Justin Li


The Fountainhead

2009-08-11

I have been collecting and clarifying the thoughts I have about the book and its concepts since I finished reading it. There is a collection of ideas, many of which I’ve had before, some of which are new to me as presented in the book, and some which took me till now to figure out. I have a few things to say about my reaction first. Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, her last novel, Atlas Shrugged, is supposedly a book which makes a difference in peoples lives, coming in second only to the Bible. The Fountainhead, written earlier but containing the same heavy dose of what would become objectivism, might not have as large an impact, but I still expected it to make me question things I believe. Instead, beginning early in the novel and continuing after I finish, I was more surprised by the fact that the book did not change me at all. Rather, I found that I have individually arrived at a lot of the conclusions presented in the book. There might be a confusion of causation here; it is entirely possible that I have read books about objectivism first, which lead me to Ayn Rand, thus me finding the books uninspiring. The most supportive evidence I have of this is that I’m a fan of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, which expresses a lot of objectivist philosophy. That might indeed be how I first came across Ayn Rand. Since there was a gap of several years before my first reading in 11^th^ grade in high school, my subsequent discovery of the series in junior year of college, and finally reading The Fountainhead, I feel this is unlikely. I would prefer to believe that I have come to the same conclusion as Ayn Rand has, at least on the subject of how best to live one’s life. Due to my focus on the individual and not in society, I have the feeling that if I continue to read Atlas Shrugged, I will in fact like The Fountainhead more. But that’s an essay for another day.

Let me start by addressing the thoughts that I’ve had up to the reading of The Fountainhead, then show how the thoughts are tied together by the ideas in the book.

The first idea is one I’ve expressed for a while, even on this blog: it is the idea that work and play does not have to be separate. I just finished six weeks of working for a summer camp, where I wake up at 07:00, spent at least 7 hours a day with middle school kids (more often closer to 8 or 9), have to work in the evenings to prepare lessons for the next day, and still have paper work to file. If this sounds like a horrible job, it isn’t; I love the entire experience, and my only feeling at the end of six weeks is a wish for just one more session. I may have complained in the middle, about how the students are not getting along with each other, or that some policy about paperwork is stupid, but those are minor things. Compared to watching how quickly these children can pick up material and what their minds are capable of understanding, the things I’m complaining about are insignificant. Part of the reason I complain is to express a moment’s frustration; the other is that somehow, I am expected to complain.

That last one is strange, when one thinks about it. Of course, there’s no rule saying that all employees must complain about their job. But most people do, and it has become a ritual of bonding to talking about jobs as such. In the same way, my parents have very often drawn the distinction between working and play: yes, play is important, but work more so. By the way it is phrased, it creates a false separation between work and play, that the two can not coexist. Play is the fun one, but in order to have fun one must first have fame/fortune/influence, and to get that, one must work first, which is not fun. CTY is the greatest counter-example to this theory. People are taking vacation time from their normal jobs to come and teach children. The salaries are much lower than what I could get if I do an internship at Microsoft, and the food, accommodations, etc. are all at lower standards. But I’m not taking the job because of the meals and wheels, but because of what I’m paid to do. And I happen to like robotics, I happen to like teaching, I happen to like playing frisbee with children.

In the last year or so, I’ve realized that this sets me apart in several ways. The first, of course, is that I complain less than other people. But more than that, I realize I spend more time being productive, being happy. At CTY there are people who don’t want to spend time outside of class with the children. It is not part of the job description, they say. That’s true. But the very nature of the job involves spending hours with the kids. If they didn’t like kids, why did they take the job? The real reason is probably more subtle than that; I’m sure everyone at the camp liked children. In my case though, I’m taking time out of my own life, when I’m not “on duty”, to do more “job work”. The distinction between work and play is blurred: I do the same thing whether I’m paid or not. In things besides summer jobs there’s a difference – I would have to work a part-time job to support myself, I would have to worry about time and transport and all that stuff. But it’s a start. Paul Graham suggested that the test of whether someone is doing what they love is asking them whether they would continue doing that if they weren’t paid. I would do CTY; in fact, I did. Living in a dorm, my address changed during the summer, so I never got the last check which was mailed out (the others were collected in person). In essence I was paid only two thirds of what I signed up for. I didn’t know until this summer that there was a third paycheck. But I didn’t care, I came back; I didn’t do it for the paycheck, I did it for the sake of doing it.

The second idea I want to address is one that was on the waiting list to become a blog post. There are two related ideas: an arrogance and over-confidence that I sometimes show, and a condescension for people who don’t try.

I recently noted to a friend that arrogance and being full of oneself is different: the former usually has something to be proud of, but they are overly so, while the latter may not in fact have any accomplishments. I believe my arrogance comes from several things: abilities as a quick learner, a mental (and by extension, limited physical) resourcefulness, a refusal to be defeated (at least emotionally), and perhaps relative success so far in life. Because of these things I see myself as better than other people. I’ve never really worked hard in school, but have pretty good grades. One might object here that my definition of work is different. That is true; I had a lot of fun in school, and part of that fun comes from learning and understanding new things. But that just proves my point. Being able to enjoy this required process of schooling sets me apart. It is like I’m gaming the system, except I’m not. Everyone can be happy at school; some just don’t know how, others refuse to.

Wanting to learn and being curious gives me the advantage of knowing a lot, not just in my major, but also in things outside my major. Here again I clash with convention. Look at lists of 100 must read books. Count how many are non-fiction. I’ll bet that fiction books dominate. In fact, back in freshman year of high school, in English we had periods where we were required to read. There was one caveat: it had to be a fiction book. I once tried to bring in a non-fiction book, perhaps about physics, perhaps about dinosaurs, but it was rejected. Granted, on that occasion I was sent to the library and thus discovered Terry Goodkind, but I never understood why reading must focus on narratives. I find books on science, philosophy, and sociological studies equally as absorbing, and I don’t think that there are any more good authors in fiction than there is in non-fiction. And from these books, I learn a lot about other people, about how the world works, things which I can use in my life.

