Monday, June 13, 2011

Todd Buchholz on Striving

I'm a big fan of stoicism in part because it seemed to make good men, such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. It basically says to work on things consistent with one's abilities and opportunities, not worrying about things we can't change, and develop satisfaction in doing your best. Thus, it embodies the idea that virtue is its own reward, but ties virtues to reality, where one works on things that matter and have objectively positive effects, at least statistically.

Yet, there is a bit too much emphasis on accepting the status quo in this view, of restraining one's desires. I think there is something to having big dreams and wanting to win competitions that seems not only natural, but satisfying as a goal to guide my actions.

Indeed, just last week I read Epictetus's Enchiridion, and was a bit bummed by the lack of gumption. So I found it quite interesting to hear about Todd Buchholz new book Rush, which extols striving, saying that the rat race is not so bad. Society, and individuals, like working in competitive environments. This is a nice counterbalance to the stoic/buddist/new age(?) idea that we should just restrain our ambitions. The old saw that we need moderation in all things is just as applicable towards ambition, in that we don't need zero, but some positive amount, and this is a nice corrective.

In Buchholz's interview with Russ Roberts, he has this nice riff:
I've been lucky enough at various times to be associated with the White House and Harvard and all sorts of august institutions, and I always thought: I'm going to find Mozart at one of these places. It turns out, in my career, I've never found a Mozart. The Mozart of economics or of politics or of writing theatrical works. What I find is we've got a lot of Salieris out there trying to pluck out a reasonable tune. And that's probably good enough.

So true. The smartest people or ideas, once you really understand them, are just bright people working hard on problems they find interesting, and getting a little lucky. Magicians only exist in different times and places because we don't really know them and it's a nice fantasy.


Patrick R. Sullivan said...

'I've never found a Mozart'

I once encountered a UIC grad student on usenet's sci.econ who told me he was the Mozart of economics. Alas, the reality was otherwise.

Robin Hanson said...

Your description applies much better to career-successful bright people than to bright people generally. I think there are Mozarts, but that our institutions filter them out. Musicians can prove themselves much more directly than can economists.