is above one’s present pay grade. Maybe it will be in reach later; it is not in reach now. There are classic books that open with exhortations to literary secrecy; far from an author today hoping to reach as broad an audience as possible, they say “Read this but keep it in secret from the many who would not profit from it.”
This is not the same point exactly, but there is a much lesser mystagogy than writing a book and asking that it be given a closed circulation. It is, as explained to me, if you know the truth, and you know that another person will reject the truth if you tell it, you hold your tongue instead of trying to argue the other person into accepting the truth. I’m not saying that we’re all really emotion and arguments do not persuade; arguments can persuade. This piece is in part argument, and it is legitimately meant to persuade by reasoning about the truth. But if you are dealing with a gay rights advocate or someone who is thoroughly convinced that Islam is a religion of peace, or whatever company may join them in the future, you do not try to argue them into a truth you know they will reject. When Judgment Day comes, it will better for the other person because they did not reject the truth. And it will also be better for you because you did not set them up for that sin. This is far from the full extent of Orthodox mystagogy; some people have advocated asking a priest or spiritual father to pick out books from them for a time, or said that they weren’t ready to read a book first but came back after they had grown spiritually and then found immense profit in the book. There is another thread of mystagogy in that monastics do not parade their mystical experiences for all the world or even all the faithful to see. Mystagogy is foundational to Orthodoxy even if it is pitifully observed now, but it still applies now in that you don’t try to use logical arguments to make people accept truths their hearts reject.
There is an alternative to compelling by arguing the truth: compelling by living the Truth. If we embrace a Truth who is ever so much more than right opinion, other people will pick up on it, the same as if we fully respect the image of God in another person, right or wrong. If we grow enough spiritually, people will sense something. Possibly this may create a teachable moment; possibly it won’t, but it will reach people’s hearts as a logical jackhammer cannot. St. Paul advises believing wives to win over unbelieving husbands without a word; but this is not an exception to an argumentative norm so much as an example that is almost supreme in character. The basic phenomenon reaches from one heart to another.
10. Read nourishing books in keeping with the Orthodox Church’s character as an oral tradition. There is a wealth of good books at the hands of the Orthodox Church; the collection of the Fathers over the centuries is like an encyclopedia in its length, and the Bible is indispensible. None the less, the Orthodox Church is at heart an oral tradition, and for most Orthodox Christians, being patristic is not achieved by quasi-academic reading of copious books, but by being in church where the priest mediates Tradition. There is oral tradition implied by the written tradition of the Philokalia, which is less properly a book than a library with different texts at different levels. It’s not meant to be read cover to cover, although that may also be permitted; it’s intended for a spiritual guide to pull selections for someone under guidance. And treat this text, too, as written property of oral tradition; use it (or not) as your priest or spiritual father guides you.
11. Banish two thoughts, and retain two thoughts. Abandon the thoughts, “I am a saint,” and “I will be damned.” Instead, think both “I am a great sinner,” and “God is merciful.” Repentance needs no despair; the worst of earthly sins are like a smouldering ember thrown into the ocean of God’s love.
12. In conjunction with your spiritual father, know your limits and don’t try to be perfect. If someone is harassing you, and both not responding and repeated requests to stop harassment are being answered with harassment, it’s time to involve social media or email authorities, or possibly the police, or just block someone on Facebook much earlier. It may be the case that some superspiritual saint could serenely shine through the worst of the harassment, but that is not the case for you and me. We aren’t there, at least not yet, and your priest or spiritual father may have very practical words about how mountains are moved here on earth.
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Satire / Humor Warning:
As the author, I have been told I have a very subtle sense of humor.
This page is a work of satire, inspired by the likes of The Onion and early incarnations of The Onion Dome.
It is not real news.
Thessaloniki (DP). A monk from one of the communities explained a recent uproar:
During a recent voyage that crossed the U.S., the Ecumenist Patriarch was approached by a beggar, and asked one of the priests with him to “Give him some change.”
The importance of this request simply cannot be overstated. It might perhaps have been appropriate to say, “Give him 37 cents,” or “Give him nothing,” or even “Give him twenty (or a hundred) dollars,” costly as that may be. However, to say to give someone some money, without specifying the amount, is in no way consistent with best practices in accounting. And what is Orthodoxy, if not a training ground for the life of an accountant?
Our reporter said, “Yes, but aren’t there two principles of accounting? Isn’t there room for both strict precision that knows what you have down to the last cent, but also a much smaller area where it isn’t worth the bother to keep tabs. Doesn’t basic accounting have some degree of flexibility for both basic principles, even if the absolute precision bit is the deeper of the two?”
The monk coughed, and shifted his position slightly. “I planned fifteen minutes for this interview. I see that those fifteen minutes have already elapsed.”
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The Word became flesh
Especially when we are preparing for the Feast of the Nativity, when the Word became flesh, we would do well to meditate on why the Word became flesh:
The Son of God became a Man that men might become the sons of God. The divine became human so that the human might become divine. God and the Son of God became Man and the Son of Man that men and the sons of men might become gods and the sons of God:
The Word became flesh that flesh might become Word.
The chief end of mankind
The Westminster Catechism famously opens:
Question: What is the chief end of mankind?
Answer: The chief end of mankind is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
It is often (and rightly) pointed out that these are the same thing: to glorify God and to enjoy him forever are the exact same thing. The chief end of mankind is to contemplate God. And one thread of this is woven into St. John’s prologue: “The Word became flesh, and tabernacled among us, and we have seen his glory, as of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” The disciples saw the uncreated Light of the Holy Transfiguration, and contemplated it.
But St. John the Theologian does not truncate contemplation. This follows, “But to as many as received him, he gave the authority to become the sons of God.” And contemplation and theosis/deification/divinization, becoming sons of God, are not two competing answers to the question, “What is the chief end of mankind?” Far from it: they are expressions of the same truth. Contemplating the uncreated Light, and being transformed to be one of the sons of God, are two connected aspects of the same goal. They come together, and we might well quote for contemplation of God words also spoken of the Eucharist: “Behold what you believe. Become what you behold.” For contemplation and theosis are of the same essence. They are of the same essence almost as the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are of the same essence.
Now it may need to be pointed out that God, and God alone, can be divine by nature. If theosis is open to us, there is no question of our becoming also divine by nature. That is impossible. God’s great work is to make us become by grace what he is by nature, and the infinite gulf between Uncreated and created can never be erased. But it can be transcended by a God who transcends not only Creation but transcends transcendence itself. And when his grace is at work, our spiritual sins and wounds remain, and we remain created, but that is no longer the point. It is no longer the issue. God transcends the chasm that we may by grace share in the divine nature and become by grace what he is by nature.
The great Incarnation was not something that was complete at the Nativity of Christ (or the Annunciation). Christ became incarnate in his own person that he might be incarnate in our persons as well. Word became flesh that flesh become Word. And Incarnation reaches its proper stature when it unfolds into our divinized life, when the Feast of the Nativity unfurls and Christ is born in us. The Annunciation of the Theotokos and the Nativity of Christ are still going on today!
It is a profound error to think of eternal life as something that begins after death. Eternal life is now; the door is open. The same uncreated Light by which Christ was transfigured, so saints have been transfigured, and this is why icons give halos to saints. Paradise is wherever the saints are; and not only canonized saints but in some measure the faithful who are called saints in Scripture.
In theosis, in divinization, in deification, we do not usurp God’s place; rather, Christ’s headship over us receives its proper place. That means not only that he is our Lord and Master, though he most certainly is, nor “merely” that we owe our very existence to him. Rather, to say that Christ is our head is the same thing as saying that we are Christ’s body. As is the Head, so is the body. As is the Christ, so is the Christian. Christ’s own blood flows in our veins. The royal, divine lifeblood courses through our veins. Everything in our lives is to be brought under Christ’s headship, and by the same token our lives are to be made divine.
There is no hair’s breadth of separation between being a follower of Jesus and being another Christ. If you follow Jesus, you are a vessel of his Incarnation, and the Incarnation of Christ is no faroff historical remembrance: it is what you work on today.
The messy circumstances of our lives
“All this is very well,” perhaps you may say, “but my life is not so perfect. We do not live in a perfect world.”
But these are not words from, or merely for, golden ages. When Christ came, no wonder people were looking for a military Messiah who would free the holy land from Roman domination. That was a natural enough thing to want! (And even today, people want someone to save our economy and political situation.) Christ came, as God does, catching people by surprise. People who were living under Third World economic conditions wanted a political savior. Christ came offering something else: saving people from their sins.
Perhaps not much has changed. Not everybody likes our world’s political and economic situation. We seek a savior: a political savior, an economic savior. And Christ comes to us to save us from our sins.
This salvation is a salvation which we overlook and the salvation that we need. Some people pass on the quotation, “We want God to change our circumstances. God wants something else: to use our circumstances to change us,” and the saying is worth repeating. We want God to change our circumstances. God wants something else: to use our circumstances to change us.
These messy circumstances, these bad economic conditions, not to mention politics, are what we think need to be cleared away for God to be at work with us. God has a word for us that is alike difficult and liberating: he wants to work with us in these circumstances. Even if economics and politics turn worse, he may want to deal with us, and deify us, precisely in the conditions lie furthest from his power.
Christ God the Savior doesn’t just deify us who were made in the image of God. He wants to place everything in our lives under his headship: every sin, every suffering, every tear, death itself. He wants to commandeer every evil, as he has Shanghaied the works of the Devil down from the ages. He is a hard man who gathers where he has never harvested, and he harvests not only righteousness and good works, but sin, evil, and death no less if we will but allow him. All of this is under his headship, and all of this he transforms to be deified. And he does not share our illusions about when he can really get to work.
We imagine well enough that only if something changes, only if we get a job, only if someone else changes can our lives move forward. God works to our good before that happens. Our engagement with God happens first, if there is any change to follow, and when we do discover the Kingdom of God which we keep on overlooking in our search for deliverance, everything changes. We may get what we want. We may not get what we want. But we do not need what we want. Even if we get what we want, we are placed far beyond it. We discover treasure hidden in a field and everything changes. And it is sometimes in the hardest trials that God shows the greatest grace and joy. It is like in the poem “Footprints.” When we see only one set of footprints, it was then that Christ carried us: and when we see only one set of footprints, it was then that he was most active in our deification.
Deification is the chief end of man; we were made to become by grace what Christ is by nature, and this is the chief end, not for some other people in some golden age, but here and now, in our political and economic condition. The benevolent, severe, and merciful God who provided for us in decades before is the same benevolent, severe, and merciful God who not only wills to provide for us now, but to work our deification. And he wills this, not sometime when we obtain what we want sometime in the future, but here and now. The same God who commandeers our sin and works such a wonder in us that it is no longer the issue that we injured ourselves, works with our suffering world in such a way that it is no longer the issue if we live in a time of global economic collapse. The same God who has deified men in every age wills our glory today.
The Feast of the Nativity
The Feast of the Nativity (Christmas) has been called “Pascha in winter,” and in a very real sense it is. But there is a difference. Pascha was open triumph; Christ the Firstborn of the Dead forever triumphed over death, and the day is coming when Christ will return borne on rank on rank of angel and every knee will bow and every tongue will confess him. But the Nativity was not open triumph; an angel chorus appeared, and only a few knees bowed. It was if anything an invasion in the dead of winter.
But the Feast of the Annunciation, the Feast of the Nativity, and the Feast of Theophany are the same thing, really: they are feasts of the Incarnation, and the Incarnation is forever frustrated in its purpose unless it unfurls in us. We are to be brought under Christ’s headship. We are to be deified. We are made for theosis. We are to contemplate God. We are to be vessels of the Incarnation of Christ, and this is for here and for now, not for when we reach some other circumstances.
Preparation for the Feast of the Nativity includes important external observances intended to concretely foster a realization: Each and every one of us has a problem with sin. You need, and I need, to come to a point of wondering if God can work with such a sinner. But when we come to God and confess our sins, he answers not only with mercy, but grace: repenting from sin is greater work than raising the dead. We awaken when we come to realize we are standing in a sewer, and when we least expect God to work with us, then in particular our deification is alive. Repenting is greater work than raising the dead, for we ourselves rise from the death of sin into the eternal life that has already begun on earth. And when we wonder, not why God has not placed us in some nicer circumstances, but why God has not placed us in much rougher circumstances, that God is at work and Heaven opens.
Repent! Awaken, you who sleep, arise from the dead, and Christ shall give you light! Arise from your sins to contemplation, to seeing the uncreated Light, to deification, to theosis, to divinization, to transfiguration, to incarnation! Awaken from sin and be illumined by the uncreated Light! Awaken and be a vessel of Christ’s Incarnation!
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Legend has it that a sage was going to leave his locale, and a guard asked for a guide to live by. And so the sage left the Dao De Jing and disappeared, seemingly without further trace.
On this point I do not care if the legend is history: speaking as one with interest in the humanities, it does no violence to the text to read the Dao De Jing in this light, and speaking as a one interested in history I know that I am at some remove from a position where I could offer informed opinion whether the legend should be seen as historical.
My intent, though, and my point in reading it, is to offer a survival guide for the profoundly gifted, and one that speaks to adults as well as perhaps children.
On this point, at least, I am taking a break from tradition. The originator of the concept of IQ was Darwin’s envious cousin Galton, who wanted some of the fame Darwin had, and wrote a book, Hereditary Genius, which dealt with individuals up to a point, but only to see how good candidates they were for his eugenics platform. In response to that, Leta Hollingsworth was teaching a class that used IQ tests to measure levels of deficiency; and decided also for what it was worth to include an unaffected test subject. Much to the astonishment of any reader who understands statistics, that one person was profoundly gifted, past the “one in a million” mark. She went on to write the thickly descriptive Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet: Origin and Development.
Hollingsworth, and her modification to Galton’s eugenics program, have been decisive in effect. For one example that could be called “so close, and yet so far”, she studied gifted children because “adult genius is mobile”, and if interventions are to be useful, they will be of most help in childhood. And she set the programme for gifted education, and for the fact to this day, about half a century after her passing, formal study of giftedness is first and foremost the study of gifted children and only incidentally of gifted adults.
