In my life I want to remain open to the world around me, try new things, and stretch myself in areas where I recognize I don’t have much experience. In order to successfully live an open and exploratory life, I will have to accept that I am not as great as my ego wants me to believe I am, and I will have to accept that I don’t already know everything I need to know about how to live a good life. If I begin approaching the world as though I already have it figured out and as if my way of life is superior to the way that other people live, then instead of branching out, I will likely turn inward, away from a changing world.
“No group ever decided to pull inward and cut off contact with the outside world because they believed their own group was inferior,” Colin Wright wrote in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. It is hard to avoid judging other people, and even easier to judge other groups rather than just other individuals. “Moral superiority is probably some degree of confidence in their social group and their support of their social group. That is, people are especially willing to express moral superiority when they’re expressing the superiority, not of themselves individually, but of the group of people they’re within together,” Robin Hanson stated in an interview with Tyler Cowen for his podcast Conversations with Tyler.
Allowing ourselves to see ourselves and our groups as morally superior to others limits our world and puts us in a place where we are less likely to connect with people who are not like us. I see this a lot with the relationships between runners and people who do cross-fit. It seems almost universal that runners criticize cross-fit athletes. I have thought about this a lot, and I think that what is happening is that runners are trying to express their (moral) athletic superiority over cross-fit athletes as a way to justify why they don’t do cross-fit themselves. To acknowledge that cross-fit is a good workout and accept that a cross-fit athlete is just as athletic, talented, hard-working, or smart as a runner places the runner in a position where they have to defend their sport and their choice to do running when a potentially more well-rounded and fun type of exercise exists.
The runners versus cross-fit example is just a small example of how our in-group versus out-group thinking manifests in real life. This type of thinking, of believing that we and our group are superior to other groups can have serious consequences. It can lead to our group becoming more close-minded. It can lead to us individually being less open to people who live differently. It can lead to enclaves and divisions within society that see conflict and threat instead of opportunity and learning. By becoming aware of these feelings of superiority, recognizing how frequently these feelings lack any solid rational basis, and by trying something new, we can prevent ourselves and our groups from becoming isolated. This will give us a chance to learn new things, gain insightful experiences, and it will help us provide more value to the world.
In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright explains how training in certain areas changes us. “Training our instincts is like feeding our subconscious. It grants us more informed, helpful knee-jerk reactions, rather than blind and potentially damaging impulses.” For examples, Wright writes about the ways that experienced auto mechanics are diagnose vehicle problems in one area of an engine based on a signal in a different area of the engine and he writes about learning to cook in six months and having a new understanding and appreciation for raw ingredients that can be cooked together to make a meal. In isolated cases, things we don’t know about and don’t understand at all can become things that give us clues and slight insights based on our experience and knowledge.
Recently, Tyler Cowen interviewed Ezekiel Emanuel for his podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and I was struck by Emanuel’s efforts to learn and engage with something new each year. He has recently learned how to make his own jam and chocolate and in the interview talked about the insights and unexpected things that he has gained by trying something completely new. He doesn’t always stick with everything he learns and tries, but by applying himself in a lot of different areas, he picks up new perspectives, meets new people, and gains a new appreciation for something that was foreign to him in the past.
The lessons from Wright and Emanuel are things we should keep in mind and try to build into our own lives. When we only have a vague understanding or idea of how the world works, we are going to move through it making assumptions that are not warranted. We will act in ways that seem intuitively obvious for us, but our way of moving through the world may be as foolish as asking the French why they haven’t had an air tanker drop water on Notre-Dame. Ignorance can be quite costly in our own lives and in the negative externalities that we push onto the rest of the world, and as we become more responsible with relationships, families, and businesses that count on us, ignorance can be quite costly for the rest of society. Becoming aware of areas where we have no expertise and no training is important so that we can identify where we might have these knee-jerk reactions that won’t help anyone. Awareness of our ignorance can help us choose what we want to focus on, what we want to learn about, and what would help us become a better person for our society.
On the opposite side of the coin, as we become more expert in a given area, we will be able to better sense what is happening around us and make choices and decisions that we can’t explain but that work properly. It is something we should strive toward, but all the while we should recognize where our expertise falls short and how bad assumptions could harm us and others.
One of the draws that I have toward stoicism is the idea that both good things and bad things will happen around me, but that I can always decide whether something is good or bad and how I will move forward from the good things and bad things that happen around me. My reactions are something I can control even if I can’t control the weather, the person who cut me off on the freeway, or the economic downturn that sinks my business. In stoicism, I have found a set of tools for objectively viewing the world and developing an inner ability of focus and calmness.
