Monday Morning Insight: the Obstacle to Discovery

(We missed posting last Monday due to travels, but here’s another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)


This week’s quote interests me more in its paraphrased form than its original form — which is unusual, because I think most originals are better by far than any adaptation — but the message in it is what’s important.

Famed historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, in his marvelous book The Discoverers:

The great obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.

Removing the geographic references and increasing the magnitude a bit produces a shorter, much more general version:

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.

I appreciate that, because I see it in action all the time. What blocks me from learning more about a subject, what interferes with my discovering some new truth about a person or an event or a situation, is my own misguided belief that I already know what I need to know about it — and my surety that what I think I know is true. But often that’s an illusion, and a self-made one.

Hubble View of a Nitrogen-Rich Nebula

So much to know in this wide, wondrous universe; so little time to learn everything we might. (Image: “Hubble View of a Nitrogen-Rich Nebula” by NASA; public domain, from Flickr.)


Maybe you can relate to that idea. Maybe you’ve had the eye-opening experience of realizing that what you thought you knew wasn’t quite accurate. I think it happens to each of us at one time or another; the question is whether we regularly recognize that, as Dr. W. Edwards Deming once said, “We know a lot that isn’t so.”*

Can you think of any illusions of knowledge that you hold on to? Despite them, this week I hope you discover something new!

*Attributed to Dr. Deming by one of his proteges, Bill Scherkenbach.

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Monday Morning Insight: Peace, War, and Freedom

(Another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)


For us in the United States, today is Independence Day. Back in 1776, our Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to the pursuit of establishing the U.S. as a free country. Very shortly thereafter, the colonies-turned-states fought the Revolutionary War to secure their — and, by extension, our — independence.

Keeping in mind the price the patriots paid for the freedom we enjoy, it seems appropriate this week to consider this quote from Benjamin Franklin:

The way to secure peace is to be prepared for war. They that are on their guard, and appear ready to receive their adversaries, are in much less danger of being attacked, than the supine, secure, and negligent.

Happy Independence Day!

(Image: “Happy Independence Day!” by {Salt of the Earth}, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


This seems to be an expansion of Vegitius’s observation, Qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum — “Let him who desires peace, prepare for war.” I feel certain that the well-read Franklin knew the Vegitius quote, but his addendum caught my eye.

Are we as a country on our guard, and do our enemies (or would-be enemies) see us as ready to receive their advances and blunt their attacks? Perhaps on the level of nation-states, yes: our armed forces remain strong and vigilant. But seemingly not on the lower levels, the levels of the day-to-day where individuals and small groups of radicals operate and where soft targets beckon. In general, as a population it would seem we are not prepared for war. We as a society have given that over to professionals — I was privileged and proud to be one of those professionals, once upon a time — but throughout history professionals have had difficulty adapting to new forms of war.

We seem loath to name this ongoing ideological conflict as “war,” however. (Over a decade ago I pointed out our reluctance to name war and attacks and enemies as such when it comes to the “recurring jihad.”) We seem unwilling, in the sense of being unable to muster the national will, to develop and pursue a coherent strategy to fight this war. Perhaps that is because we do not understand it. Maybe we have confused preparing for war with desiring war. But we have other instruments of power at our disposal besides the military instrument, and they do not seem to be availing us much.

Have we gotten to the point where we are “supine, secure, and negligent”? Perhaps not completely, but I get the impression that many people today who live in peace and relative safety take it for granted, as if it is our birthright and a permanent feature of our society. We would do well to remember that peace, like life, is precious and fleeting; it needs to be nurtured and protected, lest it be lost.

This week, after the fireworks have faded, I hope during our normal routines we will give some additional thought to our independence, our freedom, and give thanks for those who protect it every day — not just on the holiday — by being prepared to fight for it.

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Monday Morning Insight: Decision-Making — Right and Wrong, Good and Bad

(Another entry in our continuing series of quotes to start the week.)

I thought of this week’s quote when I read business coach Chris Brogan’s newsletter, which I highly recommend if you’re trying to improve your connections with your customers.* On Sunday his newsletter focused on decision making, and it reminded me of a great quote I read years ago in Go Rin No Sho (A Book of Five Rings) by Miyamoto Musashi:

You must train day and night to make quick decisions.

I used that quote frequently when I was in the service, especially when I counseled the folks who worked for me on my expectations and their performance. As you might expect, decision-making was a key topic — the Air Force evaluation form had a specific section for us to cover “Judgment and Decisions.” And often the decisions we had to make were time-critical; for example, my own decisions about how to control and clean up rocket propellant spills and fires, or about diagnosing and repairing satellite ground systems to restore strategic communications.