This may be a point on which she should be challenged. One basic point of human psychology which applies in giftedness as much as anywhere else is that “like attracts like.” Children who are gifted and are at a mental age of older children or adults can often find like companionship. Adults who are gifted may have the Internet, and with it gifted organizations, mailing lists, etc., but my response to Hollingsworth is, “Adult genius is mobile? To go where? To some colony or Utopian village which requires IQ above 170?” A gifted child, including profoundly gifted up to a point, stands good chances of social contacts (not via the Internet) who are of similar mental age enough to give a certain comfort. Now profoundly gifted can organize online, in a kind of New Social Movement, meet and have contact with other profoundly gifted, which may or may not be an historical novelty (the foundation of Universities itself was what may be seen as a New Social Movement of profoundly gifted movement in centuries past: Renaissance men), but however helpful it may be to attend to the peculiar needs of gifted children, gifted adults have needs, too.
And so I wanted to give a survival guide, of sorts, with the Dao De Jing taken very loosely as a model. I am not so silent as to leave a scant 81 poems, nor is this intended to directly help Everyman. People who are not profoundly gifted may be free enough to read it, but it is directed towards a few who may need it the most.
The Pearl of Great Price, and a word on anger
There is a C.S. Lewis quote, if I may persist in the Evangelical fashion of incessantly quoting an ecumenism and architect and apologist for ecumenism as we know the heresy today. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man about nascent science that emerged in a Renaissance environment practically saturated with the occult:
It might be going too far to say that the modern scientific movement was tainted from its birth: but I think it might be true to say that it was born at an unhealthy neighborhood and at an inauspicious hour.
For my first stop after a preamble, I would mention a text connected with a figure I have great trepidation about: Fr. Seraphim (Rose). Whatever might be right or wrong about the deceased monk, the movement that unites in his name is a pest, and he alone has left me wanting to write a title like The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts (consistent one-star reviews saying, “BEWARE,” alleging logical fallacies etc.). Fr. Seraphim and his followers are usually classed as conservative, and I suppose they may be willing to assume the position of law and order in taking charge of Orthodox liberals’ spiritual condition: I may consider myself conservative and consider ecumenism to probably be the ecclesiological heresy of our day, but Fr. Seraphim’s crowd certainly commandeered a positon of law and order in straightening out my own spiritual condition in ways my priest wouldn’t dare.
But in a sense of “Do as I do and not as I say,” there is a profound nugget of wisdom in Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Thoughts and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitnovnica. It is subtle, and some would say occult, in its treatment of barely consciously made curses having extraordinary effect, even if the point is that we should not curse even in the subtlest way.
The essential point is not uniquely Orthodox, but I would put it this way. Between the point where a thought really isn’t active in our minds at all, and when it is genuinely and clearly present with mental images, there is a subtle point of consent that most of us are barely aware of, an opportunity to put out a smouldering candle to be delivered from needing to extinguish a full-fledged fire. This is present in how a psychologist tells addicts that “You have more power than you think.” My recollection of discussions of the book, which I haven’t read and may be portraying incorrectly, is that Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning hinged on the discovery of this freedom in a concentration camp. The nexus is tied to the satyagraha championed by Gandhi and held as precious in India today: one of the bigger compliments I have been given is that it is rare to find this kind of understanding of satyagraha outside of India. There are many contestants for the most politically incorrect verse or passage in the Bible; one that is emphasized in Orthodoxy, especially in Lent, is, “…Blessed is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” The patriotic reading is that this refers to barely conscious thoughtlings which we can crush against Christ the Rock, ideally as soon as we can. The longer we let them grow, the more Hell-borne trouble will infest us.
That much is the big picture for this title. The microcosm Elder Thaddeus offers and fleshes out most is in anger; Elder Thaddeus may be faithfully following a tradition where the most deadly of sins is not lust, as the Victorians are rightly or wrongly charged with thinking, or pride such as some Protestants today may think, but anger. And that may seem an un-sexy choice of opponent for the elder to attack, but his choice may make perfect sense. And here a Law of Attraction comes into play. Perhaps we will not by placing our hands on a steering wheel of our SUV and saying “Thank you” (while imagining a much nicer one) thereby manipulate God into giving us more luxury. If there is some kind of Law of Attraction, it is simply not about acquiring luxuries. What is it about, you ask?
Like thoughts attract like thoughts. Thoughts of love, or courage, or gratitude attract further thoughts of love, or courage, or gratitude, and action with them. Thoughts of lust and anger attract more forceful thoughts of lust and anger, and action with them. And more to the point, thoughts of peace attract harmonious relations with others, and “warring thoughts”, thoughts of anger, bring Hellish conflict. On this point I count one of several anecdotes:
4.5. If in each family there were just one person who served God zealously, what harmony there would be in the world! I often remember the story of Sister J. She used to come and talk to me often while I was still at the Tumane Monastery. Once she came, together with an organized group of pilgrims, and complained, saying, “I can’t bear this any longer! People are so unkind to each other!” She went on to say that she was going to look for another job. I advised her against it, as there were few jobs and a high level of unemployment. I told her to stop the war she was fighting with her colleagues. “But I’m not fighting with anyone!” she said. I explained that, although she was not fighting physically, she was waging war with her colleagues in her thoughts by being dissatisfied with her position. She argued that it was beyond anyone’s endurance. “Of course it is,” I told her, “but you can’t do it yourself. You need God’s help. No one knows whether you are praying or not while you are at work. So, when they start offending you, do not return their offenses either with words or with negative thoughts. Try not to offend them even in your thoughts; pray to God that He may send them an angel of peace. Also ask that He not forget you. You will not be able to do this immediately, but if you always pray like that, you will see how things will change over time and how the people will change as well. In fact, you are going to change, too.” At that time I did not know whether she was going to heed my advice.
This happened in the Tumane Monastery in 1980. In 1981 I was sent to the Vitovnica Monastery. I was standing underneath the quince tree when I noticed a group of pilgrims that had arrived. She was in the group and she came up to me to receive a blessing. And this is what she said to me, “Oh, Father, I had no idea that people were so good!” I asked her whether she was referring to her colleagues at work and she said she was. “They have changed so much, Father, it’s unbelievable! No one offends me anymore, and I can see the change in myself, as well.” I asked her whether she was at peace with everyone, and she answered that there was one person with whom she could not make peace for a long time. Then, as she read the Gospels, she came to the part where the Lord commands us to love our enemies. Then she said to herself, “You are going to love this person whether you want to or not, because this is what the Lord commands us to do.” And now, you see, they are best friends!
This is at best one percent of theology and moral philosophy, and I am quoting it in an instrumental manner, which is to say falsely, or something like that. But in terms of immediate impact, it is front and center of what I have been trying to learn. You will have plenty of opportunities to forgive. Or at least I have. But there is something immensely powerful about the gentleness of spirit dealt with here. In another piece, I wrote a highly redundant piece, The Orthodox Martial Art Is Living the Sermon on the Mount. The title at least is worth considering, and is explained in the work. For this whole first point, I would say that the entire arena of morality (or at least that’s how things are cut up: in Orthodoxy, there is ascesis or spiritual discipline, and the field of morality, especially with outcroppings like social morality, does not arise on the same terms) is as important as it can be, but there are crimes that will get you executed in some places, and there are crimes that will get you dead before you get to the police station. For you, this is a crime that will get you dead before you reach the station.
One friend said of his parenting to a parishioner, “I tell my kids that they can say anything they want as long as they don’t use the F-word.” And continued, after a brief pause, “No, ‘Fair,'” and then said (this was a few years ago and may or may not be current) “File [U.S. Income tax forms] and don’t pay, and unless you owe $10000, it’s not worth the IRS’s time to come after you. Don’t file, and the IRS drops the hammer on you.” And there is something here that is not fair. Part of this point is that “A soft answer turns away wrath;” part of this point is meeting anger with meekness. But there is something unfair in that if other people offend here, they may not face particularly bad consequences. If you offend, you may receive a law and order response, or the hammer, or whatever you would like to call it.
Elder Thaddeus makes this question decisive and central, and I’m not sure it deserves that status; I have trouble pulling what he says from what I have seen in the Bible and the Fathers. Some of my attempts to turn the other cheek have met with further ill treatment. However that may be, I have deliberately placed this point as first after introductory comment.
One added remark before moving on to the closely related point of humility: there was a psychology experiment where people were shown brief video clips of doctors, without sound, and asked simply whether the doctor was “nice.” That simple question predicted, at 70% accuracy, whether the doctor would end up getting sued. The point sketched able may be your best shot at being taken to be “nice.”
Humility and pride
I have said earlier that sin, all sin, is like a pet ignoring a water bowl and drinking out of the toilet. Pride chokes off ability to respect others, and ability to enjoy others. But trying to be humble, perhaps under guidance, isn’t just good for what will happen in the next world. It is good for what happens in this world. And this hinges on something unfair again. Pride, arrogance, boastfulness–these benefit precisely no one, and people are rarely drawn to pride. However, pride is even more of a survival liability to the gifted. It offends others more than you have to, and it endangers you more than you have to…
…and it is also a form of stupidity, one you acquire even if natural intelligence does not demand it. Hubris has been described as “blinding arrogance,” and it is the behavior of pride to decide what you want to believe and ignore conflicting evidence that could save you were you to be humble enough to listen.
The proper place of humility is in a montage of interdependent virtues; I have called one to the forefront because of its survival value. You may be able to buy a little space by posturing and flattery, but this is false coin and doesn’t deliver much real weight.
Back in Greece, a member was one school was asked if he was “sophos” or wise, and answered that he was “philosophia” or one who “loved,” partly meaning “sought,” wisdom. The response was humble, or at least trying to act humble. “Philosophy” has meant different things over different times, and there is rich culture shock in people finding Eastern monasticism a much purer philosophy than the sort of thing taught in a philosophy department today. However, practitioners have retained a modest term for over two millennia. And it is perhaps an attitude even more appropriate with reference to humility would be to disclaim being humble, but if asked state that one is seeking humility.
Humility is a profound virtue, it has a great deal to do with the well-ordering of our soul, and there are two ways the profoundly gifted particularly need it. First, it is a sharper survival value and our failings hurt worse in the short term. Second, our gifts (meaning everyone’s gifts, really) are given to humble us. The Philokalia talks about how you can only take credit for actions you. performed before you were born. Meaning, put vividly, that none of us, not even if we arrive at such purity and growth that we can work miracles, should be taking any credit for ourselves. (God might do so at the Last Judgment, but here now it is not permitted or helpful to us.) How much more, then, if we cannot take credit for even the most heroic of our acts, should we be stuck up for our giftedness, which we did nothing to create or acquire, and indeed could do nothing to create or acquire?
Furthermore, humility has been described as a kind of spiritual honesty. It has been called less of a matter of thinking less of oneself, and more a matter of thinking of oneself less. I was told in response to one confession, “The only true intelligence is humility,” and the honest character of humility really gives something that a sky high IQ plus pride does not. There may be cardinally important differences, and they really matter, and it is not normally helpful to relate to most other people as if they were directly as smart as you, but humility is still even more of a necessity to the profoundly gifted.
In Christian Koans, I wrote:
Someone said to a master, “What about the people who have never heard of Christ? Are they all automatically damned to Hell? Tell me; I have heard that you have studied this question.”
The master said, “What you need to be saved is for you to believe in Christ, and you have heard of him.”
Other people may lack humility and get along fine. We need humility in a much more pointed fashion now, even though our eternal needs are the same.
Blaise Pascal said that there were two types of people in this world: sinners who believe they are saints, and saints who believe they are sinners. The pre-communion prayers speak of “…sinners, of whom I am chief,” and there is more.
There is a valuable lesson to be taken from the U.S. of years past, and possibly also the present: “No one in America is rich.” No one says, or at least said, “I have these luxuries; I am rich.” “Rich” is a word we use to describe someone else with a more rarified level of wealth and possession, perhaps with something we covet: whether a more prestigious brand of car, or a nicer house, or a better position in the stock market. Perhaps under present economic conditions some Americans are starting to wise up that a house you own, with a mortgage, an income, and a working car are nothing to sneeze at. But there is still much of the earlier attitude, and precious few Americans are “rich”; “rich” refers to wealthier people whose wealth and property one covets. The wealth and property one already has is, or at least was, taken for granted.
I propose that the above attitude can be lifted to a higher plane. None of us are humble; we seek the priceless treasure of humility, but we don’t, or shouldn’t, see the humility we have. Instead we see humble people around us, or humility in the saints’ lives, but no matter how much we have it should be nothing in our eyes, and we have an insatiable search for more.
The above version of the Law of Attraction, and humility, are two points taken from an encyclopedia’s worth; I have wondered if I have shortchanged humility by giving it too few words. But let’s move on.
Communication under the “Theory of Alien Minds”
In Profoundly Gifted Magazine Interviews Charles Wallace Murry of A Wind in the Door, I discuss what might be called a “theory of alien minds” which reaches beyond the psychological “theory of other minds:”
Profoundly Gifted: Then what is it? What should I make of it?
Charles Wallace: If I may shanghai an opportunity to follow the words, “If there is an elephant in the room, introduce him…”?
Profoundly Gifted: Yes?
Charles Wallace: Asperger’s Syndrome.
Profoundly Gifted: It’s kind of like profound giftedness, no?
Charles Wallace: Let me quietly count to ten… Ok…
I read David Pollock’s Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds, and I said, “That’s me!” Then I read Edward Hallowell’s Driven to Distraction and it made sense. Then I read, on a medical practitioner’s advice, Tony Attwood’s The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome, and my response was some more polite form of “Dude… pass me a toke of whatever it is that you’re smoking!“
The root problem, which I will get to in a minute, is that when people who are happy to have an Asperger’s diagnosis and happy to offer half the people they know an Asperger’s diagnosis, there are superficial similarities between profound giftedness and Asperger’s traits, things that a competent diagnostician should see far past.
