Self Sufficient

Ever since Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain came out I have been seeing the world, especially the world of politics, through a Hansonian framework. Our big evolutionary drive is to ensure that our genes are passed on to the next generation and for a social species that evolved in groups and communities, that means that we try to obtain ever greater status to ensure that we can pass more of our genes to future generations and then ensure that our progeny are successful, have supportive allies, and can further pass along their genes.

 

This mental framework has made me particularly sensitive to people’s attempts to improve their status in the eyes of others. I am in my late 20’s and I have a lot of friends on social media who seem concerned with telling people that they are self-sufficient. Many of my friends seem to want everyone to know that they have worked hard for the thing that they have, and have not had to rely on hand-outs from either government or from their parents. There seems to be this urge to let everyone know how capable we can be, and I suspect that what my friends are really doing is signaling their skills and abilities and attempting to increase their social status by suggesting that they have good judgment, an industrious nature, and have achieved their level of wealth through their own abilities.

 

Self-sufficiency in this view is all about how valuable one appears. Politically it is expedient to say that everyone should be self-sufficient, that we should all be able to provide for ourselves without relying on the assistance of others. My fear, however, is that self-sufficiency is really just acting on the central themes identified by Hanson and Simler. If we have achieved a certain level of success, we will look even better if we can tell other people that we became successful on our own, without help from others. We will look impressive if we have achieved something difficult that other people can’t seem to do without lots of help and advantages from birth. The typical idea of self-sufficiency, it appears, is really not about being self-sufficient, but about making ourselves look good to boost our social status.

 

Seneca offers us an alternative idea regarding self-sufficiency in Letters from a Stoic. In one of his letters he writes, “The wise man is self-sufficient. This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world, and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps toward mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises fortune.”

 

My social media friends, talking about their own self-sufficiency in purchasing a home, landscaping a yard, or getting through college are not thinking of self-sufficiency in terms of happiness. Nor are they recognizing just what they need from others in order to be able to do something sufficiently on their own. None of my friends are subsistence farmers, cultivating all the food that they consume. None of my friends walked out of a box into the world to discover how to act and succeed in our society – they all had good luck in the form of parents or teachers or friends or mentors to give them advice and serve as models for success. And all of my friends relied on public infrastructure, roads, water systems, telecommunications networks to build their own success. There was a certain amount of hard work, good decision making, and avoiding harmful vices or wasteful uses of resources that undoubtedly contributed to the success of my self-sufficient friends, but every one of them benefited enormously from a huge number of factors that came before them and that they had no part of.

 

As Seneca writes, our happiness and our responses to the world are the only things where we can expect to find true self-sufficiency. For the rest of the world, unless we want to survive by subsistence farming with no help from others, we will never be entirely self-sufficient, at least, not in the way we seem to imply on social media.

Sharing Knowledge

The informational age that we live in today is interesting. We feel (at least I feel) a great urge to share the knowledge we gain from reading, interacting with smart people, and by simply being present in the world. Personally, I have also almost always felt that I was supposed to have some type of an opinion about any given topic. The world, it seemed, always wanted me to say one thing or another and have thoughts about one thing, even if I didn’t know much about it.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca briefly touches on this same point. He often started many of his letters in a build-up to the advice that he was passing along. One of those sections opening one of his letters read, “Nothing will ever please me, no matter how excellent or beneficial, if I must retain the knowledge of it to myself. And if wisdom were given me under the express condition that it must be kept hidden and not uttered, I should refuse it. No good thing is pleasant to possess, without friends to share it.”

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler, in their book The Elephant in the Brain, explain why Seneca felt this way 2,000 years ago and why I feel this way today. They explain that communication is not really about sharing valuable information. If it was, we would only want to share our valuable information if someone else shared their valuable information first. In a sense, our society would be kick-ass at listening, and Ted Talks probably wouldn’t be a thing. What is really happening in our social worlds is that we evolved to show off. We want to show people how much useful information we have, what unique insights our experiences have given us about the world, and what new knowledge we have. Possessing new, unique, and helpful information 50,000 years ago meant that we could help ourselves and others survive. Sharing that information freely showed an abundance of knowledge and resources on our part, and made us a useful ally which helped us thrive in social groups.

