Human Limits

Exploring performance and health with Michael J. Joyner, M.D.

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Three Books & Our Messy-Crazy World

If you had any doubts about just how messy-crazy the world is, the terrorist attacks last week in Paris should have convinced you. I have been thinking about how to understand the Paris attacks in specific and the phenomenon of terrorism and political violence in general.   To do this I have started to re-read Eric Hoffer’s classic short book “The True Believer” first published in 1951.


In this book Hoffer outlines the causes of fanaticism and how it preys on alienated people with a sense of grievance who are looking for “something bigger than themselves”.   The book was a favorite of Dwight Eisenhower who had seen in World War II exactly what evil unchecked fanaticism can bring. He also saw echoes of it in the Cold War including the way the US and other democracies were responding. As recounted in the New York Times link above, in the late 1950s Ike wrote to a terminally ill WWII veteran seeking “clarity” on the complex national security issues of the Cold War.


“Eisenhower also recommended a short book — “The True Believer” by Eric Hoffer, a self-educated itinerant longshoreman who earned the nickname “the stevedore philosopher.” “Faith in a holy cause,” Hoffer wrote, “is to a considerable extent a substitute for the lost faith in ourselves.”


Though Eisenhower was criticized for lacking an intellectual framework or even an interest in ideas, he was drawn to Hoffer’s insights. He explained to Biggs (the terminally veteran) that Hoffer “points out that dictatorial systems make one contribution to their people which leads them to tend to support such systems — freedom from the necessity of informing themselves and making up their own minds concerning these tremendous complex and difficult questions.” The authoritarian follower, Eisenhower suggested, desired nothing more than insulation from the pressures of a free society.


Substitute “religious fanatic” a few places in the excerpt above and what Ike said in the late 50s is perhaps even truer today.


If you only read one book all year read “The True Believer”.


Book #2

If you want to understand the limits of our metric driven world and the efforts of economist, managers, and others to turn everything about humanity into some sort of measurable “science experiment” with a business angle, then read “Small is Beautiful” by E.F. Schumacher published in the early 1970s.   Schumacher points out that the human costs of economies of scale, bigger is better, growth is good, and all of the related activity needs to be considered skeptically along with ever more and more “return on investment” thinking.  As things have “grown” and become more globalized and hyper connected since the book was first published in the early 70s, Schumacher’s ideas and observations seem almost prophetic.


Does every human activity have a value that can be monetized, measured and managed? It sure seems that way……


Book #3, Man’s Search for Meaning

So in a world where it is easy to get either alienated and/or become essentially a cog in some sort of industrialized or commoditized activity, is there a way out?   The short answer is yes and one of the best resources to think about how to do this comes from the death camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. His book “Man’s Search for Meaning” was written in 1946 as he recovered from the Holocaust. He points out that in life there is no happiness without the pursuit of something beyond the self. One of his best observations is:


“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”


To me this is a clear response to the industrialization and the increasing application of management theory to all human activities. We must choose to be more than organisms on some sort of stimulus response curve subject to manipulation


Connecting the Big 3

At some level the observation by Frankl above connects the major themes of these three great books. Themes of alienation and dehumanization run throughout the “True Believer” and “Small is Beautiful”. Some humans give up and essentially surrender. Unfortunately some of us are lured by mass movements and political or religious ideologies and surrender in a different way as we pursue “a purpose”.   I guess in the final analysis, the hard thing to do is choose your own responses to this crazy world.

Don’t surrender your choices too easily to outside forces that seek to manipulate them for their own gain.



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