This is the Optimization Episode. We start off by reviewing a short article by David Brooks on the glories of middle age. Brooks makes the claim that middle age is a great departure point for big adventures because, presumably, you’ve done well and accumulated resources. Apparently to many New York Times commenters, a well-resourced midlife cannot be assumed; many have continued to struggle since the Great Recession. This reversal of fortune is interesting, Paul notes, because so many of our popular narratives show the protagonist going from strength to strength. There are too few failure stories in our popular imagination, perhaps because they are uninspiring. But the truth is, many people do not “succeed,” as the word is commonly defined. One component of wisdom, highlighted in the Brooks article, is compassion – a necessary perspective in a world where not everyone makes it. During the discussion, Pete observes that “knowledge can be read; wisdom has to be lived.” There are plenty of self-help gurus peddling shortcuts to good-living, but Paul remains skeptical. After watching “A Day in the Life of Tim Ferriss” both men have a reaction. Ironically, Pete sounds the more American, explaining “failure as a path to success.” Paul has a cooler response, searching for the old quip that at least “Mussolini made the trains run on time.” Both Peter and Paul agree, however, that “optimization theory” has been hijacked from the corporate world to mixed effect: some things aren’t meant to be productive. It’s particularly disconcerting/hilarious when this type of thinking is applied to relationships, or in the realm of “soft skills.” Pete jests that “The 4-Hour Girlfriend” may not be a best-seller. Paul holds up his family in France who enjoy Parisian life, sail in the South of France and eat exceptional food, all without subscribing to the optimization mania that has gripped the U.S. (and, to a lesser degree, England). The guys get serious for a moment discussing contradiction in Hamlet and the themes in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (if one travels under tremendous burden, does that make life sweeter?) before returning to their usual convoluted banter. Paul concludes by saying that optimization presupposes an outcome, but in his view many of these so called “gurus” don’t have a credible vision of their future, at least not one he can see.
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