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Sunday, 01 February 2004


I feel like you've mind-gamed yourself into a corner.

Reputation for what? Great-smelling hair?

Yeah, maybe--it wouldn't be the first time I've mind-gamed myself into a corner. However, I don't think the "for what" aspect necessarily needs to be answered until you get to smaller goals. If I had to choose something it might be reputation for building things. Communities, narratives, services, languages, etc. Though it could also be reputation for breaking things. This is very high level, and so comes across as maybe a little egotistical or over-ambitious. I think that's an okay risk to take at this point though, since for the most part I overcompensate on the other side of the scale.

but why "reputation for..."?
Why not just have "build things" as a goal, rather than "develop a reputation for building things"?

It seems the former, being more direct, first-order, observable, etc. is *less* game-able than the latter...

First, I couldn't find a reason why I should build things other than for reputation. I'm pretty sure that anything I build could be built by someone else just as well if not better. My incremental value to society (especially in highly competitive fields) is almost zero. So, by admitting that it's a reputation thing, I'm being honest with myself as well as providing a reason (if somewhat selfish) to do things. In the end, it's not actually selfish because society will grade me based on my ability to contribute to it. Also, I don't think reputation building is as easily game-able. If I just wanted to build things, it would be easy to build things that nobody used but which followed some perfect design. With an architect's pride. By tying reputation in, it brings in a bunch of secondary effects that I can be graded on... it's a much more complicated problem, and I think closer to my desired goals than a simpler non-reputation-based goal would be. I haven't actually acted on this goal yet, so that'll be the true test (or at least a better test than merely philosophizing about it).

You're making my head hurt
...but anyway I have a question. If reputation can only be measured by other people (even if it's "highly localized" to a small group), does this this mean that 'Being True to Yourself' doesn't factor into your Big Goals?

e.g. what if by some strange twist of fate Beethoven was completely ignored by his contemporaries and by history as well, meaning he had/has no reputation. Would that make his music output and his life a failure?

I tend to view things subjectively, rather than in abstractions. So maybe I'm coming at this from a different angle and messing around with your point.

Success versus reputation versus value
I think success is different from reputation. If Beethoven's music had never been heard, you could say that it would be unsuccessful, have no impact on his reputation, but still be "good". Unfortunately, there's no way to measure "goodness" other than through proxies like success and affect on reputation. That's why we often can't categorize the great things of our society until a few decades after they've happened. So, while my goal probably isn't perfect in terms of mapping 100% to "goodness", I think it's a better proxy than success.

Are you implying that you think Beethoven's musical output should be considered just as successful if nobody ever heard it? It's not as successful because in many ways music is designed to be listened to (just like books are designed to be read and companies are designed to sell products/services)--therefore one of the metrics that determines success should be whether or not anybody listens to it and enjoys the music or reads the book or buys something from the company. It's an indicator that you built something valuable if it has success, but it's not the only determinator or even a perfectly reliable determinator. All successful things don't lead to improved reputations, and not all improved reputations are the result of successful things, though in both cases there does appear to be a lot of overlap. Microsoft is very successful but has a poor reputation amongst a lot of people. So does George Bush, the NRA, Marlboro, Exxon, Nike, Michael Jackson, etc. The people and businesses that despite having a lot of things to envy, you wouldn't want to have over for dinner, or trade places with. They have high reputations amongst people who value success and clever bending of the rules... and can be admired for their intelligence and smart business skills, but overall you don't necessarily like them as people. I'm not sure if that's just my perspective or if there really is a difference between success and reputation. I could be wrong here.

Another thing is that success in itself still feels like it has a lot of random elements in it--having the right connections, getting the right opportunities, etc.

A synonym for reputation is trust. Becoming successful amongst your contemporaries takes a different strategy than becoming trusted amongst your contemporaries. It's difficult to game trust... for the most part it has to be earned the hard way. As soon as you get caught gaming trust, there's a very harsh penalty. Building a company that people trust may lead to something that's not as successful as one that strives to make the most money, but I think I'm trying to convince myself that it's the better company to build, or book to write, or whatever.

I can't let this turn into a trite and meaningless cliche though. Pretty soon I'm going to come up with something as profound as "do unto others and you would have them do unto you." But it's not quite there yet.

