Quotations

Ideas: Quoting G. K. Chesterton

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a journalist, author and what can be best described as a complete thinker. He wrote over 100 books and over 5000 newspaper columns. His gift for aphorism has made him familiar to many by his eloquence if not by his name. He wrote about everything because he believed that everything was in one way or another connected. He took delight in arguing without losing his temper, his reason, or even the friendships he had with his fellow debaters.

There is a modern revival of his works going on today, so if you enjoy and/or are challenged by what you read here, please visit The Society for Gilbert K. Chesterton. There’s lots to explore including more quotations, lectures, etc. and even an annual conference. They’ve even got the Chesterton Schools Network of high schools which offer classical education through a Catholic lens. I used to be on the American Chesterton Society board of directors, and believe that this guy (who’s been dead since 1936) probably knew more about the today than most people now alive. The past can often reveal much of what has yet to happen as well as explain a lot of what’s going on right now.

1. The way to love anything is to realize that it may be lost.

2. If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?

3. The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.

4. Without education, we are in a horrible and deadly danger of taking educated people seriously.

5. In the end it will not matter to us whether we fought with flails or reeds. It will matter to us greatly on what side we fought.

6. The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside of us.

7. It is of the new things that men tire… of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young.

8. A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.

9. The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.

10. Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.

11. Humility was largely meant as a restraint upon the arrogance and infinity of the appetite of man.

12. Art, like morality, consists in drawing the line somewhere.

13. The test of all happiness is gratitude.

14. We should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.

15. Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.

16. Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.

17. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

18. Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery, you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic.

19. Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.

20. Angels fly because they take themselves lightly.

21. Contemporary society has become dry, not for lack of wonders but for lack of wonder.

22. No man who worships education has got the best out of education… Without a gentle contempt for education no man’s education is complete.

23. People are inundated, blinded, deafened, and mentally paralyzed by a flood of vulgar and tasteless externals, leaving them no time for leisure, thought, or creation from within themselves.

24. Fable is more historical than fact, because fact tells us about one man and fable tells us about a million men.

25. Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.

26. We grow conservative as we grow old it is true. But we do not grow conservative because we find so many new things spurious. We grow conservative because we find so many old things genuine.

27. Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.

28. We are learning to do a great many clever things … The next great task will be to learn not to do them.

29. Chaos is dull.

30. There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.

(Note: the graphic of Chesterton is from an old cigarette card. Packs of cigarettes used to have trading cards, sometimes of sports figures, and this was from a set of literary figures. Imagine a time when smoking cigarettes and famous literary figures went together.)

Cover for the book Worth Remembering by David Zach

Finding Long Term Value in Short Ideas

This is a sampler from my continually growing database of over 4000 quotations. I’ve been collecting these since junior high. These were selected not with a modern sensibility of sensitivity or inclusion, but with a notion of timelessness and truth regardless of the source. Each of these are about the future, even if that future was from a very long time ago.

This all started when I found a packet of 3×5 cards in my dad’s office. Each one had a quotation on it. He explained that quotations were really useful, because you didn’t have time to read everything, so look for ideas worth remembering. If possible, see how others had taken complex ideas and gotten the essence of it in just a few lines. Yeah, my dad was a smart guy.

A few years ago, I published some of my favorites in a small book which I used for audience giveaways and as a thank you for clients. You can find it on Amazon for 99 cents: Worth Remembering: The Future Value of Old Ideas.

1. A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any other invention in human history – with possible exception of handguns and tequila. Mitch Ratliffe

2. When science discovers the center of the universe, a lot of people will be disappointed to find they are not it. Bernard Baily

3. First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII—and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure. Douglas Adams

4. The industrialized world has a different kind of poverty, a poverty of loneliness, of being unwanted, a poverty of the spirit. Mother Teresa of Calcutta

5. The surest sign that there’s intelligent life elsewhere in the universe is that they’ve never tried to contact us. Woody Allen

6. The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat. Lily Tomlin

7. The trouble with cheap, specialized education is that you never stop paying for it. Marshall McLuhan

8. We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. Oscar Wilde

9. All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town. Leo Tolstoy

10. Without books, God is silent, justice dormant, natural science at a stand, philosophy lame, letters dumb, and all things involved in darkness. Thomas Bartholin

