The Pursuit of Happiness

Most Americans know that the “right to happiness” was mentioned in a big way in the Declaration of Independence. Very few Americans, including me, really understand what that phrase meant at that time.

Americans’ definitions of happiness range all over the map. Winning the lottery, good humor, no money worries, no stress, success, balance in life, great kids, a loving marriage, lots of friends, job satisfaction, feeling good most of the time etc, etc.

If someone with a straight face were to tell you it really was none of those things as Jefferson wrote those words, I imagine you would be as non-pulsed as I was. Yet when I did learn what it meant, I immediately realized that we have all had it quite wrong for a long time AND if we could learn to get it right we might all be better off.

A recent new issue of a 14 volume famous work of the English diarist Samuel Pepys contains a glossary of words which we think we know well, but which had quite different meanings back then in the late 1700s. For example, ‘doubt’ back then really meant ‘worry’: as in “I doubt that he will come here” really meant “I worry that he will come here.” That surely is quite a difference which could lead to a lot of confusion.

The root stem of happiness was ‘happenstance’–chance, luck fortune. Pepys opined in his diaries that Admiral William Penn [the father] was an “unhappy” sailor commenting that he ran aground a lot, lost his anchors and tore his sails–to fail, to try again, to fail, to try again, always taking risks but finally succeeding.

So the meaning of happiness to Pepys and Jefferson meant something much more like the right and freedom to take chances in life and take risks on the many layered roads to success, to try to be more than one may have been born to be.

In fact, Jefferson did speak of the pursuit of happiness. Evidently at that time happiness really meant freedom to pursue risks. That is what constituted happiness; not necessarily the success that might follow, but the freedom to take risks to succeed.

I learned this when a journalist friend in DC, Jim Srodes, wrote to comment on my piece about the Omaha Bomber (Warren Buffett) and concluded that Buffett’s “wisdom” about no umpire to call balls and strikes which allowed the batter to simply wait for a perfect pitch, was quite misleading in investment terms.

He also pointed out that Ben Franklin, about whom he recently wrote a grand biography, would have thought that waiting for the perfect pitch was a losing strategy and wondered what Buffett might think today.

Srodes makes a very good point. And, investors should bear his wisdom in mind.

The larger point, moreover, is that if more Americans, including all our elected representatives, could learn and understand the original intent of the meaning of happiness as the freedom to take risks and read that into our political lives, we might all be more inclined to pull up our socks to make the effort and take the risks that can lead to real happiness for everyone everywhere.

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THE WHEEL AS A METAPHOR?

The covered wagons of the early and mid 19th century that carried most of the Americans who opened the West became a ubiquitous symbol of grit, fortitude, courage and yearning for opportunity and change. Without the iron clad wooden wheels on those wagons that would not have happened the same way or at the same time.

Henry Ford converted horse drawn carriages into horseless carriages and was the first great mass manufacturer of automobiles.

Franklin Roosevelt practically made his inevitable wheelchair invisible.

Twenty years ago, my wife and I trekked in Nepal for 10 days, more than 12,000 feet up, on trails with no smoothing (much less paving at all). It was most likely the longest period I ever went without seeing a single wheel.

In fact, those trails were tough going. One day one of our Sherpas put down his 70 pound basket load to come back and help me over some obstacle. That evening I thanked him again for being so thoughtful and helpful when he had no shoes and so much to carry. I will never forget his response. He said not to worry as he was lucky and had it easy because he could put his load down and I could not! Never underrate the wit and intelligence of local people with little education and no wheels to smooth their way in life.

Again in the 19th century, and before, pulleys were used to distribute power through networks of cables from a central source to various machines in factories, mills, elevators and quarries. Those often invisible wheels were the disruptive technologies of their time.

The clocks invented in England and Germany in the 17th and 18th centuries employed finely tooled wheels that enabled sailors and travelers to find their way in uncharted waters and lands.

The amazing stone Icons of Easter Island were quarried and then moved on wooden wheels by hand for 20 odd miles to stare at the endless seascape for eons of years.