One of the authors who taught me a lot about stoicism is Colin Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be is a somewhat stoic look at the forces in our lives that shape the people we are becoming and how we can respond to those forces to become people who are well equipped to do the important things to help society become a better place. In one chapter of his book, Wright highlights an idea that many companies, industries, and professionals in American society now operate on a business model based on making us feel small. The business model positions the company, coach, or set of coaches as the only thing that can take us from where we are to where we want to go. Wright references certain types of gyms, certain health restaurants, and in some cases our coaches, mentors, or guides from the self-help world. In his book he writes, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with self-improvement. … But I am saying that when we become overly reliant on outside influences, encouragement, and incentives in how we feel about ourselves, we open ourselves up to abuse and mistreatment. We open ourselves up to being manipulated.”
Business models that rely on customers becoming reliant on them put us in a position where we cannot walk away. Their goal may seem like it is to provide great kick-boxing workouts or to help motivate people to get in shape and make good decisions, but what is really happening is the development of a cycle of dependency and the development of personal identities that don’t operate without the business at the center providing the affirmation that one is living properly, doing the right things to be healthy, and taking the right steps for a validated life. Stoic philosophy turns this business model on its head by suggesting that we already have all the means within the faculties of our minds to be fulfilled. We don’t need to tie our self-value and self-worth to the praise of another person. It is not up to money, social status, or the number of mornings at the gym which determine whether we are living the right life. We have value by virtue of being a human being and we can use tools around us to improve our health, try to reach out goals, or build a community of like-minded individuals, but we don’t have to tie our entire identity and value as a human to these industries in order to define ourselves and become valuable and meaningful.
I spend a lot of time thinking about what is important in my life, what I want to work toward, and why I want to work toward those things. Its not always an easy and enjoyable task, and I find that if I get away from it for a little while, unimportant things slip back in. In order to stay on top of things and focus on the important, I find that it is helpful to think about the deep why behind my actions, habits, and daily routines. The most important questions I ask myself focus on whether I am doing something because I am trying to make the world a better place, or whether I am doing something out of my own self-interest. I know I will never detach self-interest from what I do, but at least I can try to align my self-interest with things that help improve the world as opposed to things that simply show off how awesome I think I am.
“Pursuing what’s meaningful is important, but just as important is understanding why we’re pursuing what we’re pursuing and how we’re undertaking that pursuit. Pay attention to the why behind your actions, and the how and what become a lot easier to define and control.” Colin Wright ends one of the chapters in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be with that quote. It is advice we hear a lot but that I don’t think we always actually follow. Part of the reason we don’t always follow that advice is because it is usually packaged as “follow your passion” or “if you do what you love you will never really work a day in your life.” This line of advice giving isn’t too helpful and puts pressure on us to have the perfect job we love or else we feel that we are doing it all wrong. Better advice for us is to look inside and try to understand our motivations, ask ourselves what it is that drives us toward our goals, ask if that is reasonable and in the best interest of society, and adjust so that we are operating in a way that is designed to make the world a better place instead of only operating in a way to maximize the pleasure we find in the world.
I truly believe that better understanding our motivations and being honest with ourselves about the forces that drive us will help us realign our lives in a more positive direction. When we truly examine ourselves we will not want to find that we are working hard, hitting the gym at 5 a.m., and doing everything we do just to show off to others or just to buy new things that will impress others. We will find that we are more fulfilled when we align our days around pursuits and goals focused on building communities, helping other people, creating meaningful relationships, and trying to solve problems for other people. This may not immediately change every aspect of our life, but it will allow us to slowly build habits and ways of thinking that help us make better choices that minimize our selfishness and propel us toward meaningful goals.
I am not great at recognizing when the status quo is working well for me, but might not be working well for others. Sometimes, I am really not at all good at even recognizing what the status quo is or being aware of the status quo. What I can usually recognize, however, is when someone or some force is working to change the status quo in a way that is unfamiliar or even scary to me. Especially when the possible change in the status quo might require that I lose something that I benefit from, I notice the status quo and have an instant reaction to entrench myself against the change.
The status quo never actually needs to be the status quo. If we try to be more aware of what is the status quo for us, we can start to look for ways to change the status quo that won’t hurt us or cause us to lose something, but might move things in a new direction that might be better. We can almost always return to the status quo if we find that our change doesn’t really make the difference we hoped it would make. In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be Colin Wright writes, “the status quo remains the status quo because it’s been our status quo.”
It is worth remembering that oftentimes our status quo is totally random. We have a drawer in our kitchen full of utensils simply because when we first moved in we happened to toss the spoons and forks in that drawer. We never sat down to really think about where we would like our utensils and what drawer would be the best for them. It just happened and became the status quo, and changing it seems like more effort than letting it stay.
