Wednesday, March 11. 2009
Steven Pinker is an atheist; in How the Mind Works he is not shy about stating, without fanfare or argument, that the explanations of religion are "palpably not true." Why, then would this book be high on my list of recommended reading for the spiritual seeker? Am I trying to argue people out of their faith, with Pinker as my secret weapon?
Steven Pinker demonstrates the best attitude towards finding the truth. He's not afraid to ask the hard questions, and not afraid to accept the hard answers, and (most astounding of all) not afraid to admit what he doesn't know. He's not afraid of giving opposing views a hearing, nor is he afraid to ruthlessly critiquing them, while still avoiding being outright snarky. He is, simply, not afraid. He has a marvelous equipoise that makes you remember that science is a noble manifestation of Reason, with a capital R, and not just an excuse for the geek-and-wonk crowd to bully you with their assertions. And his inquiries have gotten him in trouble -- in fact he wrote an entire book, The Blank Slate, to explain why so many people -- both the religious conservatives and the liberal intelligentsia -- will fight tooth and nail against the notion of human nature.
Maybe it's just a result of his extremely clear, friendly, and witty style, that he seems so fearless. But frankly, I could have used a little more of that in youth. In my teens, everyone who talked about spirituality used the language of fear. Back then it seemed my only possible choice was to exchange the fear of eternal damnation (courtesy of traditional Christianity) for the fear of existential nothingness (thanks a lot, rational intellect). I latched onto mysticism because it seemed like the only way out of perpetual anxiety. Why guess, when you could know? Sometimes I think my philosophy might have gone down a different path, had I just known a few more people who had the guts to face the Unknown without ducking for cover or shitting their pants. Rather than working out my salvation with fear and trembling, I might have spent a lot more time just really paying attention.
That fearlessness only counts, though, if someone is fearlessly asking the right questions. I don't have much use for people who are fearless because they don't have a thought in their head, or who choose to stay in their philosophic bunkers and not go outside into the Doubt. And that's the biggest reason Pinker should appeal to spiritual seekers -- he doesn't shy away from the question of Consciousness. Most other cognitive scientists, after happily explaining why you're just one big ball of algorithms, will just wave their hands indignantly at consciousness. They pretend it doesn't exist, that it's an illusion, or that it doesn't matter, or that it's a question to ask another day, maybe in another hundred years or so. But Pinker, bless him, recognizes that consciousness is THE question, the one we most care about. If there is one thing we know with more certainty than anything else, it's that we are Aware . . . and what the hell is that about?
And, even more interestingly, Pinker is willing for now to let consciousness defy the computational theory of mind. No algorithm or neural network can satisfactorily explain how you come to have the experience of red, with all its redness. Pinker even suggests that it might be truly unfathomable for the human mind, because the human mind never needed to evolve the capacity to understand such things. Our ability to solve problems and predict the future was mighty handy for our ancestors on the African savannah -- but the nature of consciousness might be outside of our ability to comprehend it, because our ancestors never needed to in order to survive. This also feels intuitively true -- if there is any possible way to understand consciousness, it's going to be an entirely different sort of understanding than we're used to.
Pinker has lots of useful insights to share about every other kind of thought and feeling that occupies your philosophic contemplation. But the biggie, the best, the pearl of great price, is this: keep your eye on consciousness, because THAT'S what science can't touch, and that's where all the action is. If God is ever to be found to be "palpably" real, it's going to be there.
Monday, January 19. 2009
I bought the collection of posthumously published Kurt Vonnegut stories, Armageddon in Retrospect, with low expectations. Unpublished stories are often unpublished for a reason – their creator didn't feel them worthy of seeing the light of day. No editor would ever turn down anything from Kurt Vonnegut – the New Yorker would happily print his grocery list, had he asked -- so I must assume it was Vonnegut himself who put these stories in the bottom drawer and forgot about them.
As I mentioned a couple days ago, the secret to pleasant surprises is setting the bar low. As his son Mark says in the introduction, the stories hold up well by themselves, with no more need of commentary. I enjoyed Mark's introduction – he clearly studied his father's style carefully, and attempted with sincere admiration to emulate both his caustic humor and his tender compassion for human suffering.
He said a few things that caught my attention:
The most radical, audacious thing to think is that there might be some point to working hard and thinking hard and reading hard and writing hard and trying to be of service.
The book opens with a photographed copy of a typewritten letter Vonnegut sent his family from Europe, telling them of his ordeals as POW in Germany. It's as beautiful and shocking and real as anything else he's ever written, and all the more telling because it's his life.
