Ralph Ellison Quotes

Ralph Ellison is most well known for writing Invisible Man, one of my favorite books.  If you liked that book, then I recommend reading his book of essays Shadow and Act.  The collection contains a few interviews and speeches, as well as essays on the Negro during his times and Jazz music.  The essays betray an extremely deep thinker.  Ellison pierced the American fabric and what it feels like to live in it with Invisible Man.  Shadow and Act elaborates further the themes of the book and how he got there.

From That Same Pain, That Same Pleasure, an interview on being a Negro writer:

Sometimes you get a sense of mission even before you are aware of it.  An act is demanded of you but you’re like a sleepwalker searching for some important object, and when you find it you wake up to discover that it is the agency through which that mission, assigned you long ago, at a time you barely understood the command, could be accomplished.

If the writer exists for any social good, his role is that of preserving in art those human values which can endure by confronting change.

From the essay Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity:

For while objectively a social reality, the work of art is, in its genesis, a projection of a deeply personal process, and any approach that ignores the personal at the expense of the social is necessarily incomplete.

From his acceptance speech for the National Book Award:

What has been missing from so much experimental writing has been the passionate will to dominate reality as well as the laws of art.

From the interview The Art of Fiction on Invisible Man:

The three parts [of the novel] represent the narrator’s movement from, using Kenneth Burke’s terms, purpose to passion to perception… After all, it’s a novel about innocence and human error, a struggle through illusion to reality.  Each section begins with a sheet of paper; each piece of paper is exchanged for another and contains a definition of his identity, or the social role he is to play as defined for him by others.  But all say essentially the same thing, ‘Keep this nigger boy running.’  Before he could have some voice in his own destiny he had to discard these old identities and illusions; his enlightenment couldn’t come until then.

The major flaw in the hero’s character is his unquestioning willingness to do what is required of him by others as a way to success, and this was the specific form of his ‘innocence.’

In the Epilogue the hero discovers what he had not discovered throughout the book: you have to make your own decisions; you have to think for yourself.

The hero’s invisibility is not a matter of being seen, but a refusal to run the risk of his own humanity, which involves guilt.

Ellison was a brilliant essay writer and an eloquent speaker.  Pick up the book and you will find sentences critiquing Hemingway that are 200 words long.

Are you stuck?

I have a small yard with a 6ft fence around it.  I live with a 7 year old cat that I let out there because I have never seen her jump 6ft high.  I am sure she could get over the fence in her younger years, but she is too big now so she has never tried.

I let her out this afternoon without thinking like I normally would.  I had forgotten that my roommate had set up a workbench right next to the fence to make some cuts.  The bench is 3ft high, an easy clearance for the cat.  From there she could get on top of the fence and onto the other side, freedom.

When we first started living here she poked all around the fence to try to find a way out.  It was never there and she could never find one if she looked until today.  She gave up at it and that’s why I don’t mind letting her out.  But she is so conditioned now to knowing that there is no way out of the backyard for her, that even when the opportunity presents itself she is blind to it. 

Sort of makes me wonder how many realms in my life I am only conditioned to feel are dead ends when there could be an opening at any time.

Step 1: Measure Exact, Step 2: Cut Perfectly, Step 3…

I recently started doing contracting work.  It’s helped me learn more lessons of business but during recent projects I kept catching myself falling into the same trap.  It’s a trap of thinking leftover, I believe, from how easily a bright adolescent can succeed in school plus the typical hormonal cocktail involved in that age’s mindset.

The easy confidence that “things are just going to work out.”  The person I had the hardest time getting along with my first year at college liked to say, after he had done no work just before a big project was due, that “I always pull clutch.”  But the evidence was to the contrary.  His speeches sucked.  His work and ideas sucked.  He was bright, no doubt about it, but nothing original.

At my last job I would catch myself taking measurements that weren’t exact and then expecting the cut to just work out.  It doesn’t.  You have to get an exact measurement or the piece won’t fit.  To get to some sort of success with my projects, I need to respect the same principle.  That just throwing up a webpage and expecting it to work out and be a hit doesn’t happen.  There are certain cuts that need to be made, exact measurements and steps to follow or the piece won’t look right.  Those are all parts of what one would call “work,” an idea I’ve had difficulty separating from “job,” but breaking down the work involved into process and chunks helps.

Two thoughts (okay 3)

From an obscure book (System and Structure, Wilden) quoting Bateson: Self-pity, in the world of human comunication, involves a metacommunication of the type ‘This is play.’

If you were really serious you wouldn’t be pittying yourself.  That is for the realm of games.


Macro thought: Every person has a comparative advantage, a good or service that they can produce at a lower opportunity cost than any other person.  Specialization in comparitive advantage results in maximum productivity.

Micro thought: Do what you love, find your purpose, blah blah blah…

Interview Question

If I ever have to hire someone again I want to ask this question: “What have you failed at?”  I think their response and how their resume shows they rebounded would give a good indication of their healthy attitude.  Relates a lot to Marc Andreessen’s post about getting out into the real world and failing so that it no longer fazes you.  Two small ventures have failed for me so far, but I am all the more ready for the next.

In my opinion, it’s now critically important to get into the real world and really challenge yourself — expose yourself to risk — put yourself in situations where you will succeed or fail by your own decisions and actions, and where that success or failure will be highly visible.

By failure I don’t mean getting a B or even a C, but rather: having your boss yell at you in front of your peers for screwing up a project, launching a product and seeing it tank, being unable to meet a ship date, missing a critical piece of information in a financial report, or getting fired.