A lot of our lives is driven by a status quo that we haven’t really thought much about. When we try to change it, people who benefit from the status quo, or people who think that it is working and therefore doesn’t need to be changed will entrench themselves. We see this with things like the electoral college, a company changing a logo, or a friend suddenly changing a hairstyle. I think that on an individual level, being more cognizant of the status quo and remembering that often times the status quo is random or the result of a compromise that worked 200 years ago can help us adjust to change more easily. We can think through why things are the way they are, and if they don’t seem to make much of a difference, we can be more open to letting things change. There is no reason our lives should be constrained simply because the status quo happens to be the way it is.
Sometimes I find that we can’t really define what outcomes we actually want, what goals we are actually working toward, and what purpose is actually driving our behaviors. For much of my life I see this in what I do, and where it really worries me is in the policy world. I focused on public administration and public policy for my masters degree. I think a lot about the thing that is lying at the heart of our political arguments and debates, and I think frequently about what it is that any one group is trying to accomplish when they frame an issue a certain way, respond to a crisis, or try to get a specific item on the agenda. Looking at the purpose behind the messaging and behind the actions is incredibly revealing and helpful for understanding where we are, and I think it is crucial to understand to develop effective policy.
In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright hits on the importance of understanding the why behind our actions and work. He writes, “The question of what we’re actually trying to accomplish with our actions is important because it demands we question our existing habits, biases, and goals.” We can move through life without examining what we are doing and why we are doing it, but autopilot by itself is not actually that good of a pilot. Someone has to set the course, determine the direction, and make sure things are pointed down the right runway before autopilot can take over. In the world of policy, this is all done behind the scenes and out of the way of the public. Not because someone is trying to be shady (most of the time) but because it is really boring detail oriented work. At the heart of all of it, its never really one person but a collective ethos in society that says things like, “people should be working if they expect to get help from the government” or “people have been discriminated against and can’t pull themselves up by the bootstraps because the system is rigged.” We take these broad sentiments, develop boring policies that try to address problems, and the public responds. However, the underlying goals of these sentiments are often unclear and hard to decipher. Policy seems to branch forward unsure of what the real goal is and unsure of what should be accomplished. When we then enter into political discussions without offering real objectives and clear goals, policy meanders and doesn’t really solve anything.
Our lives are a lot more like the policy scenario I described above than what we likely realize. We have vague thoughts and intuitions about how our lives should be. We have a sense of what we need to do to impress others, make people proud of us, and to accomplish things we want. What we don’t always do, however, is sit down and truly think about what our goals should be and why we want those goals to be the things we work toward. Doing this and being more intentional about our objectives and motivations can help us build a life that doesn’t just branch forward and bumble along, but that creates measurable milestones that we can work toward. This allows us to align our life with things that are meaningful and allows us to build habits and routines that an be meaningful and developmental.
An unfortunate reality in our world is that we don’t have a lot of incentives to change our beliefs about things. What we think and feel regarding a specific item is heavily influenced by more than just our own experiences and rational thoughts about that thing. Our social groups, self-interests, and group identities can shape our beliefs and make it almost impossible for our beliefs to have any flexibility. In this setting, changing our beliefs may require that we break with a group identity, view the world in a way that is inconsistent with the rest of the people around us, and acknowledge that our narrow self-interest is not what is in the best interest of a larger society.
Colin Wright wrote about this in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be and related the idea directly to the ways we think about groups of people. He writes, “If we’ve spent our lives hating, or at least feeling superior to, a particular group of people, but then are exposed to convincing information about that group that makes us hate them less, that’s a very awkward moment. Taking this new information seriously would mean having to choose between continuing on as we are now, with our existing biases, our existing way of interacting with these people, our existing group of friends who probably have he same set of biases that we now feel compelled to question, or changing all that.” Wright shows that changing one’s views, even when there is good reason, can be awkward in one’s personal life. Beyond simply saying, “I was wrong,” changing one’s beliefs means that you then have to tell others (who you may have been very close with) that they are still wrong, and that can be hard for many people.
I don’t have a solution here for how to improve the likelihood of changing people’s minds. Instead, what I am doing is pointing out how many factors are involved with changing our minds. We should recognize that we may hold many of our beliefs for reasons we don’t want to acknowledge, like peer pressure or self-interest. Given that many of our beliefs may be influenced by factors beyond our own rationality, and given the difficulty we may have in changing our beliefs if they are indeed wrong, we should try to be more flexible in general with how we see the world and how we think about our worldviews. Being skeptical of our own knowledge doesn’t feel as good as telling ourselves that we have it all figured out, but it is probably a better place for us to be. We might not be able to change other people’s views (especially on ideas that are highly visible and salient), but at least we can be more honest with ourselves about the beliefs we have and hopefully more willing to change our beliefs because we never clung to tightly to them in the first place. This in turn may help other people to be more vulnerable in their own beliefs and slightly more open to change.