The fundamental Amory."
— F. Scott Fitzgerald - This Side of Paradise
No, I have never actually driven Judi Dench anywhere. In fact, I have never even met her. But I dreamt that I did. I must have been 9 or 10 years old at the time, but I remember parts of it vividly. I was driving my father’s white Mini (Morris, not BMW). Judi Dench was visiting my parents because, in my dream, she knew them … naturally. I also knew how to drive. I drove her through the sleepy streets of the town where I grew up in Zambia. We lived close to the border with The Congo, and I drove her to see the Copper Mine where my father worked.
“It’s one of the wettest mines in the world”, I said to her, very authoritatively.
I don’t remember if she said anything. It was a sunny day, and the shadows of leaves from the willow trees in my neighborhood danced across our faces.
This was before she became Dame Judi Dench. Before she was James Bond’s M. I knew about her in the same way that children today know that President Obama is famous, but are somewhat immune from the awe of fame. To me, she was just Judi Dench. Still, I sensed that she must have been important, because I saw her on TV every Wednesday evening when my parents watched her on the BBC show As Time Goes By.
It’s Judi Dench, I told myself in the dream. Don’t crash the car. Don’t kill Judi Dench.
The Mini Morris was my parents’ first car. My father taught my mother how to drive in it. They argued in it. Ever taught, or been taught by, your sibling or significant other how to drive? If you have, then you know that it’s best to leave these things to the experts. They took me home in it from the hospital where I was born. I’ve been told other stories, of things that happened before I was born. One day, my mother was picking up my older sister from nursery school, and she accidentally scraped the back door of the car against the school’s fence. When the door’s handle fell off, she asked my sister not to tell my dad until she could get it fixed. My sister did tell my dad though, later that day. Kids don’t see the point in keeping secrets.
I have a theory about why I have remembered this somewhat ridiculous dream of driving Judi Dench, at the age of ten, through a town in Africa she has surely never heard of. I believe it is because this dream evokes the best parts of my childhood. That’s the thing about dreams. They are often fleeting and elusive, we often don’t remember them, but when we do, they really stick. The dreams that stick with us are the ones that are powerful metaphors. They resonate.
Neurologists and psychologists can delve far more eloquently than me into the magnificent intricacies of the brain, its neuro(tic) transmissions, why we dream and remember. My theory is not based on scientific inquiry. It is based on the experiences and stories that made up my childhood.
I remember my parents’ Mini Morris vividly because of the stories that happened in it. I remember Judi Dench, not because she is Judi Dench (although I did grow up to admire her), but because she was part of Wednesday evenings in my parents’ house. I remember the dream because it is closely linked with stories from my childhood that make me happy.
Yes, happy. Everyone, it seems, is talking about what happiness is these days. We are selling, delivering, designing, creating and measuring it. All that is left to do now is create an App for it. The Earth Institute at Columbia University recently released a report on happiness, ambitiously called the “World Happiness Report”. The report provides ideas on how we can start to measure our collective happiness more meaningfully, and how these can be used to influence policy decisions.
These all may be positive developments as we generally shift the way we think about happiness at a collective level (i.e. how we can create products, companies, brands and policies that lift or incent happiness for society as a whole). However, fundamentally, the idea of happiness is subjective to each of us. It is personal. We use our own scales to measure it. Our own experiences and dreams, such as driving Judi Dench, evoke it.
This aspect of happiness, I believe, can only partially be captured via collective actions and measures. Each of us must try, sometimes stumble, fall, and build again in our individual pursuits. Here is what I know from my share of pitfalls, missteps, and periods of general angst since I imagined driving Judi Dench all those years ago.
Happiness is not the same thing as pleasure. It is not the fizz from opening a Coke can, despite what advertisers would like you to believe. It is not the smell of a new car, just like love is not really love at first sight. It cannot be bought, and therefore, cannot be sold or delivered. It is not a good, nor is it a service or brand. It cannot be consumed, only experienced. And it does not mean that everything is going to be perfectly right, or wrong, all the time.
The pursuit of happiness is far greater than the pursuit of material wealth alone (i.e. income and GNP). In fact, research shows that happiness is not a long term end state, rather it is a way of approaching life, and it lies in pursuing well-being and seeking meaning. It lies in building meaningful relationships. In order to cope with the loneliness, pain, isolation, bereavement, loss, and financial insecurity that is the lot of life, we need the relationships that make us human. Friendship and love matter, but not in the ways that pop culture tells us that they do. We need to connect meaningfully with those around us. We need to hear a friend say we can count on them on a rainy day, and have them mean it.
Pursue meaning. Seek well-being. It is difficult. Sometimes bitter. So let’s cut the illusions. There will be periods when things will not be as delightful as you would hope, when things will be just OK. But it’s alright. This is what life is all about.