Most people will buy it for his last public address, the very last thing he ever wrote, which was actually delivered by his son Mark in his stead. It's . . . ok. I share Mark's estimation of it – sometimes you're asking, "How does he get away with this crap?" But it's very Vonnegut, and any of his fans will feel fondness for his ability to say plain truths simply with just enough twist to make them profound.
All of the stories have war as their theme. Nearly all are about hapless soldiers or other wise and miserable bystanders of destruction. One character, a Saxon peasant oppressed by Norman conquerors, sums up all their themes: "The wreckers against the builders! There's the whole story of life!" I thought that was a pretty workable, functional definition of Good versus Evil. I also was somewhat struck that almost exactly the same formulation comes from Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged, who is about as different from Vonnegut in style and attitude as you could possibly imagine. Both loved the builders, and had absolute, utter contempt for the wreckers. Hmmmm.
Tuesday, January 13. 2009
Before anyone accuses me of being an Objectivist, I guess I better make some quick, pointed critiques of Rand's philosophy. Nothing is quite so off-putting as someone who is too enthusiastic about a new philosophy. Every philosophy has its problematic parts; even Jesus got some 'splainin' to do. Anytime someone preaches a gospel that doesn't seem to have a downside, the audience suspects they have not lived with it long enough to hit the catch. As C.S. Lewis wrote in A Grief Observed: "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I will listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand."
Part of the appeal of Atlas Shrugged is how clear it makes everything. One senses that with the light of reason, you could plot a clear and unambiguous course through life, freed from messy emotions and bothersome moral imperatives and liberated to pursue one's "happiness as the moral purpose of one's life." Of course, the reason it all seems so clear in the book is because (duh) it's a story. Rand's characters are black-or-white cut-outs, unambiguous manifestations of good or evil. In Rand's imagination, every self-interested industrialist is a paragon of action and intention who just loves to create; meanwhile, every altruist is a worthless, sponging bastard who uses political intrigue to steal what they want. Nobody is quite so simple as that; if they were, we wouldn't need moral philosophies at all. I understand that Atlas Shrugged was deliberately written to be overstated and unambiguous; however, the real test of a philosophy is how well it holds up in the face of ambiguity.
The biggest problem I have with Rand's "virtue of selfishness" is that it does not completely "save the appearances," as they say in philosophy: it doesn't fully explain things that we can plainly see in the everyday world. Sure, some calls for altruism are just smarmy ploys to win mercy for oneself and excuse weakness . . . but it I have also seen 100% bona fide altruism, where strong and capable people help others, just because they can and should. Nor does rational self-interest inevitably lead to moral perfection – Rand doesn't even begin to contemplate the possibility of repressive economic regimes, true robber-barons and such. I agree with her that talk of "selflessness" inevitably runs afoul of some "performative contradictions," as Ken Wilber would say; you can't negate the self without negating life. But glorifying the self just makes the opposite mistake. Something fishy is going on . . . and I think it all hinges on how we define the self.
Monday, January 12. 2009
Ok, let me take another stab at the take-home Objectivist message from Atlas Shrugged. The other day I showed how Augie uses objective fact to drive spiritual progress, but I didn't really tie back to Rand's book.
Atlas Shrugged has two (and only two) kinds of characters – the Good kind we are supposed to admire and identify with (Dagny Taggart, Hank Reardon, Ellis Wyatt, etc.), and the Bad kind by whom we are supposed to be repulsed and exasperated (Jim Taggart, Mrs. Reardon, and a long line of looter businessmen, politicians, and journalists). Everyone is black-or-white. Ordinary man-on-the-street types are just muted versions of the same two colors: men and women silently longing for real virtue, or quietly wallowing in self-pity.
The Good characters are constantly paying attention to objective measures – "Can I get the railroad built?" or "Will the bridge hold up?" – and ignoring all the subjective factors – "Do people like me?" or "Am I having any fun?" Meanwhile, all the Bad characters are doing just the opposite, making excuses about their objective failures – "It's not my fault the factory went under" – and justifying themselves with their lofty intentions – "I think we should care about the common man" or "Let's consider the social obligations."
