Comment Of The Day: “Megyn Kelly, William Saroyan, Ethics, Me, And Us: A Rueful Essay” (#1)

My post over the weekend, one long in germination, regarding the personal and societal dilemma of balancing one’s duty to oneself, one’s duty to be useful  and the infuriating hard-wired human tendency to always seek something different and better, received a gratifying response and at least two Comments of the Day.

This is the first, by frequent COTD auteur Extradimensional Cephalopod, is a marvelous supplement to my post, and I wish I had written it myself, except I couldn’t have.

Here is EC’s Comment of the Day on the post, Megyn Kelly, William Saroyan, Ethics, Me, And Us: A Rueful Essay:

One of the central principles of Buddhism is “life is suffering”. Clarified, it means that conscious beings inherently have some concept of how they want the world to be that is different from how it actually is. Alternatively, if the world is already how they want it to be, either the chaos in the world will bring it out of alignment with their desires, or they will eventually become dissatisfied as their minds develop further. This is what the bartender in Saroyan’s story is referring to. It’s the existential condition; “condemned to be free”, as Sartre put it.

Having studied desire and motivation from an existential point of view, I’ve codified eight motivations that lead people to form goals. They are based on three dichotomies: experience versus control, greater and lesser quantity, and order versus chaos.

Greed/ambition: the desire for more control or more accomplishment (acquiring more possessions or becoming more important).
Gluttony/celebration: the desire for more of an experience (greater intensities or more constant access).
Wrath/boldness: the desire to break through limits by exerting control (disregarding rules or doing the impossible).
Lust/curiosity: the desire to remove limits on one’s experiences (experiencing the unknown).
Hubris/scrupulousness: the desire to impose limits through one’s control (absolute, perfect control over something).
Envy/dedication: the desire to impose limits on one’s experiences (obsession or tunnel vision).
Sloth/contentment: the desire to have less control (having responsibility or having to pay less attention).
Cowardice/prudence: the desire to have less of an experience (avoiding pain or discomfort).

Each of these motivations, or vices, also has two attributes: intensity (advancing goals) and mobility (switching goals).

None of these motivations are inherently good or evil. They’re the reason good and evil can exist in the first place; helping other people fulfill their motivations at your own expense is “good”, and parasitically hurting people to further your own motivations is “evil”. (There’s also “neutral”, where you’re neither generous nor parasitic, but only make mutually beneficial transactions.)

However, a person who is addicted to any of these motivations and unable to resist it is more likely to do evil things. Additionally, if a person is motivated primarily by only one or two motivations, at least within a particular context, they’re fairly easy to predict or manipulate. (I myself am largely motivated by wrath, lust, hubris, sloth, cowardice, and to a limited extent gluttony and envy. Greed isn’t as much my thing, but I can still appreciate it.)

Some of these motivations, and mobility attribute, go a long ways towards explaining why people would leave a sure thing for a new career. I certainly wouldn’t want to live in a world that kept them from trying. We can’t really say they owe it to us to stay, at least no more than we owe it to each other to hold ourselves to increasing standards, though it would certainly be “good” of them to sacrifice their personal dreams to keep helping people by doing what they’re good at. The polymaths in your list, who apparently didn’t face that same tradeoff, would have mastered enough mindsets and been passionate about enough different things that they could focus on making great works in many fields (while making a living in at least one of them at any given time).

Ultimately, I’d like for people to become so capable on average that it doesn’t matter much if some gifted people choose not to use their gifts. To me, the greatest tragedy is that nearly everyone is squandering their ability to make the world a better place by holding society and civilization to higher standards, refusing to tolerate complacency, and creating constructive solutions to problems. Society could be a lot better off than it is if people practiced better thinking habits. Exponentially so if people had started practicing them farther back in history.

As for myself, I am struggling with the very concepts you describe, but I don’t quite know where I fit in your lists. I am confident that I could become fairly skilled in any one of a number of disciplines, but I don’t have the energy to be a polymath, at least without a very supportive environment. I would rather not spend my time and mental energy doing things that other people could do just as well, when I could better apply my intensity-attribute perception mindset towards changing the world so that people are more on the same page and systems work the way we would hope them to. That’s something far too few people are working on. If I accomplish it in my lifetime and have enough time left over, I may take up acting or fiction writing, or go back to the STEM disciplines.

3 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Megyn Kelly, William Saroyan, Ethics, Me, And Us: A Rueful Essay” (#1)

  1. Extradimensional Cephalopod,
    That’s a fabulous thought inspiring comment! What’s interesting about motivation is that motivation isn’t optional, everyone is motivated to do nothing or to do something, either negatively or positively.

    I particularly like this…

    “…the greatest tragedy is that nearly everyone is squandering their ability to make the world a better place by holding society and civilization to higher standards, refusing to tolerate complacency, and creating constructive solutions to problems. Society could be a lot better off than it is if people practiced better thinking habits.”

    Amen brother!

    I was once told that if you want to make a difference in the world then you should “identify your area of excellence, your distinctive competency and utilize it in the service of others. Be a leader that thinks and acts beyond boundaries, be an intentional pebble dropped in the pond who’s ripple is designed to create a wave of change”.

    A leader is anyone who has two characteristics; first, he/she going someplace; second, he/she is able to persuade other people to go along.

  2. Thanks, EC. You’ve just given me a way to explain to my parents what I was doing with my life and why. Unfortunately, they are long gone but having these keys — it was never anything single or simple, was it? — goes a long way towards understanding them as well. To outsiders, my dad, for example, never moved. He began as a child studying for medicine. The eldest of immigrant parents, this was his sole goal. Every penny earned, every piece of knowledge grasped, was focused on that end, and that end appeared immutable. He was an old fashioned GP, making house calls and treating whole families; then an Army Air Corps surgeon; finally when specialties became the new thing, he became a pioneering OB/GYN, bringing the husband, parents, in-laws and older children and hospital nurses into the glorious act of birthin’ babies. Over 2,500 of them. He continued, night and day, to the age of 57, when he died of a final cardiac arrest.

    When his children were born, something had changed internally, indoors, transforming himself gradually into a person with many other lives. As we grew, he read (to himself as well as to us) all the children’s stories, changing his voice for all the parts — and “classics”: whenever there was a thunderstorm he became raving King Lear. During the war and for the rest of his life, he read voraciously, going through base libraries A-Z. When we started gym classes and sports, he taught us every role on the ball field (except umpire – he hated umpires) and most of the rules of The Great Game; he taught himself to swim, to play tennis; golf was too slow, he played handball. When we were old enough to read and write for ourselves he began writing poetry; when began as we went out into the world, he went to films and to theater, ballet, visited museums and zoos, began to sketch (he already had the anatomy!), to paint (not very well, but with much enthusiasm and joy, the movement of Degas, the light of Utrillo), to experiment with photography, finally to sculpt. If he was okay at something, he stuck with it until he felt he’d gone as far as he could (languages and singing were not aptitudes). Both his great passions began in the doctor’s ‘waiting room’: where most napped until the contractions called to them, he whittled away with a penknife at figures of people he knew, at fantastic abstractions. He went home and made clay models, then began in bronze. He knew some artists socially; was invited to have a show at a gallery in Manhattan. Zero to 1,000%, he called it. Nothing he had ever done had been made public before. He thanked them and refused. Then he took a swift swim across an Upstate lake in March and died the following week. On the phone, the day before, he sounded fine, proud and happy. My mother, his sibs, and all his patients were very angry with him.

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