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Hope is an odd word. It’s simple, we all intuitively know what it means, yet its meaning is complex. As long as I hope, I desire, and expect certain things to happen. All of history is nothing more than a story about hope. My inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is, fundamentally, about my right to hope.
So what happens when our hopes become a little too clever for our own good?
If history is any indication, our transgressions eventually catch up with us and we pay for them dearly.
Auden wrote the lines above in his poem September 1, 1939 during the worst of World War II. I read it again last year, around the time when the Greek Government became the latest recipient of a bailout to avoid defaulting on its debt. I found myself re-reading and highlighting these lines. Over seventy years after Auden wrote this poem, I looked back at another low and dishonest decade. Others too have looked back and much has already been written and said about what went wrong and what led us here. Sure, the story may be different based on where you live, but the themes are the same.
We have been awfully clever over the past few decades, at the expense of our own good.
The institutions, the centralized custodians of the social contract, have failed to meet expectations.
We have managed, quite successfully, to write our own ruin.
We are at a turning point.
Every significant moment in history is difficult to go through. Each one tests our resilience. In these moments, we understandably feel melancholic, uncertain, and afraid, as Auden did. Institutions have fallen, or have failed, both in the developing world, and in the advanced, industrialized economies. Entire industries are either being disrupted or are disappearing, while new ones that did not even exist five years ago are being imagined. All these forces are exponentially magnified by globalization and a technological revolution. All these changes are painful. Auden was a poet; he captured the pain he witnessed, and wrote about what happens to hope, that fragile, constant part of our existence, when an entire generation is caught in the throes of change.
The economist John Maynard Keynes, I believe, would have been more optimistic. He has certainly been quoted often in the past couple of years. If I’ve learned one thing in trying to understand this crisis, it’s that Keynes had the gift of the long view, I suppose, as any good economist should. Keynes however, many believe, was also right:
“We are being afflicted with a new disease… namely, technological unemployment … This means our discovery of means of economizing the use of labor is outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labor. But this is only a temporary phase of maladjustment.”
So the solution is at least easily identifiable, if not easily achieved: We need to find new uses for our labor. Keynes was hopeful.
But was he really right? Keynes said these words in 1930 and was speaking about the Great Depression. As it turns out, the “temporary phase of maladjustment” he described can be quite prolonged, if you look at the events that shook the world after, in the 1930s and ’40s. For most of the world, including where I grew up, in Africa’s navel, and where my parents were raised, in India, this phase of maladjustment persisted for most of the twentieth century, and in many respects, still continues to do so.
The economist Philip Auerswald explains why in the article I linked to above:
“It turns out that Keynes’s vision depended on two critical elements not present in most of the world until recently: The organization of the economy attainable through large-scale investment, and the adaptability of the economy attainable through entrepreneurship. Soviet socialist economies had the first, but the not the second; most of the rest of the world had neither.”
Until now. He argues that end of the Cold War and the liberalization of markets in countries like Brazil, India, China, Russia, and Indonesia (to name a few) accelerated the pace of global change by unleashing increased investment and entrepreneurial activity in these economies. In other words, we are at a moment at which the two elements which Keynes’s vision depended on are starting to be realized and will continue to sustain the pace of global change.
So, how do we go about finding our place in this change? Much has been written about how my generation, fondly (derisively?) coined as the Millennials, has been coping with it. We’ve been called many things: the MacGyver and DIY generation, generation flux, and even generation stuck. While these are all very catchy soundbites, they fall short in addressing the root of the problem. Philip Auerswald again (from the same article):
“This generation indebted themselves as none before to earn their credentials only to find, too often, that the job market was looking for someone or something else.”
This sentence, like no other I’ve read so far, captures the core challenge we face. This is not to say that undergraduate, or graduate, education is now rendered useless. Rather, it means that a textbook approach to navigating our careers will no longer work on its own, because the textbooks are largely still designed for an economy that no longer exists. It means that we are entering a period where the creation of real, meaningful, value actually needs to occur pervasively across every pocket of the economy in order to contribute to GDP.
Anyone who has ever done anything of value and meaning knows that this process is not easy. It’s often arbitrary and punitive. It must be fueled by inspiration. And this therefore means that it’s important, first and foremost, to be loyal to your purpose if you want to lead a searingly rewarding life. Your pension will follow.
Success, I believe, is no longer defined just by how clever we are or what we know today, but by how fast we can learn what we will need to know tomorrow. This requires humility, agility, curiosity, and a constant hunger to learn.