11. And the same age saw Learning fall, and Rome. Alexander Pope

12. There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. Joseph Brodsky

13. Literature is my utopia. Helen Keller

14. I cannot live without books. Thomas Jefferson

15. Words can sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds. Elie Wiesel

16. Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us all without words?
Marcel Marceau

17. Only intuition can protect us from the most dangerous individual of all, the articulate incompetent. Robert Bernstein

18. Prediction is difficult, especially about the future. Neils Bohr

19. No one really knows enough to be a pessimist. Norman Cousins

20. Torture numbers and they will confess to anything. Gregg Easterbrook

21. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. C. S. Lewis

22. When liberty becomes license, dictatorship is near. Will Durant

23. Decadence can find agents only when it wears the mask of progress.
George Bernard Shaw

24. You can never get enough of what you really don’t need. Eric Hoffer

25. Where there is no vision, the people perish.Proverbs 29:18

26. Who guards the guardians? Juvenal

27. There is hope for the future because God has a sense of humor and we are funny to God. Bill Cosby

28. If the stars should appear just one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore! Ralph Waldo Emerson

29. This too shall pass. Dante Alighieri

30. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.
II Timothy 4:7

31. Perhaps in time the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

32. People change and forget to tell each other. Lillian Hellman

33. To be prepared against surprise is to be trained. To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.
James P. Carse

34. College isn’t the place to go for ideas. Helen Keller

35. Be not forgetful to entertain strangers; for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. Hebrews 13:2

36. You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive. James Baldwin

37. I love little children, and it is not a slight thing when they, who are fresh from God, love us. Charles Dickens

38. I actually think that to become really mature is to return to the age of five, to become able to recapture the capacity for absorption, for learning, the tremendous hunger to master skills that you have at five years. Eric Hoffer

39. Real futurists have children. Bruce Sterling

40. Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now bump, bump, bump on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there is really another way if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it. A. A. Milne

41. Play so that you may be serious. Anacharsis

42. God gave us our memories so that we might have roses in December. James M. Barrie

43. Won’t you come into the garden? I would like my roses to see you. Richard Brinsley Lord Sheridan

44. It is a great mistake for men to give up paying compliments, for when they give up saying what is charming, they give up thinking what is charming. Oscar Wilde

45. A man of courage flees forward, in the midst of new things.Jacques Maritain

46. The universe is full of magical things, patiently waiting for our wits to grow sharper. Eden Phillpotts

47. How beautiful the leaves grow old. How full of light and color are their last days. John Burroughs

48. Be glad of life because it gives you the chance to love and to work and to play and to look up at the stars. Henry van Dyke

Reading: In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.” Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, 1933

Some books become a favorite just for a single line. It’s the essence of this 42 page essay, published as a book. In Praise of Shadows is an poetic defense of the Japanese aesthetic and the act of thinking differently from whatever dominates. He notes that the West has never delighted in shadows and thereby fails to see so much of the beautiful. That’s a bit of overstatement, but for now we’ll go with it.

Tanizaki says that in the West, everything has to be lit up and cleaned up. All details are noted, even when elaborately covered. He praises the honesty of a bare bulb. He praises age and patina. He praises what we try to ignore.

Japanese music is one of reticence, but when recorded and amplified, loses its charm. Even in conversations, voices are meant to be softer, the pauses more important than the content.

Paper, invented by the Chinese, becomes just a tool for most of the West; an efficient thing, neglecting the potential of the texture, color, warmth. Instead of inviting us into the moment, it is reduced to the momentary.

Toilets. The famed novelist begins his essay with the aesthetic of the Japanese toilet. He notes that their ancestors made poetry of everything in their lives, and made that room the most poetic. The modern mind doesn’t know what to do with such sentiment. (If you get the chance, stay at The Inn at Langley on Whidbey Island, north of Seattle. It was my first encounter with localized Japanese architectural style. When I redesigned my own bathroom, it was one of the inspirations.)