Don't be a victim
Oh, what deep thoughts!

I agree with Richard. I look at it slightly differently, though.

I think it's good to occasionaly let outsiders set the standard by which you're judged. It prevents self-deception. However, as a long-term strategy, I think it's pretty disempowering. I define victimhood as essentially "he/she/it/they did it to me." When you say "I'm lucky" you take a mental position that you didn't have anything to do with it. When you say "I'm unlucky" you take the same stance.

Consider the following two cases:

1. Something bad. You get mugged while visiting New York. Maybe it was random, or maybe you dress like a tourist, walk like a tourist, or just look like an easy target. Either way, is it better to think of yourself as unlucky or to take the position that you attracted it?

2. Something good. You win the lottery. Do you just say you're lucky? But you bought a ticket, right? You put yourself in the right place. Is the lesson to learn that good things sometimes just happen to you or would you rather choose to think that you attracted it?

Maybe I'm not making much sense, but what if you said "I attract to myself that which occurs" instead?

You say society will judge your contribution to it through reputation. Why give that power to others? Why can't YOU judge your contribution? Why do you think society is the ultimate judge? Heck, looking around, I can think of half a dozen things just off the top of my head that I think are screwed up about our society. For example, what gets rewarded in this country is rabid individualism and avarice.

I anticipate your reaction will be "but I get to pick my circle of people, to choose which judges I listen to," but if you say that, then isn't "building reputation" just a cop out? I mean, aren't you just saying "I want to be liked by people I want to be liked by?"

Or am I totally misreading you?

Peer pressure versus reputation
You're not misreading me, I'm just not explaining myself quite right. :)

I think the issue of claiming responsibility is slightly tangential to this goal. The act of making a goal could be interpreted as claiming responsibility--the alternative of not knowing why I'm acting the way I am and having to justify where I end up eventually. With a goal of building reputation, if I act on the goal I can tell myself why I'm doing what I'm doing and also justify why I got to wherever I ended up (good or bad). It's my fault if it leads me astray, because I chose it. Whether or not I actually do claim responsibility for any of this is yet to be seen...

To build off your scenarios Michael, you mentioned two outcomes: attributing the event to chance, or attributing the event (at least in part) to something you did. In the first case, you would not make any changes to your behavior as a result of the event because nothing you did had any part in it. In the second, you may decide to change the way you dress or buy more lottery tickets as a result. A third possibility would be to see how the event affects your reputation. When do we reward mugged people and lottery ticket winners with reputation? It's a complicated, but almost instinctual, thing. Most likely, this would give a slightly less black and white picture of the event and, depending on the interpretation by people other than yourself, inform you about whether or not it's worthwhile to buy new clothes or lottery tickets. And a fourth possibility would be to rely on your own judgement to determine what you did without reacting at all to public opinion. Somewhere between the third and fourth options are actually pretty close to what we do all the time anyway... which while not providing a simple answer to every problem, do still provide actionable results.

Why rely on the third instead of the fourth option, though? What is the difference between them? If you think about society and yourself as "judgment machines" in either case (sorry, I keep falling into abstractions), where in the third option the judgment machine is all of society and in the fourth the judgment machine is yourself, which machine do you believe is smarter, less susceptible to error? That's a really tough question, especially since one is a part of the other, and they can inform each other. One hint for me was separating the ideas of peer pressure from reputation in society's influence on me.

There is a difference between peer pressure and reputation. You can't build reputation by doing everything that people tell you to do. Reputation rewards innovative, ambitious thinking, peer pressure doesn't. There have been a couple key points in my life where I've strongly opposed the pressure that society was giving me and where I think I probably did the right thing. There are many things that I feel pressured to do on a daily basis (spend more money, pay attention to appearance, keep a steady job, etc) that don't necessarily have any impact on my reputation. I can stop buying things, or dress differently, or quit my job, and for the most part expect that people will leave my reputation intact (as long as I go about it in a certain way, and that certain way's characteristics are an interesting thing to think about). In fact, my reputation may go up. It's a very subtle metric, but I think we can all sense it.

