Thursday, October 25, 2012

Elaine, Krugman, Cassandra, and Me

"Come on, Anu, you can do it!" 

My cheerful demon trainer Elaine offers encouragement as I perform what appears to be a simple exercise, but is quite difficult for me.

I was not a particularly coordinated kid, and I wouldn't say I was "good" at sports. But I always used to be able to just push my way through, using willpower or determination or the vigor of youth.

As Elaine speaks, I wonder (not for the first time), if perhaps I actually cannot do it.

Various parts of my body bark pain signals at me, reminding me of accumulated wear and tear. My heart pounds.

I used to work out and run because I wanted to be strong. Or because I wanted to look good clothed and naked. Today, the primary reason is damage control, and aiming to prevent future decrepitude.

Aging has taught me 2 things: The world is complex and nuanced, and I understand very little of it. I think about this as I sweat.

Perhaps another way of thinking of this is that I've had 43 years of making mistakes, and every day and year I discover new and innovative ways to do something wrong. I think there's a reason they say that something painful "smarts".

Paul Krugman is a smart guy. I was more than a little surprised to read this post he wrote:
A starting point: It is a truth not universally acknowledged that it’s possible to be a highly successful academic and still have a somewhat fragile sense of self-worth. You get your papers published, you get tenure, maybe you win some prizes; all this says that your colleagues believe that your stuff is right, that you really do know something about your subject. But do you really? Or are you just good at self-marketing? 
Some, maybe many, academics don’t care; they’ve carved out a nice career and life, so it’s all good. But if you are truly serious about your work as opposed to your career, the question of whether your knowledge is real is always with you. 
As you’ve already guessed, I’m talking to some extent about myself. I’ve always been very serious about my work, I’ve always tried to be more than a mere careerist. I’ve had a wonderful career, getting all the major gongs, yet as late as 2008 it was still possible for that small self-doubting voice in my head to whisper that being a facile modeler and a pretty good writer might not mean that I really knew how the world works.
As one friend said when I shared this, "Amen."

Aging has also taught me "the only constant is change". This is particularly diabolical, as it means I must constantly weigh what I know was true (based on my past experiences and accumulated knowledge) against what I expect will be true (based on my past experiences and accumulated knowledge).

The world changes. People change. 2012's expectations around business or product or life are substantially different from 1982's, 1992's, and 2002's. Deep awareness of that is perhaps the most important bit of knowledge I've gained.

You can't roll dice one time, look at the number and say "I know what happens when I roll dice". After decades of dice rolling, the best you can do is understand the range of possibilities. That still doesn't give you the ability to predict what will happen when you roll them the next time. And then the number of dice change. And the rules of the game.


All this wisdom comes with a sting, because the main thing it teaches is that you can't really be sure of anything for too long. And the older I get and the more I feel I know, the less I feel I know for sure.

I do know what I am personally capable of, though. I have been tested and self-tested. I have scores of scores, in one form or another.

I can make stuff, I can write - songs, essays, specifications. I can present, perform, speak. I may not be the best at any of those things, but I know I am better than most people at them, and better than some people who consider themselves to be very good.

But aging has also helped me find my limits. As a younger man, there didn't seem to be any. A few decades in, I can see some of those limits off in the distance, and some I run into more frequently. I know more often what I am not personally capable of, as well.

Perhaps I'm just more aware of the consequences. When you're 20, you don't really think much about running long and hard, even if it hurts. When you're 40, you know someone your age who had a heart attack doing just that.

The price of any knowledge is loss of innocence. In the case of self-knowledge, stripping away  illusions and delusions can be painful.

It's also painful to watch other people on track to make the same or worse mistakes, despite your efforts to help.

Krugman again:
So that’s great – except that it turns out that one form of anxiety has just been replaced with another. It’s great to have confirmation that you weren’t just playing career games; it is, however, not just frustrating but terrifying to watch decision-makers ignore all the hard-won evidence and knowledge, and repeat the mistakes of the 1930s. The good news is that I’m not Sammy Glick; the bad news is that I’m Cassandra.
Did you know Cassandra was also known as Alexandra?

I finish my set. Elaine looks at me.

"Sorry Elaine, my head wasn't in the game on that one. Let me give you a good set with effort this time."

Elaine smiles. I start over.