Early in the title, Attwood says that when he diagnoses someone with Asperger’s, he says, “Congratulations! You have Asperger’s!” But then it goes downhill. Atwood argues that the obvious social impairments one would associate with Asperger’s are guilty as charged; Asperger’s people don’t know (without counseling and / or training) how to hold an appopriate social conversation. However, the strengths one would associate with Asperger’s are all but eviscerated. Asperger’s children may have a monologue that sounds like a competent adult discussing the matter, but this “knowledge” is a hollow shell, without much of anything of the deeper competency one would associate with an adult capable of such monologue. The common stereotype of Asperger’s patients portrays a slightly odd combination of strengths and weaknesses; Attwood’s book is less generous and really only ascribes real weaknesses.
The standard symptoms of Asperger’s have a perhaps 50% overlap with standard symptoms of profound giftedness; while it is certainly possible to be a member of both demographics, the profoundly gifted characteristics resemble Asperger’s characters for quite unrelated reasons. The similarity may be compared to the common cold, on the one hand, in which there is an immune response to a harmful invador, and environmental allergies on the other hand, in which there is a harmful response to something otherwise harmless. Or for those who prefer an example from Charles Baudelaire, there is an image of two females, one an infant too young to have teeth or hair, and the other a woman too old to have teeth or hair. (The coincidence of features is close to being due to diametrically opposed reasons.)
Profoundly Gifted: Is the question “Asperger’s or profound giftedness?” the sort of question you’d rather un-ask than answer?
Charles Wallace: It is indeed. Or at least I’m drawing a blank to see what a three-cornered discussion of normalcy, Asperger’s, and profound giftedness has to add to the older discussion of normalcy and profound giftedness. If we can overcome our chronological snobbishness says that only now could we say something worthwhile about XYZ and giftedness, Leta Hollingsworth decided as a counterbalance to a study of mental retardation a study of some who turned out to have an IQ of somewhere around 180 or higher. She wrote an insightful and descriptive, Children Above 180 IQ Stanford-Binet, much more insightful than the treatment of profoundly gifted scoring “Termites.”
Furthermore, and here I am less concerned with the relationship between profound giftedness and Asperger’s than improperly read research, there is a consistent finding that IQ-normal, autism-normal children do markedly better at what are unfortunately lumped together as “theory of other minds.”
A much better interpretation of Attwood’s data might come from splitting the theory of other minds into a separate theory of like minds, and also a theory of alien minds. A theory of like minds works with one’s homeys or peeps; hence someone IQ-normal and autism-normal surrounded by IQ-normal and autism-normal classmates will coast on a theory of like minds. But, except in how it may be refined by practice, a theory of like minds that comes virtually free to everyone isn’t in particular reserved to a majority of people (not) affected by XYZ condition. With some true exceptions like Tay-Sachs, everybody gets along with their peeps. Gifted and profoundly gifted click with their fellows; Asperger’s people click with their fellows; To pick a few many demographics, various geek subcultures, codependents, addicts, and various strains of queer should click just as well. Everybody gets a theory of like minds virtually free; the breadth of usefulness depends on how rarely or commonly one encounters like minds, and this heavily loads the dice for Attwood’s approach.
The comparison Attwood makes in interaction with autism-normal people loads the dice in a way that is totally unfair. The comparison is autism-normals’ theory of like minds to Asperger’s theory of alien minds; he never, ever tests autism-normals on their ability to relate to alien minds, nor does he ever test Asperger’s patients on their ability to relate to like minds. And while being unsure about how far this applies to IQ-normal Asperger’s patients, Asperger’s patients often make herculean and lifelong efforts to develop “theory of alien minds” aptitude, and the result is not just that they connect, perhaps clumsily, with people of the same age and socioeconomic status; they make very close connections across age, race, and gender, and for that matter animals who may start off by being afraid of them. The theory of alien minds is finely honed, even if it is not a valid substitute for a theory of like minds, and once it is honed, this theory of alien minds reaches much, much further than autism-normals resting on a theory of like minds.
In conversation, I’ve found people somewhat repulsed by the title of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. The title sounds gimmicky, or worse Machiavellian. It sounds like a way to manipulate and use people. However, it has (some would argue) a legitimate place, and some of us who have read the title prefer to deal with others who are following its lead. I’ll refrain from simply condensing the title; rather, I will take its summary key points and address how they relate to us who are profoundly gifted, with some adaptation in the process. This partial expansion is not intended to replace or supplant original text, but stand in its proper position after one has taken an hour or two to read Carnegie. I also after some thought am not covering all his chapters; there is a limit to what I have to say here that is useful.
- Don’t criticize, condemn, or complain. This one also makes Fr. Thomas Hopko’s 55 maxims, and there is a general principle in Orthodoxy that we should be strict with ourselves and lenient with others. I would suggest further: Don’t cause culture shock, at least if you can avoid it or unless you are willing to deal with the consequences. You see options that others can’t. That’s a blessing, but one thing that plays out is that people in a culture will make sense of what they see in terms of the options the culture defines as possible or even thinkable. Furthermore, there is negative attribution at play. “Negative attribution” is a phenomenon where actions that are not understood are assumed to have dishonorable, shady motives. It takes some doing for you to come to understand what makes culture shock, but if nothing else be aware of it, and be aware that causing culture shock comes with a social price tag.
- Give honest and sincere appreciation. Orthodox may take issue with this in some part; some regard frequent compliments as spiritual poison, either dodging them or calling them Devil’s talk. Which, perhaps, they can be, and perhaps “guilty as charged.” But there is another shoe to drop. Compliments may be spiritually toxic and feed spiritual disease, but we are called to infinite respect. It is decreed in at least one monastic rule that guests “are to be received as Christ himself;” the chilling end of Matthew 25 clarifies that whatever we do for the very least beggar we have done for Christ himself. There is perhaps no need, really, to give a diet of compliments, but the respect or disrespect we show to our neighbor is, come Judgment Day, respect or disrespect we have shown the King returning in glory.
- Arouse in the other person an eager want. What precedes this statement in Carnegie’s chapter here is more than is really summarized; subsumed under “Arouse in the other person an eager want” is seeing things from the other’s perspective and speaking in terms of what the other person would find attractive. This, for profoundly gifted, is squarely a matter of “theory of alien minds” competence, and I will not speak further here than give one generically geek example. It has to do with when someone, having had a frustrating experience with technology, calls in the geek and the geek sees what principle or whatever it is that the user failed to understand, uses the moment to try to explain the principle the user needs, and meets with forceful existence. Geeks don’t like this situation; some of them in great frustration have asked, “Don’t they have any curiosity?” To this I would say, “You don’t seem to be showing much curiosity about people. ‘At the end of their rope’ is not the usual example of a teachable moment, at very least not with computer difficulties.” As far as spiritual growth goes, amazing things are sometimes learned at the end of one’s rope: one chapel speaker said, “God’s address is at the end of your rope.” However, it is simply not helpful to give a technology lesson to someone who is exasperated and stressed out. Similar technology lessons might make complete sense another day, when the other person is relaxed and in a good mood. However, there really is something to be said about taking an active interest in other people, and trying to get inside the other person’s head, and communicate in terms they will find attractive, not just what comes most naturally to you.
- Become genuinely interested in other people. One friend identified herself as “a psychologian,” and it was fascinating to me to watch her turn her whole attention to a younger woman and see how she worked. We think today of psychology today as the discipline that understands people, but it was historically an alternative to the understanding of people provided by religion. There is another embodied sense in literature, and there are ways a literature major may understand a person better than a psychology major. But in any case, knowing people should be at least one of your chosen areas of expertise. You owe it to yourself, and others!
- Smile. And if you’re one of those people like me who is not very animated by nature, it might not hurt to go to improv classes. (At least a conceptual understanding of method acting might also help.)
- Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. Carnegie does not discuss standard memory techniques such as are discussed in Kevin Trudeau’s Mega Memory; there is some debate how useful such techniques are, and they may or may not help. However, it is helpful by some means to learn. And this principle is a token of respect for a whole person. If a business says “You’re a name to us, not a number” (as the puzzled secretary at a sprinkler company read an advertisement), that is a claim of respect for the whole person. And if non-semantic information is not your main area of strength, this does not change the relational necessity of learning and using other people’s names. (Perhaps you might memorize the etymology that gives the name?)
- Be a good listener. Encourage others to talk about themselves. One expert negotiator was asked, “If I could shadow you for a day, and observe what you do, what in a sentence would I learn?” He said, “I don’t need a sentence. I just need two words: Listen better.” Listening, and a listening attitude, are bedrock to communication, persuasion, negotiation. The more important your message is, the more important it is for learning.
- Talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Make it a spiritual practice of being with other people, perhaps without even discussing their interests. There is a time and a place for persuasion, but even those who deprecate idle talk assume something far greater. Meet people where they are.
- The only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it. Part of mystagogy is simple: if a person is wrong, and you know that person will not hear correction, you do not correct that person. On Judgment Day, it is better for the other person not to be guilty of hearing the truth and rejecting it, and it is also better for you not to have put the other person in that position. More broadly, argument and persuasion have a place, but the chief means of persuasion is one that a politically incorrect passage from the New Testament advises for the wife of an unbelieving husband. What we say is drowned out by how we live, and in the great scheme of things persuasion by Western logical argument is drowned out by the silent witness of our lives.
Why I am not a disciple of a staretz (or at least, not yet)
A staretz, or spiritual father in the monastic tradition, is one feature of Orthodoxy that is expected of monastics and open to non-monastics. I have heard varying opinions about whether laity should have a staretz. One bishop, perhaps associated with scandal, said that most of us living in the world should not rightly need a staretz, and that one should get the blessing of one’s priest and perhaps bishop before embarking on that unusual choice, even warning it might be out of pride / prelest that such decisions often spring from. Others have suggested that having a bond with a staretz is normal, and that one is limping spiritually to be Orthodox but not participate in that powerfully strengthening relationship.
I am not interested in advancing either of these positions, or criticizing either, beyond saying that I know Orthodox faithful who have their heads on straight and are not disciples of a staretz, and I know Orthodox faithful who regard a relationship with a staretz as a basic essential and also seem to have their heads on straight. There is a slight logistical detail about geographic location that is not of interest here, but what is to the point is the primary reason I do not now have a staretz.
A leading example of due diligence in Orthodoxy is the investigation that a prospective disciple is urged to make before entering obedience to a staretz. There is something of a monastic “Marry in haste; repent at leisure” phenomenon here, in that a prospective disciple is commanded to investigate the staretz, but once obedience has been entered, it is inviolable.
What I have found as a profoundly gifted individual is that a lot of authority figures have issues with the profoundly gifted. I’d like to give one or two examples, but they come from bosses, from professors, from clergy, from medical providers, from family, and it can take ten years for a repeated “No” to take effect.
One example from work
Let me take one example from work. I am deliberately mentioning work (not a first choice for jobseekers) rather than the offenses of someone who is close to me now.
I was brought on board to create a micro site that would supersede previous ways of tracking information about XYZ. I worked hard, and two days into a three week contract (we had already lost one week to administrative / paperwork issues that were not my boss’s fault or my own), I presented my first deliverable, a roughly 50-60% complete solution with an obvious trajectory to fill in the gaps. And let me preface what follows by saying that there are at least three ways in which I don’t believe my boss understood I was doing well because I was operating on a greased track:
- The contract was for either Python or Java development, and I used Python with Django, “the web framework for perfectionists with deadlines.” Each of the two languages has its own sweet spot where it vastly outperforms the other, and this specific contract fell squarely in Python and Django’s sweet spot.
- Second, I had just finished the publishing process for an IT title where the main software I developed to showcase my tools could serve as an example for what I had. Doing a project the second time through, as long as you avoid what is called “second-system effect”, is almost always faster. A lot faster, in most cases.
- In terms of personal working style, I had nearly optimally conditions for how I work best. I am not interested in commenting on what Agile variant or whatever provides the best working conditions overall, but I had a task, clearly defined and well understood in this case, and autonomy to do my best work. There was not much more for me to ask for.
So I came in on a greased track, politely and respectfully submitted my work, initially with pleasure of assurance that I had turned in something good, until my boss started making some very ominous remarks.
I plucked up my courage and asked directly, “How should it be different?”
I was assured that it would be explained in an upcoming meeting with him and one other employee.
In that meeting, I was told that my boss’s boss had asked how things were going with the project. My boss lied to save my skin, or so he said, telling him that we were only in “early planning stages”, with “nothing to show,” and my boss said that his boss was “LIVID“, emoting in a way that suggested he used “livid” because he couldn’t think of a stronger word to convey anger. I was also told, “Your only two friends within the company are in this room,” and that I should be terrifed of anyone else seeing my abysmal work. What the meeting left completely unaddressed was my question of, “Well, how should it be different?” Nothing in the meeting addressed my questions of “If you don’t like it now, how should I change it?” My boss walked out of the meeting looking very, very impressed with himself; he seemed proud for having cleverly defended himself from an attack.
Incidentally, I had run-in with my boss’s boss a day or so before; he asked how things were going, and I showed him pretty much what I showed my boss. He looked slightly bored at a reporting informational answer to what he apparently meant as a purely social question. (Note: this is not a hallmark of a particularly good liar.) I do not think he would have emoted that calmly if he were concealing rage towards me; and I also do not think that if he were in a rage he would let me continue to be employed there.
That was the biggest obnoxious thing that went on; it wasn’t the only one. The runner-up is that as part of his effort to make himself equal to me–and it has been my universal experience that when people try to make themselves my equal, things never go well–is that on one point in particular he spoke in riddles, refusing to give direct answers to my direct questions about what he wanted in the way of change even though he knew exactly what he wanted and he could have stated it clearly. He kept on forbidding me to copy the user interface to some internal-use system, and I thought, “Well enough: I’ll leave that system alone. I’ll refrain from even looking.” This was apparently not good enough; he kept on forbidding. After some point I realized that he wanted me to copy a key user interface feature exhibited by that other system, and when I did the work to copy that feature, the upshot was that I finally got it!
(As an aside, alongside people trying in sometimes nasty ways to make themselves equal to you, they will also sometimes show kindness, after a sort, by acting in a heirarchical relationship above you. Hence you may have people eager to advise you, or teach you, or start to provide unsolicited psychological services and feel very hurt if you politely decline–possibly talking to you for a solid hour without any request on your part–just whatever possible kindness will situate them above you. Now this is reason not to be arrogant as that is the one part of the problem you can most prevent, but even if you show a true and flawless humility, people can get intimidated.)