I told my officer and enlisted Airmen that when they started to feel paralyzed by a decision in front of them they should concentrate on making the right decision more than on making a good one. I explained that a decision is neither good nor bad at the time you make it, because the outcomes are still unknown: at the time we make a decision, it can only be either right or wrong.

That is, every decision is based on the situation as we know it, and in the case of crisis situations in which quick decisions must be made we almost never have complete information. But every decision is also inherently a prediction of what is likely to happen, and our predictions (sad to say) are subject to error.

A decision may be correct — the appropriate response to all the factors we’ve got in mind — yet still yield a negative outcome. Only after we’ve made the decision and have experienced the consequences can we make a value judgment of whether the decision was good or bad.

The right decision may turn out bad for any number of reasons — we may have missed some key factor, external influences may have come into play that were beyond our reckoning, etc. — but the possibility of a bad outcome should not paralyze us if we know what the right decision is in that moment. The fact that right decisions may have bad outcomes (and vice-versa, though it’s less likely) is part of the basic irrationality of the world; i.e., why the world, in some respects, fails to make sense.

Here I’ve tried to illustrate that when we make a decision — NOW — it’s either right or wrong, but whether the decision turns out to be good or bad is determined LATER. In my experience, it is unlikely for the wrong decision — one that is incorrect or inappropriate for some reason — to yield a good outcome, but it is at least possible.

If social media is any indication, many second-guessers don’t seem to recognize this temporal element to decision-making. Hindsight — that wonderful tendency to look in the rearview mirror of life and see how things might be different (strong emphasis on “might”) if only a different decision had been made — is only 20/20 because often our glasses are tinted. Whether rose-colored or some other shade, through those glasses we never see things as they really were, but only as we imagine they were, colored by all we know now. (Robert Frost was right about the saddest words in the world: “it might have been.”)

As an aside, this also makes me ponder the limits of machine decision-making. Will computer science get to the point that machines can formulate criteria on which to base a decision (knowns and possible unknowns, risks and rewards, potential outcomes, etc.); prioritize and weigh those criteria; evaluate the given situation according to the criteria; and then make a decision, observe the outcomes, and make a value judgment on the effectiveness of the decision? How many “do-loops” and “if-then” interactions do we go through with every single decision we make — even the trivial decisions, let alone the really important and sometimes time-critical ones? In our efforts to make a machine consciousness, will we be able to program those complex, dynamic processes into a machine? And since much of our decision-making operates outside of rational, conscious thought, will a machine’s unconscious (or, even, subconscious) processes ever develop to the point that it will not freeze when faced with a new situation requiring even a simple decision? This is partly why I’ve told panel audiences for years that I think the search for artificial “intelligence” is a bit mistaken. I maintain that artificial “knowledge” is necessary, in the full sense of theory of knowledge, for any machine intelligence to approach our own — and that is a much higher bar to clear.

But for now, when you are faced with decisions this week, I hope you’ll trust yourself to make the right ones, and that in so doing you will help train yourself to make quick decisions when they’re really necessary. The question of whether those decisions are good or bad will have to wait until you know all the consequences — but in my estimation making the right decision should make a good decision more likely.


*If you’ve spent much time on the Internet the last few years, you’ve probably heard of Chris Brogan — he’s only written a half-dozen or more bestselling books and built an extensive social media empire. If you want more information about him, check out his Owner Media Group, where you can sign up for his newsletter. (Or for something completely different you can sign up for my newsletter at this link.)

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Monday Morning Insight: Those Who Mind and Those Who Matter

One of my newsletter readers suggested today’s quote to start the week,* an entry that is often attributed — wrongly, it would seem — to Theodor Geisel, a/k/a Dr. Seuss:

Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.

I like the sentiment, especially where unfair or unkind criticism is concerned, but I was unable to find out where this quote originated. Several sources credited U.S. financier Bernard Baruch with a version of the quote — which interested me, because my hometown is very near Baruch’s retreat at Hobcaw Barony on the South Carolina coast — but its earliest use in print appears to have been in a British engineering journal in 1938, and it seems to have been in use well before that.**

art critics realizing it's probably time to go

(Image: “art critics realizing it’s probably time to go,” by paolobarzman, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Nevertheless, the quote is a good reminder that the opinions of others are not created equal (so to speak). We are bound to encounter criticism, some of which will be valuable and some we can disregard, but this quote speaks to something beyond criticism of work we’ve done or art we’ve created.