One of my conclusion from this isn’t that the West is wrong, it is that it is too often incomplete and, in its accumulative nature, denatures the essence, leaving out what takes time to consider. In that at least we are not alone. Ignorance and arrogance curses us all. Impatience only makes it worse.

Ries and Trout in the book Positioning: The Battle for Your Mind, also have a singular memorable line: cherchez le creneau, conveniently translated from the French into “Look for the hole.” Look where others are not looking, see what others are not seeing. I don’t think this is about geography, it’s about self-imposed limitations, which we all have. Sometimes we build them up into an entire corporation, sometimes into an entire culture, but more often than not, those things we are not seeing are just within ourselves.

[Note: the links to buy the books goes to bookshop.org. I do not get any remuneration from sales. I just think that we should support small, local businesses, especially small, local bookshops. We might pay a little more, but consider it a very local taxation to pay for nice, walkable neighborhoods.]

Medieval Books as Art & The Secret Lives of Color

When an old technology is replaced by a new technology, the old one doesn’t go away, it returns in the form of an art. Marshall McLuhan (approximately)

Sometimes, the old technology starts out as an art too. An article about the creation of Medieval Manuscripts. This article is a nice, concise history of books from Medieval and Renaissance times.

Just as I think that because of technology, we may see the return (eventually) of ideographic typography (think: hieroglyphics and the likes of Japanese kanji) I do think that the survival of physical books may depend upon those things having enhanced qualities, some of which will be done by hand. Manuscript, as the article explains, means manu=hand, script=to write.

A beautiful example of a modern book that is not done by hand but is a visual, sensory delight is The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair. Each page is edged in the color described, and even the colored dots on the cover have a gloss varnish and shadow effect, making it appear as if there were holes in the cover, revealing each color. Slightly smaller than a typical hardcover, the satiny feel to it makes it a delight to hold. I think this is one of the best (modern) designed books I have seen. Oh, and the content is fascinating too, meaning that the writing is also well designed. If this were a digital book, it would miss most of the fun and all of the art.

Vintage Illustration of Boy at Losing Game

The Future’s Just Not That Into You: Design Intelligence article

A version of this article was first published in Design Intelligence in 2012, written for young design professionals on meeting the future on their own terms.

The Future’s Just Not That Into You

It’s time to admit that you’ve got a problem. Your obsession with the future is getting out of hand. You keep going on about how you were made for each other. You even change your plans because it’s what you think the future wants. But no matter, you just know you’re going to be perfect together.

Um, no. In case you haven’t noticed, the future pretty much ignores you. And, let’s be honest, you know it’s never going to call. It’ll never stop by unannounced. It’s not even going to meet you halfway.

Really, it’s almost as if the future didn’t even know you exist — and in practical terms, it doesn’t. It’s also practical to realize that it’s got its own issues, its own people, its own problems. By the time just even a little bit of the future happens,  we’ll be dead and long gone. And so it’s not the future you need to worry about, it’s you. Your attention is misplaced. You’re needed in the here and now. You need to show up fully prepared to be no place else. The object of your affection should be today.

And today, with all this fear and doubt about your architectural education, maybe your first assignment hasn’t even happened yet. Maybe it’s happening right now. What if it’s to show the future what you’re really made of? If the future won’t come to you, you will have to go to the future. Here are a few ideas on how to meet the future on your own terms.

1. Entrepreneurial wealth creation. In case no one noticed, tomorrow is expensive. Very expensive. We can’t possible afford even a fraction of what we’re expecting unless we create vast new wealth. Not just redistributed, but baby-fresh wealth that’s far more than just money. Whatever has value, we need more of; from working friendships to logistical networks. From 3-D printers to apps that automate everyday tasks. From green buildings to blue-sky thinking. More needs to be much more.

You need to realize how incredibly easy it is to an entrepreneur today. Business plans are just a few clicks away and can cost nothing. Take a look at websites like kickstarter.com, where the marketplace of ideas now reaches the entire Internet-accessing world. Steven Johnson in Where Good Ideas Come From makes clear that we’ve become incredibly good at invention, and that’s being systematized by the big organizations. What’s not yet clear is that individuals can leverage all of that innovative infrastructure to their singular or small network advantage.

