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On Old Age with Cicero

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I think, my friends, that you marvel at a thing really far from difficult. For to those who have not the means within themselves of a virtuous and happy life every age is burdensome; and, on the other hand, to those who seek all good from themselves nothing can seem evil that the laws of nature inevitably impose. To this class old age especially belongs, which all men wish to attain and yet reproach when attained; such is the inconsistency and perversity of Folly!

They say that it stole upon them faster than they had expected. In the first place, who has forced them to form a mistaken judgement? For how much more rapidly does old age steal upon youth than youth upon childhood? And again, how much less burdensome would old age be to them if they were in their eight hundredth rather than in their eightieth year? In fact, no lapse of time, however long, once it had slipped away, could solace or soothe a foolish old age.

Knowing History and Knowing Who We Are

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Harry Truman once said the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. Lord Bolingbroke, who was an 18th century political philosopher, said that history is philosophy taught with examples. An old friend, the late Daniel Boorstin, who was a very good historian and Librarian of Congress, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. We’re raising a lot of cut flowers and trying to plant them, and that’s much of what I want to talk about tonight…

We have to do several things. First of all we have to get across the idea that we have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed. This is essential. We have to value what our forebears—and not just in the 18th century, but our own parents and grandparents—did for us, or we’re not going to take it very seriously, and it can slip away. If you don’t care about it—if you’ve inherited some great work of art that is worth a fortune and you don’t know that it’s worth a fortune, you don’t even know that it’s a great work of art and you’re not interested in it—you’re going to lose it.

Perseverance is Great, But Don’t Forget to Prepare

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After numerous terrorism incidents in the 1970s, the United States realized its armed forces had a blind spot when it came to counterterrorism. Green Beret  Colonel Charlie Beckwith, who had served alongside the British Army's counter-terrorism unit the Special Air Service (also known as " SAS ") in Malaysia, had been pushing for such a group since the 1960s. Now that the opportunity to be proactive had passed, the U.S. Army decided it was a good time to commission its own SAS-like force - namely,  Delta Force.

That brings us to Eric Haney. Haney had a successful start to his career, joining the army straight out of high school and progressing to platoon sergeant in the Army Rangers. In 1977, he was fretting that he would wind up as an instructor given his combat experience could be put to use training subsequent Ranger generations. After jumping out of an airplane as part of a drill, he stumbled into the opportunity to try out for one of the first Delta Force squadrons.

Invert, Always Invert – Avoid Failure to Succeed

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"Suppose I wanted to kill a lot of pilots - what would be the easy way to do it?"  That might not be what you want to hear from the guy clearing your plane for take off , but if your fellow passengers are an elderly billionaire and some Cold War-era Soviet engineers, they might rest easy knowing the right questions are being asked. That is because thinking about how to do the exact opposite of your goal is sometimes the best way to ensure you achieve it.

Let's turn to the Soviets -  Genrich Altshuller received his first patent at the age of 17 and a passion for innovation led him to study engineering before becoming a Soviet Navy patent officer. His position allowed him to see a wide range of patents, and being curious, he took a critical eye to the uniqueness of every "new" invention. This analysis eventually led to the conclusion that most of the work being done between different fields - biologists, physicists, chemists, engineers, etc - consisted of repeated invention due to ignorance outside of one's primary field. He eventually pulled together lists of best practices and key principles of innovation based on this work, which became " the theory of inventive problem solving " - alternatively known as TRIZ.

Habits Maketh the Man (and Un-Maketh Him, Too)

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Life is complex. Chaotic. Surprising. Uncertain. It is full of new things - many of which can kill us. And that’s a problem, because we humans tend to prefer not dying. Fortunately, we have been practicing surviving for quite some time and have developed a way to cut down on that chaos with a bit of order: the ability to form habits. However, and unfortunately for those humans looking for more in life than just survival, these habits often have more control over us than we have control over them.

So what are habits and why do they control us? Jason Hreha, a behavioral scientist who writes about life and business, summarizes that “habits are, simply, reliable solutions to recurring problems in our environment.” They are unconscious programs that free up our conscious mind to solve those non-recurring new problems that are constantly thrown our way. It’s too mentally expensive to try to figure out what you should do every day when you get home from work - its much easier to have a program that loads without you knowing and tells you to change clothes. Putting on running shoes loads the running program. Smelling alcohol loads the drinking program. The important take away is that whether you notice them or not, the habits are running. This means that, for better or for worse, your habits are in charge of who you are in the future.