Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"The Clever One"

For my first twenty-two years living in Los Angeles, I did not feel up to driving on the freeway…

I am lunching with Ken Levine (of the popular, funny and informative, being regaled by his recent adventure hosting a festival of Neil Simon movies on TCM (Turner Classic Movies.)  While recounting this enjoyable experience, the reliably upbeat Mr. Levine confesses to a surfacing moment of apprehension.

“They invited me to do it.  There was a generous ‘clothing allowance’, First Class tickets to Atlanta – I said ‘Great!’  But then, as they were about to start shooting and I realized I’d be required to stand in front of millions of people reading from a teleprompter which I had never done before, I thought, “What have I gotten myself into!” 

My immediate response to Ken’s confession was the following:

“If they had called me, I would have immediately considered what was involved and I’d have said ‘No’ to them over the phone.”

The lesson for me was that the difference in our responses involved, less importantly Ken’s “Yes” versus my “No”, but when the realization of potential difficulties came to the fore, Ken’s “Red Flag” concerns arriving demonstrably too late. 

Making me, in this context,

“The Clever One.” 

(Overlooking the fact that he did it and had a wonderful experience.) 

(Overlooking also the fact that I was never asked to do it.  Though if I had been, you can imagine… well, you don’t have to imagine, my response can be located three paragraphs to the north.

I have this gift.  A situation is proposed and, with virtually computer-like rapidity, I can evaluate whether it is or it isn’t for me.  The result of such calculations?   

Always safe. 

Never sorry. 

Occasionally regretful perhaps but never sorry.

I am assiduously aware of my limitations.  I consider them in the face of the current opportunity, noting the situation’s demands, evaluating my chances of succeeding, and my determination, unlike Ken’s which arrived in my view unproductively down the line, is instantaneous. 

When you’re “The Clever One”, that, in my view, is the most intelligent and sensible way to operate:  You assess what’s ahead and you decide whether you have any reasonable kind of a shot.

This is the right and proper way to handle things.

Or so I have always believed.

Recently, however, I came upon a New Yorker book review critiquing Worldly Philosopher, the biography of the late master economist Albert O. Hirschman, authored by Jeremy Adelman.

Without venturing into elongating detail – if you are interested, you might want to track down that review lucidly written by Deborah Friedell on the Internet – Albert O. Hirschman believed that, in opposition to my approach, and counter-intuitively to his role as a respected economic “planner”, attempting to pre-determine what might happen concerning an impending undertaking is precisely the opposite of the mature and sensible idea it appears to be.

An ultimately more productive strategy, Hirschman proposes, involves the embracing acceptance of uncertainty. 

Offering historical examples, Hirschman demonstrates that, despite the most comprehensive planning and preparation, you can you never know what’s ahead of you.  Not only that, but backed by enough verifiable evidence to raise it to the level of a theory, you shouldn’t know. 

And here I quote (Friedell quoting Hirschman):

“While we are rather willing and even eager and relieved to agree with a historian’s finding that we stumbled into the more shameful events of history, such as war, we are correspondingly unwilling to concede – in fact we find it intolerable to imagine – that our more lofty achievements, such as economic, social and political progress, could have come about by stumbling rather than through careful planning… Language itself conspires towards this sort of asymmetry; we fall into error, but do not usually speak of falling into truth.” 

This way of seeing things explains a phenomenon I have always wondered about.  Why do some people, in various lines of endeavor from writing a “spec” screenplay against incalculable odds to going to the moon – take on what appears to be, common-sensically, “the impossible”?

The simple answer is:  

They believed it would be easier.  

Then, once committed, it became impractical to turn back.

So they did it.  (Devising innovative solutions along the way.) 

A mistaken evaluation and something magnificent gets accomplished.  A more accurate evaluation and it doesn’t. 

Which of these alternatives is better?

Now if you come away thinking that the message here is “Be bold!’, then I did not communicate it correctly.  What Hirschman offers is evidence of the counter-productivity of looking ahead.  Because even though you believe you have the information to make the appropriate decision on the matter, you don’t.

(READ SNARKILY)… “Mr. ‘Smarty Pants’ who thinks they can see into the future.” 

I actually should have known that.

Once, I wrote and performed a monologue for my daughter Anna’s school fundraiser.  After taking that risk, putting my face out there in front of a theater full of people…

The next day, I started driving on the freeway.

I should probably have remembered that.

Maybe next time, I will.

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