Belief System for Continual Progress

William_Faulkner

Ta-Nehisi Coates shares snippets from an interview with William Faulkner. The topic being the amoralism(lacking a moral sense) of being a writer. I would not have characterized it as “amoralism” but rather as “belief system”. Faulkner sizzles in articulating this belief system of a novelist, and perhaps of himself. All that he says is 100% true of any creative endeavor- whether you are starting a company, creating a product, participating in a competition or learning music. This is like Arjuna, or perhaps Achilles, talking about what it takes to be a warrior. Go digest these words:

Impossible Goal

All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.

I simply love the axiom-like assertion of the first sentence and the oxymoron(splendid failure) in the second. Act and raise yourself. And repeat! Perfection is an impossibility, so get ever closer to it. The striving is its own reward.

Formula to Follow

Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.

Your swabhava, inner disposition, is to be the guide of your efforts. Following the law meant for another only leads to chaos, jealousy, confusion. The Gita declares the same thing, to follow your own dharma rather than that of another.

Demons and Muses

An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

Two opposing elements churn the being of an artist or a creator. The one is bright, luminous and leads him to higher ground. The other is dark, brooding, wrathful and doubting. Between these opposing pulls our being is churned. We laugh, cry, dream, suffer and create. All our works are born thus.

Creator’s Responsibility

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written.

Focus and resourcefulness. A single minded aspiration to realize the dream. Nothing else distracts him from that endeavor.

Art Can Come From

Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes. People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich.

Faulkner really nails this one. What do you fear? What are you willing to sacrifice to create something? What will make you stop trying?

Two Perspectives on Leadership

There are as many perspectives on Leadership as there are people. While watching Game of Thrones I could not help but notice the two contrasting approaches to leadership, as embodied by Ned Stark and Joffrey Baratheon.

Joffrey_Baratheon-Throne

Let us start with one extreme. Joffrey Baratheon, kinghood has been conferred upon him by the accident of birth. He knows he has power but does not understand power. He has not paid the price to be crowned, events beyond his control have led him to the throne. But all he sees is power, he does not understand its responsibilities, has no inherent trait of leading and guiding men, no impulse to fairness, no empathy to his subjects. Power he has and he exercises it. With all the smugness of one born to wealth and power, all pleasure and indulgence but no reflection, no self-questioning. His ego has deluded him to attribute his position to his own being.

EddardStark-Throne

In contrast, Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, knows he does not belong on the Iron Throne. He does not like, perhaps even despises power. Kinghood to him is a burden. He understands the machinations, the politics, the betrayals that underlie the crown. He lives by his values..brotherhood, family, his people and above all the honor of a warrior. He has strength, is battle-scarred. The burden of responsibility weighs upon his actions. Deliberate and methodical, his actions issue out of him as a craftsman chisels his jewels.

Two contrasting approaches out of the many that are possible to leadership. To be aware of what style one is employing, a recognition of our origins and our destinations and the legacy we wish to be known by are the starting point for grounded leadership.

Good leaders lead not just by the power that resides with their position. They lead with skills, with empathy, with humility. Purpose and principles motivate their actions. They do not look down upon their subjects however high the seat. They understand the ephemerality of power, the transient nature of events.

Through all this good leaders lead. And the bad ones gloat and relish their transient power enroute to their impending downfall.

On Translation – Nabokov, Borges & Sri Aurobindo

Nabokov & Borges seemed to have had opposing views on literary translation. While reading that post I could not but help think about Sri Aurobindo’s approach to literary translation, more specifically, translation of poetry.

The two contrasting views, as articulated in the post, are: Literal translation and Free-form Translation. Nabokov adheres to the literal school and views any change  in a translation as a deformation. While Borges delights in the “happy and creative infidelity” of the translated material to the original.

Sri Aurobindo had the following to say on literal vs free-form translation:

A translator is not necessarily bound to the exact word and letter of the original he chooses… We find that literal translation more completely betray than those that are reasonably free – turning life into death and poetic power into poverty and flatness.

Above quote was taken from an essay (warning, its a PDF file) by Usha Mahadevan on Sri Aurobindo’s Tirukkural translation. Some splendid examples there of how a translation could retain fidelity to spirit of the original, rather than the word-forms.

First Kural, first line – “Agara Mudala Ezhuthellam..”

Rev. G.U.Pope translates as, “A as its first of letters, every speech maintains”

Sri Aurobindo translates as “Alpha of all letters the first”.

Read the essay (PDF again) for some more examples contrasting Sri Aurobindo’s approach and others in dealing with Tirukkural.