Another encounter at work
To muddy the waters a bit, this was a position where I requested accommodation for disability, and my boss tried a couple of times to push past the accommodation until I put my foot down. This can’t have improved my standing with him.
There was one major stint of my work that was handed in, and my boss accused me of doing a “fix one, break two,” after getting a bunch of people to find as many bugs as possible. This was an extremely serious allegation of incompetence, and I did not say anything immediately because I wasn’t sure how to respond and it isn’t something I am used to hearing. Then I got the big list of flaws in my work, and it was in fact not a list of flaws in my work. Every single one, without exception, was either a request to handle an ambiguity differently, often to the detriment of the product, or else it was a request for a feature enhancement that was not mentioned on the specifications I was working from. I told him this, and said that it is normal in the workflow for requests to be added, but I asked him not to frame requests for new features as evidence of my incompetence.
My boss never again made a specific allegation as to what was wrong with my code. After some time passed, he said in generic terms that my code was poor quality, and after a bit longer said it was not improved, and fired me.
I didn’t have any talent!
I could read music before I could read English, and as a little boy even… I love to play piano, but at a certain point my parents shut off my lessons and discouraged me when I continued to practice.
What my piano teacher told my mother, years later, was that she felt the need to distance herself from certain friends including my mother and me as connected to her. I might gently suggest another possibility. What she told my mother when discontinuing my lessons wasn’t that I should continue with another teacher. She instead shut down my lessons by telling my mother that I didn’t have any talent.
As one friend who was a piano teacher said, you don’t say that. It might possibly be true, but you don’t say that of your least talented student.
What exactly does “He doesn’t have any talent,” mean?
In this context, among other things, it meant that when I attended a Ken Medema session that was for Wheaton College Conservatory students (but open to others), I was the person who accepted an invitation and found myself placed to give a public performance. So I did, and people found it astonishing: one friend listened to it on tape and said, “That was you? It was beautiful.” That was my first time touching a keyboard in ten years.
My piano teacher couldn’t have known that. What she did know was that I was confused by the standard way of teaching relative pitch. I could do it, but I didn’t see the point, and the reason I didn’t see the point was that I had perfect pitch. And she knew I had perfect pitch.
I might comment that having authority figures trying to rebel against me didn’t begin when I had adult mental function and crude social skills. I’ve had authority figures rebel against me even as a young boy.
An example of a time bomb that blew up
There is also a time bomb aspect to these nasty (non-)surprises. I recall one mailing list where I had a conversation with one contributor, and joined the list for a time. At first the leader of the list said of 1054 and All That, “It tortures my funny bone,” which later changed to, “When you write satire, I grimace and bear it.” The woman who introduced me to the group asked me early on why I was guarded, and said, “We’re among friends.”
Things seemed to be on a sustained even keel for a while, but after a certain point the head of the mailing list increasingly opposed me, publicly attacking what I said and me as a person, which he tried to explain to me was introducing me to friendly candour, and even communicated that he was taking emotional risk and my place and obligation was to to validate and endorse the “friendly candor” he was so boldly poured forth.
I progressively withdrew from the conversation, first from stating opinion, then back from core Orthodoxy, until finally I was trying to make one and just one point. One of the members of the group was having a stressful, and really entirely needless, crisis of conscience: it was during the Nativity fast, and she had an obligation to attend a Christmas party, and she thought there were no exceptions or leniency to the rule of fasting. And at that point I was not interested in scoring points or being right as such; I was acting on a pastoral concern (if laity are allowed to act on pastoral concern) to tell her that there was a legitimate and time-honored exception here: she should go to the festival and enjoy what was offered her with a genuinely clean conscience. And the mailing list leader opposed me here as much as anywhere else: “I reply with three words: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.”
After a side conversation, I made a long post quoting ancient and modern sources in Orthodoxy, and explained that every source in Orthodoxy I had seen apart from the mailing list leader’s response said, in the words of my parish priest sometime back, “Hospitality trumps fasting.”
He locked me from posting on the list.
And there are several other instances like that that I can mention.
The pattern as a whole: and, more specifically why I am not attached to a staretz
The whole incident just mentioned–another was arguably betrayal by an Orthodox priest I looked up to–fed into a moment of “I have no mouth and I must scream,” that appeared in crystallized form in The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab, which I encourage you to take the time to read, perhaps now. A psychologist might talk about how a professor may have a need to believe “I’m an A and you’re all B’s,” the point being that non-threatening B’s get the A’s and unsettling A’s get B’s or worse. But the insight is hardly a new insight. Someone who knows the Bible well may note a decisive turning point after Paul heard people singing, “Saul has slain his thousands, and David has slain his tens of thousands.” He asked why he was only credited with thousands, if David was given tens of thousands, and that is pretty much the point where David began to be in serious danger from Saul. For that matter, even fairy tales contain a similar point. Snow White was pretty safe as long as the Queen still heard the answer she wanted when she asked, “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” When the answer became “Snow White,” the Queen, like King Saul, sought noting short of murder.
And on this point this is why I have not sought a staretz. It is beyond a doubt to me that there are many startsy much too mature and humble to actually rebel against their disciples, but what I do hold in extreme doubt is my ability to distinguish them. Sometimes people show their colors immediately; it has also happened that harassment only began years later. I am not saying that I will never place myself under a staretz’s authority, let alone wish to criticize the institution as a whole. I am not interested in convincing people that they shouldn’t be disciples of a starter, or that they should. However, words like “Marry in haste, repent at leisure” and a history of time bombs leave me chary of placing myself under a bond of absolute obedience.
Saying “No” and enforcing that boundary
The standard psychological advice on this point is to give compliments, and show kindness so that anything unpleasant is sandwiched by things that are much more pleasant. And in terms of general social rules, it is good sense for people in general that if you have to say something unpleasant it is best to sandwich it with something more pleasant. For that matter, How to Win Friends and Influence People has much to say about gracefully dealing criticism, and while I am not a psychologist, I can imagine that a piece of routinely given advice to bookworms who find social situations challenging might be, “Read How to Win Friends and Influence People. Dale Carnegie wrote the book!” None the less, I submit that this boilerplate advice does not apply in the case of profound giftedness, or at least does not scale appropriately. Advice about giving a graceful apology when you have stepped on someone’s toes is inadequate to the situation if you can only wear cleats.
More broadly, I would compare driving on wintry roads after a heavy snowfall in Illinois versus Georgia. In Illinois, a snowfall of several inches is relatively routine. It may never be as safe to drive on snow-packed roads as roads without water, snow, or ice, but if you are exaggerating defensive driving a bit, drive a good bit more slowly, and allow yourself ample stopping room, you stand a significant chance of reaching a goal without an accident. However, in the case that is rarer than a blue moon that Georgia gets an equally heavy snowfall, the rules outlined above leave you significantly more vulnerable, because while in Illinois you are sharing the road largely with drivers who have some sense of what defensive driving on snow looks like, while the situation is far removed from anything they have well-formed habits for. The general psychological advice, cut from the same cloth as How to Win Friends and Influence People, is defensive driving in Illinois snow on roads shared with Illinois drivers. For the profoundly gifted it is taking Illinois defensive driving on snowy roads and trying to make it work in Georgia. (And I’m not trying to take a dig at Georgia; a Georgian is welcome to respond “Georgians don’t know how to drive deep snow and Illinoisans don’t know how to brace for a hurricane, and that’s a bigger deal.”)
But let me mention two situations where I shut down harassment.
One was a gay rights activist and now Roman priest who was essentially a self-appointed guardian of my orthodoxy. For quite a long time, when I posted a new written work, he would post a reply that inevitably did three things: it delivered pain, took me quite a few notches down socially, and lifted him even more notches above me, establishing him squarely as my superior.
After one dressing-down that was particularly offensive, I tried multiple ways to reason with him, and nothing worked: the last email he responded to was one in which I requested “no further unsolicited criticisms on any topic.” He responded, “Ok, I won’t send any more unsolicited criticisms, but I will take emails from you as solicitations for response,” followed by a dose of even more criticism. I then sent a letter, Cc’ed to our email provider, saying, “It seems I have no way of asking you to stop criticizing me so you will respect my wishes. Therefore I tell you that the next unsolicited criticism I receive will be forwarded to the system administrators with a request for disciplinary action.” I haven’t heard from him since.
In another case, someone who I trusted as a friend decided on his own authority that I had Asperger’s and he was going to treat me for it. When I repeatedly failed to opt-in to his diagnosis and treatment, he apparently decided that was not allowed to say no, and that was that. I asked him to stop half dozen or a dozen times, and was answered only by his telling me I was “sending mixed messages”, and his continuing to administer amateur psychotherapy. I sent one “CEASE AND DESIST” letter, Cc’ed to email@example.com. That killed that conversation as thoroughly as I desired.
It is my experience that when people are responding in their own special way to profound giftedness, your saying “No” is treated as something awfully spongy. It’s almost as if they believe, “If he says ‘No’ when I want him to say ‘Yes,’ that qualifies as a real, genuine ‘Yes.'” However, they know that they are wrong, and a Cc to an authority asking that something stop can something do something that a dozen privately sent “No”s will ever effect. If you are a member of an organization, know and be ready to apply grievance procedures.
And one other point, to be clear: Human Resources won’t always get it. In the job with the meeting where I was told, “Your only two friends in the company are in this room,” I contacted HR about possible harassment. HR’s only available response was to interpret my words about harassment (or hazing, or whatever you want to call it) was to interpret me as complaining that as a consultant I did not have job security, which they answered by explaining to me (as to a child) that as someone on a consulting gig my lack of job security was part of the game. I tried and failed to convey any of the points I was concerned about. And in general I’ve had trouble getting HR to see problems.
So there is a caveat. However, if I am being harassed, I have found the best mileage by saying “No,” perhaps privately at first, but if the private “No” is being pushed past, a “No” that is Cc’ed to an authority can bring remarkable clarity. I’m also not shy about sending a “CEASE AND DESIST” letter, also Cc’ed to an authority.
“So, You’ve Hired a Genius”
Another hacker wrote the original hacker FAQ, and after asking and obtaining permission, I expanded it into So, You’ve Hired a Hacker (Revised and Expanded). The premeir wordsmith in the profoundly gifted community approached me about co-authoring a similar work, So, You’ve Hired a Genius, that would take aim at stereotypes facing profoundly gifted in the workplace.
My response was to reluctantly muddy the waters. (And let me briefly add that I was excited about the topic, and just as excited about the honor of co-authoring the work he did.) The way I muddied the waters was essentially to say, “What you are calling stereotypes are not stereotypes, at least as far as mechanism. They have effects similar to stereotypes, but trying to dismantle them as stereotypes won’t work.”
For one example, he mentioned a “fallacy of dilution,” essentially a stereotype that says that if profoundly gifted are jacks of all trades, they must be masters of none with quite a diluted kind of knowing, because you can’t have knowledge that is both broad and deep. And what I said is that within their frame of reference (and most people have never met the profoundly gifted range), there are limits to what a person can do. You can be a generalist or a specialist, but you can’t have specialist-level proficiency in a broad stretch of disciplines. And so we don’t have a case of two related classes of people with the profoundly gifted miscategorized as “Jack of all trades, therefore master of none” when “comprehensive knowledge in multiple areas” is thinkable. The truth is simply something that doesn’t exist given most people’s horizons, and people, perhaps, make sense as best they can. This may produce the same effects as a stereotype, but people are not stereotypically filing the profoundly gifted into the wrong pigeonhole when the right pigeonhole is in their reach. They are responding to something outside their frame of reference, and trying to make sense given what is conceptually available.
Furthermore, I now have a second reason for being glad the title was not written, or at least that I wasn’t involved if someone else wrote it. On one level, the book’s approach was to contradict certain stereotypes that seem to keep cropping up. On another, slightly deeper level, the approach was almost certainly to adjust people’s possibles et pensables, what is possible and what is even thinkable, and if you enter that game you have already lost. This rule does not apply to people who are sufficiently gifted or other sundry exceptions, but if you are approaching regular people’s possibles et pensables as the sort of thing you negotiate and change at will, you have already lost.
“What would someone average do?” I remember visiting with some Mensans–this is significant–and offering magnetic business cards. And one of them raised the question of whether they would harm credit cards or other cards that had a magnetic stripe. The question was one that I had to considered, but one that I did not need to consider, apart from the fact that a stack of a few of them had not damaged any of my cards with a magnetic stripe, and, as I was to learn later, it really takes some doing to wreck a magnetic stripe. But the question had not occurred to me on “What would someone average do?” grounds. The magnetic backings were explicitly sold as backings for business cards. If they were to destroy any common wallet contents, they would be dropped by stores and possibly there would be class-action lawsuits. The average person was apparently safe to buy and use the cards as advertised without easily wrecking magnetic stripes: therefore, as a rule of thumb, someone “smarter than the average bear” was probably safe as well. I wouldn’t take this argument to its logical conclusion; The Luddite’s Guide to Technology is written on the premise that what an average person would do can have some very heavy price tags: in a word, millions of smokers CAN be wrong. However, even with that caveat, I would pose that “What would an average person do?” is a very important reference point, and possibly a default one should avoid deviating from if there is a reason. I believe that I personally need to know how to talk more like an average person, even if I manage talk about the weather and small talk a whole lot better than I did before.
And in negotiation it always helps to understand the other side. Of things you could wish, there are some things a particular person can conceive of and would consent to, some things a particular person can conceive of and would consent to, and some things a particular person would not conceive in the first place. I remember some time, over a decade ago, wanting to start a consultancy business of creating custom home pages for people. I believed, and continue to believe, that creating such pages would have been both doable and useful, and my Mom at least was very grateful when I made a personal-use homepage for her, or to be more specific, was grateful after I had created it and she began using it. (And I don’ think she was JUST being polite, or motherly, in her appreciation.) However, the feedback I got on a high-IQ mailing list about my business idea was, “I don’t think most people would understand what you were offering.” Perhaps some people would “get it” once they’d played around with it a bit, but to people who were not yet customers, I was a bit like what you get when you cross the godfather with a lawyer: someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand. This may be a huge competitive advantage: you may see good options that are invisible to any competition. However, it helps a great deal if you understand that there are thing you see that are invisible to others, and that explanation and negotiation do not, or at least do not always, change most people’s horizons of what is possible and what is even thinkable. Effective negotiation here does not mean changing someone else’s worldview; it means change from within from things that are already on their list of possibles et pensables.
