What does “Virtue is its own reward” mean? And, what does “virtue” mean? When I searched the web, I came across this video of Barry Schwartz speaking at a TED conference about virtue. In his case, he defines virtue as a moral and social concept. I believe this is the most common way that the word “virtue” is used. Despite my respect for his ideas on the paradox of choice, I disagree with his thesis on this topic. I think he got the order wrong. When you practice virtue as its own reward, what appears to be moral is actually not moral at all. It only appears so to other people who are observing your act.
I define “virtue” as disinterested beauty whose reward is itself. So, it does not need to have any external purpose, reason, or justification. If morality is what is motivating you to perform something, it is not virtue in my definition, because morality is a social construct, which means you would not practice it in non-social / non-moral situations (such as keeping your own house clean for its own virtue).
Interestingly enough, at the opening of his speech, Barry Schwartz lists typical tasks that janitors are responsible for, such as sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, etc.. I thought he was going to explain the virtues of them, but to my disappointment, he essentially used the list as matters that are unrelated to the concept of “virtue”.
I believe he has it backwards. Being able to find virtue in these mundane non-social tasks is the key to being able to perform any tasks virtuously, whether the task is social or not is irrelevant. For virtue to be its own reward, we have to be able to find the drive or the motivation within the task itself.
Being able to find virtue in mundane things like mopping the floor is not easy, but it can be done. Every time I peel an apple, I try to do it better than I did last time. I also try to be creative in my approach, not just simply repeat the same process every time. I also try to cut them into pieces that are perfectly geometric and identical; as if they were processed by a machine, which involves sharpening the knife perfectly too. Nobody notices my efforts, mainly because I usually eat them all myself. My effort to perfect or improve my apple peeling skill does not help, save, or inspire anyone, yet strangely, I get a feeling of satisfaction from this act.
I also find a strange sense of joy in washing dishes too. When I was a teenager, working for a sushi restaurant in Japan, my favorite thing was to wash dishes during the lunch rush hours. Even to this day, I enjoy it, constantly optimizing my movements. I also enjoy the feeling of water on my hands.
I believe there is some inherent (maybe even evolutionary or biochemical) reason we find joy in doing anything well. When you can enjoy mundane tasks for their own virtue, you can naturally extend your ability to social tasks also. In fact, there is no line between the two. When virtue is its own reward (in my sense of the term), any task at hand is disinterested, that is, it is not about you or anyone else. It’s like being able to admire a nude model without getting sexually aroused. You can do so only if you are able to efface self and others from the experience. When you are dealing with a social task, improving the society becomes the virtue of the task. You are not doing it for you or for the people of the society. You do them for their own virtue. In this scenario, there is no morality at all, but other people often project morality onto your act.
In fact, not all tasks performed for their own virtue are socially or morally beneficial or positive. Dynamite was originally invented with the intention of improving the safety of mining and construction workers, but it became a popular weapon in wars and has killed millions of people. (Einstein’s contribution to the development of atomic bomb is another example.) What I consider socially beneficial or morally correct, may not be so to others. Once we start debating “morality” in depth, we eventually come to a conclusion that nothing can be determined as right or wrong, and everything we do begins to look futile and pointless. For any arguments built on morality to work, they must rely on a certain degree of ignorance about what morality is. They wouldn’t hold water for anyone who are willing to question the premise of morality deeper. I find this type of arguments manipulative, and so try to avoid them. Any arguments based on “common sense” have the same problem.
Many people are willing to accept fantasy as logical truth in situations where emotional investment is significant. I think this TED conference was one such situation, because we are in the midst of trying to fix our economy which was devastated by the irresponsible Wall Street bankers. Morally-based arguments are useful in galvanizing people, but in the long run, I believe that they lose steam, and the reality will push the believers to other emotionally powerful arguments. In the world of “spirituality”, people often keep jumping from one guru to the next precisely for this reason.
This leads back to the significance of virtue as its own reward. Once you can do everything for its own virtue, you wouldn’t need to listen to any motivational speakers because the motivation lies within the task itself.
