Soul in the Game

I was surprised recently to read these words written by scholar and author Nassim Taleb (and former equities trader). Nassim is not fond of liberals. He’s not in the conservatives’ camp either. He’s probably more libertarian than conservative. But he’s less harsh on conservatives. He holds a special disdain for liberals, especially if they’re academics or economists. Or do-gooders who want to tell everyone else how to live. So you can image my surprise when I read his assessment of Ralph Nadar, a liberal by anyone’s standards. Nassim wrote:

I developed a friendship over the past few years with the activist Ralph Nadar … . Aside from an astonishing amount of personal courage and total indifference toward smear campaigns, he exhibited absolutely no divorce between what he preaches and his lifestyle, none. Just like saints who have soul in their game. The man is a secular saint.

Earlier in his writing, Taleb had commented about courage, sacrifice and heroism. He referred to a “new form of courage, that of the Socratic Plato.” He noted the privilege of “standing up for one’s values, … the highest form of honor.” He added:

No one has had more prestige in history than two thinkers who overtly and defiantly sacrificed their lives for their ideas–two Eastern Mediterraneans; one Greek and one Semite.

People who had soul in the game. People who exhibited “absolutely no divorce” between what they preached and how they lived.

Perhaps most of us don’t have it in us to be heroes. Or to be people who exhibit no divorce between what we preach and our lifestyle. I know I don’t. But it’s nice there have been — there are — such people. They inspire the rest of us. They give us hope. They confirm that words matter. That actions matter. That lives matter. That we matter.

Post-Traumatic Growth

Trauma’s a bitch. It’s painful, and nothing good comes from it. Or so I thought. We’ve all heard of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental disorder that can develop after a person has been exposed to a traumatic event, such as an assault, war, traffic collision or other threat on a person’s life. Trauma can do that to you. It can upend your life.

I hadn’t focused on the fact that an opposite phenomenon exists, that is, until last week when I was re-reading Nassim Taleb’s superb book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (which I highly recommend!). Taleb recalled a conversation he had with David Halpern, a U.K. government advisor and policy maker. They were discussing the idea of antifragility. It was during that conversation that Halpern mentioned “post-traumatic growth, the opposite of PTSD, by which people harmed by past events surpass themselves.”

Why I chose to re-read Taleb’s book, I don’t know. But the timing couldn’t have been better.

Of course, it had never occurred to me that I’d ever experience any major physical trauma in my life. Like most people, we expect such things happen only to other people. Until it happens to us.

It’s been nearly two months since the ambulance passed by two or three other hospitals on its way to one that had a Level 1 trauma center. That was my first inkling things possibly were more serious than I had thought. Fortunately, though, my initial self-assessment was correct: I hadn’t sustained any life-threatening injuries. But it also was incorrect: I had sustained far more trauma than I imagined.

After a grade 3 concussion and considerable period of unconsciousness, amnesia, ER sutures, three surgeries, bacterial pneumonia, partially collapsed lung, leg injury that, for weeks, made walking extremely difficult and painful, dental repair work (in progress) and some days of intense torso and extremities pain unlike anything I had ever experienced, I came to realize that my body — indeed, I — had experienced severe trauma. I also came to believe my life would never be the same.

In what way, I didn’t know. Yet I had a feeling that something was different. But I had never heard of post-traumatic growth.

Despite my internal protestations, my mind still takes me back to that moment when I regained consciousness, alone, trapped in that crushed car, having no idea where I was or what had happened. And to the moment when I was transferred from the ambulance stretcher to the ER table as a well-orchestrated bevy of doctors and nurses descended on me. And to the moment, lying stripped and dazed on the ER table, when the clergyman appeared by my side, causing me to wonder (and question) whether the situation was worse than I realized.

But I’m fortunate — incredibly so. The memories aren’t debilitating. It’s true, they can be unsettling and, sometimes, even elicit tears. But most of all, they are a marker.

I sense there will always be a before and after in my life, with the moment of demarcation being the only thing I can remember about the crash: the deafening, surreal sound of the collision.

More importantly, I sense the trauma from that extreme autumn day may be the trigger for new growth. It may be that, because of the trauma, I will surpass that which was previously possible.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche famously said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” I’m not sure it’s necessarily so, but I do think it can be so.

It’s not yet clear to me how this growth will manifest itself. Or where it will lead. But the sense of peace and grace that enveloped me that day seems to be saying, “Be patient. Give it time.”

I feel stronger by the day. And I sense that soon I will be stronger than I was before that day — the day that separates the before from the after.

For a short while, I was trapped in a car. Yet for reasons I don’t fully comprehend, I now feel less trapped in life. And, in the parlance of Taleb, I feel more antifragile. Indeed, I feel like I have “more soul in the game.” (Taleb)

Tipping: Backing Up Your Beliefs with Money

If you think that there should be a minimum wage, then you should pay–people who think there should be minimum wages should voluntarily pay everybody around them the difference between whatever they are getting and that minimum wage. And, when you go to McDonald’s, you should leave a $3 tip or $4 tip to the person. If that’s really what they want to do, they should do it themselves. – Nassim Taleb

I agree. In part. I disagree with Taleb concerning minimum wages. But I agree that we should spend consistent with our professed beliefs. Walk the talk, if you will.

I think we underpay many people for their work and contributions. Taleb would argue that the market decides. He’s right of course. But should we settle for market determinations? I don’t think so.

Market forces aren’t perfect. We alter those forces in many ways that benefit people of education, power and privilege (those born into rich families). We erect barriers to protect certain professions and people. We skew public policies and tax codes to favor one group over another, and to favor capital over labor. In short, the market isn’t allowed to do its will; rather, we alter market forces to favor the select few. So I don’t have the same confidence in markets that Taleb does. Consequently, I support a minimum wage. But it doesn’t end there.

Do the math. You can’t live on a minimum wage job. Yet political support for increases to the minimum wage simply doesn’t exist at the national level. So it’s up to people who think it’s wrong to pay people so little. It’s up to us to do some economic justice.

It’s not always easy to effect justice, but in many cases, it’s actually quite easy. We can tip.

Restaurants are an obvious example. Lodging establishments are another. The people who deliver my paper in the middle of the night are another.

We recently moved. Moving presents quite a few opportunities. The manual laborers who load and unload the vans. The people who hang the blinds. The men who constructed the retaining wall. Etc. Etc.

I lost count, but I spent several thousand dollars in gratuities over the past several months in connection with our move. I was glad I could.

I was a decent tipper at restaurants my entire life, but in recent years have turned it up a notch. Gratuities now range from 20 to 100%, depending on the size of the bill and level of service.

So what’s the point of all this, Vera. The point isn’t my tipping practice. Rather, the point is the same one Taleb made: we always have the option of backing up our professed beliefs with our actions. And the most telling action typically involves the way we spend our money.

Our spending has a way of separating the real from the fake words and beliefs. It’s not a bad thing to endeavor to be as real as possible.

I’m Moved By Sacrifice

Recently, in a discussion with your grandmother about our new president, it dawned on me: my heroes — those whom I respect and admire the most — have sacrificed.

It wasn’t all about them. They risked everything for others. They were truly great in my mind.

And then just a week or so later I was listening to an interview of Kara Swisher and heard her say, “I’m moved by sacrifice.” That’s it, I thought. I, too, am moved by sacrifice. Continue reading