I posted a comment on the Dialogos site about my views on literary translation. Yes, I do know its presumptuous to put my views in a post where Nabokov, Borges and Sri Aurobindo are mentioned..but hey, my Master is a tad lenient at such things 😉

Word-sense, sound rhythm, feeling and emotional aftertaste all make up our experience of language. To retain fidelity over all these factors while transplanting an idea from one linguistic landscape to another is a challenge.

For me, translation is less about the words than it is about transcribing that soul-state which yielded the words. The “sanctity of source text” resides not in the words but in the idea behind them and in the mind & heart that produced them.

To leave a reader in the target language the same joy, feeling and insight evoked by the original should be the primary goal.

Specific linguistic characteristics of the source language, say culture-specific ideas, puns, brevity of expression, sound rhythms…are more difficult to bring across and will invariably undergo a deformation, or mutation, driven by abilities of a target language and the translator.

So what do you think? Any strong views?

Note: Okay, I know this is not the most pressing issue for mankind's problems...but..damn..will shut up now!

NSA Manual for Budding Spies Quotes Greek Mythology

The NSA, a key component of America’s Intelligence Community, released a manual for budding spies titled, ‘Untangling the Web‘. Warning, it is a large pdf file. Given the sensational headline on Wired, I took a peek inside. Many points stood out, let me list a few for you.

Libraries in Persia

Love of learning in Persia

The opening passage of the Preface starts by illustrating love of learning in Persia. What struck me was the stark contrast of how Persia was then and how it is perceived now.

Sisyphean Fate of Spies and Information Seekers

Sisyphean Labors - 1

Sisyphean Labors - 2

This section captures the futility of trying to grasp the Internet. And what better way than to highlight the parallels with Sisyphus. This feeling of hopelessness should be familiar to anyone trying to gather any insight from unstructured data!

Minotaur in the Labyrinth

Minotaur in the Labyrinth

Love this parallel about being lost in the Labyrinth and role played by the Minotaur. And guess the irony, NSA might be the Minotaur, capturing every unwary piece of information that flows through the labyrinth!

Every Angle of the Universe

Every Angle of the Universe

To bring Borges and Boswell in the span of a single paragraph about the Internet does count for something in my view. I had never heard about Aleph but that  idea of “Aleph..little more than an inch..which nonetheless contains all space, actual and undiminished..in which one can see every angle of the universe” is profoundly beautiful.

Not sure if anyone other than Borges could have thought it up. Of course there are parallels with the Upanishadic idea of “Purusha, lodged in the heart and no larger than a thumb“. Purusha in this case is the Highest Consciousness, or the Brahman, in whom is contained All Time & Space and yet exceeds everything.

After this I was half-expecting references to the Library of Babel but unfortunately I did not find any. Neither could I search through the pdf because the whole document is made of images. So much for data transparency from the NSA, they basically gave a document that is not a document.

I have not read the entire document yet but found the preface and initial sections with references to Greek Mythology, Persia’s love of learning, Borges and Boswell strangely beautiful. Another example of beautiful minds serving fuzzy purposes.

RIP Encyclopedia Brittanica

Advertisement for Encyclopedia Brittanica, 1913

Encyclopedia Brittanica is dead. After 244 years the go-to source for world knowledge is no more.

Of course there has been much coverage over the web. I found a post on NYTimes and Tim Carmody‘s take most insightful.

The causes seem to be many, ranging from how online information made dead tree publishing moot, or how personal computer caused its demise and so on. What interests me though is how society has begun to regard authority in general. And specifically around how news publishers, universities, governments, democracies run by pseudo monarchies and institutions of dogma spreading their brand of intolerance worldwide. The basic principle has been the same, an ignorant populace will offer its obedience as subscription revenue or in fidelity to a faith.

Encyclopedia Brittanica was a classic example of being a popular authority on knowledge of the world. Whilst there is nothing explicitly wrong in any entity playing that role, it only allowed perspectives of a handful of people based in a certain location, with specific conceptual lenses and from a specific region.

So what is the issue here? Issue is that a common man would consider this limited perspective to be the entire deal. This would be your Bible, every other possibility of being in touch with Spirituality would be to you a heresy, something only barbaric pagans would do.

For example if you were an Indian, Chinese, or from the Middle-East, then the entire complex tapestry of your Nation, Culture and all else would be given a summary treatment. Just as Tendulkar‘s achievements would barely get a couple of columns on the NY Times. They are not interested, they don’t know or if politics entered the picture they don’t want any one else to know.

FYI, look at the copy at top of picture…has accompanied the Anglo-Saxon along with the Bible..not the picture of objectivity I would think.

Thankfully we have the internet, with its Wikipedia, Twitter, Blogs, Facebook and more. Before we had a comfortable single version of an event. Now we have many perspectives, many possibilities. And that is a good thing in more ways than one would think.

