Two Quotes from Søren Kierkegaard

I came across two quotes from Kierkegaard recently, from two very different sources. It was quite a coincidence, and I thought that it must have been a sign.

Here’s the first, which funnily enough came from a book on IT leadership, called A Seat at the Table, by Mark Schwartz:

If I were to wish for anything, I should not wish for wealth and power, but for the passionate sense of the potential, for the eye which, ever young and ardent, sees the possible. Pleasure disappoints, possibility never.

Schwartz had this quote at the top of a chapter on “IT requirements”, which, as he quite rightly points out, are more of a “work item”. Technically speaking, a “requirement” if not met should cause the project to fail or the business to fold. It is required after all.

But in his experience as it was in mine, that seldom is the case.

The second Kierkegaard quote I came across came just a day after the first. This time it was from an Alain de Botton talk, very baitingly-titled Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person. At the end of the talk, de Botton shares this quote:

Marry, and you will regret it; don’t marry, you will also regret it; marry or don’t marry, you will regret it either way. Laugh at the world’s foolishness, you will regret it; weep over it, you will regret that too; laugh at the world’s foolishness or weep over it, you will regret both… Hang yourself, you will regret it; do not hang yourself, and you will regret that too; hang yourself or don’t hang yourself, you’ll regret it either way; whether you hang yourself or do not hang yourself, you will regret both. This, gentlemen, is the essence of all philosophy.

This is, I think, one of the most de-stressing quotes I have ever come across.

Came at an important point in the talk too, given how half the audience (myself included) were in deep despair at probably having chosen the wrong mates.

Video of the de Botton talk below – starts at the quote, which he just says so beautifully…

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

I finished reading the book The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera a couple of day’s back

Loved it (mostly). It reminded me of what it was like to live a life that was lighter, not weighed down by expectations; que sera sera.

Just thought I’d like to share a couple of passages from the book.

Emphasis mine.

On the fact that life only occurs once:

Einmal ist keinmal. If we have only one life to live, we might as well not have lived at all.


Human life occurs only once, and the reason we cannot determine which of our decisions are good and which bad is that in a given situation we can make only one decision; we are not granted a second, third, or fourth life in which to compare various decisions.

On our pursuits and goals:

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.


The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.

On love:

All this time he was sitting up in bed and looking at the woman who was lying beside him and holding his hand in her sleep. He felt an ineffable love for her. Her sleep must have been very light at the moment because she opened her eyes and gazed up at him questioningly.

“What are you looking at?” she asked.

He knew that instead of waking her he should lull her back to sleep, so he tried to come up with an answer that would plant the image of a new dream in her mind.

“I’m looking at the stars,” he said.

“Don’t say you’re looking at the stars. That’s a lie. You’re looking down.”

“That’s because we’re in an airplane. The stars are below us.”

“Oh, in an airplane,” said Tereza, “squeezing his hand ever tighter and falling asleep again. And Tomas knew that Tereza was looking out of the round window of an airplane flying high above the stars.

Are you what you write? (or, Machiavelli the playwright)

I just watched a documentary on Niccolò Machiavelli. You may know him as that scheming, deceitful, and generally rotten guy who wrote the political bible The Prince.

So infamous is he that his name has become an adjective synonymous with evil. Just see what Merriam-Webster has to stay about being “Machiavellian”:

suggesting the principles of conduct laid down by Machiavelli; specifically marked by cunning, duplicity, or bad faith

To be honest I never knew much about him – I’d heard of him and his book, but not much else. He lived in my mind vaguely in the same space as Sun Tzu and Zhuge Liang, and to a lesser extent political leaders like Mussolini, Mao Zedong, and Margaret Thatcher.

But watching this documentary gave me better appreciation for the man and his thoughts on politics and power.


It was the parts about his life, though, that really made me go: really?

You see, I always thought that Machiavelli was the right-hand man for the political leader(s) of his time and that he probably died as a martyr or as a grey-haired political advisor.  I never separated Machiavelli the man vs. Machiavelli the myth.

I always imagined him executed as part of a coup or something; which, come to think of it, would have been more romantic, no?

I had not realised that he was relatively young (~43) when he was deprived of his rather lofty official position due to transitions of power in Florence at that time.

It was only after that, as part of failed attempts to get back into officialdom that he wrote The Prince, which was his way of trying to get noticed by the new leaders. Unfortunately for him, it didn’t work.

Eventually, he lived out the rest of his life writing plays. Plays. (Yes, plays.) 


Part of my amazement also lay in the fact that he still had friends after writing The Prince.

Though the book was published only 5 years after his death, he’d shared it among friends soon after first writing it.

Just imagine a modern day Machiavelli writing a blog on how to seize and hold on to positions of power, saying

one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.

Who’d be friends with such a guy?


It also reminded me sometimes of my own literary voyages.

You know how sometimes you’d be in a really good mood and ready to take on the world. Just about anything you write about then will tend to be upbeat too (“Believe in yourself and you the world will be your oyster! They can hurt your body but they cannot hurt you!”)

But sometimes those days precede days where nothing goes right, and you’re in a life-is-awful-kittens-are-Satan mood.

Imagine the dissonance when someone who then reads my happy post gets all upbeat him- or herself, and then talks to me about it during one of these god-awful days, saying something akin to:

“I love how you can turn:
the good from bad;
the happy from sad;
the new from old;
and lead into gold!”

