Patrick Rothfuss - The Kingkiller Chronicle

Name of the Wind Cover

Intro
Two of my friends managed to convince me to read Patrick Rothfuss' "Name of the Wind." That and its sequel, "Wise Man's Fear," each caused a week of work to disappear. Those two books and an unreleased sequel comprise Kvothe's story of his life. Kvothe is a famous wizard who grew up in a travelling troupe and, thus, has an appreciation for putting on a good show. In other words, it is a story about a storyteller, a story with an emphasis on stories. Needless to say, it is told well.

The Lies we Tell Ourselves to Get to Sleep
I like that there is an emphasis on constructing reality. There are facts about the world, but there are also the lies that we tell ourselves and make true. As a kid, he stands by in hiding while a group beats up another child. Talking about that experience, he says, "That is why I became the Kvothe that they tell stories about. I still remember it. I made my choice, and I still regret it." With his regret, he thinks of himself as the type of person who does intervene for others, and he thinks of it as a common duty. As a result, after running through an inferno to save someone that he barely knows, he says that "Anyone would have done that."

I have experienced the same myself. My first step to becoming vegetarian actually didn't involve any deeper ethical understanding. In fifth grade, there was something called Taste Sensation, where we would eat a different food each week. We had rattlesnake and frog legs (yum on both accounts). We had snail (I kind of puked after eating it). But I didn't want to eat spam, so I got out of it by saying that I didn't eat red meat (lying). However, I don't think of myself as someone who lies. So after that, I didn't eat red meat (except for that one time that I didn't know that "pancetta" is Italian for "seasoned bacon" even though "pan" is Spanish for "bread").

That is, perhaps, why I am less hard on hypocrisy than some other people. I don't think of a hypocrite as someone who is living in contradiction with themselves. I think of a hypocrite as someone whose reach exceeds their grasp today and whose grasp might extend tomorrow.

When presented with the Peter Singer Solution to World Poverty (people should donate their money until they hit the $40,000 per year line, since at that level they definitely have everything you need to survive and thrive, and $200 can save a life), I agreed with it. He makes his case off of simple utilitarian philosophy, and I agree with utilitarianism and with his logic. However, at that point, I didn't donate all of my surplus money, and I still don't. But I've gradually gotten more generous and have donated more money over time to charitable organizations.

This internal desire for consistency is one of Cialdini's principles of persuasion. If a person commits to something, especially if they commit to it in a public way, they are much more likely to follow through with it.

Heroism
The self-fulfilling nature of stories is as true with regard to external perceptions of a person as it is for internal values. Kvothe puts a lot of effort into building his reputation as a superhuman hero, and the books about Kvothe are him telling the real story behind the heroic stories that others tell of him. In a way, my writing is my own way of telling my story, though I am nowhere near as heroic as Kvothe.

He spends his time at the University, dwelling place of the most talented people of his time. To get in requires high education, and to stay there requires steep costs in tuition and supplies. Kvothe, an independently financed orphan, manages to become one of the most famous people in the world because he begins constructing the image of himself as famous early on, and he doesn't stop constructing it or attempting to live up to it.

He doesn't even attempt to live up to all of his stories. He intentionally spreads enough rumors about himself that people can't always tell truth from fiction. What he does live up to is the persona. He was enamored, as a child, by fairy tales of great wizards with command over the elements, who can "call down fire and lightning" on their enemies. He spends much of the series trying to gain this power, but he spends as much time making it seem like he already has the power.

As a result, he shares his glory and hides his grief. He can never ask anyone for help except for his small, trusted circle. When he wins a contest by pushing himself nearly to the point of collapse, he has to go into the hallway to compose himself. In order to pay for his tuition, he has to ask for money from a dangerous moneylender to avoid asking his friends. No one sees his weakness, and as a result, he is famous. He is not the best wizard (though he is always among the best), but he appears that way.

With the "Mask of Masculinity," my culture has helped me along that path too. The most obvious way might be my academic persona. The shadow that I cast works nonstop, tirelessly, and exclusively for causes related to social change. Not only that, but everything comes easy to that shadow. I study biocomputation, so my shadow is an expert in computer science and natural science; I study human computer interaction and design, so my shadow is an expert in working with user needs; I lead organizations and study social entrepreneurship, so my shadow is an excellent leader; and I did debate, so my shadow is an expert in the social sciences and humanities.

But again, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I am not my shadow, but I can only stray so far from it while still casting it as it is. In high school, the people on my debate team thought that I did so much work, and they thought that my partner did less work, but I always thought that my partners contributed as much as me (and I said as much, but the persona stayed). They probably didn't think that I spent as much time watching TV or playing video games as I did. As a result, I had to spend a little more time working to keep up with my image, and I always followed through on my outward commitments.

In college, that has continued. My persona doesn't play video games as much as I do. As a result, in public situations, I am unlikely to be seen playing video games except with my friends. My persona has about twice as many commitments as the average Stanford student and succeeds at them all. But success isn't enough, so I also make cookies to demonstrate the ease with which I do everything. In work situations, I may not be the most skilled, but I can succeed independently or with other people, and I'm usually among the first in and last out of the office.

I was surprised to learn that it even extends to physical feats. At the beginning of high school, I was still scrawny (now I'm only scrawny by comparison to my friends that remind some of hulks), but I never shrugged the burden of carrying my tubs of debate evidence or doing physical work. I was walking with someone around the dish (a hilly area that has Stanford's research dish: see http://dish.stanford.edu/) the other day, and she commented that I was the one doing all of the talking, and yet I wasn't even panting. In fact, I was exerted, and if I wasn't panting, it was a matter of composure, not a matter of physical fitness.

Independence also. After I started doing debate in high school, I was away from my home and family for the first time over weekends, and I was fine. Not only that, but I was superbly prepared. I prided myself on having all of the office supplies (or snacks, or bandaids, or anything else) that any of my teammates would need. Debate camp was my first time away from my family for more than a weekend, and I made myself seem as comfortable there as anywhere even though I would be away for a month or two and I was suffering homesickness.

As a result, when I went to college, I didn't suffer the same difficulties that some of my peers did. I could independently manage my life. Even though I had never been abroad, I was comfortable traveling on my own to program in Cambodia for a summer. The way that I am independent has changed, though. Where in my childhood, I was independent through preparation, now I am independent through demeanor, which is to say that now I pack light where before I packed heavy. I am now very much a nomad: given no more than what I can carry in my backpack and on my person, I am comfortable staying in any city in the world for any amount of time with as little preparation as is necessary.

In my class on Transformative Design, one thing that I learned was that a powerful way to build loyalty is through identity. Apple has created a cult of people who buy their products because they identify as Apple people and, thus, will buy a closed-down and overpriced product because it has an apple on it. Buying Apple products is a part of their identity. Kvothe follows a similar path. He sees the world a certain way. He sees his own place in that world, and that is his identity. He wears it as his skin. It is bound just as tightly to him, as is mine to me.

I taught a class this spring, CS1U, and the professor who was helping me with it said that I was a finisher. That is to say, when I commit to something, it is a part of me, and it will be finished. My identity as an independent, fit, public servant at the forefront of design and computer science may be a shadow, but come rain or shine, hell or high water, I have my identity, and it is the most important thing that I have.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011