Often, with change, the biggest challenge lies not in understanding it, but in finding our place in it. Like Keynes and Mr. Auerswald, I am hopeful about the long term consequences of all these changes. This is not the first time the world has seen a bend in the road. But this time, the bends are many and sharp. Put together, they might not only just move the world forward, but shift it off its axis and unleash possibilities for human potential we have not seen since the start of the industrial revolution. And we get to see it happen.
Isn’t this something worth being hopeful for? This moment is, I believe, our opportunity to waste.
“Hope”, the poet Emily Dickinson said, “is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul”. Those who are more pragmatically minded than me would rightly point out that hope also exposes me to being disappointed. Even so, I know that if I stop hoping, I stop dreaming. To hope, some say, is mad, irrational, and foolish, especially in hard times. True. But, the pursuit of my own interests, that is, the force behind Adam Smith’s invisible hand, is sometimes fueled by nothing more than hope, nothing more than a belief that something I perceive in my mind is possible. In this respect, hope is not an ephemeral or abstract concept. It is the motive power that moves the world.
I love a good speech, like I love a good song, or poem. Good speeches engage, entertain, inspire, amuse, and above all, are delightful to consume.
Perhaps more interesting than the speech itself sometimes is the story behind it. Who wrote it? What was the broader context? Why did they pick these words? How did they get it so right, or so wrong? So, naturally, I loved the opening scene of the film The King’s Speech.
It is the year 1925 at Wembley Stadium, London, when the film starts. Prince Albert, Duke of York, is announced. He is to give a speech at the close of the British Empire Exhibition. The Prince hesitates for a moment before walking to the microphone. Seated beside him is his wife. She smiles at him encouragingly, but her anxiety spills through her stoic expression, like water through a crack in a perfectly painted wall. He walks to the microphone, regarding it as one would an adversary. The stadium’s audience turns around to face him, while a red light next to the microphone blinks expectantly.
Already, it seems, the microphone has won.
The pause that follows fills the stadium to its brim, as he struggles to begin his speech. He breaks two fundamental principles of public speaking that a politician, debate team, or anyone who has tried to win the captive attention of an eighth grade classroom adheres to religiously:
One: Start with a noun, not “uhh”, “so”, “and” or “but”. In fact, renounce all knowledge of conjunctions and prepositions at the beginning of your sentences, because they will betray you and share your fear like a gossip in the crowd. To be fair, Prince Albert’s speech does start with a noun, but its effect is diluted when it echoes and ricochets off the walls of the stadium. Each hollow repetition seems to mock his stammer.
Two: Enunciate. Eeeenuuunciiiiate. Speech enthusiasts, writers, and aspiring orators have learned one thing, first and foremost, from the acclaimed early twentieth century British play Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. They have learned that phonetics matter. For those among us who were not born with the gift of elegant gab, all hope is not lost, because second on the list of lessons from Shaw’s play is that, the art of good diction can be learned. Eliza Doolittle (the working class, 19th century London flower girl in Shaw’s play) succeeds in shedding her rustic cockney accent and assuming one that is refined enough for London’s high society. The King too, in the end, succeeds in overcoming his stammer.
It is a powerful opening scene, but not my favorite in the film. It was the final speech that Albert, who had by then become King, gave via radio address as England and Europe were consumed by the tectonic wave of war that made me gush with praise and tell my friends to see it. The shaky ground on which the 1920s sat, when he had given his first speech at the beginning of the film, had crumbled.
For the second time in the lives of most of us, he says,
The words beat rhythmically against my eardrums. The King’s voice remains steady, flowing through the pauses inserted by his speech therapist, Lionel Logue. Each pause makes every word carry its meaning. He speaks to a country that faces war at its doorstep. His words connect a people to its leader at a time when they face tremendous human sorrow and suffering.
After watching the film, I listened to the original audio transcript of the speech delivered in 1939. The King’s voice ebbs and flows through the words, pausing and stopping in the familiar spots, a testament to Colin Firth’s sublimely accurate re-enactment. His voice is singular and steady, as he deconstructs the argument for declaring war, and distills, through the chaos, a sense of purpose for his people.
The speech is a remarkable example of the largely under recognized art of speech writing. Woven together, the King’s words assume a utilitarian role that is broader than pure art. They soothe, and try to heal. They fill the void created in a society that is lurching in the grips of war, where a broader sense of meaning has been lost due to the paralyzing tragedy of the present.
Many years ago, on a sunny afternoon in Mafikeng, South Africa, where I went to school, I listened to a recording of President John F. Kennedy’s famous Presidential inaugural speech. I was fifteen, and knew very little about Kennedy. I had borrowed a cassette of his speeches from the school library for a class project. There was a static pause in the beginning, while the tape warmed up and hummed forward.