Seeing marriage as business partnership is often considered distasteful, but marriage is indeed a business partnership with 50/50 shares. Regardless of how you prefer to see your marriage, our legal system forces it to be a business partnership. All of the assets and liabilities you acquire during the course of your marriage is split 50/50 by law. Our legal system do not care if you love one another but it will ensure that your business partnership abides by the law. This means that you should not marry anyone whom you would not choose as a business partner. If your spouse would not work well as a business partner, your marriage is doomed at the start. Compatibility as a business partner is a minimum requirement for a marriage. If you don’t have that, you should remain as a strategic partner and operate your own business independently.
But strategic partnership could never be as powerful as real partnership. Firstly, it’s inefficient because you have to manage two separate entities; the overhead cost is inevitably higher. Secondly, the separation of entities/accounts is motivated by your desire to protect your own shares. It’s fear-driven. In contrast, a true partnership is motivated by your desire to contribute more than your partner. The latter is a necessary condition for true synergy to take place. This does not mean that both partners have to earn money. Even in a business partnership, not all partners are assigned to income generating departments. So, if you are a kind of wife who expects your husband to take over the childcare as soon as he gets home from work, you don’t have a true partnership. And, if you are a kind of husband who expects your wife to serve you when you get home from work, that’s not a real partnership either. What counts in a true partnership is your desire to outperform your partner.
In a positive relationship, you are inspired to internalize your partner’s positive qualities that you are lacking. This is how synergy (1+1=3) happens between two people. If you spend long enough time together in this manner, you would eventually internalize most of the positive qualities that your partner has. Even if that person goes away or even dies, it’s as if you already have him/her within you.
In a negative relationship, you feel relieved not to have to deal with your own weaknesses because your partner can take care of them for you. So, those weaknesses become even weaker. 1+1 becomes 1. The longer you spend time together, the weaker you both get. You become fearful of losing your partner. This fear would eventually lead to feeling trapped, which is often expressed as anger toward your partner.
It’s not easy to find the right market for who you are. (The way I’m using the word “market” is essentially the same as “audience”.) We are told “Do what you love, the money will follow.” What this advice ignores is what the market/audience loves (or at least like). We do not live alone in this world, and we humans are social animals; we can’t just think about what we love ourselves. The evolutionary forces within us would make sure that we feel bad if we just thought about ourselves. So, what we should be looking for is not a match made in heaven, but a perfect compromise.
Too often people blindly and stubbornly commit to succeeding in a particular market that they choose when they barely understood themselves. This is particularly problematic in the US where the society pressures everyone to specialize in college or even earlier. Not many people consider applying their drives/passions in different markets. I believe this is because they tend to only consider the symptoms of their drives, not the cause.
For instance, the reason why some people love music might be because they like to perform in front of an audience, not because they love music per se. They choose the market of music, struggle for years, miserably fail, and finally give up in their 40s. This is unfortunate because in the world of business, being able to perform well in front of an audience is highly valuable. Not many people can stand in front of a large audience comfortably, captivate and inspire them like Steve Jobs did. Many business executives wish they had that ability. Even in the world of startups, entrepreneurs are expected to be able to pitch their ideas in front of an audience (investors) and get them excited. Not many people can do this well. If some of those failed musicians weren’t so inflexible about how they apply their own drives (not the symptoms), they might have found the perfect compromise in business.
So, before we say to ourselves, “I love music”, “I love writing”, “I love painting”, or “I love” anything, we should stop and think, “Is it really music that I love?” Think about why we love what we love, identify the deeper cause of it, and find the market that loves us for it.
To be clear, I do not mean to say that we have to make money from doing what we love. We don’t have to. But if we are not making money from doing what we love, then we have to make money in some other way. And, I assume we all would rather do something that we enjoy doing. It would not make sense to choose something we absolutely hate as we would be spending the majority of our lives doing it. Also, it would be hard for us to succeed in making money from it if we hated it. We have to align our inner drives with what we do for a living to some degree. If you don’t have to work, you would not need to wrestle with this issue at all, my thoughts here would be irrelevant to you.