One acquaintance I had said that when faced with a problem, he would ask, “What would a smart person do?” and try and reason from there. It is my suggestion that essentially in social areas, the question of “What would an average person do?” is fecund. It provides a basic anchor for social and other conduct, and if you don’t know how an average person talks in terms of length of speech, complexity, and whether they are speaking to inform or to communicate, you have a reasonable yardstick. This doesn’t mean that you limit your life to a tiny box, but it does mean that you should be communicating appropriately (including not–communicating appropriately) with most others. Are you teaching? Give serious consideration to taking homework questions from the main area of the textbook’s problems, rather than look for an appropriate challenge as you understand “appropriate challenge.”
When I was in grad school, I taught “Finite Math”, which was a general education course. I was trying to create a mathematical paradise that would expose people to the poetic beauty of mathematics. I did other things that I’d heard of that sounded cool, like letting people choose weightings for their grades. I got reamed in end-of-course student reviews (one student said, “Now it’s payback time!” when I passed out reviews sheets), and this was entirely appropropriate.
In my attempt to create a mathematical paradise, I was trying to teach people a different way of thought. I would loosely describe my model as too close to a mathematical Zen master, or an ersatz mathematical Zen master, trying to break the mind of mindless symbol manipulation. I completely failed to consider, for instance, that mastering some form(s) of mindless symbol manipulation could be a basis to award a high grade. What I considered conveying the beauty of mathematics was sectarian, only appropriate to some students, and not proper for the diversity in a general education class for non-majors. (I’m undecided about how appropriate it would have been for people in a class where students opted-in to more mathematics than they had to take; possibly it could have been well-done in a weed-out class. However, I was not teaching anything meant to weed students out.)
If I could send a message back in time to myself as I was a young man preparing a class, I would have urged reading, Please Understand Me!, which deals with some of the basic diversities among people, and Please Understand Me! II, which applies something of a multiple intelligence theory (though if you want multiple intelligence theory done well, I’d look for Howard Gardner and keep in mind that there may be some good stuff, but the topic is a kook magnet). The benefit of these books is, besides what they document directly, the fact that they sensitize a perceptive reader to how humans can vary, and the fact that diversity does not begin with race. It begins well before race!
Simplicity beyond complexity
There is something that has always bothered me about the suggestion that if you are really a expert, if you are really at the top of your game, then you can explain the problem you are working on in a nutshell that average Joes can understand. That may be true, but I can see it only as indirectly true, by accident. Specialists with a doctorate in what have you have jumped through hoops and paid metaphorical blood, sweat, and tears to reach their understanding. And they are supposed to explain what they took a decade to learn so that the onus is on them to produce a statement that will make the average listener understand immediately? The proposition was for a long time repulsive to me, seeming to be anti-intelletual, or driven by envy, or both!
However, there is a way that it is true, but it’s not really through a measure of expertise, unless we are talking about a measure of expertise that only the profoundly gifted achieve. And that is because at least some of the profoundly gifted reach the simplicity on the other side of complexity–as you may have hear the saying, “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
Characteristic of this, to take an example with Richard Feynman, is from the Challenger disaster hearings. The question had been raised of whether O-rings became brittle in the cold, and people argued and discussed, discussed and argued, with no real progress either way. Then Feynman took a piece of O-ring, swirled it around in his icewater, and went, snap! And the debate stopped cold.
There was also the story of a retiree’s publication where one senior wrote a letter saying that she calculated that she had heard ____ many thousands of sermons, but oddly enough she couldn’t remember any sermon she had heard, and she knew that pastors put a lot of time into sermons, and she wondered if the effort might be better spent elsewhere. That set off considerable debate; people argued and wrote letters one way and then another, until one gentleman wrote,
I met my wife ____ years ago and we have been happily married for ____ years. During this time, I estimate that my wife has prepared for me ____ thousand meals. I cannot remember any of the recipes she followed, but I am on the whole healthy and not any fatter than when I met her. I judge that it was worth her time to cook those meals.
The discussion was over. Period.
At a former parish, I, a layman, was allowed to preach a couple of homilies. I don’t think I understood the honor I was being given; in another jurisdiction, Deacons, who have entered major holy orders, do not preach.
The priest and subdeacons both spoke with me at some length. They didn’t warn of any consequence for anything, and they didn’t seem to doubt that I would deliver a homily that was correct and probably full of good points. They trusted me only to speak from Orthodoxy. However, the one point that they underscored at length was simplicity, and told me to address my homily to three parishioners who were the least bookworm-like members of the parish.
There are basically two thing that priest gave me:
- The honor and pleasure of delivering homilies.
- The ability to crystallize something simple out of something rich and complex.
And this last bit puts me at an open vista for new learning. I have learned to communicate well in complexity; now I am working on also being able to communicate simply.
This post, the one you are reading, may be seen as a professional bad example; I am communicating like someone who isn’t trying or succeeding at communicating simply. In other words, I do not have even the pretension here of modeling the communication style you should be using. But learning to extract a crystalline core to something conceptually large is something we can do, and something we need to do.
For a “before and after”, I would submit The Horn of Joy: A Meditation on Eternity and Time, Kairos and Chronos and the homily Two Decisive Moments. There are other homilies I believe communicate well; A Pet Owner’s Rules is an example, but it was not intended to simplify anything longer or more complex. The Horn of Joy is a leisured meditation, a complex river with eddies and swirls, and I wanted to miniaturize it, but I saw no faithful way to miniaturize the whole, and after the fact I am glad I didn’t pull off a synopsis of the whole thing. So I instead took a nugget, a kairos decisive moment, and delivered a homily without using the Greek word, just speaking of “two decisive moments.” And the homily, incidentally, was intended to challenge possibles et pensables. I point this out because the rules I am giving should be seen as guidelines from experience more than exceptions. I believe that in this case it also worked because there was really nothing more trying to claim attention. I remember commenting on Karl Rahner’s grundkurs title that he was describing the familiar as something alien, and I do that too (witness Game Review: Meatspace), but when I do that, that is pretty much all that is going on. If I’m making that heavy cognitive demand, I will try to lighten other parts of the load. And in Rahner the mystery of figuring out what could be said much more directly, in a much more familiar way, is only one layer of what makes his texts difficult to read. (I studied at a school that was mostly in Rahner’s camp, and while professors rejected my claim that Rahner’s rhetoric was confusing, we were none the less encouraged to deploy Rahner’s theology to people who would be scared off from reading Rahner in his own intricate words.)
There is one final caveat I wish to mention on this point. The poem Doxology was written out of love of its subject matter and of its language. It does not have even the pretension of being written with any attempt at simplicity. For that matter, it does not have even the pretension of being written in English as the language is spoken today: it is written in Elizabethan English. And, at least as far as the impression goes, it has had substantially more Facebook reshares than all of my other works put together. Simplicity is a guideline, and it may be a survival necessity, but it is not a straightjacket. There is a time and place to pull out beautiful words and give the undiluted force of your thought.
When you should lie
One time, on LinkedIn, someone posted, “Just give me the time, don’t build me a friggin’ watch,” and asked why engineers went on and on. I regret the answer I gave because it was honest and truthful as an engineer would understand those merits. What it was not was short. The answer I thought of a bit later was, “If you want a marketing executive’s answer, ask a marketing executive. If you want an engineer’s answer, ask an engineer. Why are you asking an engineer for a marketing executive’s answer?” And that may have been a better response, but it was a really good way of saying something I no longer hold true.
One friend spent some time in Nigeria, and one cultural note in conversation came when Uncle Monday asked her how her cold was, and she said it was getting worse. He said, “You don’t say that,” and explained that the expect response was, “It’s getting better,” even if it isn’t, and if you give a different response like “It’s getting worse,” socially you are asking for that person’s help. She commented that that experience helped her make peace with the American “How are you?”–“I’m fine!” even if things are not fine. As someone said, “‘How are you?’ is a greeting, not a question. The other person does not want to hear about your indigestion.” This is a general rule with exceptions; some that I am aware of are when you are close to the other person, when the person asking is devout, when the person asking is gifted, and when the person asking is on the spectrum. Any of those three, and perhaps others, may want to hear “I’m having a really rough day,” should that be the case. However, the usual social role in the U.S., with its unwritten boundaries, is that you normally give a positive and upbeat answer to the question, “How are you?”
I am job hunting now, and one area I have done poorly, is to give a two-sentence answer unless someone interviewing you asks for more–and you want to be asked for more. For most questions that come up, I feel like lying to give much of any two-sentence answer, and I want more than 140 characters. However, the correct answer, made in an attempt to be honest and appropriate, is a simple two sentence response that would be a lie to tell your colleagues. You may enjoy some discretion as to how you lie; you do not have discretion as to whether you lie.
Certain things like this may seem like a social game before they become candid. But the words “Fake it until it’s real” may apply here. Living properly in a culture may seem a social game before it becomes a living stream; and there are exceptions. There was one time at UIUC where a friend said he was writing a story set in a Biblical milieu, and asked if I had guidance to make it better. I asked him if he knew what culture shock was, and when he said “No,” I stepped uncomfortably close to his face (he started backing away very quickly), and I said, “That’s culture shock! It’s being surprised and caught off guard in a way you didn’t know you can be caught off guard.” He thanked me, and went on to write his story.
That is, as best I can recall, the first and only time in my life where I believe it was right to invade another person’s personal space. For the rest of the situations I’ve met, there are rules (perhaps varying from culture to culture) about what it means to be at a particular distance, what is too close, and what is too distant. This kind of rule should usually be observed as much as possible, even if it feels like an artificial shell for a time, and trying to negotiate (in this instance) proxemics is an attempt to negotiate what is possible and what is thinkable.
“People don’t understand me!”
Mosts people have a desire to be understood, and I recall in particular one person who was disappointed when people would hear that he was a professor and ask, “What do you teach?” when he really considered himself to be so much more than a teaching machine. There were several responses; one highly upvoted answer said, “In many languages, ‘Professor’ means ‘Teacher’“, and said, supposing for the sake of argument that he was a fellow mathematician, that people would have a better understanding of mathematics if they read some of Theoni Pappas’s titles explaining mathematics for non-mathematicians remarkably well, but in the end it was better to have social conversations without homework or footnotes. Most professions are a bit different from how public stereotypes would have it; it’s not just (as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance points out) that a mechanic’s job description is not in the first instance, “Disassemble a car partway, replace a broken part, and reassemble everything you took out;” that may be the easiest part of a job, and a mechanic’s basic challenge lies in figuring out mentally, or sleuthing, what sort of root cause would be behind the problems and behavior observed. Meanwhile, my expectation is that if one were to shadow a police officer or detective for a day, the experience would be anticlimactic given how those jobs are portrayed on television. Besides the sheer amount of paperwork that sworn officers are responsible for, the figure I’ve heard is that outside the firing range officers draw their gun on the job once every four years, if even that much. (My offhand suspicion is that most professions look different from the inside than from the outside.)
But the professor who felt belittled by the question of what he taught stands as a sign of something to beware of. Seeking to be understood, trying to have an identity in the modern sense, seem very natural, but we are better to wean ourselves off of them. And that excludes next-level silliness, like deciding which three qualities on a list make up your personal brand. There may in the end be something like personal brand, but it is built on a tacit and internal basis.
Pulling from the Zeitgeist
When I was at Cambridge, I was interested in studying the holy kiss, on which point I was ridiculed even by my advisor for an earlier thesis. I wasn’t the first person to study it; a literature search found prior discussion easily enough, but Cambridge did not take the question seriously, nor did they find any sense in my desire for a doctrinal, as opposed to historical and cultural, study.
But five or ten years later, I was surprised by people coming to me with treatment of the topic. They asked if I knew something not covered in The Eighth Sacrament, which was a homily distilled from mounds of data. But my point, which had been ridiculed earlier, became a standard item of interest in five or ten years, and not so far as I can tell through my advocacy. I also took flak (but that might be expected from critiquing what one editor called a “hornet’s nest”) for, after sone truly nasty experiences with Fr. Seraphim’s crowd, writing The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. My suspicion is that in a few years people will say, “Whoa, something’s not right here,” and that my text may be called helpful, but I will be a bit player in the new consensus. The phenomenon played out in one mailing list and, right or wrong, intelligent design.
In mathematics at least, mathematicians are urged to have a sense of urgency in communicating results. It is a well-known phenomenon historically that a mathematical problem will remain open and unsolved for quite some time, and then simultaneously and independently be discovered by several people. And mathematics may have the least Zeitgeist of any academic discipline. There may be an increasingly tight standard of mathematical rigor, and mathematics may move from specialization to hyper-specialization, but mathematicians do not, like teenagers, say, “The fundamental theorem of calculus is ssoooooo last millennium!” In other disciplines you may (as one Nobel prize laureate said) get to be part of the establishment by blowing up part of the establishment, but with quasi-exceptions like Abel, you do not establish your credentials by dismantling something that was previously proven. And if in mathematics, where I discern no credible causes for a powerful Zeitgeist, the Zeitgeist is powerful enough that a competent mathematician will work to get credit for a solution to an unknown problem quickly, that makes Zeitgeist considerations important, even if some of us regard the Zeitgeist as rather silly, or worse, most of the time.
But it seems to be a profoundly gifted trait to pull things out of the Zeitgeist several years before it goes mainstream. I’m not sure of too many other examples than above, although when I mention Orthodoxy, Contraception, and Spin Doctoring: A Look at an Influentual but Disturbing Article to fellow Orthodox who disbelieve that Orthodoxy allows contraception, the response I’ve gotten is, “I read that some time back and I found it helpful.”