And so, my fellow Americans
Ask not what your country can do for you
Ask what you can do for your country
What great expectations. It was my first introduction to powerful speech writing, and it prompted me to find every other speech by Kennedy I could find. His words asked a country to believe they could go to the moon, decades before I was born. He asked, in his inaugural speech, a generation to struggle for a cause greater than themselves. By asking these difficult questions, he made people believe that they could answer, that they had the power and responsibility to not just participate, but contribute.
Good speeches resonate across generations. They ignite the dreams that palpitate beyond the peripheries of our awareness. They tell us to keep on reaching, that the ideals that elude us today are not dead just because they don’t exist at the present time. They do exist, as long as we have the audacity to imagine them.
Yes, the audacity. The word has become synonymous with the current American President, described by many as being part politician part poet, a man inspired by another great orator, Lincoln. Barack Obama did more than just weave together the fabric of America in his 2004 Democratic National Convention keynote (there is not a liberal America and a Conservative America – there is the United States of America). He spoke as a proud American, but reached out beyond the sphere of Americana, beyond the fundamental American tenet of E Pluribus Unum and the declaration of independence. He addressed the world, acknowledging that, though he is a citizen of America, he is the result of a narrative that is larger than America. His was a dream that is American but also shared between his white American and black Kenyan grandparents – A common dream, born of two continents.
“Lofty words!” his critics cried. But the flame was lit, and a notion lingered. A faint idea brewed and gathered momentum as his speech developed. It was probably similar to the belief of those many years before me who watched Kennedy, the young catholic candidate, make an unlikely bid for America’s Presidency. It was the notion, based on not much more than the echo of his speech that evening, that he could be the first, that Obama, the relatively unknown Senatorial candidate from Illinois, could be President.
“Always be a poet, even in prose”, the French poet Baudelaire said. Twentieth century history is peppered with leaders who translated, for their people, the narrative of the times in which they lived. Their speeches animate the story of our heritage in the words of the people who lived through it. Through the tenor of their voices, we glimpse the color of their dreams. Their words live beyond the generations that they were originally written for, weaving the fabric of our narrative, like poetry spoken out loud.
To this, I imagine King George VI might have said, with a dose of reticence, “I am humbled, though that was not the original intention.”
Even so, I thank him for the gift.
(Image Credit: the BBC program, which the excerpt of the King’s WW II speech above links to)
I didn’t. So, to refresh:
The definition of Euclidean Geometry (per Wikipedia):
- Euclid’s method consists in assuming a small set of intuitively appealing axioms, and deducing many other propositions (theorems) from these.
- Although many of Euclid’s results had been stated by earlier mathematicians, Euclid was the first to show how these propositions could fit into a comprehensive deductive and logical system.
Let’s clarify a few terms:
- Axiom: A logical statement that is assumed to be true. An axiom is any mathematical statement that serves as a starting point from which other statements are logically derived.
The implication of this definition is that axioms cannot be derived by principles of deduction, because they are starting points. There is nothing else from which they logically follow. So, for example:
If two lines are parallel on a plane,
And a third line on the plane is perpendicular to one of these two lines,
Then it follows that the third line will also be perpendicular to the other line as well.
Another term requiring clarification:
- Proposition / Theorem: In mathematics, a theorem is a statement that has been proven on the basis of previously established statements, such as other theorems, and previously accepted statements, such as axioms.
The trick of course, lies in identifying the axioms. Euclid’s discoveries were in the field of Geometry, but the logic of his theorem is infinitely more widely applicable. Geometry is really all about deducing how shapes, lines, planes will behave, based on a set of known truths about them. In essence, it is a system that allows one to predict the future (about shapes, lines, planes, etc).
Pretty amazing, especially when I think about the fact that I learned Geometry, like most people, from the eighth to tenth grades. That is, I was being taught the most fundamental elements of logic, deduction, and how these tools can be used to predict the future, and I did not even know it. Sadly, I bet that most kids studying this stuff today don’t know it either. It’s just not taught that way, which is a fundamental problem. Often, theories and ideas are taught, spoon fed and memorized in the vacuum of a classroom. The result is that a taught idea rarely equates to true knowledge. In fact, it rarely ever does.
I only made this connection between Geometry and logic when I took a philosophy class in college. And this link between my tenth grade Euclidean geometry knowledge, and the critical logic concepts of my college level philosophy class was not explicitly taught to me. Rather, it just occurred to me when I learned about the elements of critical logic (in the context of philosophy).
Who knew. Maybe, my philosophy professor should be teaching geometry to kids in high school. One thing is clear: Knowledge, true knowledge, the kind that seeps into your brain and becomes something you know almost intuitively, occurs at the meeting point between multi-varied subjects and experiences.