Some people do take up jobs that they hate in order to support their artistic/creative activities at home. They seem to have decided that there is nothing outside of art (or whatever they are passionate about) that’s enjoyable in life, so they don’t even think about looking for an enjoyable career. They just suck it up and drain their souls at work, and see it as unavoidable. I find this a bit unreasonable.
Take Alfred Hitchcock for instance. Suppose he was born 50 years earlier. Filmmaking as a career would not have existed then. Does that mean he would have just been a miserable, uncreative person? I doubt it. Given his creativity, I think he would have found a different career where he could have applied his talents.
I love cooking, but I have no desire to be a chef. I’ve thought about why I love cooking and have come to the conclusion that it’s not cooking per se that I love. Cooking ultimately is about chemistry and physics. I like it because I’m able to apply my theoretical and analytical propensity to create something that other people can interact with and enjoy. I love seeing my theories come true. I also like making things that other people can enjoy; there is an entertainer in me. Cooking is just one way that my drives manifest themselves. Give these more fundamental requirements for me to love something, I could think of other careers besides being a chef that I would enjoy. If I somehow convinced myself that being a chef is the only worthwhile thing for me to pursue in life, I would probably be miserable.
I can also see what type of jobs I would not enjoy. I like seeing my product reflect who I am. I’m a craftsman. So, I don’t like working as a team-member for a large project. Some people are the opposite; they care more about the experience of collaboration than they do about the final product. In music, they might prefer playing in a large orchestra. And, they might also enjoy working on a large project as a computer programmer (musicians are often great programmers because they both require the ability to manage abstraction).
Because I love seeing how other people react/interact with things I create, I would not be happy just creating things for myself. For whatever reasons, I don’t particularly enjoy interacting with other people myself, but I love seeing how people interact with my creations. My inner drives do not care whether I can monetize my product or not as long as enough people find it useful, fun, and/or interesting, but I’ve been able to monetize my products/services enough to make a living.
The real story of this TED presentation by Amy Cuddy isn’t about “faking it till you become it” nor about the benefits of power postures. What people find inspiring about this video is her courage. There are billions of people who fake it till they make it (they don’t need to watch this video), but most of them are not aware of the fact that they are faking it. There is nothing inspiring about them because they don’t need any courage to do what they do. Being self-critical, in this sense, is a handicap. What’s inspiring is the courage to overcome this handicap while still remaining self-critical. Cuddy’s practical solutions in this video are secondary. “Fake it till you make it” or those power postures are not necessarily effective leadership qualities if they are not accompanied by a healthy dose of self-criticism.
I think we all tend to make our bodies shrink when we have to think hard (like in Rodin’s “The Thinker”). It’s hard to think deeply while you are in one of those “power postures”; they encourage you NOT to think so hard, to step back and breathe. In other words, if you want to be powerful, don’t think so much. But if you are in a situation where you have to think hard and deep, power postures are counter-productive. You need to shrink yourself.
So, my theory is that these postures are not necessarily correlated to power but are to thinking. Deep thinking is a solitary activity, and thinking (for most people) increases stress. “Power” is what you derive from social activities, so you need a posture that encourages social activities (more intuitive activities). “Power” is just one of the side effects of the latter.
Whenever we buy something expensive, we treat it with care, making sure not to scratch it or lose it. But after we use it for several years, we become more care-free. We reason that even if we break it or lose it, we already got our money’s worth. So, it’s no big deal. But why do we do the opposite with our own lives? If we applied the same logic, we should be acting more conservatively when we are young, and take more risks as we grow older. Even if we die, we could at least say to ourselves that we lived a good amount. Ironically, we treat our own children like we treat our expensive products. It’s a double standard of some sort.