The ball bearings invented and improved by Mr. Timken were an essential part of winning World War II by making possible modern aircraft, tanks and bomb sights.

The gigantic Ferris Wheel, first built in 1892 for the Columbian Exposition in Chicago to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Columbus finding America, and now an even larger version in London known as The Eye (because it has the best views of the city), never cease to capture people’s imagination and excitement.

In recent decades, many children first encountered the “thrill of the road” as toddlers pedaling a BIG Wheel tricycle. And, to many of them, their Dad also was a big wheel.

And last, but not least, one of the most popular game shows on Television is The Wheel of Fortune which has made a lot of worthy people very happy.

All these various wheels have two things in common:

When they squeak they need grease — sometimes in the form of hydrocarbons, sometimes money.

Most important of all they each stand in various ways for FREEDOM – to move, see, win wars and enjoy a good life.

Why College Is Still Essential

We just returned from a 60th college reunion, where we renewed numerous old friendships. Not surprisingly, given the setting, there was a lot of talk about how the internet might take over significant parts of higher education. Several resistant ideas began ricocheting around in this aging head.

The talk about the power of the internet to democratize and extend the “audience” of qualified and interested students, and to make accessible the benefits of great teaching to many more people, was quite compelling. There is a good case to be made that certain types of teaching, particularly in certain subjects such as computer science, lend themselves well to a digital classroom.Still, nothing in our experience to date suggests that “cloud-based colleges” will – or should – eliminate the need for college students to be part of a LIVE educational community.

Admittedly, the increasing number of college-bound students projected in the coming years will pose new challenges to “ground-based colleges.” But the personal growth afforded by a traditional, four years on campus experience simply cannot be replicated in an online environment. And the strongest evidence for that position is found, of course, online. In the “real” world, people normally have, for good reason, a limited number of friends. Even though the human brain is still much more powerful than any normal computer, it is very difficult for most people to embrace more than a handful of people they come to know as well as family.

Online, however, the world is far different. Many perfectly ordinary people have thousands of ‘friends’ on Facebook. That is surely distorting and diminishing much modern human interaction. The veneer of “friendship” that Facebook and other social media paint on remote and shallow relationships creates lots of illusions–sometimes good; sometimes scary. Good, if one is trying to promote or sell something. Scary, if one happens to believe all those folks are really friends, and then becomes a ‘friend in need.’

Everyone needs friends and intimacy as well as privacy.

We are already losing lots of privacy in the internet dominated world, yet the distinction between friends and acquaintances will continue to play an important role in the normal, personal everyday life of most people.

How does this relate to the place of ground-based education in the modern world? There is, and long has been, plenty of education available to everyone, everywhere, never more so than now, through the written word, television, movies. But, the power and intimacy of live performances by professors as well as other students has yet to be matched by any new medium.

At this reunion, we were treated to a lecture by a professor of music who entitles his lectures “The First Night Performance” when a piece of music is first performed to a live audience. His purpose is to make an end run around any need to read musical notes, which most students cannot do ( nor really want or need to do). Instead he conveys the “language” of music by indirection.

To accomplish this, he plays recorded pieces of great classical music and, as he is also a great actor, pantomimes and illustrates the themes and messages intended by the music when it was written — often hundreds of years ago,

It was an amazingly successful example of how the overwhelming power of a physically present person who is also a gifted teacher, cannot be pried apart and simply could not be the same captured on film and delivered in a modest window on a modest computer screen, days, months or years after the fact, and equally far removed from any meaningful interaction sparked by the live performance.

Education is, at rock bottom, about learning from and through real people – other students and teachers. The substance , of course, always has to be there, but the process of learning is still and probably always will be a relatively slow and accretive process that takes place as people are enjoying everyday life while taking seriously the challenge of growing up and learning.

Not only do students encounter diversity of people and cultures, they discover the diversity of minds.

Yes, there are potential benefits for further democratization of college education for people today who cannot afford to live away from home, and perhaps college does not need to be a full four years., We should not, however, let costs, or even great technology, distract us and risk robbing young people of the opportunity to cap their growing years in real educational communities.

Perhaps I got brainwashed all over again?