F*** off my eyes tell them.

And they have to wonder if the writer and me were one and the same.


Well, there is what I write; and then there’s me.

Fast Cars

With a light press of the accelerator, the car effortlessly sped up. Without my realising it we were now a little over the speed limit. It was odd how slow it felt. The cabin deathly quiet as the car stoically glided along.

xiaojinche
This was taken back in 2008 while on a road trip to Albany, Western Australia. The GPS we had loaned went a little mad, and brought us to this rural track through a farm. Fun times.

Flashback 10 years: driving in Perth in the 小金车 (xiao jin che or “little golden car” – the name we housemates affectionately called our car). Onto the freeway I went at 90 km/h. The car rattled as the bumps on the ground made their presence felt; the engine groaning under the strain.

In the “slow” car going at 90 km/h felt like 120.

In the “fast” car going at 120 km/h felt like 90.

The experience of speed was far more obvious in the “slow” car despite the lack of the real thing: the elevated heart-rate; the adrenaline; the fun!

**********

Likewise, is life not often what you make of it?

Do not give me a gift of which I desire

A little note about happiness, from the book Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari:

If I identify happiness with fleeting pleasant sensations, and crave to experience more and more of them, I have no choice but to pursue them constantly. When I finally get them, they quickly disappear, and because the mere memory of past pleasures will not satisfy me, I have to start all over again. Even if I continue this pursuit for decades, it will never bring me any lasting achievement; on the contrary, the more I crave these pleasant sensations, the more stressed and dissatisfied I will become. To attain real happiness, humans need to slow down the pursuit of pleasant sensations, not accelerate it.

When I read the passage above, it reminded me of something I told my wife not too long ago, that “the more I have, the more I want.”

If I feel happy just thinking of purchasing something I long for, especially one that I can easily afford, why would I spoil it with an actual purchase?

You see, the moment I make that purchase, the want is taken care of; the moment that want is taken care of, something else would take its place; and if that something is not something I can easily afford, the “more stressed and dissatisfied I will become.”

So, my dear, no, I do not want you to give me a gift of which I desire (and which money can buy).

I’m happy to stick to the simple joys of your company; our son; and our daughter.

The Run

We act very much as if we were on a voyage. What can I do? I can choose out the helmsman, the sailors, the day, the moment. Then a storm arises. What do I care? I have fulfilled my task: another has now to act, the helmsman.

If the weather is bad for sailing, we sit distracted and keep looking continually and ask, “What wind is blowing?” “The north wind.” What have we do to with that? “When will the west wind blow?” When it so chooses, good sir.

– Epictetus

I went out for what was supposed to be a short run today.

Didn’t feel like it. It was a long day; I was tired.

But the run was scheduled. “Not my problem,” the schedule seemed to say.

You don’t fight schedules. They don’t listen.

*****

Shoes on, I walked out the door.

Took a step; then another; then another.

A slow trot. Then quicker.

It’d rained earlier; the air felt fresh and cool.

*****

Reached a fork in the road.

Turn left as planned and in 30 minutes I’d be home.

Turn right and in 30 minutes… in 30 minutes I’d be 30 minutes from home.

I looked left. Turned right.

*****

29 minutes in and my legs were feeling good.

One-two-inhale; one-two-exhale. The rhythm felt like poetry.

But my mind — it disagreed.  “You can’t keep this pace,” it said. “Slow down.”

I feared it was right. Last time I ran this quick I fizzled out at 30. Which was… now.

*****

Then I remembered Epictetus.

My mind chose this route; this pace; this moment. It’s job was done.

My legs didn’t think there was a problem and neither did my lungs. They were fine; they were strong.

“Trust them,” I told my mind. “Trust them to do their job. If I collapse, I collapse.”

*****

Until then, I run.

Winning first place without ever being first

Or: what I learned from playing too much DiRT Rally (one of my favourite rally racing games.)

So here’s the context: I’m playing “career mode”, in which I buy a car, hire a couple of engineers, and go out to race. In order to win the championship, I have to have the best time across six “stages” or legs. Each stage is located in a different place so they all have their peculiarities: different areas of easy and difficult sections, some more suitable to the car’s set-up than others.

The thing about the game is that unlike real life, you have an unlimited numbers of do-overs – if you crash your car or get a time you don’t fancy, you can simply restart the stage.

When I first started playing this game that’s what I did. A lot.

I was intent on always finishing first for each stage. If I didn’t manage to finish first I would restart the stage. At times I found myself playing each stage close to 30-50 times; some stages I would spend an hour or two on and still not have the fastest time.

Then one day there was a stage in which I just couldn’t be the first for no matter how many times I tried.

I gave up. For that stage I ended up 5th and I accepted it*. The following stages were not much better either, with me ending up no better than third.

* (Side-note: actually my saying I “accepted it” is not really true. It was more of just getting the championship over, closing this chapter of my life, and uninstalling the game.)

Of all six stages of the championship, I ended up winning none.

And yet *drullroll please* I won the championship.

“But how?” I asked myself. “How??”

I couldn’t quite believe it but the overall time I had was faster than all my competitors. I won by virtue of consistency and not completely fouling up. Those who had won a stage had performed poorly for at least one of the others.

To me this was revolutionary and extremely zen: I won by not winning.