The Interesting Times Triangle

You’ve probably heard of the Chinese cursemay you live in interesting times. The line apparently isn’t really Chinese in origin, but it certainly seems very Chinese in spirit, so I’ll stick to calling it that. I’ll let you ponder why it is appropriate to call it a curse rather than a blessing (hint: try the Future Nausea post from a few weeks back).

Anyhow, you and I, we certainly live in interesting times in the sense of the curse.  So in lieu of a proper long post this week, I offer you this pick-two (at most) triangle for your lifestyle designing pleasure.

I first posted this as an unqualified pick-two type bon mot on Facebook, and a lot of friends seemed to find it thought provoking. Then I thought some more, and realized that the 2-out-of-3 nature really reflects environmental conditions during interesting periods in history, when it is hard or impossible for anybody to do all three. I used the triangle in this form during a recent talk, to get at how different people adopt different strategies to either survive or thrive in interesting times.

Then it struck me that even picking two out of three is pretty hard. Many people manage to do only one, or none at all. I mapped those to the Gervais Principle taxonomy of Sociopaths, Losers and Clueless, and came up with the legend you see alongside the triangle now.

I won’t attempt to supply or defend examples of people who’ve made each of the 7 possible choices, since that tends to excite controversy. I’ll leave you to do that yourself. But I’ll offer these archetype labels:

  1. Money+Beauty: Sell-Out Artist
  2. Money+Sense: Soulless Arbitrager
  3. Beauty+Sense: Intellectual Dictator
  4. Only Beauty: Self-Absorbed Artist
  5. Only Sense: Armchair Intellectual
  6. Only Money: Dull Douchebag
  7. Nothing: Drowning Person

You can of course, also add an intensity knob between “drowning” and “thriving” where drowning is 0 and thriving is 0.67.  And if times get much tougher than they are today, we’ll all be demoted to Losers, and eventually to Clueless.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Can’t help but feel the analysis in this post owes a debt to one of the most rigorous deep thinkers of the 1970s, Meat Loaf:

  2. I’m curious as to why “interesting times” prevent all three, and what less interesting times would look like. I’m almost the definition of #2 in that my highest economic goal is to make money by making sense where others do not. But I don’t feel particularly cut off from art or music or anything else that would fall in the “beauty” category. I’ve always gotten some level of public acclaim as a musician and writer, for example.

    Maybe I’m missing the point.

    • I’d say you have beauty as a hobby.

      • Ok, fair. I’d likely never go pro in anything in the beauty category. Maybe this distinction only applies to people’s primary economic activities?

        An odd correlated of this is that the more competent a person considers themselves (or actually are), the more likely they are to land in the sociopath bin. Not sure what to make of that. For example, would not all rich engineers be sociopaths in bin #2?

        • Chris Reid says:

          My best guess is that your confusion is over Venkat’s definition of “sociopath”.

          https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-or-the-office-according-to-the-office/

          • I’m aware of the previous post, and I think my question still stands: by this logic are all rich engineers sociopaths? Because there are certainly rich engineers, and many of them don’t seem to fit the mold of the sociopath as Venkat defined it.

            Obviously I’m assuming that engineers make sense, but that’s a common trait of the type.

        • I think you’re trying to read more nuance into this than there is. Engineers are not by definition in any category, and they don’t need to make sense (IMO, the “International Space Station” is an engineering effort that makes no sense. Many other things are that way).

          • Fair, although I think there’s an issue of scale. The international space station may make no sense, but the guy who did the airlock probably makes sense on the topic of airlocks. He probably also makes 2x-3x the typical family income in the wealthiest country in the world. I guess we could argue if that’s “making money” but it’s pretty good.

            Perhaps this model works better as the scope of the money, beauty and sense increases.

  3. Here’s a question: is there any documentation any group anywhere in history that felt they did NOT live in interesting times? I can think of people who felt their generation was a pale shadow of their forefathers, but I can’t think of an example of people who felt they lived in boring times.