Explore and expand the notion of “pop-up businesses” and find that time is on your side, using the new tools to respond to marketplace trends. In the future, businesses lasting a few months may be more successful and productive than ones that last for decades. Use 3-D printers and other new maker tech for a leap-frog revival of localized factories and the reinvention of architecture. Apply your fresh knowledge of logistics and design to bring new life to the great big marketplace of ideas.

The future is going to require a fair amount of blood, tears, toil and duct tape to hold together and work. It’ll have you digging in the dirt and working in the dust and grease, and some of that will get under your nails. Your knuckles will get bruised. That might have once repelled you, but in Future 2.0, these will be a badges of honor. Band-aids are for the brave.

Most think that entrepreneurs are all about success, but they’re a lot about failure, too, and they’re not afraid of it. The freedom to fail is much more important than the freedom to succeed. Where you have the freedom to succeed, the pathways are often already laid out, but the path and rewards are banal. Where we have the freedom to fail, we have the encouraging freedom to try new things, to often fail, and then pick ourselves up and try again. And again. And again. Until it works. That’s how it works.

2. Life-work planning. That was the best course I took in college. It taught me peak-skills identification and how to explain the value of my mix and match skills to the marketplace. In the years to come, even if you call yourself an architect (I mean, it is a cool title and all), you’re going to need to be eloquent about your full spectrum of skills and even your skill gaps. Your collaborative skills will be essential for helping you to fill those gaps with the talent of coworkers.

3. Small is still beautiful. A brilliant retort to the age of just about everything being bigger is to be a bit smaller. Think local. Think sooner rather than later. Think yours, not everyone else’s. There’s an appropriateness of scale that gets lost in the gloss of globalization. Search for resources that will help you secure your own familiar and familial piece of the world. The Lt. Governor of Idaho, Brad Little, said “Small ideas are as important as big ideas.” Yes, please. What’s the big idea for your generation? How about a lot of small, livable ideas? Your generation of small ideas may do more for designing a viable future than so many of the big ideas we’ve been keeping on financial life support. Fight the notion of things being too big to fail, because that arrogance requires too many other things to be too small to succeed. All great things start small.

Some things are great because they stay small — and that’s just one more great thing about who we are and what we can do.

Surveys show that the millennials want meaningful work, which is often translated into the desire to change the world. That’s big and noble, but how do they know that all of their efforts to do good won’t converge into an even bigger world of hurt? What are the foundations of their world-changing ambitions? Are they seeing only obvious implications, but not the implications of the implications that echo from their source and cannot be predicted nor controlled? MIlton Friedman said “The power to do good is also the power to do harm.” Perhaps in the desire to think big, efforts should start small, grounded in time-test principles and with the near and the dear.

How about starting a little closer to little? If you don’t have the patience to change (and keep changing) a baby’s diaper, how can you expect to change the world? Change cannot be isolated. Everything has consequences and when you connect those beyond just their first effects, your choices will be more clear and realistic. David Frost said, “Love is staying up all night with a sick child — or a healthy adult.” The good life includes accepting and loving all of it, because life comes with happiness and tears, and all the choices and changes these must bring. It’s fantastic that you want to save the world. Start with your own smaller world first. Make your inevitable mistakes small and early, not too big and too late.

4. Amateur practice. In the heart of a good architect is the soul of an amateur. The “ama” in that word means “love.” It’s the love of the art and craft. This love will save the future of the occupation and perhaps even the future at large. If that’s not in you, go slowly retire somewhere else.

Despite all the rules and rulers, you should always be a bit of an amateur, in love with design. It’s what gets you up in the morning and it’s what keeps you awake at night. And this is key: you didn’t just choose architecture because you thought it was what the future wanted. It is what you needed, it’s what you can’t live without. I always admire the architects who can hear the vocāre; the calling. You were able to hear it telling you what you must become. Very few can hear such gifts, and you must cherish it.

