April 11, 2008

On Being Stupid

I know you read this blog less for entertainment than for enlightenment, and maybe you're disappointed that there hasn't been a lot of the latter. But I'm of the opinion that listening to "Thirty Days in the Hole" in the right frame of mind might provide more enlightenment than mere words could; and I'll bet you didn't click on the link to that song at all, or if you did, once you figured out what song it was, you said, "oh yeah, I've heard that song" and then stopped it.

Have I taught you nothing?

If that's the case, though, it dovetails nicely with today's meditation. Consider this stanza from Yeats's "Easter 1916." Yes, I'm ripping it out of its context, but stay with me for a minute if you don't mind.

Hearts with one purpose alone
Through summer and winter seem
Enchanted to a stone
To trouble the living stream.
The horse that comes from the road.
The rider, the birds that range
From cloud to tumbling cloud,
Minute by minute they change;
A shadow of cloud on the stream
Changes minute by minute;
A horse-hoof slides on the brim,
And a horse plashes within it;
The long-legged moor-hens dive,
And hens to moor-cocks call;
Minute by minute they live:
The stone's in the midst of all.

In my professional life, I frequently interact with intelligent people, both "peers" and "clients" (since I'm trying to keep things generic here), whose intelligence, let's say, is not manifesting itself with regard to the situation at hand.

It frustrates me to see people nail something down in their mind, to come to a conclusion about other people or situations, and then refuse to think further about it. After all, a conclusion is an ending, right? As in, I'm done thinking about this forever. How does this approach have anything to do with, say, academics? Or scientific inquiry? Or effective leadership?

Being an effective leader hinges, I guess, on being able to make judgments. But all good judgments, to me, are provisional. When people quit seeing their judgments as provisional and start seeing them as absolute, then they're in trouble. Because while you can gather enough information to make a judgment, you really can't gather all the information. Resolve may be necessary for action, but it also leads to ignorance.

I think this is the heart of being wrong, this conscious decision to quit thinking about a situation. In the Yeats stanza, you have the stone in the stream, with the stream, the trees, the birds, and the whole rest of the universe wheeling around it while the stone remains immobile. To act, I guess, you sometimes need to have that heart of stone. Suicide bombers, surgeons, and statesmen must be able to decide to quit thinking critically about a situation long enough to act. A Yeats line from another poem also comes to mind: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity." If I seem biased against suicide bombers, surgeons, and statesmen, so be it.

If you're going to impose your will on others, it's probably necessary to quit thinking critically about your will.

A while back there were some ad slogans that validated this: "Why ask why? Drink Bud Dry." And of course, "Just Do It." Yeah, okay.

Yesterday I talked to someone to whom I had loaned the film Casablanca. She said, "It took me three tries to get into it because it was in black and white."

It's just that kind of black and white thinking that I'm complaining about here.

Thing is, we all do this, this "I'm done thinking about it" thing, but we do it about different things. Some of us do it about the environment, worrying about some animal species while ignoring the fact that human livelihoods are affected by new regulations, or proclaiming the price of gas to be a good thing because it will force people to use less of it, but not thinking about the people who are currently just getting by (and who can't afford that fancy new hybrid that runs on farts and french fry grease).

And I do it too. What about? I honestly don't know. That's kind of how this thing works. If I come to the conclusion that colleague X is an asshole, that's a kind of shorthand that makes it easier to me to interact with him in the future. Is colleague X indeed an asshole? Maybe not, but I've decided to quit asking the question and get on with things.

If Keanu Reeves becomes a great actor at some point, I probably won't notice it even if I see the film, because I have it in my mind that he's fairly limited. There are certainly categories of art, music and thought that I have dismissed out of hand, probably to my detriment. Some people are aghast when I announce that I don't like ballet. How can you not like a whole category of art? Ah, it's not that hard. There's no talking, and it's full of crotchy men and skinny women with gnarly feet.

But I digress.

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