One of the best school teachers I ever had taught me a powerful but simple formula for dealing with complex scenarios. First recognize what you know and what you don’t know about matters at hand. Second, recognize that often the solution to a problem lies within the question itself. Third, recognize that there may be difficulty in understanding the core of any question. In order to peel back any layers of confusion that may arise, one should focus on first principles: What you know and what you don’t know. More often what you do know will enable you to acquire knowledge of that that you don’t.
My teacher wasn’t a life model by any means but much of what she taught stuck and has proved useful down the years. She openly admitted that her methods could lead to errors, but pointed out correctly that they could also lead to positive outcomes so long as one attempted to understand the problem.
It would be both trite and wrong to say that there are no wrong answers or courses of action. However understanding is achieved through learning, including learning from those with whom we disagree. For example, were he alive today, I am certain that neither the samurai Yamamoto Tsunetomo nor I would get along. Yet many of his maxims have challenged me to think and to learn outside my comfort zone.
Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote the Hagakure, a compendium of maxims promoting “The Way of the Warrior” or Bushido. Much of what he wrote indicates what he perceived the ideals and conduct of a samurai should have been and not what they were in practice. The text was instrumental in encouraging some of Imperial Japan’s worst excesses during the Second World War. However, to dismiss the author’s words for events that occurred more than two hundred years after his death without understanding the context of when they were written is to do a disservice to oneself and to history. One should be open to understanding the words and actions of those we disagree with even if that understanding enhances our own opposition to both the arguments and the purveyors of said arguments. For example I have no issue seeking an understanding of Nazism since doing so has only enhanced my opposition to Nazism and improved my methods for combatting it wherever I find it. In the end I am stronger for that understanding.
Similarly, much of what Yamamoto Tsunetomo wrote can be challenged (and deserves to be challenged) in our contemporary time. However one can derive much food for thought from the Hagakure. Yamamoto recognized both the value and the vulnerability that comes with learning.
Learning is a good thing but more often than not it leads to mistakes.
Yamamoto was conscious of precedents laid down by others and of our unwillingness to accept or address areas where we are lacking.
It is worthwhile just looking at the deeds of accomplished persons for the purpose of knowing our own insufficiencies. But often this does not happen. For the most part we admire our own opinions and become fond of arguing.
On balance being open and willing to learn from our mistakes is virtuous. Ironically in our increasingly managerial society, we are discouraged from seeking that virtue. As in Yamamoto’s time, the concept of accomplishment is also dictated by the prevailing orthodoxy of managerial authority. Then as now, “accomplishment” can be interpreted to mean the success of an individual in conforming to and rising within the ranks of the social structure. Of course there are exceptions to that rule. In our lifetime, the late Steve Jobs has been elevated to quasi-sainthood because he employed creative genius (with the support of numerous public laboratories) to influence the realm of technology. Jobs, who when alive, had little patience for non-productive shareholders (or most people for that matter) is remembered with fondness by many of the same business minds who feared his creative risk-taking.
Instead of learning from accomplished persons and taking an active role in society, we are encouraged to passively worship celebrity. Ours is an age where specialisation, stability, utility and expertise are prioritized at the expense of creativity, originality and deductive generalisation.
As Yamamoto wrote:
In general a person who is versatile in many things is considered vulgar and to only have a broad knowledge of matters of importance.
The same applies to our modern era. The result is stagnation.
It is an irony then to find within the Hagakure – a work written during one of the most repressive regimes in Japanese and world history – a valuable lesson regarding errors.
It is said that one should not hesitate to correct himself when he has made a mistake. If he corrects himself without the least bit of delay, his mistakes will quickly disappear. But when he tries to cover up a mistake, it will become all the more unbecoming and painful.
Yamamoto was referring to manners surrounding communication in the above statement but the same philosophy can be applied to errors performed both while learning and in life. So long as one learns from and corrects an error, the error need not become a mistake. An error then only becomes a mistake if it goes unacknowledged and uncorrected.
I have found in my day-to-day life that for the most part that approach works well with people I work with and can help them be more productive. In the same way that being open and willing to learn can be virtuous so it is possible to derive humanist lessons from texts like the Hagakure : Through the application of understanding and balance. As stated there is much about Yamamoto and about the Hagakure that I disagree with. But we limit our learning by not exposing ourselves to the thoughts of others. A lesson can be learned from Socrates. When an oracle informed Socrates that he was the wisest person in the world, Socrates felt obliged to seek the meaning of that remark and thus embarked on a lifetime of learning that laid the foundations of Western philosophy.
In essence we can learn and be open so long and maintain our resolve as decent human beings. An analogy of life is a rainstorm. The water dispensed nourishes the land but can cause irrevocable damage through flooding and erosion. In our approach to life we need not fear the rainstorm. As Yamamoto wrote:
There is something to be learned from a rainstorm. When meeting with a sudden shower, you try not to get wet and run quickly along the road. But doing such things as passing under eaves of houses, you still get wet. When you are resolved from the beginning, you will not be perplexed, though you still get the same soaking. This understanding extends to everything.