The day after speaking at AIAS Forum 2010, three student architects and I talked and walked to the Ontario Gallery of Art. Upon looking into the OGA’s Gehry Staircase gallery, they forgot me. In awe, they began to draw. In awe, I watched them. From outside of your world looking in, I see not simply rare talent, but rare passion and the heart of an amateur. This will save the profession no matter where it goes. It must be continually nurtured and regarded. It is too easily overwhelmed in the rush of modern times. What you have and what you are is drawn from the center of life.

5. Think into other boxes. The best thing that ever to happen to architecture and architects is the current dearth of jobs. It didn’t just happen because the economy turned down, it’s because the profession turned down. It got boring. It didn’t know how to defend itself against regulations, automation and cross-boundary poaching. It became more worried about being cool and collected than in creating the beautiful and useful. Every profession is stumbling into the future. The fact it’s happening more in architecture is a great opportunity, terrifying as it may be.

So think into those other bewildered occupations. Start mergers. Start acquisitions. Don’t do it as if you were Wall Street barons. You’re not. Do it as if you’re architects on the adventure of a lifetime, designing new challenges, crafting new stories and wonders. As the barriers blur between graphics and facades, redesign the walls and portals between them. Tear down the delusion of believing the borders of architecture are set and known. It may have foundations set in stone, but the rules for what we will build above them are now being negotiated across all boundaries. GK Chesterton said, “There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.” Which rules will we design for those we build on the ground?

6. Engage the past. Advanced economies are sadly absurd for actively discarding their elders. The younger those discards are, the more absurd it is. The divorcing of the generations and segregating them into their own self-referential worlds feeds our ignorance and arrogance. Wealth comes from connecting things, and we have impoverished ourselves by breaking and hiding such natural and lively bonds.

But as Sir Boyle Roche asked, “Why should we do anything for posterity; what has posterity ever done for us?” A good answer is that posterity always gives those who are older not only a reason to live, but reasons to invest, to strive, to conquer fears and conquer horizons. Generational bonds give us opportunities to share not just the delightful moments, but also foundations so that posterity does not have to keep repeating what it should not. Posterity doesn’t need our fads, it needs the continuity of our principles. We shouldn’t just connect them towards what is the latest, but towards what is almost too late. Progress from the past does not always mean leaving things behind us, it also means leaving things inside of us.

7. Put work in its place. The most foolish of all baby boomer legacies is the worship of work. They wanted everyone else to believe that work was at the center of life. No, life is at the center of life. Work is good; it’s good for the soul, but it is not the only thing good for the soul. And if it’s even slightly possible that we do in fact have souls, then we should be fighting the good fight to ensure that there are good things that compose it.

You’ll have to work to rethink what we know about work and life from an architect’s perspective. You should work hard to turn the ordinary over to the engineers and the general contractors or whomever else might want it. Don’t work for the stuff that ends up just looking like technical drawings. That’s not what architects are supposed to do.

Design and build beautiful, useful things that connect us into life in this world. If you can’t do that, then why bother? You’re architects and you have something incredible to say about designing good tomorrows. You’ll take some heat for working for all of that, but you’ll finally know what it really is to be cool.

In a word, you must rebel. You must focus your attention on what’s most important, both for now and for the years to come. Your attention is the most valuable resource you own, so learn to protect that first or you will fail in all else. Your rebellion requires not only a working knowledge of tactics and strategies, but also a very grounded sense of mission and vision.

You’re going to have to commit the high crime of closing your mind, but you’ll be closing it around something solid, something good. It will not have to be fresh and original, but it will have to be noble, fierce and timeless. It will not have to be unique and fresh, it have to be connected and rooted. You will need to rebel against the distractions of momentary history and ally yourself with the calm and eternal.

In Latin there is a phrase: amor fati. It means to love your fate; accepting the fact of all of your life. The joys, the losses, the choices. You do not get to choose all of your life, but you can choose your destination. Live your fate to your greatest conclusion. That is all the future really wants from you. You should enjoy the dangers and the rewards, even the failings. It’s going to be crazy scary, and it is yours.

In Star Trek Generations, Picard pulls Kirk out of retirement to join forces as fate offers yet another threat to the survival of just about everything. Kirk to Pickard, “I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim.” Pickard: “You could say that.” Speaking of the future, Kirk replied, “Sounds like fun.”

 

Scroll to Top