At a deeper level, it speaks to the criticism we may receive not because of what we do but because of who we are: choices we make, things we believe, emotions we display. In those cases especially, when the critic seeks to injure rather than edify, to heap scorn on us rather than inform us or others, to point out imperfections they perceive rather than help us chip away at them, it is good to remember that those who mind what we do or who we are don’t really matter — and those who matter will accept us and our work and build us up rather than belittle us.

(I’m reminded of Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” quote — the one that begins, “It is not the critic who counts” — but we’ll save that for another day.)

Meanwhile, “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind” is a good quote to carry with us this week, to guard against any unwarranted criticism we will face. And I’m trying out a corollary: Don’t pay it any mind, unless you think the critic matters.

*If you like, sign up for my newsletter — it’s free! and it only shows up once or twice a month.
**The “Quote Investigator” site offers a run-down on its history, so far as they could discern it.

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Monday Morning Insight: the Pharisees Among Us

Do you know any modern day Pharisees? You might. Consider this quote to start the week, from A.W. Tozer:

A Pharisee is hard on others and easy on himself, but a spiritual man is easy on others and hard on himself.

If you’re unaware of the reference, the Pharisees were a branch of Judaism — a political faction, if you will — that emphasized purity and strict adherence to the Torah (the Law). If you’re uncomfortable with the language of religion, we could conceivably use “hypocrite” in place of “Pharisee” in the quote, but for me “Pharisee” carries a stronger meaning. A hypocrite claims to have a high standard but does not live up to it, but need not insist that everyone else hold to that high standard; many of us are hypocrites about something or other. But when the message is “do as I say, not as I do” — when we give ourselves a pass but insist on better behavior from others — then we have shaded into the realm of the Pharisee.

I also think the idea in the quote extends beyond the realm of religion. For instance, we could replace the word “spiritual” in the quote with “enlightened” and arrive at much the same place.

When we insist on a standard for others that we would be hard pressed to meet, rather than holding ourselves to a standard even when no one else is watching, then we are being Pharisaical. And we can be Pharisees in many different ways. In matters of health, for instance, when we insist that we know best how other people should eat or behave or interact with their physicians but we allow ourselves small indulgences — or maybe large indulgences. In matters of civics, when we insist that we know best how other people should educate themselves or vote or act — or when we insist that they must change their opinions about how we think or act.


(Image: “Mirror,” by Gary Lund, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


It is Pharisaical to insist on tolerance but to act intolerantly — to say without saying, “You must accept me and what I do, but I will not accept you or what you do.” It is Pharisaical to remain willfully blind to demonstrable facts and clear logic and to silence or censure those who present facts that cast our reality in different light — to say, “You must change the way you think; I will not.” It is Pharisaical to view with crystal clarity the errors, lies, crimes, sins, and endless peccadillos of others, but to overlook or blur the distinctions of our own.

That’s why I think the “Mirror” image is a good choice for this idea. The Pharisee in us — and I include myself among those who can be Pharisaical — may see ourselves differently than others see us. Perhaps it’s even worse than a lack of focus when we look at ourselves: perhaps we have painted on the mirror a false image, and have looked at it so long that we believe it’s real. But those who observe us know better.

So, do you think you know any modern day Pharisees? You can probably identify one or two. And you might even be one, in some way about some thing. I have that tendency myself, and I struggle against it every day.

Thank you, as always, for spending a few moments with me here. I wish you the best in your struggles, whatever they may be.

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Monday Morning Insight: Do You Like Books? Great!

I spent the weekend at the ConCarolinas science fiction and fantasy convention, where I had the great pleasure of talking with a few people about my novel that’s in the publication pipeline — which is a bit surreal to me — so it seemed fitting to select a quote that relates to books to start the week. Teddy Roosevelt wrote,

Books are almost as individual as friends. There is no earthly use in laying down general laws about them. Some meet the needs of one person, and some of another; and each person should beware of the booklover’s besetting sin, of what Mr. Edgar Allan Poe calls “the mad pride of intellectuality,” taking the shape of arrogant pity for the man who does not like the same kind of books.

All of us who write and who hope our writing reaches an audience would do well to remember that some of what we publish will “meet the needs of one person, and some of another.” That follows along with Lincoln’s observation about not being able to please everyone all the time. We can only hope that our work finds its way to those who will appreciate it, and perhaps even to those who will value it.

Old books

(Image: “Old Books,” by Moyan Brenn, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


But Roosevelt is right that we should beware of dismissing books that meet other people’s needs, and thereby of dismissing those other people. In the science fiction and fantasy field, especially recently, fans and even authors have taken sometimes excessive delight in disparaging works we consider hackneyed or offensive or otherwise worthy of derision.

