Friday, July 31, 2009

Illusory Control

We humans think we can control things – we think we’re in charge. It probably goes back to about 12,000 years ago when we began to settle down, domesticate animals and grow our own food. But 12,000 years is not much of a track record for running things on a 4.6 billion year old planet with living organism going back 3 billion years. In that kind of a timeframe, we’re just a blip on the screen. So while we think we’re in charge now, we aren’t. It’s just illusory control.

That control is illusory is all too clear with the economic mess we’re living through. A lot of smart people thought that they had economic theory and financial risk management all figured out. But financial institutions tumbled like decks of cards and the economy isn’t behaving according to plan.

Mutual fund companies routinely disclose that “past performance is not a guarantee of future results.” As Blanche used to say on The Bickersons, “You say it, but you don’t mean it.” Analyst foist prolific investment advice, all “back-tested” with how it would have turned out if a prescient person had scrupulously followed the advice over prior decades. And although all advice ends with the ubiquitous disclaimer, they don’t mean it (the disclaimer, that is).

The reality is that we’re perpetually in uncharted territory – not just in finances but in life. We look to history as a guide to the future – as if the world were a totally predictable place. It isn’t.

By nature I’m a controller and a planner. Although I’ve mellowed with age, I still suffer from the illusion that I can control my future. But, I know that, in spite of my plans and actions, my health, my lifespan, my finances, my employment are all at the control of a multitude of other influences, factors and people.

The thing I’m trying to plan and control right now is my employment – a year from now. I’m filling a temporary role and don’t know what lies beyond. In the face of this uncertainty, I want to hold onto what I have with a death-grip. (Compared to how things could be in these times and at this stage of my life, it’s not much of a problem, but it’s all that I’ve got. I’m grateful for that!)

While admitting relative powerlessness sounds depressing, it really isn’t. We humans are extremely adaptable and opportunistic, too. And the world is a dynamic place with twists, turns, adventure and synchronicity. So, my advice to me is to embrace uncertainty. Like a trapeze artist, lose the death grip, let go of the swing, fly through the air, and go for the catch. If you miss, though, it’s no big deal -- just bounce in the net, climb the ladder and give it another go.

I say it, but I don’t mean it.

This employment uncertainty is a metaphor for me at this stage of my life – looking to transition into a post-employment world (whenever and whatever that will be) -- and all the uncertainty this part of life brings. I’ve written myself a two line mantra to help remember how to live through these days and, perhaps, for the rest of my life. It morphed into a poem:

Laugh and live life above the fray,
Savor the gift of each moment and day.
The past is prologue but not a script,
The future’s unwritten, adventure encrypt.

So, be curious, be grateful, stay fluid and wonder
Throw fear, care and worry aside and asunder
Laugh and live life above the fray,
Savor the gift of each moment and day

Who knows, maybe someday, I’ll both say it and mean it!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

First Encounters

In the Spring 2009 issue of American Heritage, Colin Galloway wrote about New York Native Americans first encounter with Europeans. In the article, he has a side-bar reprint of a section of John Gottlieb Ernest Heckwelder’s book, Account of the History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations, Who Once Had Inhabited Pennsylvania. The excerpt recounts the Native American story of encountering Henry Hudson and his ship. Heckwelder’s book was published in 1819, but, according the article, the account was written in 1760, so it’s pretty contemporary. You can download a digital copy of the book if you like:

Heckwelder (or maybe Heckewelder), was a Moravian missionary who spent much of his life with Native American tribes. The thing that impresses about this account is how contemporary it sounds. We tend to think that modern humans are somehow more intelligent than our ancestors. But I’ve read that humans have had the same basic level of intelligence for the last 5,000 plus years.

When I read contemporaneous writing, whether it’s Tacitus talking about the viciousness of Germanic Tribes around AD 100, or an Indian Tribe account of the first encounter with Europeans in 1609, I can almost hear a present day conversation. To show you what I mean, here’s how I think the story in Heckwelder’s excerpt would read today.


“What the heck is that thing swimming (or is it floating) way out there -- straight out on the horizon?”

“Beats me! Let’s get some others and see if they know what the heck it is.”

So they ran back to the village as fast as they could and got others to come back with them and figure out what it could be. Once everyone saw it, though, they couldn’t agree. Some thought it was an extremely large fish or other animal. Some thought it was a large floating house. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. “We need to sound the alarm and bring up all the warriors.”

