The Stockdale Paradox

Admiral Jim Stockdale, tortured in Vietnam for 8 years, on what got him through the hardest times:

I never lost faith in the end of the story. I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.

And who didn’t make it through:

The optimists. They were the ones who said ‘we’re going to be out by Christmas’. And, Christmas would come and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. Then they died of a broken heart.

The paradox:

You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Several parallels to our current global fight against COVID-19…the perils of over-optimism and arbitrary deadlines, and the value of faith in ultimate victory.

Why we don’t believe

Because we don’t want to change our behavior:

In general, people use experts all the time, and most of us don’t spend a lot of time second-guessing experts on most issues…The big exception [is when] we reject scientific findings because we don’t like their implications.

Why it’s hard for us to change

Things are too good for us to change it all, yet too bad for us to leave anything as it is. This is the great paradox of modern times. – Rob Wijnberg

How to Criticize

From Daniel Dennett:

  • You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
  • You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  • You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  • Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

Previously: How to apologize

Product design quotes

I recently pulled together my favorite product design quotes from this blog over the years. Here they are in one place:

  • Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers. – Seth Godin

  • People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. – Simon Sinek

  • Focus means saying no to the hundred other good ideas – Steve Jobs

  • Technology serves humans; Design is not art; The experience belongs to the user; Great design is invisible; Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication – Joshua Porter

  • A new product should be 90% familiar and 10% wildly innovative – Tony Fadell

  • Don’t try to be original; just try to be good – Paul Rand

  • Design is just decision-making with visual aids – me

  • Send out all your dogs and one might return with prey – Werner Herzog

  • Design is about solving problems that humans have, not problems that products have. – Mills Baker

  • The important thing is the people. – Ed Catmull

  • To achieve great things, two things are needed; a plan and not quite enough time. – Leonard Bernstein

  • Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question. – e.e. cummings

  • We shall not cease from exploration; And the end of all our exploring; Will be to arrive where we started; And know the place for the first time. – T.S. Eliot

  • Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. – Voltaire

Saving democracy by talking about it

In a time when many people are getting all of their news from one polarized, personalized information feed or another, it’s interesting to see how low-tech 1930s solutions helped save democracy then.

The core elements were ways to get people talking about the real issues instead of the tribes they associated with.

The more argument the better is what the North Carolina-born George V. Denny, Jr., was banking on, anyway, after a neighbor of his, in Scarsdale, declared that he so strongly disagreed with F.D.R. that he never listened to him.

Like this program which opened up schools at night for the community to discuss topics:

The federal forum program started out in ten test sites—from Orange County, California, to Sedgwick County, Kansas, and Pulaski County, Arkansas. It came to include almost five hundred forums in forty-three states and involved two and a half million Americans. Even people who had steadfastly predicted the demise of democracy participated. “It seems to me the only method by which we are going to achieve democracy in the United States,” Du Bois wrote, in 1937.

And this one, which enlisted diverse people to all explain what democracy was:

Somehow, in the end, NBC arranged a coast-to-coast broadcast, in which eight prominent thinkers—two ministers, three professors, a former ambassador, a poet, and a journalist—tried to explain to Alice the meaning of democracy. American democracy had found its “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” moment, except that it was messier, and more interesting, because those eight people didn’t agree on the answer.

How to read hard books

A thoughtful framework for reading and understanding deeply from Brad DeLong.

First, get prepared:

  • Figure out beforehand what the author is trying to accomplish in the book.
  • Orient yourself by becoming the kind of reader the book is directed at—the kind of person with whom the arguments would resonate.
  • During and after reading, try to rephrase and improve on the argument:

  • Read through the book actively, taking notes.
  • “Steelman” the argument, reworking it so that you find it as convincing and clear as you can possibly make it.
  • Find someone else—usually a roommate—and bore them to death by making them listen to you set out your “steelmanned” version of the argument.
  • Finally, try to disprove the arguments, and decide how you feel about them:

  • Go back over the book again, giving it a sympathetic but not credulous reading
  • Then you will be in a good position to figure out what the weak points of this strongest-possible argument version might be.
  • Test the major assertions and interpretations against reality: do they actually make sense of and in the context of the world as it truly is?
  • Decide what you think of the whole.
  • Then comes the task of cementing your interpretation, your reading, into your mind so that it becomes part of your intellectual panoply for the future.
  • The limiting factor of our education is no longer access to information–it’s making the most of the information we access.

    Related: The purpose of reading is to write

    The “real” Buddha?

    Alexander Wynne writes about the (more likely) historical Buddha, and how he differed from the myths:

    Bringing the reliable historical fragments together, and discarding mythic elaborations, a humbler picture of the Buddha emerges. Gotama was born into a small tribe, in a remote and unimportant town on the periphery of pre-imperial India…

    Gotama doubted his own teaching ability, was not taken seriously by the first person to witness him (as the Buddha), and did not achieve notable success with his first audience. How, then, did he succeed?

    I find Wynne’s portrait of a silent, humble ascetic as more compelling than the myth of a prince confused by beggars, and more consistent with his teachings that the world is illusory. The mention of American mindfulness practice coming from 19th-century Burma was also interesting.

    Pretending to know

    I thought further and said: “Why do men lie over problems of such great importance, even to the point of destroying themselves?” And they seemed to do so because although they pretend to know all, they know nothing. Convinced they know all, they do not attempt to investigate the truth.

    And this:

    One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.

    Why I work on productivity software

    I made a shift in my career four years ago to work on productivity software. The motivating force was a desire to contribute to solving the climate crisis. I’m not a climate scientist, nor a physicist or even an engineer, who could contribute directly to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

    However I can design really good software, and it turns out that’s something everyone who is working on the problem needs.

    Nick Bostrom, in his article “Three Ways to Advance Science” does a good job summarizing the opportunity:

    Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes.

    Bostrom is specifically interested in medical interventions…but I think in today’s world the more mundane problems of distraction, confusion, and noncooperation are the bigger opportunities to tackle.