I have been doing a lot of work on the “How It’s Written” series. I’m loving making them and the response has been great. The Mandalorian episode has gotten a very positive response on YouTube and has created that most rarest of things on the internet, a wholesome comment section.
Next up is H.P. Lovecraft, in general and through the lens of Call of Cthulhu and The Shadow Over Innsmouth. If you've got a book or a work that you'd like to see me delve into, just let me know.
Today, I'm thinking about courage. You see, if there was only one virtue I could impart to my children it would be courage. Not physical courage, exactly, but a larger more all-encompassing kind of courage.
I believe that everything anybody wants in life is on the other side of fear. Fear of something new, fear of failure, fear of looking foolish. And I define courage as the ability to act in the face of fear. To work with fear. Which makes it, to my mind, not only a virtue but a real skill.
And fear is tricky because it's older than we are as a species. So we may feel intelligent and sophisticated with our reasons and our reasoning, but that prefrontal cortex level of thinking is easily and quickly overwhelmed by the amygdala. If, for example, I am afraid of heights, you can offer me all the reasons in the world why I shouldn't be afraid to ride in a glass elevator. And I can believe you, and agree, logically with all of them. But it won't make a dent in my fear.
This is not to say that nothing can be done about fear and that phobias cannot be overcome. It's just that they can't be overcome by logic and language. Fear is deeper than that. The technique that psychologists use to overcome fear is called exposure therapy. A patient voluntarily faces the thing they are afraid of, as much as he or she can stand, and little by little, they learn to be brave. That what scares them can be worked with.
This is an interesting mechanism when you think about it. Because there are many things that we should never stop being afraid of, yet still have to work with. Automobiles for example. You should be very afraid of killing someone in your car. But not so afraid that it makes you a worse driver.
This is a very helpful thing to know. That courage is a skill and fear can be overcome. Because our lives are lived in a field of staggering ignorance. When you really look at it, it's terrifying how little each of us actually knows -- even the smartest of us. And I don't mean that in terms of academic knowledge, but also in terms of the practical kind of knowledge that makes the world function.
The example I often use is the problem of lunch in Manhattan. If you were in charge of a central authority responsible for getting enough hot dogs to hot dog vendors on the island such that everyone who wanted a hot dog could get one, I don't think you could do it. I don't think any single entity could do it. It's a relatively simple thing and it's not centrally plannable.
In a system of pricing and delivery, all these little bits of key knowledge come together to orchestrate an incredible ballet of co-operative activity.
Thomas Sowell uses this great analogy in his book Knowledge and Decisions. I paraphrase
Just like atoms are little bits of largely empty space that are structured into objects that appear solid. Our understanding of the world is but flecks of knowledge in much larger ignorance, but together in such a way to appear solid and be useful. But if you look closely, there are gaps everywhere. In fact, what we know is mostly gaps. It's a hell of an idea, and I don't see how it's wrong.
And to extend his analogy, just like all the heavier elements were made in the heart of dying stars, every bit of human knowledge came at a tremendous cost in time, error, and effort. As Emerson says, "Every word was at first a stroke of genius."
This presents us with a fundamental human problem. Maybe the fundamental human problem. How do we act in the face of such staggering ignorance? Because we must act. We have no other choice.
We can be ignorant of our ignorance and our dependence on society and culture. This is very comforting, and I have lived parts of my life this way. Thinking I understood a lot of things, without looking too closely at them. Maybe most people are like this. And certainly, everyone starts out that way. If adolescents really understood what they were up against, as they started to make their way in the world they'd probably just give up.
What you need to act well across time, I mean after the rush of hormone-induced cockiness dies way is the ability to work with the fear of the unknown. Of what you don't know. And I think the prevalence of this kind of fear is a relatively new thing. 200 years ago a man would take a horse and an axe into the forest and make a farm and a family out of the wilderness. Without health insurance. Without antibiotics, without a water filter, without air conditioning. And, while it's impossible to know for certain, my bet would be without anywhere near the level of anxieties that we have.
Sure, he would have had a shorter life span. Sure he had a higher risk of getting eaten by a bear. But, I think he was less afraid in an objectively more perilous circumstance. I think about this a lot when I get too worried or disturbed or frustrated.
So how do you develop the skill of courage? In the broadest terms, you seek out challenge voluntarily. When you voluntarily engage with a challenge, different parts of the brain turn on than if you are forced to deal with challenge in a way you can't control. The first one leads to growth, the second to trauma.
So maybe the most important thing to know about courage as a skill you can't force it on someone. They have to want it. Courage has to be inspired.
It seems that physical courage is less necessary than it used to be in the past. We don't have to do things like kill boars with spears. War is far less physical than it used to be. Drone pilots are highly effective without having to use any kind of physical courage. Part of me hates to say it, but physical courage may be, in a sense, obsolete. But there has never been more of a need for intellectual and moral courage.
Facing the unknown, and updating your prior beliefs, admitting where you were wrong in your thinking or your action, hurts. And I think the complex and changing time in which we live demands exactly this kind of courage. Let me give you an example with the business of being an author.
This is a graph of my book sales. As you can see I sold a lot of books in 2011 and 2015 but not so many books after. (There are actually sales on the left end of graph, they are just dwarfed in scale) Since that time, many things have changed about publishing. I can look at this and admit that, from the point of view of book sales, I was wrong not to keep pushing books out there.
But, I had other considerations. And, even though I had a bit of a hit with the first How to Succeed in Evil, I have to admit to myself that I didn't know how to produce fiction on a professional timetable.
So I have a choice, I can cling to my belief that I know what I'm doing. That I'm a good author. That the quality of my books and my ideas will carry the day. Or I can face the fact that I don't know what's going on here and I have new skills to acquire. I can try new things. And this hurts.
Right now I'm running a perma-free strategy. Crazy Psycho Murder Tree is absolutely free. And at the end there's a link so you can give up your email address and get a copy of the next book, the Mighty Manligator. This strategy has resulted in nearly 2000 books given away. And depressingly few email sign ups.
So why isn't this working? Well, it could be that nobody wants to read the next book. It could also be that people don't value a free book and haven't gotten around to reading it in any great numbers? Some mixture of these things almost certainly true. But what percentage? I just am I just don't know. So what should I do?
But I'm being courageous about not knowing. Even as I'm frustrated that this is not working like it did before. I will now try something else and learn from that as well. I won't bore you with the details, but I'm very optimistic. The flywheel is gaining momentum once again. And my writing is the best it has ever been. Now, it's just a matter of patience and endurance. Two other virtues worth writing about.
I’ll get to that too.