Rand repeats this formula again and again and again, for hundreds of pages, until her philosophic attitude becomes embedded in our consciousness. Repetition of examples is a powerful teaching tool – generally, human beings learn faster from a bunch of examples than from abstract descriptions of ideals. Some of the more influential pop moral teachers, like "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger, hash countless case studies until their audience gets an instinctive feel for their philosophic principles. They might not be able to answer, "What are Dr. Laura's five basic principles?" but they will be able to look at any situation and know, "What would Dr. Laura say about this?" Augie Turak does the same thing, mostly through story-telling. He does articulate the abstract principles, but the reason people understand him is because he illustrates with countless examples and analogies.
After a few hundred repetitions of the same sort of dialog, the reader starts to recognize the patterns of the Good and the Bad characters. The Good ones are supposedly coldly rational and have no interest in other people – and yet they are the ones who really care about things that really matter. Dagny is more concerned about the state of the country more than anyone else around her, because she sees the economic collapse that awaits them if she doesn't build her line. Dagny and Reardon claim to be utterly selfish, but in the end they provide other people the things they need most: confidence in their commitments. They speak the truth, and they do what they say they are going to do. Because they are supremely rational, they value what is obviously good and effective and shun whatever isn't. Their attention is fixed on material achievement, but they ultimately see the material realm as the matrix within which the spirit operates: a railroad might be solid steel, but it's really the manifestation of the engineer's thought and intent. The key point is: their virtue derives from paying attention to the objective.
The Bad ones, however, are doing just the opposite. They claim to be full of selfless values and concern for their fellow human beings, but actually they are completely self-absorbed. The worry constantly about who will blame them for their failures, who will like them for their flattery; meanwhile, they neglect to actually get anything done. They talk endlessly about their good intentions, and never stop to evaluate the actual objective effects of their action or inaction. Because everything they care about – praise, blame, intention, whim – is in their own heads and disconnected from objective reality, their philosophies (if they have any at all) are shot through with contradictions and irrationality. All values get turned on their heads: virtue must apologize for itself, greatness must be humbled, weakness is to be praised and served in the name of "fairness", profit is bad and failure is good. They claim to be unconcerned with brute physical existence and committed to "higher" things, and yet when they look at a factory or a railroad all they can see is physical labor and substance, and have no understanding whatsoever for the mental and spiritual virtues that made it possible. They are selfish and stupid and irrational, because they are disconnected from the objective.
I guess I should also point out that Augie is not an Objectivist. For all I know, he never read Ayn Rand at all. But I feel the same spirit moving in both their philosophies – they love the Truth, and want people to live according to the Truth, and they have utter contempt for delusion and self-deception.
Saturday, January 10. 2009
I've been continuing to listen to Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged during my morning workouts. I figure that if you're going to listen to philosophy while you're working out, it might as well be a muscular, individual-empowering, can-do philosophy. It seems to fit the activity better than The Purpose-Driven Life or The Marriage of Sense and Soul ever did.
Rand's philosophy, Objectivism, draws its name from one of its central tenants: that valid concepts and values are "determined by the nature of reality, but to be discovered by man's mind." Facts are facts, and the only valid way to live is to live in accord with the objective reality of things.
On first blush, that sounds pretty simple and uninspiring. What's the big deal about objective reality? Until I started reading Atlas Shrugged, I didn't get it. Now I do . . . but only because I worked for Augie Turak for six years.
Augie is first and foremost a spiritual teacher. But in his previous professional life, Augie was a salesman, the best I've ever personally known. All salesmen live and die according to one – and only one – thing: their sales numbers. How much did they sell? Nothing else matters. Companies don't care about sales reps' attitude, their intentions, their values, their ideas – just their numbers. If the numbers are good, the salesman makes a ton of money. If the numbers are bad, they lose their jobs. Like many sales managers, Augie put a big white board up in the middle of his company, where all salesmen updated their sales numbers day by day and moment by moment. As Augie put it: "The board doesn't lie." Sales numbers were inescapable objective facts. The board showed, with bright clarity, exactly how well everyone in the company was doing. (Augie didn't limit the board to just sales, either – every other quantifiable aspect of the company, like its account receivable and total cash in the bank, were also updated daily and visible on the board.)
People who have never worked in sales usually look upon this numbers-only approach to life with a shudder of dread and revulsion. "Oh, ugh, there's more to life than just numbers." But those who do work in sales know that the numbers are extremely inspiring. When the numbers are down, the salesman goes through deep soul-searching: "Is it me? What am I doing wrong?" When the numbers are high, the salesman basks in an unparalleled euphoria: "I DID IT!" The satisfaction is magnified ten-fold by the fact that it was objective -- undeniable, unchallengable, real.