First we balk at this flood of data. But if we persisted, slowly we find our conceptual boundaries expand. I have found that music of my culture is but one strain of some infinite Music, I heard harmonies that are universal and how each culture brings its flavor of joy forward. I have found better science and equally good literature outside. And have understood the nuances that drive a few of these cultures. I have also found where my culture is better, in how it teaches me to let each man take his own path to a spiritual destiny, and not prattle that mine is the one true way.

We begin to evaluate and judge everything by what we have seen before. Our ability to discriminate becomes subtle. Yes, some would still choose to peddle their dogma with renewed vigor. But others begin to see through the charade and become wiser. And in that possibility is our hope. And the hope for a humanity that outgrows its robes of dogma and allows infinite diversity to co-exist harmoniously.

Bottom line? RIP Encyclopedia Brittanica, one more ‘authority’ down!

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Another Nail in Dravidian Race Myth

Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate, while investigating origins of his chromosome, stumbles upon genetic footprints that speak of evolution of modern man and the early migrations.

That man originated in Africa and migrated out is well known, what does not get spoken about is which other continent has the greatest genetic diversity. I produce the relevant quote of Sir Paul.

Outside of Africa, we see more variation in India than anywhere else which tells use we’ve been living in India for longer than any other place outside Africa. The question is, how many waves of migration out of Africa were there, and what were the timings of those events? – Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Laureate

So think about implications of that statement. More pertinently, the so-called Dravidian race theory is a sham. And if anything, the so-called Aryans should feel trampled over by the genetic markers people from the sub-continent have passed on. But guess what, it does not matter because you cannot wake people to a fact that would make their cherished opinions so blatantly false.

(via DNA Unlocks Secret of Early Humans. FYI, some NSFW content on that site)

Alphabets – By Google

I wondered, what if Algorithm and Commerce alone were to instruct our future. Using Google as a proxy, I typed the letters of the English alphabet to see what was returned. Results below. My thoughts at end of list.

[col_1_2 style=””]

A for Amazon

A for Amazon

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

B for Best Buy

B for Best Buy

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

C for Craigslist

C for Craigslist

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

D for Dictonary

D for Dictonary

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

E for ESPN

E for ESPN

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

F for Facebook

F for Facebook

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

G for Google

G for Google

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

H for Hotmail

H for Hotmail

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

i for iPhone5

i for iPhone5

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

J for JC Penny

J for JC Penny

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

K for Kohl's

K for Kohl's

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

L for Lowes

L for Lowes

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

M for MapQuest

M for MapQuest

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

N for Netflix

N for Netflix

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

O for Old Navy

O for Old Navy

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

P for Pandora

P for Pandora

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

Q for Quotes

Q for Quotes

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

R for RedBox

R for RedBox

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

S for Sears

S for Sears

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

T for Target

T for Target

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

U for USPS

U for USPS

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

V for Verizon

V for Verizon

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

W for Walmart

W for Walmart

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

X for X-Factor

X for X-Factor

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

[col_1_2 style=””]

Y for YouTube

Y for YouTube

[/col_1_2]

[col_1_2 style=””]

Z for Zillow

Z for Zillow

[/col_1_2]

[clear]

Highlights

  • All entries for letter G are Google properties
  • iPhone is the only product on entire list
  • Dictionary at D is either insatiable curiosity or utter ignorance
  • Love at L is 4th, after Louis Vuitton at 3rd
  • And A for Amazon?! WTF?

How to become susceptible to creativity

My post on a Frost quote about ‘right reader of good poetry‘ helped me understand that ‘susceptibility’ to the ‘immortal wound’ of receiving poetry is key.

Can creativity be taught?

Thinking on the same lines, I asked myself, can creativity be taught? But what would one teach? Would it be the Kubrick-ian ability to conjure up and frame human dramas? Would we teach the mechanics of cognition and the roots of thinking itself? Or would we learn about human failure fueling study and reinterpretation of epics? Or should we do the in thing and do a Freud on Steve Jobs?

The methods seem to be many. The question remains – can one be made susceptible to creativity? My answer would be yes, creativity can be taught. But teaching is just one part of the equation, the learning side is often skewed with difficulties. There is a curious mixture of tenacity, focus and some unknown alchemy that goes into creating and creativity. I have attempted to capture some basic principles that should help get someone be more creative.

Disassemble

Learning from what has been done before is the quickest way to seed your head with basic ideas. It could be a piece of software code, a toy or a poem. Dissect it into its components and learn what role is played by every component, how it interacts with other components and how it all fits together to become a whole.

