When you’re a poet, words and phrases can have a powerful effect on you. Words are more than simple vehicles for communication.
Certain words and combinations of words really “speak” to you. They can grab you by the throat and drag you down strange alleys. They can tangle up your feet and make you fall. They can lift you up and help you fly.
Getting enchanted and be-spelled by words is probably one of the biggest hazards of the ancient craft of poesy. (Poets probably make great con artists. They are also probably among the most vulnerable for getting scammed.)
Poets tend to get sucked into all sorts of adventures by words and by their own passion for words.
After a while that susceptibility to words makes poets look sharply at all of the words that come at them. It makes them think and re-think what the things the people saying the words actually mean and how these words affect the consensus-world we live in.
ONE GUY WHO TELLS IT STRAIGHT
I have just discovered the work of Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one irascible, opinionated, straight-shooting contrarian who has a jones for bonking fuzzy-thinking scholarly sorts, politicos, and other self-proclaimed prognosticators, oracles, and experts.
I get the feeling that Taleb is a poet. He has studied and dissected words mercilessly and he understands their power and uses them well.
The brilliance and shine of his mind-constructs are a testament to the work he’s been doing, studying and playing with the various facets of probability, randomness, uncertainty and ambiguity in the realms of high finance and academia.
Between 2001 and 2018, Taleb put together the INCERTO, a five-volume set of books that Taleb calls a philosophical essay. The word is Latin for “uncertainty,” it says here.
The five stand-alone books in the series are:
- FOOLED BY RANDOMNESS: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and the Markets (2001) about the underestimation of the role of randomness in life was selected by Fortune magazine as one of the “smartest 75 books known;”
- THE BLACK SWAN: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2007 to 2010), probably one of his most famous of his books, about highly improbable unpredictable events that change the world;
- THE BED OF PROCRUSTUS: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms (2010), a book of pertinent aphorisms;
- ANTIFRAGILE: Things that Gain from Disorder (2012), what he calls his “central work,” about how to dance successfully in the stream of life’s inevitable changes; and
- SKIN IN THE GAME: The Hidden Assymetries in Daily Life (2018) about the importance of being a person who “eats what they cook” and actually takes the same risks that they advocate and advise for other people as well as about learning how to recognize and deal only with those sorts of people when you’re headed out on a risky adventure of one sort or another.
Taleb also published a dizzy-making technical version, THE TECHNICAL INCERTO (Statistical Consequences of Fat Tales) in which he provides all kinds of mathematical proofs and head games related to his mind-constructs, opinions and theories that probably makes sense to those who speak in tongues.
I started with SKIN IN THE GAME, the last of Taleb’s books in the set. His thoughts in that book evoked a big YES! in me
In this short 2013 YouTube video, “Nassim Taleb: Skin in the Game,” the author-philosopher explains the value and moral purpose of requiring all investors to have “skin in the game” to a group of students at Stanford. It was uploaded by Stanford eCorner.
It is in that same book that I found the “soul in the game” paradigm that I’m going to start to explore in this thing.
I’m pleased to report that I am now lost in Taleb’s ANTIFRAGILE. It’s one of the few books I’ve ever found that clearly explains (in a way that an Occidental sort of mind can encompass and sort of understand) why it’s wise to learn how to stand comfortably in ambiguity.
I think I’m going to need to re-read and then play with the ideas in both of these books for a few years before I can reach for any of the other Taleb books in the series. Each of the books I’ve tasted so far deserves a few years of pondering, savoring and trying out, I say.
SO…WHAT IS HAVING “SOUL IN THE GAME?”
In ANTIFRAGILITY, Taleb presents having “soul in the game” as the highest, most ethical level that a human can play at in the game of life.
In Taleb-speak, “no skin in the game” refers to those who keep the benefits of any risky venture for themselves while passing on the downsides and the losses on to other people.
The ones playing with no skin in the game own “a hidden option at someone else’s expense,” he says. It riles him up. No question about it.
Among Taleb’s no-skinners in a handy-dandy chart in his book are people like bureaucrats, politicians and centralized governments, theoreticians and data miners, bankers and risk vendors, corporate executives, editors and journalists who “analyze and make predictions.”
Those who have “skin in the game” take their own risks and if things go sideways, they also take their own hits. Entrepreneurs, merchants and business people, artisans and writers, and lab and field experimenters are among the folks that populate the “skin” column in Taleb’s chart.
And then there are the ones who have skin in the game for the sake of others. Those are the ones, he says, who are putting “soul in the game.” They are the ones who choose to sacrifice their own welfare and risk their own well-being for the benefit of others.
Taleb points out that those with soul in the game are not necessarily the people who are most “right” or most righteous. Despite their best intentions, some of the more misguided sorts may not always be particularly beneficial for the people around them.
According to Taleb, a lot of the folks who are putting soul in their game are just everyday people doing their own and helping others along in their own quiet way. No fanfare, no cheering crowds, no statues raised.