Augie loves the numbers, not because he wants to make money (which he usually did) but because he loves the Truth. He wants to know what's real. And often, the best way to understand the contents of our souls is to look at how it is reflected in the objective reality around us. Of course, Augie will constantly talk about attitudes, values, morals, processes, and a million other invisible factors in life – but he also knows that all those things ultimately manifest themselves in the world around us. What makes Augie such an effective spiritual teacher – and so unlike most teachers, these days – is his unflinching ability to face objective reality, and his ability to help others do the same.
Friday, January 2. 2009
I guess I must give up my true Harry Potter fan credentials, because nearly a month had passed before I became aware that J.K. Rowling had put out The Tales of Beedle the Bard. For those unacquainted with Harry Potter (both of you), The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a little bit of back-story mentioned in the final installment, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Beedle is the author of some ancient fairy tales, the Brothers Grimm of the wizarding world, and Harry learns that some magic artifacts described in one of his stories are actually real. Now Rowling has published the actual stories of Beedle the Bard, a collection of five fairy tales.
Clocking in at 100 pages of large type, I expected this book to be just a whimsical encore, a little pro bono project to support Rowling's charity, the Children's High Level Group. I got it for Janet for Christmas – it's a good size for a stocking-stuffer. But, as usual, Rowling delivers more than you'd expect – you think you're buying a mass-market kid's book, and suddenly you discover you have bona fide literature in your hands. Not only do her fairy tales feel genuine, filled with archetypal images and themes to rival the Grimms, but she also includes commentary from Albus Dumbledore, through whom she channels some insightful reflections on the nature of fairy tales in general.
Rowling recognizes that fairy tales have an intrinsic darkness in their character. Concerned parents might wring their hands over "their unhealthy preoccupation with the most horrid subjects, such as death, disease, bloodshed, wicked magic, unwholesome characters, and bodily effusions and eruptions of the most disgusting kind," but that is what makes them compelling stories, even for kids. Rowling skewers attempts to "clean up" such stories or replace them with saccharine pap.
I'm mostly in Rowling's camp on this one. I believe that children are confronted with existential anxiety, just as much as adults, and perhaps even more because they have yet to gain real control over their world to buffer them from terrors of a universe that threatens them. Children need stories such as these, to give them some way to handle on big questions of death, suffering, power and powerlessness.
On the other hand, I have also recently been reading some of the sanitized pap that Rowling so despises. My kids are currently reading Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, a chapter book from the 1950s that Janet read growing up and which now graces our household as well. It is so sickly-sweet that it boggles the mind. It's a chronicle of the daily travails of an extremely poor turn-of-the-century family, who nonetheless have the souls of Pollyanna. Characters actually say things like, "Oh, Mamsie, isn't it grand?" with a level of earnestness unthinkable in our own irony-drenched era. Their struggles with poverty and disease cast only the faintest shadow of darkness in their lives; had I not read Angela's Ashes I might come away thinking poverty was just grand, isn't it, Mamsie? Their unassailable good cheer and wholesomeness is only outdone by the original Ragged Ann and Andy books (another bit of legacy literature in our house), in which the iconic rag-dolls love everyone, and everyone loves them, and all problems are instantly resolved with magic, and everyone gets lollypops and ice cream sodas. I am not making this up.
My kids love these books. "Peppers!" they cheer at reading time. I might silently roll my eyes at the constant love-fest unfolding in the pages, but the boys are entranced, oblivious. I generally assumed that good stories appeal to everyone, regardless of age – which is why J.K. Rowling can publish stories ostensibly for children and teenagers and yet have a fanatical following of adults. But the Five Peppers are a koan, a reminder that perhaps I too have been overly touched by the cynicism of our time. Maybe some stories are just for kids, who are happy to dwell a little longer in a world still wholly virtuous and intact.
Friday, December 26. 2008
One item in my stocking this year was Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Famous and Obscure Writers. Literary myth holds that Ernest Hemingway – often acknowledged as the king of minimalist style – was challenged to write a six-word story, and he produced: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Six-word stories are a now a haiku's haiku, an exercise in conciseness so easy and yet so challenging that it has drawn attention from accomplished writers and neophytes alike. I've known about the form for a while. A couple years ago Wired Magazine ran a fun six-word story collection with a star-studded list of contributors, especially sci-fi greats like David Brin ("Metrosexuals notwithstanding, quiche still lacks something."), Orson Scot Card ("The baby's blood type? Human, mostly."), Joss Whedon ("Gown removed carelessly. Head, less so.") and Steve Meretsky ("He read his obituary with confusion.")