Better it

Once you are done dissecting and understanding now try to better it. What would you improve? Which aspect would you change? What consequences would it have on realizing the end goal? It does not matter if you don’t actually do it. Imagine you will and work out the details. This stage is all about possibilities. Capture these possibilities as UX mockups, design sketches or scribbles in a diary. It does not matter if you do not pursue it. What matters is that you churn out possibilities.

Seek feedback

After possibility generation is the crucial step of gathering feedback. Choose the right judge, do not ask a poet to critique your proposal to revolutionize fuel consumption in turbo engines. In this step you will realize the awesomeness of the human mind. What you mulled about for ages and thought it impossible to add or remove from, another mind will pick apart in seconds. This assumes you have a competent circle of acquaintances. While disappointment is inevitable, what should not be done is to self-critique yourself. The journey you took is essential for yourself.

Continue producing possibilities and getting feedback. At a certain point in time you will find the feedback being restricted to superficialities or turning into admiration. That is when you realize you need a bigger goal and/or a better judge.

Seek diversity

There comes a point in time when you can create but it does not have that something unique which makes people admire or want it. That is when you know you have been focussed too long. Diversity or variety of topics is essential for a healthy creative mind. If you are a programmer, wander around the philosophy aisle of your library. If a poet, stick around in a mechanic’s shop for a day. Walk around your neighborhood, observe everything. Think about why things are so and not otherwise.

Slowly you will see similarities between the most divergent of topics, patterns will emerge. Translating or extrapolating patterns from one domain into another always yields new insights. This way you could raise your game without being bored ever.

Allow conflict

Creativity is not just a function of the skills acquired. The worldview of the creator plays a very big role. A very popular example is that influence of Zen on Steve Jobs and his design aesthetic. But a firm worldview does not usually allow for other views to seep in. This must go. Allow conflict. You need not be steamrolled by every opinion that passes you way. Consider a conflicting view, assess it for its merits. Take what seems appropriate for your goals and leave the rest. Handling conflict is a key trait that will make you a better person and help grow character.

Nurture Angst

The one I don’t know how to explain! Angst to me is that inexplicable thorn that propels all creative individuals. This is a thorn that eggs them to create and change the world. To mould the world into something it is not. If you do not have this angst perhaps you have not thought enough. If you do have it, then good. Nurture this angst, foster it. From that fire will emerge all that you would spew out in this world.

That is a brief list. Now its up to you, what would you add to this list?

Immortal Wound

It is absurd to think that the only way to tell if a poem is lasting is to wait and see if it lasts. The right reader of a good poem can tell the moment it strikes him that he has taken an immortal wound — that he will never get over it. – Robert Frost

What struck me about the quote’s perspective was the notion of ‘right reader’. I thought about it for a while and have come to some understanding. The right reader is someone susceptible to the immortal wound. Someone who consciously opens himself to the pain of receiving the beauty of poetry.

Meera with her Divine Beloved

Perhaps it is this same susceptibility, or perhaps a naiveté, that makes the adventurer head out into unchartered seas, makes the devotee lose herself pining for the Divine Beloved or makes a creator stake his all into building something. Perhaps each was, and is, aware that it might all come to naught.

There seems to be one trait that links adventurer, devotee and entrepreneur types, each is a dreamer. Someone who overlooks what is, in pursuit of what can be. Someone who has to courage to be open to a wound.

We started with that sublime phrase ‘immortal wound’. Our little tangent seems to have gathered a potential oxymoron, susceptible + courageous.

What is the point you ask? Well, nothing really..just savor that phrase ‘immortal wound’, forget the rest.

Where will you be swept off to?

I stepped outside the door last week of August 2011. After 15 odd years of relentless running I had the opportunity to step back and consider the runner, the running and the race.

The Hobbit

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

Am yet to be ‘swept off’ but the journey so far has been exhilarating, surprising and challenging. Below I share a little of what I have realized and learnt so far.

  • Context changes everything. Including what you know of yourself and others.
  • What remains after labels are stripped away is character.
  • Not every relationship sprouts.
  • Serendipity does happen!
  • Full-time employment or startup is a question of which challenges you wish to take on.
  • Power unveils character.
  • There is generosity in unexpected places, seek it.
  • Conventional wisdom on anything breaks down at the fine-print.
  • Complete freedom is harder to handle than it appears. Empathize with men who elect to be constrained.
  • What you do when you can do anything is driven by character.

All considered, I feel I should have walked out the door sooner. And yes I do have things other than aphorisms to talk about 🙂 I shall do another update on my startup, progress so far and thoughts on next steps.

And am curious, what did you learn last year about the world and yourself?

Note: The picture above is of The Hobbit.