Another way to think about it--which judgment machine is more likely to correctly tell you when you are wrong? Which one will tell you that you're wrong the earliest? I am a very poor judge of finding out when I am wrong, since if I could easily know whenever I was wrong, then I wouldn't have been wrong in the first place. If I found a way to climb the corporate ladder with some clever political manuevers, even though it might actually work for a long time (or even my entire career), my reputation would have probably started to fall long before it became too costly to maintain. I would be successful, but in general the world wouldn't respect me. This is also why I wouldn't say that my circle of friends is a good proxy to base reputation on since I tend to like people who will probably make many of the same wrong decisions that I do. If I'm succeeding at a company that allows that kind of behavior, it's possible that others are doing the same thing... however, just because they're doing it doesn't mean they'll trust me and find me to be reputable. Finding my wrong decisions is a very strong motivator for me to throw my goal's net out to global reputation rather than local reputation whenever possible. Otherwise you fall victim to the comfortable clone syndrome.

This reply was probably a lot longer than it needed to be, but I'm still figuring this stuff out. Hopefully it satisfactorily clarified some of the questions you had. If not, please repeat them. I really want to not make the wrong move here, and won't just defend my side for the sake of debate.

Essentially, wrongheaded
I think this is an extremely intricate and sophisticated goal -- but ultimately, wrongheaded. I have not given it half the thought you have, so it is totally unfair of me to just declare it "wrongheaded" so consider that just my aesthetic reaction.

I think there are loads of good thoughts that went into this goal, but essentially, it falls flat. Maybe there are too many good thought in it. I have this thought experiment I call the mugger test: a guy surprises you in a dark alley, puts a gun to your head and says, "Tell me your goals for the next five years and don't bullshit me". I don't buy that "Build reputation, avoid credit" passes the mugger test.

It has little "cash value" -- I can't introduce you as my freind Erik, who is working on his reputation. It doesn't "rock" -- no one is going to say, right on, grow that reputation! Ultimately, I don't think it will even help you with your reputation.

I think you let on that your specific goals are actually closer to higher level goals than the general ones. The general ones are very complicated principles, but they aren't things you are going to really regret if you never get around to them. The specific ones all strike me as actually things you hope to accomplish. Again, who am I to tell you what your goals are (though if you are outsourcing reputation and making that your goal, well maybe I am the person to tell you what your goals are) but I think you are going to feel the muggers gun on your temple and blurt out: "write a book, start a business, build useful software".

When you talk about someone with a good reputation, they have a reputation for something. To put it in more Wittgensteinian terms, "How would you explain reputation to someone who does not understand your language". Reputation points to something.

Maybe if there was a figtclub rule to your goal, where the first rule of Erik's goal is "don't talk about reputation" the whole scheme would work. You almost say that with your "avoid credit" corollary -- but you needed to take it all the way and say "I have no goal" while secretly building your reputation (but for what) while avoiding talking about it. Then your "reputation goal" could be your "private language" (come on, it almost is already!)

I just read a Howard Dean quote that makes me think he might be reading your blog: "I think the problem with the Democratic Party in general is that they've been so afraid to lose they're willing to say whatever it takes to win. And once you're willing to say whatever it takes to win, you lose."

Measuring success
I think the key word here is "success" and how one can measure it. It seems that we have differing definitions of "success". Here are the kind of words I would use when determining if my life is successful:

truth (ie *my* truth)

All those things cannot be measured, or at least if they are measured are done so *subjectively*. That is, only I can measure them for myself.

Re-reading your original post and the comments, you use words such as:


Those things are all measurable by people other than yourself. You can also measure them yourself, but your measurement will be an objective one - ie one that other people can validate or prove. Which brings us back to Reputation - this is specifically a measure of value that is dependent on what other people think of you or your work. And that is fine, but it's not how I want to define success for myself. That's what I was getting at with the Beethoven example - where I wondered if Beethoven would have been a "success" if he had been ignored by history and thus had no reputation. Beethoven would probably (but only the man himself knows) have regarded his music and his life as a success, because he followed his passion and created works of art such as the 9th Symphony that gave meaning to his life. Even if nobody had ever listened to the 9th Symphony, Beethoven would have succeeded in his personal Big Goal - by the very act of creating it. I do agree with you that if nobody listened to it, it devalues its success somewhat in the real world. But, that's precisely my point, it only devalues the success of it in *other peoples* eyes.