    • It’s always relative. So you can’t look at beliefs. You have to look at actions. If large groups were following very similar scripts and succeeding with them, you’ve got uninteresting times. America in the 50s — 70s is such a period. We focus today on hippies, Vietnam etc., but those things were “interesting” things on the fringes that affected only a segment of the population in ideologically clear ways that didn’t confuse basic civilizational meanings or undermine institutions across the board. As a result most people were able to live out stable scripts. Pax Romana is another example. My parents generation in India is another (what in America is known as the Silents).

  4. Patrick Vlaskovits (@Pv) says:

    I love it, and moreover, grok it.

    But still feel that there is a Kobayashi Maru type move for the truly great wherein you refuse to play choose “2 out of 3”, and then re-defines the Interesting Times Triangle to something else. (Yes, this is not an original thought.)

    I feel like Liszt may have been able to do all three, whereas Beethoven and Mozart were clearly Beauty+Sense.

    • I don’t think there is. The point in Star Trek was that the thing was a simulation with an “outside” that you could hack from. Real life has no such “outside.”

      At a deeper level, I personally suspect this sort of folk theorem about constraints always arise from something more solid. For this one, I think the connection is to the P != NP conjecture. The only way you can get all 3 is through pure luck (in P/NP theory, NP is basically the idea that there is a non-zero chance that you’ll randomly guess the correct answer to a problem in polynomial time when only exponential time algorithms are known, hence “non-deterministic polynomial”). If lots of people are getting “lucky” that way, well, that’s the definition of good times.

      • Real life does have an outside, but it’s mental, not physical: don’t buy into the scripts people are running (especially yourself). Step outside yourself and develop your “third eye”. Physically speaking, practice using whatever brain module is the observer on other brain modules that tend to run more autonomously. The simulator in the Kobayashi Maru is just a metaphor for this. In Star Trek II, Kirk does this by maneuvering in 3D space while Khan is thinking in 2D.

        • Thats true to an extent, but there is a reason that meditation is not marked as the distinguishing quality of good strategists:

          Knowing yourself is really only a limited part of any strategic view, you have to see where people’s scripts etc are limiting them from engaging with capacities that exist in the real world.

          To put it another way, you have to actually be able to move in 3d, not merely think in it.

          And at the risk of creating even more tortuous analogies, even if it might be true that there are hidden dimensions (strategies concealed by convention, phenomena underutilised by current tech etc), you have to be able to resolve what functional difference they make to operations running in the normal set, as shortcuts or disruptions or whatever, otherwise you just slow your own decision-making, proliferating abstractions without proportional gain.

  5. After watching the LeanLA talk last week, and then seeing the triangle again, I immediately thought of “Management Consultant” when picking Money+Sense points.

  6. What is the intensity knob? Adjusting between picking 0 and picking 0.67 choices?

    • Yup. Something like that. I haven’t thought through a proper mathematization in the form of a conservation principle among 3 continuous variables.

  7. Suppose someone picks Beauty + Sense and is successful in both s.t. he can also make money from his artifacts and their interpretation, say a guy like Le Corbusier or Rem Koolhaas. Isn’t there a tendency to suspect that they immediately change their priorities? In particular leftists practice a culture of suspicion and have the tendency to place one of their own who surprisingly sells well on the “Dull Douchebag” seat. So pick-two isn’t really about making individual choices but what a choice does to you relative to other people who attempt to make sense of it.

    • That makes sense. Money, sense, beauty are all variables that depend on social proof for their valuation to lesser or greater degrees.

  8. Venkat,

    Your blog has been an inspiration and a lesson in depth and nuance, so thank you for that! I found myself cringing when I saw this and pegged myself mentally into slot #5. As you said, this is very much thought provoking. I’m trying to discern the differences between a Soulless Arbitrager and an Intellectual Dictator since neither of them seems to “Make Sense” to me (pun intended). In what sense are they Making Sense?