 

We probably should not turn against this urge to share useful knowledge. Books, insightful anecdotes, and Ted Talks seem to have worked out pretty good for humans in terms of sharing and passing along useful information. We should recognize, however, that often the desire to share our knowledge is not as altruistic as Seneca might have you think. Our urge is a bit self-serving, so before we post on Facebook about how obviously correct our political views are relative to others, we should recognize the evolutionary forces driving us to have an opinion and encouraging us to blast those ideas out into the world in an attempt to show off. Ultimately, if you are going to share your thoughts, try to spend some time developing them so that they provide real value to the person who may encounter them.

Living With Others

I often think about status and about how we act to try to increase our status. When human beings were evolving and we lived in small tribes of 50 to 250 people, status mattered quite a bit. Higher status people were able to reproduce and pass their genes along, while lower status people were not able to reproduce and pass their genes on. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in their book The Elephant In The Brain, we evolved to be status seeking machines, constantly aware of our status relative to others.

 

Today, this drive for status can be dangerous and drive us to act in ways that are more harmful toward ourselves and others than we often realize. Housing is an example that is coming to mind for me right now. Pressures to show our success lead to desires for houses with big common spaces for entertaining, even if we only host a party once every two years, and many people live with mortgages that max them out to afford the extra (and unnecessary) home space. In a race for status and signaling our wealth and importance, we are often willing to strain our finances to move up the social ladder.

 

What is worse, is that status is relative. For me to have more status among my co-workers or a group of friends, other people must necessarily lose status. Someone with more status than me will undoubtedly feel their status diminish if my status rises and begins to equal their status. The work we accomplish, the success we achieve, and the people we are, can fade away when we focus on status, and many of us we have experienced the desire to destroy another person’s life to either maintain or enhance our status.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh thinks this is a problem in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Hanh discusses the ways that meditation can help us live a more mindful and intentional life, and specifically, he writes about the ways that we can improve our relationship and values. Writing more about actual life and death he says, “We can no longer be deluded by the notion that the destruction of other’s lives is necessary for our own survival.”

 

His advice is something we should apply to our selves when we think about and recognize our drive for ever greater status. At a certain point, we have to recognize how much our actions, thoughts, and decisions are driven by status, and we have to find a way to value ourselves outside of our relative status position. By doing this, we can live at ease with others and it will no longer be necessary to tear someone down for us to rise on the social ladder and feel better about ourselves. It is not necessary for us to ruin another person’s reputation and destroy their social status for us to live a full and meaningful life. Just as we should value the other person’s physical life, we should value the other person, and allow them to pursue status while we focus on providing real value to the world.

More on the Goldfish Question

I am always surprised by how hard it is for myself, and really for anyone, to answer what sounds like one of the simplest questions that we could be presented with: “What do you want?”

 

We go through life with desires, pursuing the things that will make us happy, wake us up in the morning, and fill our stomachs. But when we really think about what we want in life, it can be a real challenge to come up with an answer. In my own life this has been a paralyzing question and the careful interrogation of myself and my life desires can really make me shake and bring about anxiety. I’m guessing that many people feel the same way, so we don’t spend a lot of careful time thinking through what we want, and as a result we don’t actually know.

 

Sure we all know when we want coffee or a doughnut or when we want a new car to one-up the neighbors, but these are just auto-pilot desires that we don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy dealing with. If we did, we might find that we don’t really want all these things to begin with.

 

In coaching situations, Michael Bungay Stanier loves to use this question. In his book The Coaching Habit he calls this question the foundation question and describes it this way:

 

“‘What do you want?’ I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer.
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question ‘But what do you really want?’ will typically stop people in their tracks”

 

At the beginning of the summer of 2018 I was struck by an idea from Robin Hanson, which he detailed in his book co-authored with Kevin Simler titled The Elephant in the Brain. Our conscious mind is something like a press secretary. It is handed a script to explain our actions in a way that looks good to the broader public and creates a virtuous narrative about why we do the things we do. I believe the reason we can’t answer the question about what we want is because it stumps our press secretary. What we really want is to be popular, do work that isn’t that hard but looks and sounds impressive, and we want to stand out to get positive social recognition which brings with it the possibility of dates, more money, and other perks. It is hard for our press secretary to spin that to come up with a virtuous reason for us to want these things.