Why? If you’re going to be a high achiever, you’re going to be in lots of situations where you’re going to be quickly making decisions in the presence of incomplete or incorrect information, under intense time pressure, and often under intense political pressure. You’re going to screw up — frequently — and the screwups will have serious consequences, and you’ll feel incredibly stupid every time. It can’t faze you — you have to be able to just get right back up and keep on going.

That may be the most valuable skill you can ever learn. Make sure you start learning it early.”


I did not really go anywhere with my last post.  I just threw it up on here because I thought it was an interesting insight, but I didn’t go anywhere new with it.

After looking at it again though I see how I am stuck thinking that UT is structured much as the organization on the right of the diagram.  Especially in the business school: inflexible pressure to conform, leading me to anger and frustration, to very critical judgment of the students and faculty, to almost zero creativity at the end of a semester, and a terrible if even an existant network.  Granted, any institution that tells me I need to take my time on the sailboat off my resume can go to hell, I think I might need to exercise a better attitude and reframe how I picture the college.  There is not much I can do about how the organization is structured, but I can change how I feel about it and how I picture the bullshit.

A big part of the problem is arrogance.  I let people feed it by telling me my case is different but it should still be kept in check.  Bringing a few years of real world experience with me before starting in undergraduate makes me look at everybody like children.  I have to really stretch my imagination and look at somebody like Ben Casnocha as having huge powers of self-control to keep any arrogance and condescention at bay.  I would be interested to hear whether or not he looked down on a lot of the freshmen around him when he started out at college, or whether he was able to relate to them after his accomplishments before arriving on campus.  I know I will have to practice the latter and stray from the former in order to grow much there.  Arrogance is not what lets you get around in a foreign country and I would never dare bring it with me on a trip abroad.

Fractal Organizations

One of the more interestering topics Taleb’s Black Swan got me onto was the idea of Mandelbrot‘s Fractal Equations.  Part of the idea is that you take a picture and zoom in on its parts, and the parts look again like the whole.

I just read a piece in the first quarter of the 1995 Journal of Creative Behavior by Don Ambrose called “Creatively Intelligent Post-Industrial Organizations and Intellectually Impaired Bureaucracies.”  It was basically about how the innovative organizations of today are structured much like that of a well-operating human brain:

The Creative Brain


A creative organization on the whole resembles its individual parts.  Pretty cool.

Where is the empiricism?

My father worked for IBM for a number of years.  Then he built a computer service business in Anchorage and was successful with it, using the management lessons he gained while at IBM.  To sit down and try to talk to him about decentralization, new media, and where things could be headed doesn’t get anywhere.  It’s trying to reconcile all these new theories with the old orthodox thinking of management.  People get older and they stick to their doctrines, and I think that’s fine – what they’ve seen work, worked for them.

I like reading about the new stuff, it sounds exciting and I want to understand it and keep track of the conversation.  Nassim Taleb likes to warn us, though, and tells us to keep on our toes by looking for the empirical evidence.  I don’t know if much can be produced at this point, and I realize Umair Haque just likes to think and theorize and write, but I am beginning to get tired of anecdotes and simplifications like evil and DNA.  Everytime I read DNA now my reaction is the same as if I threw my right heel down on top of my big left toe.

Things are changing, I can dig that.  But a comment on an Umair Haque post that calls him only another weatherman, or a Marc Cuban post reminding us that it’s all been said before are sobering.  The times may change, but I think the feelings stay the same.  Our fathers were just as eager and keen on the emerging trends as we are.  I think we’d do well to keep this in mind.

I’m Tired

I get tired of the liberal college campus, often, and have this quote by Peter Blake saved:

“I don’t think the students should have any more power over the teachers than they have already.  Just at the moment I don’t really like students as a group of people.  I think they rather overrate themselves.  They seem to talk a lot and protest a lot, and have too many rights.  I think one could get overinvolved in the activity of being a student.  After all, students are not so important-they are really only there to learn how to be adults.  Students shouldn’t feel that they have to complain.”

I found it in Richard Branson’s autobiography, Losing My Virginity.  On the other side of things I have this passage, from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim, on my mind:

“He stood still over me… and with a smile in which I seemed to detect suddenly somtehing insolent.  But then I am twenty years his senior.  Youth is insolent; it is its right – its necessity; it has got to assert itself, and all assertion in this world of doubts is a defiance, is an insolence.”

Comes to mind when I see a kid who looks no older than 17 talking about solving the worlds problems.  Fine, fine, good luck to you dude, but you’re not saying anything new.  People will listen when things are put this way, it terms of money.

Emailing Strangers

Ryan Holiday did a post recently with some rules for emailing strangers.  One is quite good but another needs to be looked at again.

He mentioned Humanness as being a virtue.  By letting imperfections in speech slide, the other person feels like they are talking with a real human being.  Although i no longer punch out emails without capitalization and proper punctuation, those emails that i receive without it are still warming and somehow less strenuous on the eyes.  but my pride or whatever would never let me get past it in my own emails.

Ryan’s last rule was this: Again, emails, questions, comments, views – all of those incur a cost upon the person you want something from. It’s your job to make those as low as possible.

This is terrible advice for anyone who hesitates about emailing somebody important.  Especially me.  In the States everyone around me seems so incredibly busy that asking anything of anyone seems like such a burden to them that it can cause me to not even bother.  Looking at things like this is not emotionally healthy.

I agree, emails should be clear and straightforward, and not too long.  But fuck, if I worry about how many minutes of this guy’s time I’m going to take before I send this email, I’ll never send it off.  The best assumption is not that your email, question, or comment is going to be a burden, but that it is going to be well-received.