    • I mean ‘sense’ in the sense of ‘internal consistency’ rather than ‘truth.’

      Truth is hard to talk about. Consistency is much easier. As in the Emerson quote, “consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.”

  9. Good morning Venkat,

    I’m putting this question into our Socrates Café question jar: “If your choices are to make money, make sense and make beauty, which do you choose none, one, two, all three? Which do you choose and why?”

    When the question gets pulled, I’ll let you know how the discussion went.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff

  10. Hello Venkat

    I’ve been reading your blog for some time and always look forward to some thought-provoking arguments appearing on my feed. However, one thing bothers me and that’s your use of the term ‘sociopath’. To me this word describes someone who is incapable of empathy and has no concern for other human beings. You appear to be stating here and in the gervais principle that you can ne a sociopath, clueless or a loser. Which seems to suggest its impossible to be a decent person without mindlessly upholding the social system.

    This may not be your meaning, but I increasingly notice this worrying meme emenating from America that suggests that all economic woes are the results of the neurological makeup of our rulers. I feel that the true case is that the systems we live in are fundamentally flawed or require regular ‘spring-cleaning'(revolution) to keep them from enthroning self perpetuating oligarchies.

    It also occurs to me that the gervais principle only applies to large organisations and one can escape the paradigm by living outside of hierarchical systems. Whether this is a sustainable option for human beings is another question I guess

    • When dealing with “ribbonfarm sociopathy”, I find it best to deal with it as a sort of semiotic corruption; like a corrupt official using his public position to improve his private business, this involves twisting a current memetic trend to syphon off conversation and attention into a different set of ideas about narrative awareness, unsentimentality and focus on the raw makeup of society, rather than it’s pretty trappings, and particularly, how it relates to your current individual position.

      Business strategy for free agents basically, no matter who is ostensibly employing you.

      And like any form of corruption, it occasionally leads to absurdities, where all your suggested alternatives are probably both ideal for and incompatible with “sociopathy”, depending on which side you take it from.

    • “Which seems to suggest its impossible to be a decent person without mindlessly upholding the social system.”

      Precisely.

      I don’t know if the meme is American in origin (seems British to me), but I think it has a significant amount of substance to it, so I don’t mind being part of that memeplex.

      Basically, if the term ‘sociopath’ worries you, the idea is working as I meant.

      I won’t elaborate here, but the GP really has nothing to do with large hierarchical organizations specifically. It is a feature of the human condition that will always manifest itself, in one way or another. I’ve never found a functioning social system larger than about 12 people where it doesn’t hold.

      • To help make the connection, I suggest people think about forget about the empathy sociopathy seems to be the strongest association with the word. Focus on the hidden nihilism part. Sociopaths emulate moral sentiments while experiencing different ones.

        Try this thought experiment:
        You go back 300 years to 1702 England and live your life there. Your morality & the nebulous beliefs around it are completely unlike your environment. There is slave trade the prevailing class hierarchy & racial hierarchy (more unchallenged assumptions than political theories), misogyny. You see pedophiles where no one else seems to. Kings & politicians get away with ridiculous, blatant, populist junk that you couldn’t sell to anyone in the 21st century.

        Cluelessness is not an option for time travelers because the veil is too hard to maintain. They are too powerful to easily be losers.

        Your morality will be mostly secret because it’s pointless sharing it. It’s too different from society’s self deluded one. You’ll make a note of societal norms, emulate them & keep your own beliefs private. If/when you do act on your own morality it won’t be through directly sharing it. It’ll be through some sort of manipulation. Keeping your cards hidden. Acting only when the consequences are tangible.

        • Yes, but look at it from the other side. Your behavior stream is not completely predictable to those around you and may actively work against what they are working for. You try to keep your opposition a secret and act in the shadows to pursue a hidden agenda that only you understand. Maybe you don’t even know what your plan is and act opportunistically, which from outside appears as “mischievous spirits.” Meanwhile if your information advantage accrues to some real-world benefit, e.g. a pile of money, you have to hide that as well or else people will spot the incongruity.