In some cases we’ve reacted to what we perceive as unmerited success (“How could so many people buy X?”), and in our most self-conscious moments we might admit to coveting that success for our own work. Alternately, we might think we are being discerning, perhaps even sophisticated; we might think we are making important statements about art and its relation to the world; we might just be trying to make a joke.

Regardless of the reason we find to scorn a book or someone else’s taste in books — we dislike the author (or the person) on some level, we prefer another subgenre, we haven’t had enough fiber that day — we would do well (I would do well) to realize that what we think of as a book’s faults or merits will differ from what someone else thinks, and we should allow one another our different opinions. The market, and time, will always be the final arbiters.

So, do you like books? If yes, great! If no — if you don’t like any books — then maybe you just haven’t found the right books for you yet. I hope you’ll keep looking!

And if so, what books do you like? Excellent! Whatever books you like, for whatever reason, that’s wonderful. Keep reading!

And have a terrific week!

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Monday Morning Insight: In Memoriam

Today we celebrate Memorial Day. I hope you find today’s quote, from the Gospel of John, the fifteenth chapter, the thirteenth verse, fitting to start the week:

“Greater love has no one than this, that one lays down his life for his friends.”

On Memorial Day, of course, we remember those who laid down their lives in defense of the United States. They laid down their lives for their friends and family, yes; for their comrades in arms, certainly; but also for us. The freedom we enjoy was bought at a tremendous, terrible price, and we do well not to squander it.

A place for remembrance - Memorial Day

(Image: “A Place for Remembrance — Memorial Day,” by Wayne S. Grazio, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


It seems a good day also to remember the last verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,”

O thus be it ever when free men shall stand
Between their lov’d home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with vict’ry and peace may the heav’n-rescued land
Praise the power that hath made and preserv’d us a nation!
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto — “In God is our trust,”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

To which I say, Amen.

So, enjoy this day — and I mean really enjoy it, find joy in it, take joy from it, share your joy with someone else — but spare a moment to reflect on the freedom we enjoy, and the price that was paid for it. It is precious, beyond measure, and we should use it well.

I hope you have a fantastic week.

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Monday Morning Insight: The Purpose of Our Government

On this date in 1788, my home state of South Carolina became the eighth state to ratify the new Constitution of the United States of America. Given the (perhaps unusually) contentious nature of our political discourse this election year, it seemed like a good idea to use the Preamble as today’s quote to start the week:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Break it down with me …

  • We the People of the United States … — Not we the people of one state, nor we the people of the rest of the world, but we the people of the United States.
  • … in Order to form a more perfect Union … — That is, “more perfect” than the previous union under the Articles of Confederation. (Many years ago, my good friend Dr. James Galt-Brown and I discussed writing a book to speculate on what the next more perfect union might be like. Alas, another project that fell by the wayside.)
  • … establish Justice … — Not guarantee justice, because justice can never be guaranteed, but establish it, primarily by establishing a system which, if administered well, might produce it more often than not. Justice as an ideal toward which we should strive is laudable, but a different matter from what the Constitution purposed.
  • … insure domestic Tranquility … — That is, keep the peace internally and, where possible, protect citizens’ lives from disruptions.
  • … provide for the common defence … — Note that this is the only thing the Preamble proposes to provide, and even here the preposition is important because it is less to provide outright than to provide for defense against our enemies. National security remains the paramount responsibility of every national government, but the government relies on the citizens — whether volunteers, as we have in the U.S. today, or conscripts in times of national emergency — to step up and provide it. That seems like a good thing to reflect upon as we approach Memorial Day.
  • … promote the general Welfare … — Not provide it, not guarantee it, but promote it: make the citizens’ welfare possible, and where practical remove obstacles to it.
  • … secure the Blessings of Liberty … — What are the blessings of liberty? What are the benefits of freedom? Are they the same for everyone, everywhere, at every time? No. The blessings may be success, but they may also be failure; potential good results of liberty also have their negations, potential bad outcomes, because exercising liberty means accepting risk.
  • … to ourselves and our Posterity … — Not to the rest of the world, unless they wish to join the union of our several and sovereign states. To ourselves, and the future generations we raise.

The first page of the U.S. Constitution. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)


Our Constitution was not perfect when it was written, but it was not expected to be; it was only meant to be “more perfect.” Its authors were wise enough to include in it the means to change it should future years prove it unequal to its charge. And what was its charge, its mission? It seems to me it’s right there in the Preamble: not to institute a governmental system for its own sake, but to accomplish certain tasks that together would free its people — “We the People of the United States” — to pursue their own aims, their own dreams, their own potential.

