Discover more from Unculture
What Makes an “Integrated” Man?
My most valuable insights did not come from “finishing a book”. They did not result from any comprehensive analysis. Truth came in droplets, small events where friends piqued my interest in once-foreign concepts.
I did not explore these droplets intentionally — no, I let my mind run wild, tangential beyond the scope of the concepts.
The result would have been unrecognizable to the person who seeded the notion.
How We Really Learn
Ideas travel as impressions wrapped in language. The gifts can only be opened by listening and unravelling the language to find the meaning. As children, we unwrap gifts recklessly. We do it with more intention later on.
One of the most valuable impressions I ever received was this phrase, “the man in the arena”. A friend of mine, I’ll call him James, quoted this fromTeddy Roosevelt and urged me to read his biography.
I did not.
To this day, I know little about Teddy Roosevelt. I know he was stocky. He tried to evade his security guards so he could run off and do dangerous things. He gave a speech immediately after getting shot.
Still, I learned from Teddy, because I learned from James. Any time I would ask this man for advice, he would ask me, “Which course of action places you in the arena?”
The same notion arose in conversation later, dressed in different words: “skin in the game”, made famous by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. James urged that I read Taleb’s book Antifragile.
I did. But did I learn anything?
I could not retain probably 80% of the book.
I remember the concept of a barbell, asymmetric risk, and most importantly, “skin in the game”. These terms were elucidated, not by further reading or my own critical reasoning but by conversations with James.
The Power of Conversation
James and I worked together in a cold office building with walls so thin you could hear every hire and fire happening in the HR office. It felt dead, except for when we would talk.
He was an engineer. I was a marketer. Left and right brain meeting for lunch.
We could not imagine any other software company entertaining such conversations. It felt lucky. But you have to pity our boss, who hired two such minds to sell a technical product. Our minds ran free.
It meant nothing that James was about 30 years older. He had a younger, more energetic soul, curious yet patient.
James was as interested in my thoughts as his own. When he found out I wrote poetry, he went and read everything he could about it.
He read poems as I published them online.
He explored the history of poetry, from the beginning to the beatniks, to the more progressive L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E experimental poets.
He even wrote a L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E poem that I included in my first book of poetry.
He shared with me essays on aesthetics and the poetic tradition.
Through the experience of writing poems every day and talking about them, I was injected with concepts that now compose the central pursuit of my life: not only do I want “skin in the game”, I want tenderness, a spirituality that lets me choose my battles wisely. I want to “speak softly while carrying a big stick”, another Teddy quote.
Today, I call this the “Integrated Man”, the summation of all these different breadcrumbs James had strewn for me over a long period of time.
This concept emerged no more fully than in another book James and I read together: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
The Book that Said It All
James was a biker himself. An engineer, he loved all the gears and technical bits. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, similar to riding and periodically fixing a bike, gave him this notion of balance between the romantic and the rational.
The book talks about the dichotomy of motorcycling cosmetics vs. a focus on hardware. Everyone wants to know which one has it right: the romantic or the rationalist.
Zen sums it up as a false dichotomy in the end. The narrator examines the conflict between romantic and rational traditions through the lens of his own split personality disorder. He is acutely aware of both worlds, because he has experienced them.
The conclusion is conveyed when the narrator scares his son by suggesting he may have inherited the same mental condition. The son is at first distraught. But after a good cry, he and his father continue a peaceful motorcycle ride along the California coast.
The rational and romantic minds converge at the visceral experience.
You get no distinction between abstract concepts here. Yet, the moment is not purely visceral. That’s the whole point. It is not purely romantic, nor is it purely rational, it is simply the apex of reality, the top of the mountain, the unutterable, unfathomable truth.
As it relates to my own life, I could only understand any of these concepts through experiencing my friend James. It was a collection of conversations with someone who loved gears and gadgets but was nothing short of romantic.
Despite his left-brain tendencies, he was willing to join me in my right-brain world, to immerse himself fully. And together, we adopted a complete notion of who we were meant to be: Integrated Men.
It mirrors something close to Zen and the Art. But I would not fully understand the concepts in that book, had I not known a living person to embody them.
In sum, friendship covers a million books.