0614 – consider Kissinger Before Sunrise

I was reading an interview with Henry Kissinger, and he talked about how him and Enlai from China used to meet secretly in 1971 – and in order to build confidence, they’d discuss their world philosophies. “We sounded like two college professors discussing the nature of the world and its future”.

> This sort of dialogue is not apparent in contemporary U.S.–China dialogue. Leaders meet and have useful conversations in the sense that there are practical items—a lot of items—that they have to work through. Yet the Chinese leave such conversations frustrated. The primary subject they want to discuss—philosophical in nature—is never raised, which is “If we were you, we might try to suppress our rise. Do you seek to suppress us? If you do not, what will the world look like when we are both strong, as we expect to be?”

It’s funny for me to contemplate this because in my teenage years I was very much in love with ‘philosophy’ and ‘what does it all mean’ and ‘how should things be’ . And I remember hearing from ’serious’ or ‘respectable’ people – or ordinary young people who aspired to seriousness and respectability – that things like philosophy are an indulgence, a waste of time, and that if you wanted to do something serious and important like say work in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, then you have to be good at doing the practical things. I disagreed vehemently then, but over time I grew to kinda not get involved – and at some point I grew weary of all of the wannabe philosophising altogether, because which didn’t seem to go anywhere.

And now it’s becoming clear that these heart-stories, seemingly trivial or childish beliefs, are axiomatic. Of law, of work, of love, of family… at the heart of everything is – what is the story you tell yourself, about who you are, what the world is, and how we are to meet it? Philosophy isn’t just something for college professors or for idealistic filmmakers. It remains true that philosophy is at the deep heart of all of our human systems.

(I’m thinking now about a quote… something along the lines of “Anybody who thinks that they’re an independent thinker unconstrained by history without need for ethics is probably a slave to the thinking of some defunct white economist from 200 years ago”. Something like that.)

I’m thinking now about what I enjoyed about The West Wing. I find myself thinking about an episode where a black man made the case for reparations for slavery. And Bartlett asking “What is the virtue of a proportionate response?” And Sam Seaborne saying that schools should be palaces, education should be the #1 source of government spending, etc. It must be one of the reasons why the show inspired so many people to get into politics – because they saw the full picture, they saw how it was a vehicle for them to express their values and beliefs. It was cheesy and corny at times, sometimes preachy, heavy-handed and more than a bit smug and eager to deliver smackdowns. But ultimately I think it was more wholesome to consume than something like House Of Cards (I gave up halfway) not because “good is better than cynical”, but because it raised questions that the latter didn’t. About how to make decisions in difficult times. About how to operate in uncertainty. About values and principles.

I’m thinking now also of Simon Sinek, and about how people don’t want to buy what you do, they buy why you do it. It’s about having the same beliefs. Do you believe what I believe? And I’m thinking now about how Apple was under Steve Jobs, and how everyone felt confident that you could trust that someone like Steve Jobs would guarantee that your products were great. What other brands are like that?

Now I’m thinking about Alain de Botton’s – The News: A User’s Manual. He talks about how every piece of news is part of a bigger narrative, a bigger conflict along really big questions. Every boring news article is actually in fact a drop of paint on a much larger canvas – about questions like, how should we allocate our resources? What are our priorities and why?

What ARE my values and beliefs? I stopped writing this here because I didn’t think I could answer the question in a succinct manner fiat the time I was writing it. Revisiting it a little later, I find myself thinking that maybe I shouldn’t be in a rush to try and figure everything out all at once. I wonder what Nassim Taleb would have to say about it. On one hand he said something like “you should be able to describe the point of your work while standing on one leg”, and on the other he expressed disdain for anything that was overly simplistic, bureaucratic, procrustean.

So what is it then? What are my values? Now I’m thinking about Dalio’s Principles. The point of having Principles is to allow you to make decisions in advance. And if I’m honest about my personal history, I’m not very good at making decisions, and not very good at making decisions in advance either. I’ve gotten slightly less terrible at it, but I still find myself not fully believing myself when I say something like “I’m going to do this, then I’m going to do that”.

There are a whole bunch of possible statements I think I would be able to agree with, but I’m not sure which would stand out as the guiding principle. Which is most important?

Thinking about my experience in the past couple of years, I think an important thing that I should focus on is expanding the amount of freedom I have. What does that mean? It means I should avoid unnecessary commitments, it means I should move fast instead of slow when I can. There might be a better way of phrasing it. But basically whatever it takes to get out of stasis, out of the death that is living in a shell, in a loop over and over again.

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