This book of memoirs also had a number of recognizable names in it, though most would only be known to a fraction of the readers. I'm glad the editors decided not to annotate any of the contributions, and let readers discover for themselves the connections between the memoirs and their subjects. I was surprised and gratified to notice Steven Pinker, a psycholinguist of whom I'm a fan. His entry was simple and descriptive: "Struggled with how the mind works." After reading the entire book, I thought it was a credit to his life and his writing that he could sum up his work so well. You have to have a singular purpose, or at least a singular direction or style, for six words to be sufficient.
The best contributions (IMHO) were from the top-drawer professional wordsmiths. Stephen Colbert, political satirist, nailed both his content and his style: "Well, I thought it was funny." So did Roy Blount, Jr., a Southern story-teller and humorist: "Maybe you had to be there." Honorable mention for cleverness goes to Jimmy Wales, creator of the Wikipedia: "Yes, you can edit this biography."
The rest of the entries were interesting, but usually not for their individual merit. I was curious about the patterns I saw; there are only so many approaches one can take to the task, and I was intrigued by the repetition of certain themes. Probably the most common theme was regret, with lots of contributions chronicling the dark side of life:
"Fell in love. Married. Divorced. Repeat."
"Crappy parents killed my self-esteem."
"Thought I would have more impact."
The complaints and regrets were only slightly outnumbered by pithy, shallow expressions of joy. For instance, from the king of pithy and shallow, Deepak Chopra: "Danced in fields of infinite possibility." Or this: "Wandering imagination opens doors to paradise." You get the idea. After reading four or five of them, with no detail to sustain them, and no truth to back them up, they all run together in a boring blur.
Slightly more interesting were the contributions that zoomed in on life-changing events. For instance:
"After eighteen years, sold my book."
"Running away: best decision I made."
"I auditioned. I got the part."
I think I liked those the best. They were distinctive and personal and spoke to what mattered most for these people. I occasionally qvelled at simple, honest, unpretentious summations of family happiness. For instance: "Found true love after nine months." There were a lot of those, too, but their honesty made up for their repetition.
Of course, you can't read such things without trying to compose your own. It would be a great exercise for a Self Knowledge Symposium meeting. I jokingly proposed one for my wife, who is pregnant with our third child, and anxious about it: "Three may have been too many." For myself . . . I haven't come up with anything I'm happy with. The simplest might be, "Sought enlightenment. Made software. Now writing." That doesn't have much punch, which doesn't bode well for me.
Tuesday, December 16. 2008
I just read Clyde Edgerton's latest novel, The Bible Salesman. Clyde is one of Chapel Hill's local institutions. His novels are, in my humble opinion, the epitome of Southern literature – they have the voice and humor of Mark Twain, the philosophic edge of Flannery O'Conner, and a gentleness that transcends both. Less wordy than Reynolds Price, more intelligible than William Faulkner, Edgerton has a style-less style that gets all its power from its simplicity. If Leo Tolstoy grew up in the American South, he would have written like Edgerton.
The Bible Salesmen tells of the misadventures of a young man who set out to sell Bibles on the road, but winds up being conned into assisting an organized crime ring steal cars and crack safes. The combination of the picturesque and the absurd in a crime story makes me almost certain the Cohen Brothers will want to make a movie out of The Bible Salesman. The book is so side-splittingly funny at times that David Sedaris called it a "great comic novel" in a dust-jacket blurb, but that's like calling Kurt Vonnegut a "comic" writer. It doesn't do him justice.
What I like most of all about The Bible Salesman is the tone it manages to take with religion. Henry Dampier, the Bible salesman of the title, is clearly wrestling with his faith, struggling to make sense of the contradictions he finds in scripture. If sex outside of wedlock is forbidden, how can Abraham be justified in fathering a child by Hagar? Why are there two separate and contradictory stories of creation in the Book of Genesis? Most people who highlight such contradictions are bitter or cynical about religion -- but Henry manages to be merely earnest, and honest, and reflective. He acknowledges the contradictions but doesn't forsake his sense of wonder, or reverence, or moral seriousness:
Henry saw that "go in unto" meant go to bed with her and have a sex relation. It was as plain as day. He kept reading. Abraham did it. God wrote it and didn't worry a whiff about it, not a whiff. Nobody was bothered by it.
Something was wrong. The God that wrote this was not the God he'd been taught to pray to.