          Any group that hopes to remain cohesive must patrol internally for this sort of parasitism so that scarce resources are not stolen away or turned against the group from inside. Which is why people are so hypersensitive and creeped out even just by the idea that sociopaths exist. Most people don’t operate as free agents, they are part of a group, and expect to be able to trust other members of the group to be on their side. To the extent you’re a double agent you risk being caught out and destroyed.

      • To help make the connection, I suggest people forget the lack of empathy sociopathy that seems to be the strongest association with the word. Focus on the hidden nihilism part. Sociopaths emulate moral sentiments while experiencing different ones (or none).

        Try this thought experiment:
        You go back 300 years to 1702 England and live your life there. Your morality & the nebulous beliefs around it are completely unlike your environment. There is slave trade the prevailing class hierarchy & racial hierarchy (more unchallenged assumptions than political theories), misogyny. You see pedophiles where no one else seems to. Kings & politicians get away with ridiculous, blatant, populist junk that you couldn’t sell to anyone in the 21st century.

        Cluelessness is not an option for time travelers because the veil is too hard to maintain. They are too powerful to easily be losers.

        Your morality will be mostly secret because it’s pointless sharing it. It’s too different from society’s self deluded one. You’ll make a note of societal norms, emulate them & keep your own beliefs private. If/when you do act on your own morality it won’t be through directly sharing it. It’ll be through some sort of manipulation. Keeping your cards hidden. Acting only when the consequences are tangible.

  11. Josh, if I understand you correctly, this implies abandoning loyalty to the institutions you work in. However I don’t feel this implies sociopathy, is say it indicates that ones loyalty lies elsewhere, whether in tribe, family, nation or political grouping. I think loyalty to corporate entities is a rare thing.

    My loyalties extend to my family, my subculture and the ideal of social democratic government in Europe. If I betray an institution to serve these aims I don’t feel that makes me sociopathic

  12. Anyway putting the l/c/s rubric over this suggests how the tradeoff might work; holding on to a little bit of the old order’s structure can work, but the bits of it break apart. Pretend everything’s going fine, and you just miss out on everything.

    Or you can try to forge new stuff, but it will be clearly broken in several important ways, just because of the computational problems of creating a new status quo.

  13. Most bon mots of the 2-out-of-3 variety strike me as thinly disguised ‘sour grapes’, and this one is no exception.

    I don’t see why something which has ‘beauty’ and ‘makes sense’ (for any value of the terms beauty and sense) would ipso facto not make money. That is a troll worthy of hipsters and disgruntled academics in the Humanities. I shall cite you at the next lodge meeting for conduct unbecoming an Engineer :)

  14. Hehe. I do have more detailed, non-sour-grapes arguments, but withheld them to just try the thing out on people.

    But yeah, I was kicked out of the Lodge a long time ago. I can barely calculate tips at restaurants anymore.

  15. Alexander Boland says:

    Maybe this cartoon by Hugh MacLeod sheds some light on this topic?

    http://lateralaction.com/base/media/post-images/millionaire.jpg

  16. Reminds me of this triangle I made: http://www.flickr.com/photos/alper/4726914407/
    The Dutch saying goes ‘poen, pret of prestige’, which means exactly that: dough, fun or esteem.

    I am hoping for serious good times because our firm bets are such that we are trying to leverage our Intellectual Dictatorship into money in the not so distant future. I’ll settle for fun in the mean time.

  17. The board game Careers addresses the issue; its inventor appears to be a very interesting person who was trying to refactor perceptions over a half century ago.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Careers_(board_game)

    Now everyone’s playing for money, which gives our recent civilization’s Margin Call:

    [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1615147/ should be much higher than 7.1, but there is close to zero “feel good” in the movie so it was not optimized for ratings/money. Making it required viewing at elite engineering schools *might* reduce the number of top talent who go into the financial sector…. or not.]