 

If we spend more time thinking about what we really want and why, we can find reasonable goals and accept that part of why we want the things we want is because we are inherently self-interested. It is OK to desire the fanciest car on the block and it is OK to work hard for positive social recognition. What is not OK, however, is for our desire for these things to be hidden from ourselves and to push toward those things in a way that is ruinous for ourselves and others. By carefully interrogating our desires we can start to think about what we want and whether it is truly reasonable for us to desire these things. Rather than lying to ourselves and saying that we are really passionate about automobile performance, or that we really just like running and fitness, or that the extra space on the home addition is really just going to help our children, we should at least be honest with ourselves in why we want those things. Then, when we are asked the goldfish question, we can understand that we have some self-interests motivating our behavior, but we can also begin to select things that we want that won’t be self-defeating or leave us on a hedonistic treadmill. We can find desires that align with our values and find places where our desires are satisfying to who we want to be and align with well thought out values.

Aware of Advice

Yesterday I wrote about our internal advice monster. That part of us that is waiting for a conversation and a situation where we can jump in and show how smart and interesting we are by providing someone with great advice for fixing their car, lowering their blood sugar, booking a hotel room, or finding new music to listen to. Whatever the situation is, our brains are always monitoring the environment listening for a chance to contribute some sort of helpful advice and insight.  In the post from yesterday I also wrote about the work of Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson who suggest that we evolved to show off our mental tool kit, not because we want to be helpful, but because we want to show off our interesting knowledge and demonstrate the value we provide to our tribe.

 

Michael Bungay Stanier encourages us to build greater awareness of our advice monsters in his book The Coaching Habit. He writes about the importance of listening rather than providing advice and says, “An intriguing (albeit difficult) exercise is to watch yourself and see how quickly you get triggered into wanting to give advice. Give yourself a day (or half a day, or an hour) and see how many times you are ready and willing to provide the answer.” Bungay Stanier’s book helped me see just how often I slip into advice giving mode without actually realizing it. Trying not to jump in and give everyone advice is difficult, and once you begin to look for it you see just how common it is. I had not realized just how often I wanted to give advice, even if the thing I was giving advice about was not something anyone was interested in or was not a central part of the conversation I butted my way into.

 

The key to Bungay Stanier’s advice is the development of self-awareness. Much of our day and many of our habits and routines happen on autopilot. We hardly recognize how frequently we give advice because it is not something around which we have any self awareness. Paul Jun introduced me to the idea of awareness as a flashlight, focusing in on a specific point, or backing out to reveal more things that were previously hidden in the shadows. The more we focus on our advice monster, the more that we recognize how much of our advice giving behavior was hidden to us, always ready to spring to action, but never actually something we recognized. This exercise will help us learn more about ourselves and help us improve our conversations, plus it will also help us develop self-awareness skills that can translate to other areas of our life. Before I began to focus on self-awareness, I was oblivious to how often I do things like mindlessly give advice, and I would have challenged the idea that I give advice out of habit without actually intending to help anyone, but after improving my self-awareness I am more willing to believe that unwarranted advice giving is something I do all the time. The great thing about Bungay Stanier’s advice it that it helps you see the elephant in the brain described by Simler and Hanson, and helps you develop self-awareness skills that can be applied to other areas of life.

Advice Monster

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michale Bungay Stanier suggests that we all have an advice monster living inside us.  The advice monster knows what is best for everyone. It knows how to solve the worlds problems. It is a genius and has no faults. It knows other people so well that it doesn’t need to listen to their problems or thoughts because it already has everything figured out for them ahead of time. In fact, the advice monster knows other people better than other people know themselves and it understands social problems and infrastructure problems and monetary problems better than experts and academics who spend their whole lives and all their time working through and thinking about such problems.

 

The short and more accurate description of the advice monster is this, the advice monster is a jerk. It lives inside us and wants to pop out and shout at every moment. And this idea of the advice monster is backed by science. Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain why humans evolved to have advice monsters living inside of us. Speaking takes energy, and sharing advice and insights from what we learn overtime gives away our hard earned knowledge basically for free. We should have evolved to be stingy speakers and eager listeners, hungry to take in valuable information about where there is good food, about what dangers lie ahead, and about who to follow on Instagram. But instead, we evolved to speak and shout knowledge about for everyone to hear.  When someone else is talking rather than listening we spend all our time thinking about what we should say next, rather than listening for any helpful info they can give us.

