THINKER’S ALMANAC – February 24

Subject:  Distillation and Simplicity – The Two Things Game

Event:  “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things,” 2012

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe. -Albert Einstein

On this day in 2012, The Guardian newspaper published an article entitled, “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things.”

The column begins with an anecdote about the economist Glen Whitman.  In 2002, Whitman was sitting in a bar and struck up a conversation with a stranger.  Upon discovering that Whitman was an economist, the stranger asked, “So, what are the Two Things about economics?”  Whitman wasn’t sure what he meant by “Two Things” so he asked for clarification.  The stranger replied:  “You know, the Two Things. For every subject, there are only two things you need to know. Everything else is the application of those two things, or just not important.”

Getting the picture, Whitman thought for a moment and replied with his Two Things about economics:  “One: incentives matter. Two: there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

That brief conversation in a bar in 2002 began Whitman’s quest for other Two Things from other fields, such as philosophy, marketing, finance, and computer science.  The idea behind the Two Things game is to distill and to simplify.  To do this experts must re-examine what they know and go back to basics.  This helps them see their field with new eyes.   Experts within a single field seldom agree on their Two Things; nevertheless, what they come up with is always interesting and illuminating, both to insiders and to outsiders.

At his website, Whitman has collected numerous examples by posing the Two Things question.  Here are a few examples of the answers he’s gotten from various fields and areas of expertise:

The Two Other Things about Marketing:

-Find out who is buying your product.

-Find more buyers like them.

The Two Things about Advertising:

– Get people’s attention

– Overwhelm them with charm.

Two Things about Trial Lawyering:

– 90% is just showing up (borrowed from Woody Allen’s philosophy of life).

– When you are winning, keep your mouth shut.

The Two Things about Neuroscience:

-Neurons strengthen or weaken signal strength between connected synapses.

-If you think you’ve found the part of the brain that controls _________, you’re probably wrong.

The Two Things about Writing:

– Include what’s necessary.

– Leave everything else out.

The Two Things about Editing:

– Know the rules.

– Pay attention. (2)

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason:  What is the Two Things Game, and why do people play it?

Challenge –  Two Things Game:  What would you say is the area or field in which you have the most expertise?  What are the two things that people need to know about that area or field?  Select an academic discipline, an area of interest (such as a hobby, sport, or pastime), a profession, a specific person, place, thing, or idea that you know well.  Then determine what the Two Things are that everyone needs to know about it.  Assume that your audience knows little about your topic, and write an explanation that goes with each of your two things. 

ALSO ON THIS DAY:

February 24, 1955:  Steve Jobs was born on this day. He said, “I would trade all of my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

Sources:

1-Burkeman, Oliver. “This Column Will Change Your Life:  The Two Things.” The Guardian 24 February 2012.

2-The Two Things by Glen Whitman

THINKER’S ALMANAC – January 3

Subject:  Mortality  – Steve Jobs’ Commencement Address

Event:  Memento Mori, January 3

Champaigne’s Vanitas (c. 1671)(Wikipedia)

Today is Memento Mori, a day to remember our mortality.  In Latin, memento mori translates, “Remember that you must die.” The Latin phrase was put to use in ancient Rome to prevent leaders from falling prey to hubris.  When a Roman general paraded through the streets after a victorious battle, a slave was strategically placed behind the general in his chariot.  As the general basked in the cheers of the crowd, the slave’s job was to whisper in the general’s ear:  “Memento mori” or “Someday you will die” (1).

Memento Mori is not just for Roman generals.  And although it was just one day on the Roman calendar, there’s an argument to be made that it should be honored every day of the year.

After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, Apple Founder Steve Jobs gave a moving commencement address at Stanford University, reminding graduates that facing our own mortality is no morbid exercise; instead, it is motivating:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart (2).

The practice of reflecting on our mortality is an ancient one, going as far back as Socrates.  For the Stoic philosophers, memento mori was essential.  Instead of facing death with fear, they sought to reframe death, transforming it from a negative to a positive.  Like Jobs, they viewed death as a tool that helped them stay humble and stay awake to the gift of each new day’s opportunities to live life to its fullest.  As the Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said, “It is not death that a man should fear, but rather he should fear never beginning to live.” 

Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is memento mori, and how might it help a person live a better life?

Challenge – Skulls for Sale:  Imagine you are marketing a model of the human skull meant for display in classrooms.  You think that this model should be placed in every classroom in America to remind students of memento mori.  Write the text of the catalog description of your skull, making the case for why teachers should need it in their classrooms and why students should be familiar with memento mori.

Today’s Word Day: Happy Latin Phrase Day.

Sources:  

1-Crosby, Daniel. Memento Mori – The Ancient Roman Cure for Overconfidence.

2-Jobs, Steve.  “Death is Very Likely the Single Best Invention of Life.”  The Guardian. 10 Oct. 2011.

January 3:  Latin Phrase Day

Today is Memento Mori, a day to remember our mortality.  In Latin memento mori translates, “remember that you must die.”  The Latin phrase was put to use in ancient Rome to prevent leaders from falling prey to hubris.  When a Roman general was paraded through the streets after a victorious battle, a slave was strategically placed behind the general in his chariot.  As the general basked in the cheers of the crowd, the slave’s job was to whisper in the general’s ear:  “Memento mori” or “Someday you will die” (1).

Memento Mori is not just for Roman generals however.  After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2003, Apple Founder Steve Jobs gave a moving commencement address at Stanford University, reminding graduates that facing our mortality is no morbid exercise; instead, it is motivating:

When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.  (2)

As Steve Jobs reminds us, people may die but their words live on; the same is true of languages, especially the Latin language.

Because of the great influence of the Roman Empire, Latin was the primary language of education in the West from the Middle Ages until the mid-20th Century.  The major works of science, law, history, religion, and philosophy were all written in Latin; therefore, for over a thousand years, proficiency in Latin was a must for any classically educated person.  

Today the English language has replaced Latin as the lingua franca, and many view Latin as just another dead language.  Nevertheless, the residue of Latin’s past influence is very much alive in English words with Latin roots as well as many legal, literary, and scientific terms.  For example, common words like dictionary, vocabulary, description, and civilization all derive from Latin.

Today’s Challenge:  Latin’s Not Dead Yet

What Latin phrase, expression, or motto might you use as the central focus of a commencement address?  Research the English translations of the Latin expressions listed below.  Select one, and like Steve Jobs did with memento mori, use the expression as a central theme for a brief motivational commencement address.

faber est suae quisque fortunae

astra inclinant, sed non obligant

aut viam inveniam aut faciam

bono malum superate

docendo disco, scribendo cogito

fortes fortuna adiuvat

honor virtutis praemium

magna est vis consuetudinis

nulla tenaci invia est via

omne trium perfectum

praemonitus praemunitus (3)

(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  

I hold your doctrine of Memento Mori.
And were an epitaph to be my story
I’d have a short one ready for my own.
I would have written of me on my stone:
I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.
-Robert Frost

1-http://wealthmanagement.com/commentary/memento-mori-ancient-roman-cure-overconfidence

2-http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/oct/06/steve-jobs-pancreas-cancer

3-http://www.artofmanliness.com/2013/07/25/latin-words-and-phrases-every-man-should-know/