Don't get me wrong Erik, I think your Big Goal is very admirable and probably far more healthy than the subjective viewpoint that I am advocating for myself. It's just that I'm not sure I want to measure my own success from what other people judge my Reputation to be.

I have to add that I don't think I've got life sorted out, by any means. But this is how I see it at the moment. I'm also re-reading Kierkegaard currently, which is informing my viewpoint.

There is definitely a fight club rule to this goal. You can't win someone's trust by telling them from the start that you plan on doing everything you can to win their trust. It makes people very suspicious. Why is he trying so hard to get me to trust him? Is he trying to trick me somehow? You also can't tell someone that you are going to do everything you can to make them fall in love with you. And a business can't get you to shop in their store by telling everyone that they really really really want your money. And that Howard Dean quote. The reputation system is very sensitive to gaming, so there's not a direct path between making your goal, stating it, and achieving it. Now that I've found a goal, I need to shut up about it and begin to build smaller goals off of it.

This isn't the goal that I'm going to go around and tell people about (despite the fact that it's pretty much the only thing I've talked about on here for a while). At parties, the meaning of life is never a popular topic... mostly because of the Delmore Effect. I suppose the other part of the Delmore Effect (where we tend to spend much more of our energy focusing on small goals rather than large ones) is that we also tend to talk a lot more about small goals than large ones. Maybe it's because of this that you see the small goals as large ones and the large ones as small ones... it's through Delmore's lens?

Now that I think of it, I'm a little worried that the reputation goal can't be spoken. If I'm trying to second guess peoples' reaction to my goals, I'm already gaming the system a little bit and therefore you can't entirely trust me when I tell you want my goals are. Is the whole thing a Catch-22? I can't build reputation if I want to build reputation? Maybe I do have to appear lame at parties occasionally as part of the deal... another counter-productive side effect.

Richard... as far as I know, I think Beethoven was pretty obsessed with getting a popular reaction to his music. In his particular case (though not all cases of great creators) I don't think he would have valued his work a lot less if people didn't like it, even if he didn't want to react that way. But I get your general point. I think the summary of the difference in our thoughts is that I want to be much more suspicious of my own judgement quality than you do. If I build something and I think it's wonderful but everybody else thinks less of me for having built it, can I actually afford to still consider it to be wonderful or is it better to try and find out where I may have gone wrong? For the most part, however, I think people reward hearty (but ultimately failed) attempts to create something great with reputation, regardless of whether or not they actually like it or consider it to be valuable. So it's not quite as strict as saying that I will consider myself a success if and only if other people consider me a success.

Uh, maybe you're thinking about this *way* too much. Just be a good person, do the best you're able to do at whatever it is you do, and everything else will take care of itself.

... and Tim provides a fine example of Delmore effect himself.

But no, sorry, regression to the 19th century won't help. Erik's hard work here is in the context of reputation, which is in the context of trust, which is in the context of the SemWeb, which is in the context of all of us. Point being, everything else will *not* take care of itself. Or, Erik *is* doing 'the best we can do at whatever it is we do,' because that 'whatever' now is 'everything else'.

I think the objections to what Erik is doing suggest that many English speakers have never been able to grasp their own language in a truly fundamental way. Their use of words never gets down to roots, to the atomic movements of mind and feeling. Instead, many of us are trapped in a whirlwind of thirdhand terms referring to other thirdhand terms, making the blogosphere seem clever but self indulgent.

If Erik were writing in German, i think the value of his gedankenexperiment would be obvious ...

I think if you pursue these sorts of questions to their "rational" end, you aren't going to get anywhere; call me a skeptic if you will.

But it sounds like you like exercises and goals and whatnot, so you might like some of the last few chapters of Nicholas Lore, The Pathfinder, New York: Fireside, 1998, pp. 260-300 (Ch. 22 and 23).

Perhaps some other parts of the book, too. But especially that first bit on the types of games, and also on prioritizing meanings (264, 272). Both interesting exercises.

Also, though, I think if you want a successful and remarkable and interesting life, you should subscribe to a sort of Delmore-effected perspective, and just, since it doesn't matter, quit worrying and see where it takes you.

AUTHOR: Kip Ingram
EMAIL: [email protected]
URL: http://www.kipingram.com
DATE: 02/19/2004 08:06:49 PM

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