 

The evolutionary explanation from Simler and Hanson is that we are simply showing off when we speak and we evolved to do this. We evolved to show off our mental  toolbox. The things we have learned, the observations we have made, the dots we have connected, and the insights we take from what we see and learn are valuable, and we want to display that to the group we belong to so that others will see us as valuable allies. We have an advice monster because we are political social animals, and to survive as part of the tribe we needed to show our value, and what better way to be valuable than to have novel information about building tools, about where food can be found, and to be able to tell stories that help improve group unity.

 

Unfortunately today, the advice monster is ruining lives and destroying relationships. Coaches today cannot simply let their evolved advice monster run the show, or the people they coach will never grow. Bungay Stanier offers a quick haiku to describe the way we should be coaching once we cut out our advice monster:

 

“Tell less and ask more.
Your advice is not as good
As you think it is.”

 

Expanding on the idea of the advice monster, he writes, “We’ve all got a deeply ingrained habit of slipping into the advice-giver/expert/answer-it/solve-it/fix-it mode. That’s no surprise, of course. When you take the premium that your organization places on answers and certainty, then blend in the increased sense of overwhelm and uncertainty and anxiety that many of us feel as our jobs and lives become more complex, and then realize that our brains are wired to have a strong preference for clarity and certainty, it’s no wonder that we like to give advice. Even if it’s the wrong advice–and it often is–giving it feels more comfortable than the ambiguity of asking a question.”

 

Listening doesn’t feel good because it doesn’t engage our evolutionary biology. Nevertheless, it is the way to actually solve other people’s problems. We never truly understand them and their problems as well as we think we do, and certainly not as well as they do. The key is to ask questions and encourage others to find the answers they already know exist. This pushes the advice monster aside and helps us actually be useful for the person we are supposed to be helping.

Answers Versus Questions

I read Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit about a year ago, but I still struggle to adapt his main point into my daily life. What Bungay Stanier recommends is that we ask more questions in conversations, because questions get the other person thinking in a way that develops their thoughts more thoroughly. We like to give advice and tell people the answers we think they need to hear, but our answers often fail to help the other person. Our answers come from our perspective which is limited and does not truly capture and address he issue and concerns of the other person. Questions on the other hand, encourage the other person to think more critically about what they are going through and helps them identify the right answer to the right question.

 

One of the chapters in Bungay Stanier’s book begins with a quote from Nancy Willard, “Answers are closed rooms; and questions are open doors that invite us in.” In coaching, there are two important considerations when thinking about questions versus answers. The first is that an answer doesn’t really get the person we coach to think very deeply about their problem. The second is that an answer may not actually be addressing the right question. Questions on the other hand allow the person being coached to think through the actual challenges they face and steer the conversation in the direction they need it to go. When we provide an answer, we are saying that we fully understand the other person and exactly where they are in relation to their problem, something that is impossible because we can never perfectly know another person’s challenges.

 

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler suggest that human conversation is a way for us to signal and display our knowledge and our mental toolkit. The real value in a conversation should come from the listening side, where we take in lots of new information for almost no real cost. But in reality, we all try to talk as much as possible in conversations (for the most part) and we want what we say to be interesting and important. When this creeps into coaching, then the coaching interaction is shifted where the main goal is not to help the other person but to show off. This is why our own answers are so damaging in coaching. We are assuming we understand exactly what issue the other person faces and pushing our assumption and recommendation onto them even if they did not ask for it. The worst part is that we may be answering the completely wrong question or providing advice that doesn’t actually fit the person or their situation out of a selfish desire to be impressive.

 

Questions allow the individual to expand on their issue and better organize their thoughts. They can address the specific areas where they have challenges, and questions can guide them through the thinking process. It is hard to get used to asking questions more than providing answers, but in the long term, you allow the other person to find the right answer for themselves and their situation, and you allow them to grow and be a more self-aware individual.