Why should he not have a sex relation or two before he was married? Outside of marriage, like Abraham.
He kept reading, skipping around, past Joseph's coat of many colors and his brothers and the hidden cup. He'd heard all that. Then he read in Genesis 38 about a woman named Tamar, and when he finished that one he had to put down his Bible and walk outside and look up at the sky and say, "What in the world?"
Henry's sincere inquiry and longing for understanding is contrasted by his Uncle Jack's irrascible disbelief:
"Trixie, my dog, has got this Bible. It's got two verses. One: 'There ain't no magic and never was.' Number two: 'Nobody can see into the future.' A dog wrote it over five thousand years ago, and it cuts through a lot of" -- he whispered -- "shit." He took a swig of ice tea.
Edgerton's gift is to be equally sympathetic to all views -- the devout, the cynical, and the confused. He loves them all, and tells their stories with equal care. It's one of the view novels I've found that does justice to spiritual inquiry, gently knocking away the ridiculousness of fundamentalism, without ever diminishing its love of the divine.
Saturday, November 29. 2008
As a book about the roots of success, you can be sure Malcolm Gladwell Outliers would have something to say about education. He concludes that the well-documented "achievement gap" between the most affluent and the poorest students can be almost entirely attributed to summer vacations. Standardized test scores of Baltimore public school students at the beginning and the end of the school year suggest that poorer students keep up with their richer peers during the school year, but fall behind during the summers. Presumably the richer students have more intellectually stimulating summers – parents that talk with them, books to read, special summer camps and programs – while the poorer students just watch TV for three months. Gladwell gives an enormous shout-out to the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) schools, whose fundamental philosophy is to fill up the students' lives with non-stop academics – class from 7:30 am to 5:00 pm, and homework until 10:30 pm or 11:00 pm every night, and class on Saturdays and through most of the summer as well.
I don't doubt that the KIPP schools work . . . depending, of course, on your definition of "work." Gladwell's analysis is far too pat, too "presto," to be the whole truth of the matter. Yes, the Asians have a reputation for being good at math, and perhaps the only reason they are is because of the sheer volume of work they do. Then again, they also have a reputation for being uptight hacks with high teen suicide rates. They might have the high IQ scores, but they might have sacrificed some creativity in the process of their non-stop "cultivation." Gladwell himself pointed out in earlier chapters that high IQ did not necessarily correlate with creativity, or practical intelligence, or social savvy. It surprises me, then, that Gladwell immediately accepts that work is the magic ingredient in the KIPP schools. Aren't there other explanations that could work equally well here? Lots of questions come to mind:
I'm not saying that Gladwell is wrong, exactly. But he's a long, long way from having proven his case.
Friday, November 28. 2008
In Malcolm Galdwell's Outliers, he makes a bold assertion that math skill is directly and primarily correlated with persistence – how long are you willing to try to solve a problem? He's looking for an explanation for why Asians are, statistically speaking, better at math than most of the rest of the world. He finds that Asians are measurably more persistent in problem-solving, and their persistence directly correlates with their math scores, relative to other countries. Which leads to the next question: what makes Asians so persistent? He believes it ultimately comes from a culture of rice farmers, which is a form of agriculture that demands vastly more attention and work than other forms of agriculture more common in Europe. Their culture values work, because the rice paddies reward work. That cultural norm has persisted far beyond the rice paddies into their industrial economy.
I'm not used to thinking of other cultures as valuing work more than mine. After all, the Europeans are constantly slighting the Americans for working all the time, and never taking time to enjoy their families and the simple pleasures of life. The Americans, in turn, look down on the Europeans for their stagnant economy and their socialist sense of entitlement. We are the hard workers of the world, right?
I might have thought that, until I started working with a Chinese programmer. He works eight hours a day, seven days a week, every week. Moreover, as far as I can tell, he does not consider himself to be a particularly hard worker. That is in line with the Gladwell's estimates that the average traditional rice farmer works 3,000 hours a year.
I take great hope in such findings. Mathematics is a field we often associate with high IQ and raw intellectual talent . . . and once again, Gladwell is showing that talent is not nearly as important as work and persistence. Maybe, after hearing this, people will be more inclined to believe that work and persistence is the determining factor in spiritual endeavors as well. Teachers have been saying it for eons. "Earnest is all," says Sri Nisargadatta. "Pray without ceasing," says St. Paul. Holiness is not the domain of specially gifted people; it belongs to anyone who keeps after it.
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