A cue from usability (UX)
Jakob Nielsen is one of the founding lights in usability, and one drum he kept beating was, “You are not a user.” He forcefully makes the point that whether a user interface makes sense to the programmer simply doesn’t matter. Maybe it matters if even the programmer can’t understand it, but knowing that user interface behavior makes sense to its creator gives essentially no useful information about whether the offering is yet fit for public consumption. This attitude is close to “theory of alien minds” proficiency.
In customer service, there is a saying, “The customer is always right,” and in psychology there is a saying, “The rat is always right,” but they mean two separate things. The customer service meaning is that the customer is king and customer service people should bend over backwards to please customers who are being jerks. The meaning in psychology is that no matter how much puzzlement and consternation a lab rat’s behavior may provoke in a researcher, a given lab rat under given experimental conditions always shows the correct behavior for a given lab rat under given experimental conditions, and if your theory can’t cope with that, it’s time to adjust your theory.
I have never heard this in UX literature, but there is good reason to say, “The user is always right.” If a user spends twenty minutes searching and fails to identify a large graphic for a link, the user is right. The basic standard of accountability, another drum Nielsen beats, is frequent discount usability testing.
I’m not aware of an established way to do usability testing, but close attention to social signals comes to mind, and if I had the money to spare, I would invest in some of Paul Eckman’s tools for picking up on hair trigger emotional reaction.
Q: What did the person who had an IQ of 137 say to the person who had an IQ of 189?
A: “I’ll have the burger and fries, please.”
For a rough map of the gifted range, Hollingsworth suggested a range of “socially optimal intelligence,” from which most leaders and successful people come, and it is misunderstanding the point somewhat to point out how rare it is to be above that range. I have seen the bottom of the range estimated at 120 and the top at 145, 150, or 155, and it is essentially a range where you have an advantage, but don’t really have to pay for it.
Above that range people seem to have what might as well be magic powers, but there is a price tag. Children above an IQ of 170 tend to feel that they don’t fit in anywhere; at the top of the gifted range people can develop enough of a theory of alien minds that they in fact do fit in pretty much of anywhere.
When I have taught and failed, it has usually been because I humbly though of others as my intellectual equals, and made demands that were entirely inappropriate. Part of this was asking students to call me by my first when they would have been more comfortable with “Mr. Hayward.” I failed to respect an intellectual and social distance, and shortchanged students in the process.
The gifted range is broader than the normal range, and to be really offensive, the number of points’ difference between the average profoundly gifted and the average gifted is pretty much the number of points’ difference between the average gifted and the average mentally retarded. I say this not to contribute to pride, but to contribute to an understanding of needing to build a bridge that the other party will not build alone.
Being a Renaissance man
I have heard the term “Renaissance man” used, and meant as a compliment, but did not see it as especially strong or specific. I was called a Renaissance man, I thought, because I had some accomplishment in the sciences and some accomplishment in the humanities: I appreciated the compliment but did not take it too seriously.
Then I read the Wikipedia entry; I quote paragraphs following an opening that refers to gifted people with some kind of skill:
“Renaissance man” was first recorded in written English in the early 20th century. It is now used to refer to great thinkers living before, during, or after the Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci has often been described as the archetype of the Renaissance man, a man of “unquenchable curiosity” and “feverishly inventive imagination”.
Many notable polymaths lived during the Renaissance period, a cultural movement that spanned roughly the 14th through to the 17th century and that began in Italy in the late Middle Ages and later spread to the rest of Europe. These polymaths had a rounded approach to education that reflected the ideals of the humanists of the time. A gentleman or courtier of that era was expected to speak several languages, play a musical instrument, write poetry, and so on, thus fulfilling the Renaissance ideal. The idea of a universal education was essential to achieving polymath ability, hence the word university was used to describe a seat of learning. At this time universities did not specialize in specific areas but rather trained students in a broad array of science, philosophy, and theology. This universal education gave them a grounding from which they could continue into apprenticeship toward becoming a Master of a specific field.
- “Speak several languages:” check. This is with varying degrees of proficiency, but I’ve lost count how many. My LinkedIn profile lists a dozen.
- “Play a musical instrument:” years out of practice, but check.
- “Write poetry:” check.
- “And so on:” check. (See the skills list at skills.cjsh.name; besides theology, philosophy, and the sciences, there’s a lot that’s not listed here.)
But my response to seeing that I cover every skill fitting the original definition of “Renaissance man” was not, “Wow, I’m pretty cool;” it was much closer to saying that I stand in the company of heretics. Leonardo da Vinci stands as a man of toxic fascination (I was told in high school that when he was asked why he kept so many young boys as apprentices, he said, “They aren’t very good, but aah, the eyelashes!”; I don’t know if that’s true). What can probably be said is that Leonaro da Vinci does little to edify his admirers, even if the gain skill. A booklet like The Empty Self: Gnostic Foundation of Modern Identity is written by a former head of the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, and while he acknowledges that his messianic fantasy was less serious than those of his more disturbed patients, he was very clear that his admiration of da Vinci was unprofitable. He talked about medieval statues of people who had their chest open and inside their heart was Christ enthroned, and his own vision of sorts where he saw da Vinci’s chest opened and enthroned inside was… Leonardo da Vinci. This is a vision of Hell.
So I do place myself in the company of the original Renaissance men, but from an Orthodox perspective this is like placing myself in the company of Arius, Sabellius, and Nestorius, architects of heresy. I have climbed a ladder that is leaning against the wrong building.
I don’t believe I should turn my back on this; in fact, I believe I am doing the right thing to use my finely tuned language-learning aptitude to yet another language (Russian). But I do believe my position calls for a little bit of humility.
I am intentionally posting this on the Sunday of St. Gregory Palamas, commemorating the controversy in which the Church weighed Renaissance humanism in the balance and found it, in some sense, lacking. Renaissance humanism sought elevation in mastery of many secular skills; the Orthodox Church’s sought a divine humanism in a Christ who is our entire reference for what it means to be God and our entire reference for what it means to be human. In more recent times an Orthodox theologian said that it is a real and true accomplishment that with loads of science, engineering, and an enormous budget, we can send people to the moon. However, it is a greater matter that the Orthodox Church has known for ages how, on a small loaf of bread per week, to lift a person up to God. And really there is something charming about a Renaissance collection of secular skills: but it is nothing next to the true treasures offered by the Church.
A bed of pain
Lastly, or at least in the course of winding down, it may be mentioned that the profoundly gifted experience, at least for a signficant number, is rough. A number I remember reading and tried but failed to trace down for a paper was that profoundly gifted had a 27% psychiatric hospitalization rate, which is higher than practically any meaningful demographic besides “people who have undergone psychiatric hospitalization.” It is higher, for instance, than either unipolar or bipolar depression. A study of Termites identified as profoundly gifted said they found no evidence to support the popular belief that profoundly gifted have a rough life, and also mentioned in passing that one of the twenty-nine subjects committed suicide. But this did not moderate their earlier position (compare 1 in 10,000 general public incidence at the time), when perhaps the small profoundly gifted sample size limits the effectiveness of statistics, the res ipsa loquitur facts should have come across as a “WTF?” in fifteen feet high blinking neon letters.
Complicating the matter is that one’s best chances are to psychotherapy and psychiatrically prescribed medicines, but not only is the field of mental health a minefield, but the field of mental help is a minefield, and rational risk management is impossible. You can ask about the potential consequences and side effects all you want, but you won’t be told of any serious consequences (and an antidepressant or a tranquilizer can have drastically more severe side effects than an antibiotic or pain medicine). Electro-convulsive therapy is described as maybe causing you to forget which drawer you put your socks in, where patients of electro-convulsive therapy have said in some wording I forget that the memory loss is onerous: the treatment is the right treatment for severe depression that nothing else budges, but the memory loss is obnoxious. In dealing with psychiatrists and psychotherapists, remember that a good practitioner will mention a role that involves a heavy dose of narcissism, and for most people you meet you will be the smartest person the person you are dealing with has ever met. With most psychiatrists and therapists, the question is not whether you are more than a sigma above your healthcare provider (as a rule, people work best together when they are within a sigma, give or take). The question is really more whether you and the second-brightest person that provider has ever met are within a sigma of each other. We are genuinely talking about The Wagon, the Blackbird, and the Saab territory in a heavy dose here. And that puts intimidation on steroids.
I would heed warning signs and look elsewhere early on, rather than wait for things to get better, if your provider shows incompetence, including behavior motivated by being (or becoming) threatened by what you represent. Psychotherapy and psychiatry may be close to being the only game in town, or otherwise indispensable for many profoundly gifted, but my own opinion is that the land is a minefield and the first provider you find is probably not part of the minority that will treat you in a competent manner.
The longest journey
My relationship with my ex-fiancée was painful. I’m tempted to write a long list of things she did wrong and expect you to join my pity party, but I will resist that temptation. What I will say is that of my own list of numerous failings, almost everything was related to my trying to reason things out and not engaging things on any level other than the rational. And my contribution to the trouble was worse than the points where I tried to reason something out and was wrong; there is something fundamentally false about being in a romantic relationship and not handling the other with your heart. Some have said, “Handle yourself with your head and other with your heart,” but really we should handle ourselves with our hearts, too.
One priest I know insists, “The longest journey we will take is the journey from our mind to our heart.” Now he has a good deal of knowledge: he became a pain management physician to learn the art and science of relieving pain and suffering, and once practicing he realized he knew how to treat pain (by a prescription for a strong enough pain reliever, perhaps), but he did not consider himself prepared to really address suffering, and that point led him into the priesthood. And if you ever meet him, you will most likely find that he deals with you out of his heart.
Learned man that he may be, his homilies are simple.
Socrates and God the Spiritual Father
One of my works, God the Spiritual Father, is one of the works that I consider the most helpful today, and especially today, as having reference to hard times. It is, incidentally, the one work most pulled together as a collection of quotes (as “plagiarism” is respected and endorsed in many past and present cultures; the intent is not to claim credit for something original, a concept which may not exist among plagiarists, but to honor pat excellence, setting it as a jewel in a bezel). Now I follow Western, if not precisely academic, conventions to mark quotations. and attribute them to the authors and works I lean on, and I don’t expect to be accused of plagiarism, even if some people find the heavy level of quotation unusual. But the spirit is close to ancient plagiarism that sought to include jewels from prior excellence.
The core point I drive, above divine purpose for suffering, is to drop another shoe. Voltaire gives a devastating critique of the popular-before-Lisbonne-earthquake optimism saying that we live in the best of all possible worlds. And we do not; that much is beyond serious dispute unless one delves into the kind of philosophical exploration that can, for instance, doubt that there is an external world. Even Christian Science acknowledges, if not exactly that there is evil in the world, that our perceptions have a problem. But saying that we live in the best of all worlds doesn’t really have a following in the West today.
However, there is another shoe to drop: while we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, we live in a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that makes a world of difference. It’s even better.
Some Orthodox are chary of adopting the non-canonical Anselm of Canterbury’s arguments, of which I will write a deliberate tangent in a minute, but such existed among the Fathers before Anselm. Perhaps Anselm’s best-known argument is that God, if such exits, is greater than anything else than can be thought. Now if we compare a God who is greater than anything else that can exist, for such a God to exist in thought and in reality is greater than for such a God to be greater than anything else that can exist but exists only as a thought in people’s minds. Therefore God must exist in reality; anything less would be a contradiction.
This argument (I’ll omit discussion of Gaunilo’s “In Defense of the Fool” which keeps getting reincarnated by atheists trying to give a fresh, new objection to Anselm, and also Anselm’s response) has been called the most controversial argument in the history of philosophy, and most people on hearing it feel like they’ve been slipped something even if they usually can’t put their finger on why. I would suggest, perhaps in an ersatz repetition of Kant, that two levels are conflated, like the rhetorical practice of writing an ambiguity where people can’t dispute one reading of the ambiguity, but it ends up being taken as support of another ambiguity. I cite Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business in a fallacy I don’t know how to name (documenting at least one such fallacy was my diploma thesis in theology),
A third example of the influence of media on our epistemological can be drawn from the trial of the great Socrates. At the opening of Socrates’s defense, addressing a jury of five hundred, he apologizes for not having a well-prepared speech. He tells his Athenian brothers that he will falter, begs that they not interrupt him on that account, asks that they regard him as they would a stranger from another city, and promises that he will tell them the truth, without adornment or eloquence. Beginning this way was, of course, characteristic of Socrates, but it was not characteristic of the age in which he lived. For, as Socrates knew full well, his Athenian brothers didn’t regard the principles of rhetoric and the expression of truth to be independent of each other. People like ourselves find great appeal in Socrates plea because we are accustomed to thinking of rhetoric as an ornament of speech–most often pretentious, superficial and unnecessary. But to the people who invented it, the Sophistsof fifth-century B.C. Greece and their heirs, rhetoric was not merely an opportunity for dramatic performance but a near indispensable means of organizing evidence and proofs, and therefore of communication truth.
I was not only a key element in the education of Athenians (far more important hand philosophy) but a preeminent art form. To the Greeks, rhetoric was a form of spoken writing. Though it always implied oral performance, its power to reveal the truth resided in the written word’s power to display arguments in orderly progression. Although Plato himself disputed this conception of truth (as we might guess from Socrates’ plea), his contemopraries believed that rhetoric was the proper means through which “right opinion” was to be discovered and articulated. To disdian rhetorical rules, to speak one’s thoughts in a random manner, without proper emphasis or appropriate passion, was considered demeaning to the audience’s intelligence and suggestive of falsehood. Thus, we can assume that many of the 280 jurors who cast a guilty ballot against Socrates did so because his manner was not consistent with truthful matter, as they understood the connection.