As for emotional stability – not being allowed to read non-fiction in class didn’t stop me. It just meant I had to be somewhat less efficient. I write journals, blogs, debates on philosophy, which helps me get rid of any bottled-up emotions. I’m the kind of person who would be happy in many situations, even if things are not working out they way I want them to. One question I’ve always hated on the “getting to know you” type games is one which asks for things you regret. I tend not to have them. I’m sure if I plan now and act, I can be just as happy, if not more so. Wallowing in despair is not going to help anyone, and you’re in charge of your own emotions. That doesn’t mean I don’t have goals or that I just let things happen to me. It’s the same way I deal with grades. If I’m doing well, then I’ll care about them; if I’m not, well, I’m still learning material.

Although I’ve been aware of these things about myself for several years now, sometimes I’m still surprised when I see other people don’t share the same ideals. Being rather secure in my belief that this is the way to being happy and productive, sometimes I just can’t bear other people complaining about their life. Have they tried to make their life better? Have they tried to stop complaining and act? It is perhaps not surprising that, if they haven’t tried to make things better, things don’t get better. This idea actually sprang from a discussion about search engines. We were talking about having additional power operators, like the negation of a search term or searching only pages on a site. Other people in the discussion were saying that these functionalities should be provided, maybe by adding buttons, sliders, etc. I argued that these functions already exist (indeed, Google has them), and people are just not taking the time to learn them. The conclusion that the class had about me was that I’m a power user, and I don’t understand how the “average user” works. On reflection though, I think the difference might be wider still: I believe in doing what is possible to get things done. Where is the line drawn between people being stupid and the object of use being badly designed? As a Linux user, I subscribe to the philosophy of “scratching your own itch”. If you want something in a program, either work around it, ask someone to code it for you, code it yourself, or forget it. There is enough documentation and forums online to solve most problems, and these solutions are only a Google search away. People should be willing to do this much to solve their problems; less than that, they’re just lazy. I was reminded of the computer help desk acronym PEBKAC: Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair. My personal conclusion on the matter? I shouldn’t be in human computer interaction.

The last idea I had is one which I never intended to write about, but is inseparable from these ideas. This idea is dedication, and I will sidetrack into romance and love to demonstrate my point.

As I’ve said, I don’t like people who don’t try. Some people do try, but very often I feel they don’t try enough. Although perhaps I don’t do it for everything I do, in general I want to see things to the end. For a project in my freshman year, I was in a team of four, except two of the group members didn’t really do anything. So the remaining guy and I, we worked the entire evening, through the night, and most of the next day to get the project done on time. We’ve talked to the other two before, and they’ve somewhat acknowledged that they haven’t pulled their weight. We were supposed to meet the evening before to get the thing done, and what happens? Those two don’t even bother to show up. It might be said that this is the simplest case of dedication, that maybe half the people my age have done something like that to get homework finished. True; but I do this not just for homework or group projects, but also for clubs and other activities. I don’t value sleep or food much, and would rather see things finished than go to bed.

Let me take this into the realm of feelings. Taking to a friend recently, I was surprised to discover that she had never felt a certain feeling: that of loving someone so much that she would be willing to give them away. It can be slightly paradoxical, but in the simple case it’s easy to understand. Let’s say that my friend likes someone, but that someone is attracted to someone else. If the happiness of the person she loves is of such value that it is shadows the value of her own happiness, then letting that person go actually makes her happier, solely for the reason that that person is happier. This particular idea has been with me since high school, so it’s strange for me to hear that it has never occurred to other people. This is dedication: a commitment to something – whether an ideal or a person – which goes beyond your personal needs.

I’m not sure how well I’ve explained the ideas, but in the form they’ve existed in my head, they’re intricately connected, although I could not explain how. Reading The Fountainhead gave me ideas, but it still took me until today to realize what it is. I summarized it this way:

By loving what we do, we become self-sufficient – an unprecedented liberty, freedom from the judgement of others, freedom from failure – because it is not other people’s reactions or the result which matters, but the journey, the act of doing itself. By loving what we do, we become powerful beyond measure through the knowledge that no matter what happens, we are happy.

The link I was missing is the self-sufficiency. If someone loves what they do, and are totally dedicated to it without regard to anything else – as Howard Roark was to architecture – then they are truly happy, and can be smugly so. This only applies to things which don’t require other people – architecture as a personal art, or a boundary-pushing science where politics doesn’t interfere. In these cases, it doesn’t matter what other people think, because the goal has never been their approval. The goal is to design, or to push the boundaries of human knowledge. That is all that is necessary for happiness: not praise from other people, but the internal certainty that something worthwhile has happened.

I’ve once read somewhere that a book should not be read just by virtue of it being a classic. They should be read for their own value, and if it turns out to be a boring book half way through, stop. I myself skipped the last half of Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded because he kept repeating himself, and also skipped Steven Pinker’s chapter on abstract syntax in The Language Instinct. I’m not reading the books because I want to say I’ve read them; I’m reading to see what they have to say, and maybe gain a new perspective. I don’t want to suffer hours of indecipherable babble for a single moment’s claim of finishing the book. The same is with life. Work, enjoy work, and dedicate yourself to it. Don’t do it for the fame, or the fortune, or anything besides your own happiness. Because when you do so, you are self-sufficient, and you’ll be the happiest person.

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