The now larger group gathered and watched the mysterious object approach. As it got closer, all agreed it was a large canoe or house upon which the Supreme Being, himself, was coming for a visit.

By this time the leaders of the different tribes were assembled, deliberating on how to receive the Supreme Being on his arrival. Plenty of meat was prepared, idols and images were inspected and put in good order and a grand dance was planned to entertain and, just in case he was angry, appease the Great Spirit.

The forecasters were also hard at work trying to figure out what this visit meant and what would come of it. Everyone, including the leaders, was looking to these wise folks -- both for advice and for protection.

Between hope, fear and confusion, the dance began. Fresh runners arrived confirming that it was a floating house and crowded with living creatures. It was now certain that the Supreme Being was bringing some kind of never-before-seen game to them. But wait! The second group of runners confirmed it’s a large house, all right, but not full of game. It’s full of funny colored people with a strange sense of fashion! One in particular looks totally red! This one must be the Supreme Being, himself.

The funny colored people, soon started yelling from the floating house, but no one could understand what they were saying. People got scared and ran for the woods, but the leaders got everyone back. No use offending the Supreme Being. “If he gets angry, he’ll just destroy us.”

Finally the floating house stopped and a small canoe came ashore with the red man and some others in it. The leaders had made a large circle into which the red man and two other entered.

The read man greeted the leaders in a friendly way and the leaders returned the gesture. The group was awed by the color of his skin and dress. “He must be the Great Sprit,” they thought, “but why is his skin so white?” “What does he want?”

At that moment one of his servants brought out a large gourd, poured a small glass of something and gave it to the Great Sprit. He drank it and had another glass poured. The Great Sprit then handed the glass to one of the leaders who smelled it and passed it around to the other leaders who all did that same. No one dared taste it!

Just as it was about to be returned to the Great Sprit, a brave member of the crowd jumped forward. “You idiots!” he says. “You’re supposed to drink it! If you don’t you may anger the Great Spirit and he’ll wipe us all out!”

“I may die, but I’ll drink it to save the rest of you.” He then took the glass, and saying his farewell to all, drank all of it. Every eye watched as he began to stagger and then drop to the ground. There he lay – very still. But, in a moment he was back up and declaring the stuff pretty darn good. In fact he said he never felt better! “I wonder if the Great Spirit would share a little more,” he says. The Great Spirit does. The whole assembly partakes and gets wasted.


Everyone knows how this turned out. Four hundred years later, a native population of 20 million is gone, along with a richness of cultures, stories, religious beliefs and knowledge. We have only fragments left.

Much of this loss was unintentional – the result of the susceptibility of Native Americans to European diseases. But much was intentional – concerted efforts to exterminate beliefs, culture and race. What a loss. And, in hindsight, incredibly ignorant.

Hindsight is the operative word, though. It’s always clearer looking back. The question for us is, what ignorant things are we now doing that our successors will find as incredulous as we find the extermination of such a rich vein of human experience. Time will tell.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Diesels and Tranquiltiy

“…I went out and ran the excavator with lights until the sun came up. To me, and I suspect no one else on earth, there is something wonderful about listening to country music playing in the cab, air conditioner running, the hum of a huge diesel engine in the background, the tranquility that comes with being in a virtual wilderness of trees and marsh, the day breaking and vibrant pink coming alive in the morning clouds — and getting to build something with each scoop of dirt.”

This is part of an e-mail from Mark Sanford, the governor South Carolina, to his mistress. I find it interesting for several reasons.

First, why am I reading this personal communication and why does it surprise me that these Greek tragedies keep unfolding? Between Governor Mark Sanford, Senator John Ensign, Former Governor Elliot Spitzer and Quarterback Steve McNair, for example, marital infidelity, hypocrisy and disastrous outcomes among the politically powerful or famous are not exactly uncommon.

One answer to why I pay attention is cited in Eduardo Porter’s editorial in the July 3rd New York Times. It surprised me that a recent Gallup poll of adults reported 92% finds affairs morally wrong. Even more surprising was that the approval rating for adultery has not been greater than 9% over the last decade. These statistics just don’t seem to jive with behavior we read and hear about every day. I guess we think more conservatively than we act.

