The graduate student continued, “The Chinese believe in constant change, but with things always moving back to some prior state. They pay attention to a wide range of events; they search for relationships between things; and they think you can’t understand the part without understanding the whole. Westerners live in a simpler, more deterministic world; they focus on salient objects or people instead of the larger picture; and they think they can control events because they know the rules that govern the behavior of objects.”
This conversation would set Nisbett off to a quest of unpacking the differences in cognitive processes between “Westerners” and “Easterners,” and to measure them scientifically. The Geography of Thought summarizes the key findings from these studies.
First, some definitions. The term Westerner in the book is designated to people of European culture. European Americans are everyone but those of Asian descent. Although Americans of all backgrounds are submerged in Western ways of thinking, they in fact observe that Asian Americans display more Eastern behaviors more than Western.
The term Easterner is meant to represent communities influenced heavily by the Chinese culture, primarily China, Japan, and Korea. Nisbett admits that certainly there are differences amongst these cultures, but the discussion requires some working terminologies and indeed, there are many similarities in the social cultures of these societies.
Differences between the Asian and Western ways of thinking are rooted in their respective ancient heritage. Western thoughts claim intellectual inheritance from ancient Greece and the East Asians inherit theirs from the ancient Chinese. The philosophical differences between the two are stark.
“The Greeks…had a remarkable sense of personal agency—the sense that they were in charge of their own lives and free to act as they chose.” Tied to this was a deep sense of individual identity and curiosity about the world. Additionally, there was a pervasive tradition of debate, public combats of rhetoric and logic. This display of oral prowess was how many questions and arguments were settled.
The Chinese counterpart to the Greek agency was the concept of harmony. A Chinese’s identity was derived from his community and relationships, i.e., so-and-so’s son. There was no concept of isolation, of an encapsulated unit, for an object or a person. Life’s preoccupation, then, was to minimize friction with others in the family or community. The agency was a collective one instead of personal.
“Chinese society made the individual feel very much a part of a large, complex, and generally benign social organism where clear mutual obligations served as a guide to ethical conduct… Individual rights in China were one’s ‘share’ of the rights of the community as a whole, not a license to do as one pleased.”
In terms of understanding the world, the Greeks were “deeply concerned with the question of which properties made an object what it was.” They would regard the object in isolation for analysis, which tended to have linear and either-or orientation. In contrast, the Chinese concept of the world was that it was constantly changing and full of contradictions. Things were seen as a whole rather than in part, and that events were related to each other.
In Part 2 of this essay, I summarize the interesting key findings and observations from Nisbett’s experiments described in his book. Read Part 2 here.
Giza. Chichen Itza. Magelang. Three locations where ancient structures stand for thousands of years. The pyramids of Giza have existed for over 4000 years, built out of quarried stones, stacked and shaped into place. El Castillo, the largest pyramid in the Chichen Itza complex in the Yucatan state of Mexico, is made out of rocks forming a 4-sided structure with stairs on each side. There are sculptures of serpents on the sides of the stairs on the northern side. Candi Borobudur, or the Borobudur Temple, in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia, is an impressive structure of stone carvings of Buddha facing all corners of the earth. The walls are relief panels with carvings that narrate Buddhist cosmology as well as daily living in 9th century Javanese society.
Candi Borobudur, or Borobudur Temple, in Central Java, Indonesia
Each of these structures reflects the worldviews of the civilizations that created them. Both their function and aesthetics are filled with meaning, and somehow this deep meaning is communicated to anyone visiting its perimeters. When you come close to these structures, they generate a reaction in the soul.
Pyramid and sphinx of Giza, Egypt. Credit: Freeimages
In Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, reportedly one of the influential books that Elon Musk read when he first thought about building SpaceX, structural engineer J. E. Gordon reflects on structures and aesthetics in his first chapter:
“…although most artefacts are not primarily concerned with making an emotional or aesthetic effect, it is highly important to realize that there can be no such thing as an emotionally neutral statement. This is true whether the medium be speech or writing or painting or technological design. Whether we mean it or not, every single thing we design and make will have some kind of subjective impact, for good or bad, over and above its overtly rational purpose.”
Gordon contrasts the artefacts of the eighteenth century, which “seem to many of us to be at least pleasing and sometimes incomparably beautiful,” to the works of modern man—modern is a relative term–which is not so much filled with “active ugliness” as the “prevalence of the dull and the commonplace.”
“…man does not live by safety and efficiency alone, and we have to face the fact that, visually, the world is becoming an increasingly depressing place… Far too seldom is the heart rejoiced or does one feel any better or happier for looking at the works of modern man.”
On why these ancient structures last, I am toying with conjectures here. I’d defer to the civil engineers and architects to supply the scientific explanation.