As we begin this week, I hope you have success in pursuing your aims, your dreams, and your potential.

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Monday Morning Insight: the Importance of Persistence

Today’s quote to start the week comes from the 30th President of the United States, Calvin Coolidge:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press On” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

Say what you will about Coolidge, but he was a champion of individual liberty and responsibility. This quote posits that the individual who perseveres has a better chance for success than someone who relies only on other qualities. It’s not that success never comes to those who with little effort capitalize on their talent or genius or education, because it can and sometimes does; it’s not that success comes to those who persevere with little talent, genius, or education, because often it does not; but that the surest road to success is the long, hard road of consistent effort applying one’s proven talent, native genius, or accumulated education.


(Image: “Persistence,” by Dave Bezaire, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


Have you known anyone with talent who let their talent languish? Have you known anyone with genius — not as an estimate of intelligence, but as that almost spiritual inclination toward a particular field — who failed to put their genius to work? Have you known anyone who was highly educated but whose intellect was more highly developed than their work ethic? What might they have accomplished if their abilities and knowledge had been joined with diligent effort?

What might we accomplish, if we were more tenacious in pursuit of our goals?

So as you pursue your goals — as you put your talent, genius, and education into whatever you do — let this quote remind you that what will set you apart, what will make the difference, is whether you keep going, whether you persevere, whether you persist.

Press on!

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On A Day of New Beginnings, Starting Something New: Monday Morning Quotes

Thirty years ago today, I was commissioned a Second Lieutenant in the US Air Force and graduated from Clemson University with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering.

That set me off on a series of adventures, during which I met and worked with some amazing people — maybe even you! The track of my Air Force career took some interesting turns, and the years since have been their own “long, strange trip.”

So as I look back at this day in my personal history, when the work I had done up to that point led to looking ahead to those adventures, I thought I’d start something new here on the blog. I ran this idea past my newsletter subscribers* and got more replies than usual, all of them saying that they thought I should do it. So today I’m starting a series of blog posts featuring quotes that may be interesting, inspirational, timely (in terms of historical commemorations or recent news), or just … odd.

I’m torn between calling it “Monday Morning Quotes” as in the post title above, or something like “Words to Start the Week.” (I’m open to suggestions.)

Why would I do this? For the simple reason that I love quotes. Over the years, as I’ve faced difficulties and decisions, I’ve turned to various bits of wisdom and lore I picked up along the way. Back in the days before cell phones, when I carried around a “Franklin Planner” (like many of my Air Force project manager brethren) to keep track of things I needed to do, one section of my planner included a printout of quotations called, appropriately and pedantically enough, “Words by which to Live and Work.” I’ve added to the file in the years since, though it stays on my computer these days.

So without further ado …

Words to start the week. To kick this off, I’ll use the quote I shared in my newsletter. It’s one of my favorite quotes from Science Fiction Grand Master Robert A. Heinlein, from his “Notebooks of Lazarus Long” (found in the novel Time Enough for Love):

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly.

Specialization is for insects.

glowing human being

(Image: “glowing human being,” by J E Theriot, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


I like that quote because I agree that we as people should strive to be well-rounded, to acquire new, varied skills and knowledge. I don’t think Heinlein’s specific list of abilities is as important as the idea that we are (and should be) generalists, even if some of us have specialties of a sort. I think many people bear this out in their lives without even thinking about it, when they work in one field but sustain other interests outside of work: the teacher who paints, the engineer who writes, the scientist who cooks; the nurse who maintains a motorcycle, the accountant who grows a garden, the programmer who plays an instrument.

I think I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post that if I had the time and energy to start another venture I’d establish a school that used that quote as the basis of its curriculum. In my dream school, students would learn life and family skills, survival skills, arts and sciences of all kinds, and above all that being human is itself a wondrous adventure with nearly boundless possibilities.

So take a moment, in the spirit of that quote, and consider some of the things you can do. Maybe you can check off a lot of the items Heinlein listed; maybe you could add a dozen more items that didn’t make his list; maybe you can do both. Regardless, I hope you can take some time to appreciate just how gifted and how skilled you are — and if the world sometimes calls your attention to the things you can’t do, I hope today you can concentrate on the things you can do. And do them.

Have a great week!

*Yes, I send out a newsletter from time to time. If you’d like to get it, you can sign up using the form in the sidebar on the right side of this blog or at this link.

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