The jarring thing, though, from this distasteful venture in voyeurism, is not the affair and its consequences. That’s all too predictable and common. The jarring thing is the email excerpt quoted above. Just how disconnected from the natural world can we get, if we need an air conditioned cocoon, country music and the roar of a “huge diesel engine” to appreciate tranquility? The planet is doomed!

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Building a Grandfather Clock

Sometimes, I’m not musing at all, just doing. When I tackle a project, it just won’t let me go until it gets to some stage of completion. With my woodworking projects that’s usually about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning after some marathon attempt. The latest example is my tall case (grandfather ) clock. It didn’t keep me up until 2:00 AM, but it did almost suck up my entire week of vacation.

Like Seinfeld says about his parents moving to Florida after retirement, “They didn’t want to do it, but it was the law,” I think it’s the law that old farts build grandfather clocks. Every picture I found of a home-built clock had a beaming old fart standing beside it. So, about mid-Spring I ordered the plans for the Harland clock from Klockit and held on for the ride.

The plans were complex. The required skill level for the project was well above mine. I don’t know how many hours I spent just trying to understand the drawings. Somehow, though I muddled through, with a little strategic help from my plan-reading wife and the extra hands and brain of my son-in-law. I made a lot of mistakes in making the case. I recovered from most of them and learned a lot from the project which I’ll apply to the grandfather clock I build next … well…never.

It’s not done yet. I still have finishing and installation to do. But the case is built, and I can see that it’s going to work. So, I’m out of the grip of obsession. Until the next project, anyway.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Confabulation, Meaning and My Limbic Brain

Sometimes I wonder why I feel less driven to achieve at this stage of my life than I was when I was younger. Achievements just don’t seem to be as important. I’m relieved to read that this is normal. More than one author talks about the first half of life being about achievement while the second half of life (if you can call 58 a half-way point) being about addressing meaning.

As to meaning, I read an interesting perspective on this in the August 13, 2008 issue of Positive Psychology News Daily ( written by George Vaillant. He talks about our limbic brains. Maybe you know what this means, but I had to look it up.

Our limbic brain is the primitive, reptilian part of the brain resting on top of the brain stem. It even looks like a reptile (or, better, a salamander) from the side view. It controls our emotions and our flight or fight response. Vaillant’s proposition is that meaning comes from this part of our brain, not the cognitive part. He says that most think that meaning comes from having purpose, values, efficacy (a belief you can make a difference) and self-worth. But, he also says, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Meaning really comes from positive emotions – love, compassion, hope, awe, gratitude, trust and joy.

This is consistent with the analogy Jonathan Haidt uses in The Happiness Hypothesis. He says that our conscious minds are like the rider on an elephant. The elephant (our unconscious) makes all the decisions while the rider acts as the elephant’s attorney to confabulate conscious reasons for what the elephant does.

Kathryn Britton reported an illuminating perspective on this in the January 30, 2008 issue of Positive Psychology News Daily. Britton summarized Mihaly Csikszentmihalvi’s talk on the evolution of the mind:

· 2 million years BCE: Learning, liberation from genetically determined behavior
· 1 MY BCE: Shared experience, knowledge mediated by tools, memes shaping behavior, liberation from limitations of our own experience
· 50,000 BCE: Language, expanded transmission of memes, liberation from terror of death
· 10,000 BCE: Urban revolution, information shared across occupations and ethnic cultures, liberation from tribal determinism, start of individuality
· 5000 BCE: Encoded information, memes codified in writing, proto-science, liberation from limits of memory, start of idea of progress
· 1400 BCE: Appearance of great religions all over the world, bridges to supreme power, start of belief in human primacy
· 1900 CE: Apogee of belief in human primacy, liberation from restraints leading to sense of hubris and entitlement
· 1900-2000 CE: Two senseless world wars, irrational ideologies, liberation from self-serving illusions of superiority leading to nihilism and despair.

(I also had to look up “memes.” According to, a meme is “a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.”)

The point of all of this for me is to, first, trust my limbic brain more and my cognition less. Second it’s to cultivate positive emotions as a pathway to meaning versus, reasoning my way there. As Valliant says, “The essence of finding meaning is not to think more (or less) of ourselves but to think of ourselves less.” I’ll try not to think about that.