Earlier this year, I set up a Minecraft server for my daughter and her friends, and it’s been an interesting experience. Managing a bunch of 8 year olds on Minecraft is not easy. For it to be an effective educational tool, it is better to use it in a classroom setting. I struggled trying to manage them remotely. A lot of conflicts happen on it because the world of Minecraft has no government. It starts out with complete anarchy. So, kids miscommunicate, misunderstand, and misbehave. They break things other kids built. Alter things without asking the original creators first. Go around dumping lava everywhere ruining the environment. They lie about what they did because nobody else was around when they did what they did. Fight over who owns what. Etc.. But this is where the big potential lies.
I couldn’t do this because I was managing them remotely but if I were a teacher in a classroom setting, I would at first let the kids do whatever they want in the same shared environment, say, for a few days. Eventually there will be many conflicts. At that point, I would stop the server, and gather the kids and discuss how we should govern our virtual society so that everyone could enjoy playing it. Inevitably certain rules would need to be written down and enforced, and I would try to see if the kids could come up with their own rules and laws. If so, they would immediately learn if the rules/laws are effective or enforceable or not. If not, they would need to be revised. And so on... Through this exercise, they could learn how government works. Why it’s important. And, they could also learn self-governing skills. It’s not only about conflict resolution either. They would need to define how property ownership works too in order to prevent conflicts.
This is easy to do in a virtual environment because nobody would actually get hurt even if a war breaks out, and the teacher could control the environment more easily. Because of the constraints of the virtual world, the parameters/aspects that need governing are limited and therefore manageable.
Most kids resent rules and laws because they do not understand why they are necessary, and that in turn is because they’ve never experienced lawlessness in a society. Grownups would always prevent things from getting out of control, so they never get to experience what happens. With a virtual world, we can afford to let them see what happens, and we can afford to let them work it out. I see a lot of potential in Minecraft for this.
The only kind of traveling that I enjoy is business trip. I really don’t care for tourism. The great thing about business trip is that you get to interact with local people in a real context, and get to experience what it’s like to live and work there. When you travel as a tourist, you are essentially observing the local people like the way you would from inside a car on safari. The interactions with the people are superficial, and you learn nothing from it. Human interactions are always superficial when there is no purpose.
Kickstarter is basically a pyramid scheme. It’s just a novel and amusing way to tap into the goodwill of your friends and families, but soon enough, most of them will be sick of receiving your request for money. Those who tapped into the scheme earlier will benefit from it disproportionately. By the time they need to return the favor, everyone would be sick of it, and it would become socially acceptable to ignore any requests. If you haven’t created any Kickstarter projects yet, I think this year and next would be your last chance. So, hurry.
If you are just graduating from college, you should seriously consider creating a professional name for yourself which is different from your legal name. It would be harder for someone to steal your identity because he would not be able to connect the information available online under your name with your social security number, credit card number, your relatives, and other personal information. Your professional name would provide a layer of security. Also, before you go into any profession, you would be able to make sure that there is nobody else with the same name doing the same thing. In fact, it would probably be better to start using your professional name in college, so that you would be able to retain the connections you make.
Annika bought her first teen magazine today. Looking through it, I noticed that there are only about a dozen celebrities in it, and it keeps talking about the same ones over and over. (I feel bad for the publishers/writers of these magazines; it must get really boring after awhile.) And I’m pretty sure every issue has the same set of celebrities. It never occurred to me before but our herd mentality is strongest around her age (8) and it lessens as we age. It is clear from observing Annika that her fascination with Taylor Swift isn’t so much about her music or her looks; it’s about her stardom. It’s as if her herd mentality was just turned on within her, and for the first time she understood the concept of stardom (and its power and appeal). So, for these kids, the bigger the star, the better; which means only a small number of entertainers can become famous among children at any given moment. We then gradually develop our own unique individualities, and begin seeking more unique entertainers to identify ourselves with. (The same goes for brand name products also.) At my age, we can shamelessly listen to just about any type of music without worrying about what it means to our own identities. To get to this point faster, I should probably encourage Annika to go nuts idolizing these superstars; perhaps I should cover up all the walls of her room with posters of Taylor Swift while she is at school...