These days all of that glitter-glam stuff usually happens to the guys and gals who have developed great social media networks and have hired an exceptional publicist, brand manager and a skilled team who can put out a wowzer series of You-Tube videos that occasionally go viral.
Taleb makes much of behaving with courage and with dignity. He says, “…dignity is worth nothing unless you earn it, unless you are willing to pay a price for it.”
(I think that Taleb probably has a warrior’s soul as well as a trader’s mind and a poet’s heart. It certainly makes for interesting reading.)
NOW, WHAT ABOUT YOU?
It’s unlikely that Taleb’s description of his sort of “soul in the game” people will match your own definitions. Each of us is shaped by our own life experiences, by the people wandering through our lives, and by what we value most and hold dear.
One of the results I got when I Googled “what is soul?” was this: “emotional or intellectual energy or intensity.” Another, from Wikipedia, was “the incorporeal essence of a living being.” Whatever.
I personally like to compare the “soul” thing to the scent of flowers.
The fragrance that emanates from a lokelani rose is very different from that of a ‘awapuhi ginger or puakenikeni blossom. Yet, for me, each one has its own sweetness and can be used, alone or together, to weave an entrancing sort of lei that scents the air all around and adds to the beauty of the world.
The deal is, though, that the odor of each bloom is an intrinsic part of that blossom. A lokelani rose does not smell like ‘awapuhi ginger, nor do either of them smell like puakenikeni. The intense and lingering smell that is the essence of each one is there because the flower is what it is.
Maybe you are getting the idea that nobody really knows what we’re talking about even though we all do think that we know what “soul” is…sort of.
AND WHAT ABOUT THE MEANING OF LIFE?
It’s very likely that each of us will decide at some point that the whole “soul” thing is connected somehow to the “meaning of life,” another big amorphous bunch of ideas that wise guys, smartypants and fools have pondered on down through the ages.
If you click on the button below, you’ll get a whole Goodread array of “Meaning of Life” books (almost 950 of the things) with reviews and such that could keep you busy for a few years, if you’re so inclined.
ONE MORE TAKE….
One of my favorite veteran actor-comedians Alan Alda is most famous as the guy who played Hawkeye Pierce in the war television series M*A*S*H. He also wrote a couple of books, one of which is THINGS I OVERHEARD WHILE TALKING TO MYSELF.
The book is a compilation of the speeches the actor was asked to give through the years before audiences of graduating students, scientists, business folks, politicians and such interspersed with rambling musings and reflections about his amazing life.
The last essay in the book features an imaginary speech which is the result of a challenge by a friend, violinist Arnold Steinhardt, who asked Alda, “If you were asked to give a commencement talk on your deathbed, what would you say?”
In the “speech” that Alda imagined the most striking advice he gave was this:
“My dear friends, are you looking for meaning? Don’t do it. I’ve driven myself crazy with it. I have the distinct suspicion now that there is no hidden meaning to life…. Whenever I’ve wanted some meaning, I’ve had to make it myself. It wasn’t included in the box from the store.”
He winds his way through his experiences with the process of chasing down the meaning of life and wrestling it to the ground and/or choosing to sit quietly and waiting for the deepest, most lasting satisfaction to come to him on its own…or not.
He puzzles over why it’s just so difficult to live a soulful, totally satisfying life and wonders why it always ends up in “some damn Zen paradox.”
Alda throws out a lot of life hacks in his “deathbed speech.” At one point, he recommends just doing something simple:
- Find someone to laugh with.
- Find something to laugh at (yourself is always good).
- Keep moving.
He tells his imaginary audience, “Just noticing life can be the whole bottle of beer.”
And he tells the graduates in his audience, “Go forth. And stay there.” Rather than returning to your starting point after completing an adventure, he says, “Why ever give up trying to get where you’ve never been before?”
Alda advises would-be adventurers to “Take what you need to survive in the wild, and go. When you get there, take what you find and make what you need to keep going. Go with someone you can lie out under the stars with and who can help you tell the mud from the quicksand as you cut a path through the unknown.”
It seems to me that’s a pretty good way to wander through the world, looking for the kind of soul you want to put into your life.
Here’s a poem:
The questions tend to multiply
And permutate into more and more…
A nest of questions,
All pertinent, all relevant,
All waiting for debate
With self or other,
Back and forth and back.
They can get to be a
Maze that keeps
Evolving and changing
Into more alleyways
Where you think
Meaning can be found,
A labyrinth of asking
Why and how and where.
They can turn into
A monolithic ivory tower
Where you sit and ponder
All day, all night,
Doing nothing more
Than warming some cushions
While your mind runs
Around in circles
Until it falls down dizzy
And you throw up watery
Conundrums all over the floor.
They can turn into branching paths
That keep you wandering
Through the wilderness,
Always finding more and more
Until the world turns dark
And the stars all go away.
The trick, you know,
Is learning how
To live in them.
By Netta Kanoho
Thanks for your visit. I’d appreciate it if you would drop a note or comment below and tell me your thoughts.