Charlie's Blog


The funniest people are the saddest ones.

My life has been incredibly busy for the last month, and I have neglected the C-blog over that time period. When I have had time, I have been beat up and tired to the point that sitting down at a keyboard is the last thing I care to do. I don't even want to write this, but I am making myself do it. This leads to a few questions. Am I writer? Should I continue with writing?

My answer to those two questions can only come when I answer a few bigger questions. When it comes to my activities, I have two options, and I am torn between those two options on a constant basis. I have touched on the issue before in other blog posts, so this may be a revisit for some regular readers of the C-blog. One path is the Renaissance path. The other path is the Zen path.

I am a fan of the Renaissance Ideal. This is the idea that human beings should pursue various avenues of thought and develop themselves to their fullest potential. Aristotle is to blame for this crazy idea, but the Renaissance was a time of great human flourishing as a consequence of this idea. I also believe that it is a Catholic idea.

If there is a single statement embodying this ideal, it would be this. More is more. You should read more and do more. What you read and do should be of superior quality. The problem comes when you hit against the limitations of time, money, and energy. There are only so many hours in the day. You only have so much money to indulge on projects. And then, there is the simple fact of getting tired. The Renaissance path is a frustrating path. It is more ambition than completion.

My frustrations with this Renaissance path led me to the Zen Habits blog and the life strategies of Leo Babauta. Leo has one essential strategy for dealing with frustration and stress. This strategy is ruthless simplification. Less is more. I call this path the "Zen path."

If you follow the Renaissance path, you will meet with frustration. If you follow the Zen path, you will meet with boredom. Somewhere between boredom and frustration is the right path, but I don't know what that path is called or what it looks like. In my internal debate between these two paths, I have reached a few firm conclusions.

The first conclusion is that you want to go down the Zen path when it comes to material things. You don't need a big house or expensive clothes in your life. Live small instead of living large. Clean out the clutter in your life. Eschew the McMansion. Paring your life to the essentials will free up lots of time, money, and energy. Minimalism in the material realm is a winning strategy.

The second conclusion that I have reached is that you cannot be a polymath while holding down a day job. I admire Leonardo and Aristotle, but those dudes were not burdened with full time employment. In the modern realm, the closest guy I know to being a polymath is Nassim Taleb who knows many languages, is wicked smart in math, and has written books. I consider myself to be a writer, but I have yet to write a single book. How does Taleb do it? The key is that the guy is rich, and he got rich by doing very little work. He enjoys a freedom that even full time academics do not enjoy. Yet, those in specialized fields of endeavor would say that Taleb is merely a dilettante. There is some truth to that criticism because Taleb enjoys no special status in the world of academics. He is a sort of pop intellectual. But I think his multidisciplinary approach has been the key to his genius. The problem that Taleb points out is that the specialized realms of knowledge have made the world incredibly stupid. But I will revisit this a bit. The key thing to know about Taleb is that he isn't spending 40-60 hours a week digging ditches or selling shoes at J.C. Penney.

The third conclusion that I have reached is that you should not waste time, money, and energy on pursuits that do not produce a satisfactory to high degree of excellence. For instance, I do not take singing lessons or pursue music in any serious way because I am not very good at it. I enjoy listening to music, and I used to play guitar on a very low level. But I am not good at it. So, I gave away my guitar. It was a good decision even if I do miss the fun of playing. This is also why I do not pursue art as a serious endeavor beyond doodles and MS Paint creations. I like using visual elements in my blogging, so I have developed this area to my tastes and liking. I use a scale to judge on this matter. The first stage is incompetence. I am incompetent in knowing French. I can move to the next stage which is competence. This would be the ability to read and converse in French. After competence is proficiency. This is the stage where you are able to teach others French. Finally, there is excellence where you are composing fine French literature. You can move through the first three stages with training and practice, but I suspect that last stage only comes from talent and genius. That last bit brings us to the fourth conclusion.

The fourth conclusion that I have reached is that talent and genius should not be wasted. I believe these things are gifts from God. I am old enough to know that I have a talent for writing and a talent at nothing else. Other people tell me this. The weird thing is that I don't see it myself. I can recognize talent in others but not in myself. This blind spot is also God's gift because it keeps you humble.

The four stage model is helpful in determining what you should do and not do. For instance, I don't waste time learning French because I have no compelling reason to know it. Spanish is a better choice. Necessity determines much of what we should learn and do, and these fields only demand competence. You don't need to be a trained chef to make sure your kids don't starve. But you do need to know how to turn on the microwave.

If I am a minimalist in the material realm, I am a maximalist in the mental realm. I believe you should read as much as possible as widely as possible. Reading allows you to go places where you can never go and to live lives you could never live. Books allow you to escape the tethers of time, money, and energy. To a lesser extent, movies and videos allow some of the same thing.

These thoughts tumble in my brain like clothes in a dryer. Taken together, they lead to another level of conclusions. The first of this new level of conclusions is that you should not waste time on unnecessary things. You have to make the cut somewhere, and this is the most elemental place to make those cuts. So, I am not going to bother learning the fine art of Japanese pottery making. I don't need to know it, and I can always buy a Japanese pot.

The second conclusion is that competence is all you need in necessary endeavors. I don't need to be Richard Petty to get to work each day. I think of this as the blue collar aspect of things. You have sculptors, and you have bricklayers. You have architects, and you have frame carpenters. I totally believe in having competence across a variety of fields. I can honestly say that I have never been the best at any job I have done, and I have not been the worst. I can't be the genius at everything, but I can serve genius.

The third conclusion is the hardest to accept. You should not pursue unnecessary things unless you can achieve excellence in those things. For instance, the world could get on without this thing in it:

But I honestly believe that the world is made better by such things. They serve no utilitarian purpose, but life is more than eating, drinking, working, and sleeping. And this is where the Renaissance path and the Zen path come to their greatest divergence. This fine piece of sculpture is just clutter to the minimalist.

Should life be pared down to the purely necessary and essential? I would say no. Human beings are more than mere animals working to survive. There is more to life than simply keeping body and soul together. The bulk of my frustrations in this area deals with the concept of necessity. What is necessary for me to do?

Playing guitar is not necessary for me. Writing is necessary for me. Writing serves no material need or end for me, yet I feel that it is something I absolutely need to do. For someone else, playing guitar has the same need for them. They have to do it or burst. Writing is like this for me. I can do a lot of creative endeavors, but I can take them or leave them. I can't do this with writing. I think Michelangelo felt the same way about his art.

But it doesn't matter if you have 100 projects on a list or merely 10. If you can only get two or three completed, that's all you've got. If you want to do epic things, you just can't do them while grinding for a boss all week long. This is why people who have done great things have either had a patron, a windfall of wealth, or were accustomed to living in severe poverty. In the problem of time, money, and energy, time is the most valuable of the three. With money, you can free up time. With energy, you can get more done in less time.

Time is my problem. I don't know how to conquer time. I doubt I ever will.