Pyramids and temples were built by their creators to last. Whether it was a tribute to kings, ancestors, or gods, these structures reflected their beliefs about life and the afterlife. This to them was a perpetual reality that would never change. Why would it, if this was how the world worked? The bodies of past Pharaohs were not placed there temporarily, nor Buddhas arbitrarily placed in random directions. They were designed with intention of permanence.
If these structures were meant to last, they needed to be built in a certain way, much like the difference in attitude and approach when I know I’m making something for temporary use or for ever. Intent drives content, which in turn informs method.
The pyramid-like shape of these 3 structures to me seems very stable, although I would here open myself to counter examples that show other equally stable shapes. Admittedly, these 3 examples are simply based on my personal exposures, a lecture I heard recently on Egyptology, my recent visit to Chichen Itza, and my visit and pride in a notable accomplishment of my home country’s past civilizations.
Gordon also writes that pre-metallic structures of the past probably ‘force’ their engineers to think deeply about loads and stresses on the materials at their disposal:
“To make structures without the benefit of metals requires an instinct for the distribution and direction of stresses which is by no means always possessed by modern engineers; for the use of metals, which are so conveniently tough and uniform, has taken some of the intuition and also some of the thinking out of engineering.”
Certainly there were numerous ancient structures that didn’t last, whether to due structural or environmental causes. Earthquakes, floods, and everything that could happen over the span of 4000 years might destroy even the most superior knowledge of stress distribution on solids. This, though, only makes our respect and admiration grow for the few structures that have survived history and the “primitive technologies” that created them.
Of Matter and Structure
There is also, however, something to be said about the materials used in these trans-millennial structures. They were made out of stones, probably because stones were the most readily available materials with load-bearing strength before the discovery, manipulation, and production of metals. Is it also possible that this choice material contributes to their survival?
Since metallic structures are relatively younger, it is quite unfair to compare stony and metallic structures on equal grounds. We don’t know (or, rather, I don’t know) whether metals will outlast stones, as in, if two pyramids were built, one with stone and one with metals in the same location, which one would last longer? We only have one version of history, so all we can do is credit the ancient glories to the stone structures.
As building materials, stones have notable advantages. They are by nature durable, fireproof, and nonreactive. They are not the easiest to work with due to their weight and non-uniformity, and they don’t provide good insulation (not good for places with extremely hot or cold weather). But their resistance to fire and moisture is a clear strength, unlike wood that is in fact fuel for fire and prone to decay, or metals that bend and melt due to heat. Stones will not rust, since the molecules are mostly oxidized and thus will not react with air or water. Further, it can be restored. Many of the ancient stone structures were once lost and re-discovered after many years of abandonment. But careful restoration could bring their old glories back, provided that enterprising people didn’t chip them away, and moss could be removed from stones. Compare this with common houses in North America, which, HGTV tells me, can undergo so much decay and destruction from being abandoned for a few years.
The Character of Stones
In the Biblical account, there is a section that flies over human history by giving each era a certain character through material symbols. In the book of Daniel chapter 2, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which he forgot, and decreed his counselors to reproduce the dream and interpretation. Failure to do so would result in death. Daniel, a Hebrew prophet in the king’s court prayed to God and was granted the vision and its explanation.
At the end of the vision was a part that was a bit strange and discontinuous. A stone “cut out without hands” appeared, stroke the feet of the statue, and crumbled the whole structure down. This stone represented the kingdom of God, hence the discontinuity from the materials in the statue–metals refined by human civilizations–was fitting here.
Yet the choice of a stone to represent the kingdom of God was rather anticlimactic, wouldn’t you say? I would probably choose something majestic, like a big giant diamond to crush the entire human civilization. A plain old stone is neither flashy nor valuable.
Interestingly, however, the commentary continues to highlight that this last kingdom’s distinct characteristic was that it would last forever. Daniel 2:44 says, “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” The other kingdoms pass away, but this one stays.
Perhaps there is something here, given what we know about the material characteristics of rocks and stones. In other places, Biblical references to rocks mean stability, strength and assurance (e.g., building on the rock, rock of salvation, etc). God Himself is referred to as the Rock of Israel.
It is not uncommon for the Bible to illustrate the kingdom of God with unusual symbols; a seed, leaven, a net cast into the sea, and numerous other unexpected metaphors. They are often humble, simple, and commonplace. Yet each time, they reveal a secret strength that is not always intuitive to human thinking, like the seed that grows into a tree, where birds can lodge in its branches. The baffling-ness calls its audience to think of reality as God sees it, that not everything is valued according to the marketplace and human commerce.
In the choice of a stone in Daniel 2, its durability, strength, and stability certainly reflects a characteristic of God’s kingdom. That sameness yesterday, today, and tomorrow is a key aspect of the Biblical God. I don’t know whether the author of the hymn “Rock of Ages” was thinking along this line, but that phrase is awfully and appropriately fitting.