Postman’s book was formative to me and I still agree with much, but here he misses the boat. If I wished to reincarnate Postman’s error, I could say that the philosopher was not only found guilty, but on trial in the first place, because Socrates lived, acted, spoke, and taught in a way that caused culture shock and could not but draw negative attribution. The threshold for capital punishment (if it is allowed) varies somewhat between cultures, but usually you don’t end up a defendant on trial for a capital crime in your culture unless you have some enemies. Socrates was a teacher who influenced youth in a presumably distinctive way; if he was on trial for “corrupting the youth,” I regard it as charitable to read the allegation, right or wrong, as entirely sincere. And on those grounds his defense may be seen as a last unwelcome surprise to Athenians. It might perhaps have hurt him (or things may have been beyond that point), but it did not cause Socrates to lose skyhigh approval because he walked in to his trial with little approval in the first place. Postman presents things in such way that it appears that Socrates’s defense was a major contributor to his 280 guilty votes. I’m not so sure about that.
But I would pause to address a question that some might raise. If Socrates had heeded what I imply may be a wiser, or at least a more survivable course, would he have been as interesting or important? Would he really have been Socrates? And I don’t know; I am very wary about saying that Socrates could, with slightly better social skills, made every accomplishment the Socrates of history and philosophy made and not really ruffled Athenian feathers. However, I would recall a linguistics professor’s answer to a question from a missionary-in-training: “Do I have to do all the homework?” The professor restrained her first impulse, thought for a moment, and said, “No, you don’t have to. But be prepared to take the consequences.” And on those grounds, causing things like culture shock are usually a liability. Sometimes they’re necessarily tied to something good. However, I don’t thonk I would enjoy the company of someone profoundly gifted who caused culture shock out of simply never making serious efforts to learn to communicate effectively with others. Choose your battles.
And back to Anselm after a tangent that should perhaps be the conclusion.
We do, in fact, live not in the best of all possible worlds, but a world governed by the best of all possible Gods, and that really does make all the difference.
This piece has rambled; someone very charitable might say it has rambled in a manner worthy of Socrates. However, I wish to end this work the way an academic program is ended: with a ceremony deliberately named, “Commencement.” The choice of term says in essence, “This is not where your endeavor ends. This is where it truly begins.”
This work is a piece of wisdom literature, standing in a tradition of excellent and mediocre works about how to live well. Several books of the Old Testament fall under its rubric, and a great many books like Seven Habits of Highly Effective People also qualify as wisdom literature, and as best I recall the introduction talked about a relatively recent historical shift in wisdom literature from a “character ethic” to a “personality ethic”, the latter of which would presumably include picking three adjectives from a list and deciding they make up your personal brand.
This piece is narrow and specialized in its audience, but the whole stream of wisdom literature is a good place to pan for gold. And wisdom literature that make no effort to focus on giftedness can be richly valuable. The repeated references to How to Win Friends and Influence People above are references to it as wisdom literature.
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So you’ve hired a hacker (revised and expanded)
There is a wonderful variety among humans. Ethnicity and culture provide one of the most important dimensions—but there can be profound differences between two people who look the same. If neither appreciates the differences, and thinks, “He’s just like me—only not doing a very good job of it,” there will be conflicts that can be prevented. If they understand their differences, both can profit. This document is written so that you can understand your hacker and enjoy a more productive working relationship.
Managers and hackers both vary, but there are some things that come up again and again. That’s why this document exists. I am concerned with a particular kind of clash that most hackers have with many managers—a conflict that is more easily resolved if both parties understand each other.
What are some of the common differences between managers and hackers? There are several, but let me list five important ones:
|Tends to be very concerned with morality, and wants to connect with society and contribute. Rises to positions of responsibility, not only in business, but in church and volunteer organizations. Lives by responsibility and duty.||Intent on cultivating knowledge and skill. Rises to tremendous levels of competency with technology and other things. High level of discipline used to continually refine abilities.|
|Thinks concretely. Good at small talk, and at the logistical details needed to run a business.||Thinks abstractly. Good at deep discussions, and thinking about the hard concepts needed to work with technology.|
|Measures own contribution to society by the extent to which he adds to rules and sees that people live by following rules. Tends to equate rules with morality or the good of society.||Far more aware of the limitations of rules. Does not equate rules with morality or the good of society. Very likely to notice rules that are hurting your company—yes, they do exist, and they’re more common than you think.|
|Closely resembles about 40% of the population; most people have dealt with many similar people before, and can easily understand managers.||Thinks in an uncommon way found in perhaps 5% of the population; will encounter many people who have never known well anyone who is similar. Can’t count on other people understanding him.|
|Is such a dominant force in human society that he can easily forget that others might be different. Works well with people because of how much he holds in common with so many others. Needs to work at understanding people like hackers.||May have intense powers of concentration. Prizes an offbeat and clever sense of humor. At times, painfully aware of inconsistencies that are invisible to the people who are acting hypocritically. Marches to the beat of a different drummer, and needs to work at understanding people like managers.|
Questions and Answers:
Section 1: Basic Understanding
- 1.1: Won’t my hacker break into my computer and steal my trade secrets?
- Point of clarification. There are two communities of people that call themselves ‘hackers’.
One of these groups is the one you’ve heard about—those who take pride in breaking into other people’s computers. That is all the media understands ‘hacker’ to mean, but there is another community, an older and much more interesting one, that is insulted by being mistaken for the first community. They are as insulted as an automotive engineer would be if the media said ‘automotive engineer’ when they meant ‘car thief’, and the engineer learned through bitter experience that, whenever he told people he was an automotive engineer, people thought he was only a car thief.
Your hacker is an automotive engineer, not a car thief. He is a hacker because he loves computers, and loves to do impressive things with them. He doesn’t want to steal your trade secrets, and it would be good manners of you not to confuse “automotive engineer” hackers with “car thief” hackers—whom he refers to as ‘crackers’, or the extremely pejorative ‘script kiddies’.
- 1.2: Was it a good idea to hire a hacker?
- It depends on the job. A hacker can be dramatically more effective than a non-hacker at a job, or dramatically less effective. Jobs where hackers are particularly good are:
- Systems administration
- Web-related development
Jobs where hackers are particularly bad are:
- Data entry
- “Computer operator”, where the “computer operator” has to use software (especially Microsoft software) that he can’t improve.
More generally, a job that requires fast and unexpected changes, significant skill, talent, and is not very repetitive will be one a hacker will excel at. Repetitive, simple jobs are a waste of a good hacker, and will make your hacker bored and frustrated. No one works well bored and frustrated.
The good news is, if you get a hacker on something he particularly likes, you will frequently see performance on the order of five to ten times what a “normal” worker would produce. This is not consistent, and you shouldn’t expect to see it all the time, but it will happen. This is most visible on particularly difficult tasks.
- 1.3 Wait, you just said “ten times”, didn’t you? You’re not serious, right?
- Yes, I am serious; a hacker on a roll may be able to produce, in a period of a few months, something that a small development group (say, 7-8 people) would have a hard time getting together over a year. He also may not. Your mileage will vary.
IBM used to report that certain programmers might be as much as 100 times as productive as other workers, or more. This kind of thing happens.
- 1.4 How should I manage my hacker?
- The same way you herd cats. It can be quite confusing; they’re not like most other workers. Don’t worry! Your hacker is likely to be willing to suggest answers to problems, if asked. Hackers are known for coming together and producing impressive software without any business people to tell them what to do. That’s how Perl was produced. And Linux. And quite a few other things, great and small. Most hackers are nearly self-managing.
- 1.5 I don’t understand this at all. This is confusing. Is there a book on this?
- There are several books that explain important pieces of the puzzle, and some of them are listed in a reading list below. If you read from the list and ask your hacker to help you connect the dots, you’ve got a good chance at understanding your hacker much better.
Section 2: Social issues
- 2.1: My hacker doesn’t fit in well with our corporate society. She seems to do her work well, but she’s not really making many friends.
- This is common. Your hacker may not have found any people around who get along with hackers. You may wish to consider offering her a position telecommuting, or flexible hours (read: night shift), which may actually improve her productivity. Or, even better, hire another one.
- 2.2: My hacker seems to dress funny. Is there any way to impress upon him the importance of corporate appearance?
- Well… let’s look at your view of clothing first, so that you’ll have a better chance at understanding how your hacker sees things differently.
You believe in showing respect for the company and those you work with. To you, much of that respect revolves around little details. These details are to you much of the substance of respect—such as that classy suit you wear to the office. So when a hacker wears jeans and a t-shirt to work, he must be showing disrespect, right?
Not really. Those jeans—kneeholes and all—are what he wears to see his best friend, whom he respects deeply. If your hacker happens to be a Christian, he may wear jeans and a T-shirt to church on Easter. I sometimes do, and when I dress up for church, it is more to avoid distracting other churchgoers than any need of fancy clothes in order to worship God. Hackers look past appearances, and it seems strange to them that you think they need uncomfortable clothes to work well: if it’s what’s inside the clothing that matters, why not wear something comfortable and be able to concentrate better?
If your hacker isn’t dressing up, how can he still respect your company? He works hard, solves problems, and probably thinks about ways to help your company be more productive—even when he’s at home. If he wants to wear comfortable clothing at work, it’s not disrespect; he just understands what IBM, Microsoft, and Ford all recognize: employees are most productive when they choose what to wear—not their company. If you ask your hacker respectfully, he’ll probably wear clothing without any holes, and might even dress up for a few special occasions.
Your suit is a professional asset. It helps other people see your professionalism. Your hacker’s t-shirt is also a professional asset. It’s part of a culture that judges a person by what’s inside his clothing, and he works better when comfortable. He doesn’t try to get you to dress like him; why don’t you extend the same courtesy to him?
- 2.3: My hacker won’t call me by my title, and doesn’t seem to respect me at all.
- Your hacker doesn’t respect your title. Hackers don’t believe that management is “above” engineering; they believe that management is doing one job, and engineering is doing another. They may well frequently talk as if management is beneath them, but this is really quite fair; your question implies that you talk as if engineering is beneath you. Treat your hacker as an equal, and she will probably treat you as an equal—quite a compliment!
- 2.4: My hacker constantly insults the work of my other workers.
- Take your hacker aside, and ask for details of what’s wrong with the existing work. It may be that there’s something wrong with it. Don’t let the fact that it runs most of the time fool you; your hacker is probably bothered by the fact that it crashes at all. As your customers will be—consider your hacker to be an early warning system. He may be able to suggest improvements which could dramatically improve performance, reliability, or other features. It’s worth looking into.
You may be able to convince your hacker to be more polite, but if there appear to be major differences, it’s quite possible that one or more of your existing staff are incompetent by his standards. Note that hackers, of course, have different standards of competence than many other people. (Read “different” as “much higher”.) Is this necessarily appropriate? All people have weaknesses. It would perhaps be nicer if hackers were more charitable to people who can’t match their talent, but you’re lucky to have someone on staff who’s competent enough for this to be a problem.
Section 3: Productivity
- 3.1: My hacker plays video games on company time.
- Abraham Lincoln said, “If I had ten hours to chop down an oak tree, I’d spend the first eight sharpening my axe.”
Some jobs are done best by getting your hands dirty immediately: if you hire a kid to rake your leaves, you probably want him to start raking as soon as he arrives. But if you contacted a building contractor to make a new office building in the morning, and he was pouring concrete by the end of the day, you would not be impressed—at least not in a good way. Something is very wrong: there are all sorts of things that need to happen first. If your contractor begins work by pouring concrete, you will end up paying for some very expensive mistakes that could have been completely avoided by simple preparation.
Your hacker is probably honest, too honest to start off by writing poor-quality code “so my manager will think I’m working.” He’d rather be productive and spend two weeks preparing rather than two years fixing needless mistakes.
Perhaps it would be easier if hacker ways of preparation coincided with what you do when working—writing memos or something like that. But there is an elusive productive zone, and your hacker is doing whatever he can to gain that productivity. I often write best after taking meandering walks—and, if you have difficulty believing that walks are a way to produce something good, I’d encourage you to read A Dream of Light—which, walks and all, took me very little time to write. I averaged over ten times the normal speed of a professional writer. Your hacker who plays games on company time is using the same areas of his mind as I did. Your hacker is sharpening his axe, and it’s a good idea for him to do so.
Hackers, writers, and painters all need some amount of time to spend “percolating”—doing something else to let their subconscious work on a problem. Your hacker is probably stuck on something difficult. Don’t worry about it.
- 3.2: But it’s been two weeks since I saw anything!
- Your hacker is working, alone probably, on a big project, and just started, right? She’s probably trying to figure it all out in advance. Ask her how it’s going; if she starts a lot of sentences, but interrupts them all with “no, wait…” or “drat, that won’t work”, it’s going well.
- 3.3: Isn’t this damaging to productivity?
- No. Your hacker needs to recreate and think about things in many ways. He will be more productive with this recreation than without it. Your hacker enjoys working; don’t worry about things getting done reasonably well and quickly.
- 3.4: My hacker is constantly doing things unrelated to her job responsibilities.
- Do they need to be done? Very few hackers can resist solving a problem when they can solve it, and no one else is solving it. For that matter, is your hacker getting her job done? If so, consider these other things a freebie or perk (for you). Although it may not be conventional, it’s probably helping out quite a bit.
- 3.5: My hacker is writing a book, reading USENET news, playing video games, talking with friends on the phone, and building sculptures out of paper clips. On company time!
- He sounds happy. The chances are he’s in one of three states:
- Basic job responsibilities are periodic (phone support, documentation, et al.) and there’s a lull in incoming work. Don’t worry about it!
- Your hacker is stuck on a difficult problem.
- Your hacker is bored silly and is trying to find amusement. Perhaps you should find him more challenging work?
Any of these factors may be involved. All of them may be involved. In general, if the work is challenging, and is getting done, don’t worry too much about the process. You might ask for your corporation to be given credit in the book.
- 3.6: But my other workers are offended by my hacker’s success, and it hurts their productivity.
- Do you really need to have workers around who would rather be the person getting something done, than have it done already? Ego has very little place in the workplace. If they can’t do it well, assign them to something they can do.
Section 4: Stimulus and response
- 4.1: My hacker did something good, and I want to reward him.
- Good! Here are some of the things most hackers would like to receive in exchange for their work:
- Discounts on expensive toys.
The order is approximate, but the most important one is the most difficult. If you can give that to your hacker, in his eyes you will be a cut above most other bosses—and he just might work for you longer.
