Blake Riley

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Attributes of the Icons

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I recently posted my icons, a visual reminder of intellectual inspirations and role-models. But why those nine and not others? Here are some of the key traits they share: My icons…

  • Are communicators: In particular, they tend to write for non-specialists. A selection effect is at work here; as a young grad student, I read specialist-oriented authors, but I haven’t become intimately familiar with many yet. Even so, writing for an intelligent popular audience forces clarity. My icons’ writing communicates. That may seem tautological, but too many authors send messages off into the void without being received. If the audience fails to understand, no communication has taken place. I don’t necessarily aspire to being widely read, but when I write or speak, I want my point to get across.
  • Have a sense of humor: They are clever and willing to look on the lighter side of life. Confidence in their work is a contributing factor. None are so worried about being taken seriously that their work is dry, dour, and formal. They are unafraid to let their personality come out. There is also a hint of optimism. While DFW had an occasional melancholy tone, the sarcasm endemic in modern humor is missing from all of them.
  • Have high standards: The important counterpoint to this aspect is a willingness to continue producing until their standard is met. I tend to shut projects down that set off my crap-meter. This blog is first and foremost a means for me to produce, but I still plan to attend to the good example set by these nine regarding quality.
  • Are analytical: Left-brained and often technical, they share the distinctive style of thinking associated with math, science, and philosophy.
  • Have diverse interests: They are known not just for writing on a variety of subjects, but weaving them together in defiance of subject and genre. While specialization is still a key to success, they do so by creating their own niche, rather than burrowing into an old subject.  The best way to be a specialist is to be sui generis.
  • Are foxy: In Berlin’s sense and since revived by Tetlock, foxes are likely to see complexity and nuance in the world, in contrast to hedgehogs who subscribe to overarching theories. My icons’ multiple influences and broad interests give them an appreciation of the competing explanations of the world. They tend to be more cautious and more willing to change their mind. They advance policies, ideas, and methodologies while remaining non-ideological.

The last trait explains why Robin Hanson didn’t quite make the cut. His public persona¹ is highly centered around a couple big ideas like signaling and near/far modes of thinking. Because big ideas are, by their nature, widely applicable, I frequently find myself asking what Hanson would think of a behavior or phenomenon. So, while I try to emulate foxes, one of the best ways to do so is collecting a large collection of hedgehog shoulder-daemons ready to give their explanation.

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1: In a recent interview by Colin Marshall, Hanson explains he is much more of a generalist in everyday life, but thinks promoting a small core of ideas publicly will have the highest impact.

Written by blakeriley

2010.02.3 at 15:51

Posted in values

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