The following experiences happened within the last 3 months:
Tried on a winter jacket at The North Face store, nicely designed, warm, and smooth. Went to a next door store that sold jackets with one-fifth of the price, but it was plastic-y, with rough hems and zippers that caught repeatedly.
Waited for an hour at a doctor’s office, ended up having a 10-min visit with the doctor, during which he gave his regular spiel (overheard him from another room) without ever addressing me personally or mentioning my name. The visit cost $70.
Got my car checked at the dealership. Greeted by a representative who introduced herself and addressed my name with a smile. Answered all of my questions in a calm, unhurried way, performed requested services, and sent me off with a handshake. Good job, Honda.
Visited a Greek restaurant during restaurant’s week. The place was busy and well staffed, but everyone was super alert and watchful over the customers. There was no slacker there–no one standing around spaced out having nothing to do. Everyone walked like they had somewhere to go, quickly. Used plates were cleaned and replaced, drinks refilled, boxes offered without being asked. Free valet service was offered to all customers, and they speed walked to get the car. All around efficiency–loved it!
Waited almost half an hour in a baggage-drop line at the airport with only 3 people in front of me. Despite the long line formed, one of the agents strolled off and disappeared into the back room, never returning until who knows when.
Read a journal paper that was meticulous in its problem definition, step-by-step in its explanation, and comprehensive in analysis. Edifying from the first read.
What made some of these experiences extremely pleasant? Excellence.
When a person, a company, or an establishment is excellent in product design, service, academically, or technically, they can command loyalty from customers and assign higher prices, and people would pay willingly and happily. I have visited many doctor’s office in my local area and to this day, I have not settled on one yet. Whereas with my car, since the first day I came to this particular dealership, there was no thought of going anywhere else. The one time I did, I was sorely, sorely disappointed.
Both establishments surely need to make money and serve as many customers as possible, but one tries to hide this from the consumers’ experiences and takes time to perfect their services, and the other doesn’t. It troubles me somewhat that the assembly line mentality is present in health care services more than my particular auto service provider.
Excellence matters, not only because it makes good business sense, but also because it enhances people’s experiences and brightens up their days.
The Moral Imperative to Be Excellent
Paul Kalanithi, in his book When Breath Becomes Air, reflected deeply on the moral imperative to excel in neurosurgery, where a millimeter-level error could result in an altered life and identity of his patient.
“As a chief resident, nearly all responsibility fell on my shoulders, and the opportunities to succeed–or fail–were greater than ever. The pain of failure had led me to understand that technical excellence was a moral requirement. Good intentions were not enough, not when so much depended on my skills, when the difference between tragedy and triumph was defined by one or two millimeters.”
“Neurosurgery requires a commitment to one’s own excellence and a commitment to another’s identity. The decision to operate at all involves an appraisal of one’s own abilities, as well as a deep sense of who the patient is and what she holds dear. Certain brain areas are considered near-inviolable, like the primary motor cortex, damage to which results in paralysis of affected body parts. But the most sacrosanct regions of the cortex are those that control language… If both areas are damaged, the patient becomes an isolate, something central to her humanity stolen forever. After someone suffers a head trauma or a stroke, the destruction of these areas often restrains the surgeon’s impulse to save a life: What kind of life exists without language?”
“I don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life–and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul–was obvious in its sacredness.”
Contrast his commitment to excellence with an incompetent resident he came across during treatment. Paul wrote,
“Meeting his obligation to me meant adding one more thing to his to-do list: an embarrassing phone call with his boss, revealing his error. He was working the night shift. Residency education regulations had forced most programs to adopt shift work. And along with shift work comes a kind of shiftiness, a subtle undercutting of responsibility. If he could just push it off for a few more hours, I would become somebody else’s problem.”
The difference? One saw his work as a sacred calling and another saw his as a job–a checklist of tasks to do and get by.
The Fullness of a Work
Certain professions have greater immediacy to life-threatening danger upon failure. How would you like to fly on a plane designed to survive 99.99% of the time? The number looks impressive, but 99.99% means 1 out of 10000 flights would fail. With about 100,000 flights scheduled each day in the US, this statistics is way too poor. Nothing less than 100% is good enough in aviation.
I would argue, however, that the life-threatening level is not the only measure to the importance of excellence. One’s work doesn’t have to implicate life and death to carry moral weight in society. Instead, most work makes a difference in other people’s lives, improving or deteriorating their experience and quality of life.
Yet more than avoiding liability, excellence brings joy. Encountering excellence in a good book, a great teacher, or an excellent service makes us happy. The task is not just done, but fulfilled–filled to the full. This goodness multiplies in the recipients of the work and propagates to others they would in turn impact.
I would further submit that this is also the way to work happily. Excellence is never accidental, always intentional, effortful, and focused. And when it bears fruit, it’s extremely fulfilling.
The old adage says, Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). A truly wise saying.