Try to remember this good thing your hacker just did the next time you discover he just spent a day playing x-trek. Rather than complaining about getting work done, write it off as “a perk” that was granted (informally) as a bonus for a job well done. Don’t worry; hackers get bored quickly when they aren’t doing their work.
- 4.2: My hacker did something bad, and I want to punish him.
- Don’t. 30 years of psychological research has shown that punishment has no desirable long-term effects. Your hacker is not a lab rat. (Even if he were a lab rat, punishment wouldn’t work; at least, not if he were one of the sorts of lab rats the psych research was done on.) If you don’t like something your hacker is doing, express your concerns. Explain what it is that bothers you about the behavior.
Be prepared for an argument; your hacker is a rational entity, and presumably had reasons. Don’t jump on him too quickly; they may turn out to be good reasons.
Don’t be afraid to apologize if you’re wrong. Your hacker will never think less of you if you admit to a mistake. He might be disappointed if you’ve made a mistake and can’t admit it, but he will never look down on you for admitting you were wrong. If your hacker admits to being wrong, don’t demand an additional apology; so far as the hacker is concerned, admitting to being wrong probably is an apology.
- 4.3: I don’t get it. I offered my hacker a significant promotion, and she turned it down and acted offended.
- A promotion frequently involves spending more time listening to people describing what they’re doing, and less time playing with computers. Your hacker is enjoying her work; if you want to offer a reward, consider an improvement in title, a possible raise, and some compliments. Make sure your hacker knows you are pleased with her accomplishments—that’s what she’s there for.
- 4.4: My company policy won’t let me give my hacker any more raises until he’s in management.
- In the Bible, Paul describes roles in the Christian church, and then compares these community members to parts of the human body (I Corinthians 12:14-26, NIV):
Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.
The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.
This is a deep insight into human community. It’s not just about religion. Executives, managers, programmers, salespeople, secretaries, and other employees all contribute something fundamental to a company. Janitors? Those people are important? Well, if janitors aren’t important, firethem, and streamline your business. The halls may be a bit stinky with all that rotting trash, and two of the secretaries may sneeze every time someone walks by and kicks up dust. Your insurance covers emergency treatment and rabies shots when a rat creeps out of a mound of garbage and bites you, right? Your star saleswoman couldn’t close a key sale because she was in the hospital with food poisoning after… wait a minute. Maybe those janitors we all look down on deserve a second look. Maybe they contribute more to the physical well-being of other employees than almost anyone else you have on staff. Maybe they’re important after all.
Eye, hand, stomach, and sturdy back muscles all contribute something. Sometimes the observation—”My group adds something unique and vital, something that no other department gives.”—to a conclusion that is not justified: “My group’s contribution to the company is better and more important than anyone else.”
This conclusion also affects how companies allocate money: the people who set salaries believe they’re the most important employees. Because it’s management who sets the salaries, the belief:
A manager is a more important employee than a non-manager
creates a policy like
Every manager must be paid more than any non-manager
No matter how much an employee does for the company, there’s an artificial limit on how much you can reward him unless he gives up his work, which he is good at, and becomes a manager instead.
If that’s what you believe—a prejudice that would shock any true leader—then I don’t think I can help you much. I would simply encourage you to finish the job. Send a memo out to all employees saying:
We believe that every manager makes a more important contribution to this company than any non-manager. If you’re not a manager, you’re only a second-class citizen with our company. If you don’t like this, you can leave.
And be ready for an exodus. Your hackers won’t be the only ones to decide you’re too stupid to work with. They’ll just be the first.
Does that sound unattractive? You do have a better alternative. Your hacker can quite possibly earn $200/hour or more, if he wants—his talents are worth it. If your company policy imposes a salary ceiling on non-managers, your company policy is broken. Fix your company policy, find a loophole (say, a consultant given a contracted permament consulting position with benefits), or else get ready to have one of your most productive employees leave because your company policy is broken and you couldn’t work around it.
- I can’t believe the hacker on my staff is worth as much as we’re paying.
- Ask the other in the staff what the hacker does, and what they think of it. The chances are that your hacker is spending a few hours a week answering arcane questions that would otherwise require an expensive external consultant. Your hacker may be fulfilling another job’s worth of responsibilities in his spare time around the office. Very few hackers aren’t worth what they’re getting paid; they enjoy accomplishing difficult tasks, and improving worker efficiency.
Section 5: What does that mean?
- 5.1: My hacker doesn’t speak English. At least, I don’t think so.
- Your hacker is a techie, and knows a number of powerful concepts that most English-speakers don’t know. He also knows words for those concepts. Guess what? The concepts are unusual concepts, and the words are unusual words. He doesn’t use standard words for many things because there aren’t any standard words to explain the cool things he does.
Your best bet is to pick up a copy of TNHD (The New Hacker’s Dictionary). It can be found at http://catb.org/jargon or from a good bookstore. If you have trouble understanding that reference, ask your hacker if she has a copy, or would be willing to explain her terms. Most hackers are willing to explain terms. Be ready for condescension; it’s not intended as an insult, but if you don’t know the words, she probably has to talk down to you at first to explain them. If you’re bothered by this, think about explaining to a non-professional how to keep a project on task—if you can’t use any words longer than five letters. That’s what your hacker is doing when she tries to explain technical concepts in non-technical words. Please understand if she sounds a little condescending.
It’s a reasonably difficult set of words; there are a lot of them, and their usage is much more precise than it sounds. Hackers love word games.
It is also possible that English is not your hacker’s native language, and that it’s not yours either. Feel free to substitute a more appropriate language.
- 5.2: I can’t get an estimate out of my hacker.
- This is easier to understand with an analogy. Imagine two situations:
In the first situation, you drive for work on the same roads, at the same time, as you have for the past five years, and listened to the traffic report in the shower.
In the second situation, you are out in the middle of nowhere, travelling to see a distant relative, and you realize that you’ve forgotten to buy a hostess gift for the people you’re driving to visit. You stop by a gas station to ask where you can find a gift shop which would sell a dolphin statuette. The attendant says, “Take the road you’re on, and turn off onto the second side street you see. Keep on going until you hit the second stop sign after John’s general store. It’s in the third town you’ll see.”
Now, in both cases, think about answering the question, “How long will it take?”
In the first case, you probably know the answer: “Twenty-six minutes, twenty-two if I hit the lights right.” In the second case—well, given that you don’t know how long the route is, what the speed limits are, or how you will find the sign once you reach the right town, the best answer is, “I don’t know.”
When you ask a hacker how long a task will take and he says, “I don’t know,” he isn’t being difficult. Fixing a broken network, when you don’t know why it’s down, is much more like the second situation than the first. You don’t need to throw a pity party for your hacker because he has to work in unfamiliar territory and doesn’t even know how long a task will take. He doesn’t look at it that way; he likes the challenge. But it does mean that he accepts tasks before he knows exactly how he’ll do them, and he is responsible enough to say “I don’t know,” and not tell you something he’s simply made up. Your hacker is a driver who thrives on finding his way in unfamiliar territory, with washed-out bridges and incomplete directions among the surprises. You might be glad you have someone who likes that kind of assignment.
Your hacker hasn’t figured out how hard the problem is yet. Unlike most workers, hackers will try very hard to refuse to give an estimate until they know for sure that they understand the problem. This may include solving it.
No good engineer goes beyond 95% certainty. Most hackers are good engineers. If you say that you will not try to hold him to the estimate (and mean it!) you are much more likely to get an approximate estimate. The estimate may sound very high or very low; it may be very high or very low. Still, it’s an estimate, and you get what you ask for.
- 5.3: My hacker makes obscure, meaningless jokes.
- Another one that’s a little hard to explain.
Imagine that you are visited by a brilliant wayfarer. He strives to understand those around, silently tolerates a great many things that seem strange to him, and brings with him cultural treasures unlike anything your culture has to offer. One day, he tries to share some of them with you. Should you be bothered?
That’s what’s happening when your hacker tells you obscure technical jokes. He could be trying to make you feel stupid, but let’s be charitable. Your hacker is uncommonly intelligent—he might be a member of Mensa. Intelligent people think a little bit differently, and a genius may seem like someone from another world. Your hacker probably understands you better than you understand him—and when he shares jokes with you, he’s giving you a chance to see something special. If you feel brave, you might even ask him to explain some of them.
But don’t be bothered when he tells you jokes that take a while to explain. Some of them are quite interesting.
- 5.4: My hacker counts from zero.
- So does the computer. You can hide it, but computers count from zero. Most hackers do by habit, also.
Section 6: Is there anything else I should know?
- 6.1: I’ve found this document to be tremendously helpful. Is there anything I can do to say thank-you?
- Wonderful of you to ask, and you certainly can. There are two authors who’ve contributed to this document, an original and a revision author. Both would appreciate cash donations (e-mail the original/revision authors for details). The revision author would be very happy to receive a link to his home page: C.J.S. Hayward (Browse around and see what he has to offer!)
You might also consider buying a couple of books through the links on these pages; you get cool books, and the authors get pocket change. 🙂 The books listed in the original version will give money to the original author, while the books added in the revision will give money to the revision author.
If you’d like to give something to one of the authors, but don’t know which, why not flip a coin?
- 6.2: Are there any books that will help me understand my hacker?
- Excellent question. Yes, there are. The following list is suggested:
- Please Understand Me or Please Understand Me II
What I said above about common manager/hacker differences was drawn from Please Understand Me as well as experience. Most hackers are intuitive thinking types, while managers who are confused by hackers tend to be sensate judging types. If you’re in a hurry, buy Please Understand Me and read the descriptions for sensate judging and intuitive thinking types. You may find them tremendously helpful in understanding hackers. I’ve found them tremendously helpful in understanding managers.
Please Understand Me came out in the 1970s and describes what people are like. Please Understand Me II came out in the 1990s and describes both what people are like and what they can do. (It’s about twice as long.) I prefer Please Understand Me.
- The New Hacker’s Dictionary
Read the introduction and appendices; they’re worth their weight in gold. Then read a definition a day—you’ll learn a lot. This book is probably the #1 hacker classic, and provides an invaluable asset into understanding hacker thought. Don’t worry if parts of it are hard to understand—you’ll still learn something, and your hacker can probably explain the harder parts.
- Stranger in a Strange Land or Firestorm 2034
Stranger in a Strange Land is a classic novel about a person who is raised by Martians and is brought to earth, a Martian mind in the body of a young man. There are not any hackers in this story, but if you can understand the protagonist in this story, you may find it much easier to understand and appreciate your hacker. Think of it as driving an automatic after you’ve learned to drive a stick.
Firestorm 2034 is a story about a medieval genius brought to the 21st century. He is traumatized by his first contacts with computers, but grows to be fascinated, and learns to program. The reader is with him as he understands technology and makes a discovery in artificial intelligence. This book was written to convey insight into certain kinds of people. If you read it, you should find it easier to understand your hacker—and perhaps grasp technology a little better, to boot! It is my second novel.
Ok, why is an unknown author putting his book next to a Heinlein classic? A few reasons:
- It draws heavily on Heinlein’s work.
- It’s less than a third as long as Stranger. To a busy leader, that counts for a lot.
- It’s written by someone who understands technology, and who weaves technology deeply into the story.
- Readers like it. One actually said he liked it better than Stranger.
- There’s less stuff that’s likely to offend you.
- I have been published in more than one respected journal. The editor of the high-IQ journal Ubiquity saw my work, and asked to feature me in their fall/winter 2001 issue—with a biography, a few writings, a painting, and a four dimensional maze. I’m not completely unknown as an author.
But it’s your call which novel to read—and I won’t question your judgment if you choose Stranger.
- Guiding the Gifted Child
This award-winning title is a very practical book because it conveys understanding. It does a good enough job of it to be useful to several different kinds of people. It will help you understand the sort of people who become hackers.
This also is the only book on this list specifically intended to help people guide hacker-like people.
- The Cathedral and the Bazaar
Perhaps this has happened already. Or perhaps it will happen any day.
You try to reason with your hacker, and say, “Windows was made by the heavily funded efforts of a major corporation. Linux was made by some programmers on their spare time, and you can get it for free. Is Linux really as good as Windows?”
Your hacker rolls his eyes, appears to be counting to ten, gives you a very dirty look, and slowly says, “Is the upcoming band performance next door—live, in concert—really as good as this scratched-up CD?”
Your hacker believes that open source software is normally better than Microsoft, and has very good reason to do so. This book explains why—and it may help you to get better software for less money, and put your business in a more competitive position. As far as hacker culture goes, it only illuminates a small part, but it does so very well.
Unfortunately, none of these books was specifically written to explain hacker culture to non-hackers. Fortunately, your hacker can help you connect the dots and put things together. Just ask him!
- Please Understand Me or Please Understand Me II
- 6.3: Has this FAQ been published?
- The original version, in some form, has been bought by IBM DeveloperWorks, which funded part of the work. You could read their version (nicely edited) by following this link (non-functional as of 12/31/01; I’ve contacted IBM requesting a current URL and am waiting to hear back). IBM has also bought another article, the Manager FAQ, a guide to managers for hackers who are frustrated and confused by corporate life. The original author is justifiably happy with his work.
I am working towards publishing the revised and expanded version.
- What’s the copyright status on this? Can I make copies and share it with a friend who’s confused by his hacker?
- You may distribute as many copies of this document as you want. The original FAQ has the following notice:
This document is copyright 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999 Peter Seebach. Unaltered distribution is permitted.
When I let the original author know I was interested in a revision, and asked what the copyright status was, he said it was covered by the Artistic License. All changes in this revision are also covered by the Artistic License, all added material copyright 2001 by C.J.S. Hayward. Distribute freely.
- What’s the author’s e-mail, and what’s the official distribution site?
- The original is officially distributed at http://www.plethora.net/~seebs/faqs/hacker.html by firstname.lastname@example.org, and the revision is at CJSHayward.com/hacker/ by email@example.com.
- Are there any people the revision author would like to thank?
- Yes. C.J.S. Hayward would very much like to thank the original author, Peter Seebach, for writing an excellent FAQ and for giving him permission to modify it.
- Any disclaimers?
- DISCLAIMER: Both authors are hackers. Bias is inevitable.
Revision 1.0—Last modified June 9, 2001