Revisiting wise quotes from books we’ve read is a way to maintain our bearings. We may even experience those books, and the quotes, differently than we first did. As Heraclitus once said about constant change, “no man steps in the same river twice”.
With that in mind, let me share a few quotes from books I’ve read in the past that I am pondering. If you detect in some of my choices the influence of recent news events, I congratulate you for your perceptivity.
On to the quotes…
When I first read “The Catcher in the Rye” by JD Salinger in high school I was taken by a quote in the book about how “the mark of an immature man is he wants to die nobly for a cause. The mark of a mature man is he wants to live humbly for one.” In the Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky, we read that:
Though these young men unhappily fail to understand that the sacrifice of life is, in many cases, the easiest of all sacrifices, and that to sacrifice, for instance, five or six years of their seething youth to hard and tedious study, if only to multiply tenfold their powers of serving the truth and the cause they have set before them as their goal—such a sacrifice is utterly beyond the strength of many of them.
The point here is that progress is often gained in inches – hard, slow, difficult inches.
While I apologize for all the “men this, men that” nature of these two quotes, there is a particular blindness typical of men where they seek the Big Heroic Sacrifice rather than the slow, humble one. I remember reading somewhere that men who are living unhealthily might say they “would die” for their family (and mean it), but their doctors are giving them a tougher job: live for their families. Those men are being told that their family doesn’t need them to jump on a grenade but instead wants them to increase their life expectancy by changing their habits: quitting smoking, cutting back on the empty calories, exercising more.
The tough work is never easy. It often happens in obscurity where there is little daily validation. The results will not be featured in the media nor become the subject of a stirring movie.
There is very little orchestral music involved.
I like to read about cognitive biases, which is why I loved “The Undoing Project” by Michael Lewis (which is on my Great Books List); it was the combination of a topic and an author I enjoy. As humanity struggles with the ancient need to identify “out-groups” (e.g. groups of people who are not part of your in-group), this quote reminds me to weave in some epistemological humility when I’m making group judgements:
Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.
While this has immense social implications, it applies to reasoning and decision-making in companies as well. Clustering input associated with, say, customer complaints or market anecdotes can accelerate decision-making by establishing manageable parameters around the swirling chaos of information. But it can also lead to the classification problem Lewis describes.
How many poor product decisions have been made due to spurious correlations that arose from rigid classifications? How many people have been mistreated for the same reason?
My most recent post was on the topic of empathy. This quote from Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” captures the importance of empathy well. Here, Atticus Finch is explaining the concept of empathy to his young daughter, Scout, who interrupts him with a “Sir?” in the middle of it to indicate she isn’t quite understanding him. Apart from that “Sir?” from Scout, this is all Atticus:
You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—” “Sir?” “—until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
During this time of societal disruption, it is good to recommit ourselves to doing the hard work of improving our society, and ourselves.