The following is an excerpt from Intelligence Hath No Party.
If It Were Obvious It Would Not Be Insightful
(What We Have Missed by Disparaging)
Must things be obvious for one to get it? Should ideas and principles be clear and easy to understand? Must they be laid out on a silver platter? It is precisely that they are not easy to understand which makes them valuable. Thou shalt not conflate the desire for clarity and simplicity with an expectation of obvious insight.
The rewriters of history failed to see the unintended consequences of remaking narratives for their political agendas. Historians are today generally re-tellers (or promoters) of past rewriters, rarely going back to original documents and firsthand accounts, opting instead for officially sanctioned versions of how things must be viewed in order for one to keep one’s job. Hence, the lessons that could have been learned from the likes of Gould and Rockefeller have been tossed aside; thrown out because it would not be useful to one’s career to come across what can be learned from the villains’ lives. Jay Gould is a special case of one frequently demonized but rarely studied. Namely because he has been labeled a robber baron. The demonizers never stop to think about why he named his yacht after the Greek goddess Atalanta.
The stories of the Robber Barons’ lives, their original writings, and those of their associates contain vast wisdom—insights upon insights. In the case of Gould, I tell a story from time to time whenever the topic of self-determination arises. After he had made is fortune, Jay Gould would hire younger people to work on his estate. They he would mention that during their afterhours they were free to roam his large library, to sit and read as long as they liked. But Gould being the shrewdest of operators, this was no normal offer. It was a well hatched scheme of altruistic intent. Gould would observe which workers visited the library and what they took an interest in. A minority took him up on the offer to peruse his books at all. Of those that did, Gould did something unthinkable given his already cemented reputation as Wall Street’s evil villain. He paid for their education.[i]
One would never understand Gould’s kindhearted desire to help those from humble beginnings without first seeking to understand who he really was. Most would not know this story because they have been told not to go there—do not upset the prevailing view.
When Gould offered employees access to his books, he was not just being nice. He was thinking a few steps ahead. If he had told his workers that if they read his books he would pay for the schooling, how much money might he have wasted on those who were interested in the prize rather than the learning? He was plotting how to determine who had initiative, self-determination. Knowing that making his intentions obvious would invite all manner of false intrigue, he couched them in a seemingly innocent offer. Often when I tell this story it is to people who have some similar opportunity right in front of them. Rarely do they see it. Rarely do any see how tales might apply to them, how they may be the ones with the field of vision problem. When one says “no one told me” we must first ask if they were simply too blind to pick up on the lesson of Gould’s Library.
As to Atalanta, one of Gould’s first successes was in tangling with and defeating Cornelius Vanderbilt. Gould was not unique in his scheming, back-biting ways. It was a different time where one had to be cunningly shrewd to survive. We can state with gusto how much more morally advanced we are today that most businesspeople do not engage in (at least overtly) with such vendettas. That statement is true, and naïve to the fact that Gould’s was a different time. It was torment or be tormented. And Gould, according to Vanderbilt himself, was the sharpest there was. He would not be taken advantage of and, in sharp contrast to Rockefeller, he let it be known.
Achievement Culture Gone Awry
I would submit that where we are today is partially due to achievement culture gone awry. By this I mean that the focus and goal became superfluous rather than based on substance—getting the degree over learning and mastery; getting the job over doing great work or making an impact; Ph.D. over usefulness of the work; theory over practice; elegance and politeness over real world experience and rough edges; how something is said over what is said; presentation over action; content over value. Some people call this a result of “trophy culture” but it is rooted much deeper. Many who can understand why it might not be a great idea to give a child a trophy regardless of accomplishment make this same mistake in educational and professional arenas. All of this has led to a culture where parents teach their children to achieve lofty, societally applauded achievements that very often do not translate in the real-world.
To be sure, this was done with good intentions. Observers thought if they copied the traits of high achievers they and their children would gain the character of—that is, become—high achievers. They thought these superfluous achievements, because successful people had them, would lead to success by default. This morphed into a society where the paper achievement to them became success. They thought those who got a degree where more likely to be successful when in fact, previous to this culture evolution, those who were successful were more likely to have gotten a degree. The substance was already there, which led to the achievement. Not the other way around.
They missed Gould’s Library, the meta-lesson that lessons cannot be learned by dangling a prize or by force, but only by studying---in a autodidactic way---the lives of real doers and thinkers.
At present the checklist-achievement culture is in full swing. Everyone is producing some sort of content because ‘content is king.’ Few ask if their productions will be at all useful just one year out, much less five or ten. Yet, outside of short-term oriented fields like accounting or law, the only thing that will matter is what lasts five or ten plus years. In the past, content itself was rare. Writers had to find an outlet and the outlets held the power. Almost overnight the distribution middleman is no longer needed. Moving forward content for its own sake will no longer be king. The flood will stop because people will learn to discern what is worthwhile.
[i] Renehan, Edward. The Dark Genius of Wall Street: The Misunderstood Life of Jay Gould, King of the Robber Barons. New York, Basicbooks ; London, 2006, p. n.