Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Four types of life, the holy grail?

I’m still on my “blog lite” gig, so today I’m going to borrow shamelessly from the wisdom of Raymond M. Smullyan’s This Book Needs No Title: A Budget of Living Paradoxes (Prentice-Hall, 1980). Smullyan is a ninety-year-old mathematician, concert pianist, logician, Taoist philosopher, and magician who, when he wrote this book, was a professor of philosophy and mathematics at Indiana University.

In his short essay “Four Types of Life” Smullyan illustrates his point by looking at musicians, but it should be evident that the essay is equally applicable to traders. Like much of what Smullyan writes, it shifts the ground out from under us just enough to make us rethink some basic premises.

Type 1 is the person who complains that he is not “getting anywhere.” “He says that he does not learn fast enough, that his fingers are very bad that day, that his memory is poor, that he is not ‘with the music,’ that things are too ‘mechanical,’ that he does not practice enough, that he doesn’t have enough ‘self-discipline’ to force himself to go through all the gruesome, boring, painful details, that he knows that discipline and self-denial are necessary for the ‘perfection of an art,’ but that he doesn’t have enough of these qualities, etc. And so he complains and gripes and complains and gripes, but through all this restless uneasiness, he progresses anyhow and eventually becomes a first-rate musician.” (p. 82)

Type 2 is the opposite. He plays “for hours and hours a day, he is in a state of complete ecstasy, he just enjoys himself . . . , he does not distinguish between ‘playing’ and ‘practicing,’ he has no conscious idea of ‘improving,’ he does not ‘try to play well,’ he has no idea whether he is playing well or playing badly, and he couldn’t care less.” (p. 82) As a result he never progresses in a way commensurate with his talents; he never becomes first rate.

Type 3, who combines the negative qualities of the first two types, is the only real loser. He grumbles but also gets nowhere. After a few years he will probably give up his music altogether.

Type 4 combines the advantages of the first two types. He enjoys himself for hours and hours a day; he “has an enormous love of beauty and pursues it relentlessly. He may have a great critical faculty, but entirely on an unconscious level. He may, for example, play a particular passage over and over again, but he does not think of it as ‘practicing’ or ‘learning.’ He does indeed sift and sort, but he does not know that he is ‘sifting and sorting.’ He is much like a dog who is offered a dish containing a mixture of good foods and bad foods. He spits out the bad foods and eats up the good foods. The doggie does not complain nor criticize the bad foods; he is far too busy enjoying himself hunting out the good foods.” (p. 84)

Smullyan continues, and let me once again share his own words: “The behavior of this type often fools other people completely. People hearing him practicing may say: ‘This fellow is amazing! He has so much patience! He spends hours and hours on details! He has so much self-discipline! He does not balk at performing irksome tasks. He is obviously highly self-critical, and that’s why he improves! . . . He schools himself, he disciplines himself, he overcomes obstacles, and that’s why he succeeds.’ . . . Yes, that’s what people say of him, but they are totally wrong! In reality, this man no more ‘evaluates himself’ than the doggie selecting the good foods evaluates his own performance as a ‘food selector.’ . . . [O]ur artist is not trying to improve himself, but rather is automatically selecting those ways of playing which produce the most beautiful results. Of course, our fourth type ultimately becomes a first-rate musician just like our first type, but what a difference of approach! The first type has the ambition of becoming a ‘great food selector,’ whereas the fourth type simply loves good food.” (p. 85)

I think that Smullyan’s point is profound, maybe even the holy grail. Then again, I’m a music lover, a sucker for dogs, and a sometime epicure, so maybe I’ve just been seduced.

Next week I’ll be back to my usual fare, nothing so potentially seismic.


  1. Brenda,

    The "problem" with this blog is that while you take it easy with your spring fever, you keep recommending excellent books and one's pile of books pending to read keeps getting bigger and bigger. ;)

    Now music, great, what is next? Offering puppies for adoption and giving out French recipes? Have mercy (and please keep it up)!

    Best trading,


  2. Another great post, Brenda. Keep going.