Fencing Out the World

This last week Ezra Klein interviewed British journalist John Higgs for his podcast. About midway through the episode they talked about difference between people from the Millennial Generation and those from Generation Z, the following generation that is the first generation to grow up with smart phones. One of the differences they highlighted was in how the two generations think about the individual. Generation X and the Millennials are more likely to hold tightly to ideas of individualism than are Generation Z-ers. Unsurprisingly, given the technology they are growing up with, Generation Z-ers are more likely to see themselves as part of a network and are more sensitive to the connections they have with each other and with the world.

 

This connection and push against individualism is something I found really interesting and that I don’t have a great sense of myself. I am quite independent in general and have a strong individualistic push, but at the same time I try hard to recognize my dependence on others and to be aware of just how much I need the world around me. As much as I often want to set up my own perfect environment for me to operate within, I recognize that my individualistic barriers are continually breached by what is happening beyond myself, and not necessarily in a bad way.

 

This connects with a quote I highlighted in the first book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. As Frodo is on his way out of the Shire, he runs into Gildor, an Elf traveling across the shire to leave the continent. Gildor says to Frodo, “The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.”

 

In a non-direct way this quote can come into alignment with my thoughts about individualism versus our dependence on others and on society. I want to be productive and achieve meaningful things. I often feel that I can shut out everything around me and focus on just those important items on the to-do list, but the reality is that I won’t ever be able to close out the world around me, and in attempting to do so I run the risk of ruining the work I am trying to produce.

 

The world is interconnected and the wildness outside of our neat box is always trying to force itself in. We can try to order our own lives perfectly and design our own spaces for perfection and productivity, but we cannot force out the rest of the world forever. We must learn to live with the world around us and to use the world in a way that will help us make ourselves and our work better. As independent as Millenials feel, they need to grasp the networks that make them who they are the way that Gen Z-ers do. The Gen Z-ers can teach us to think beyond, “is this good for me” to “is this good for the group I belong to” especially as that group is expanded to include people beyond our family, community, city, state, or nation. The protests we see today from our youngest generation highlight what is possible when we think outside of our own selves and desires, and expand our idea of the network we belong to as being a globally connected and integrated network of humans that must come together to change the world for the better.

What’s Happening in Our Brains Behind the Conscious Self?

Toward  the end of the introductory chapter of their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain what they observed with the human mind and what they will be exploring in the coming chapters. They write, “What will emerge from this investigation is a portrait of the human species as strategically self-deceived, not only as individuals but also as a society. Our brains are experts at flirting, negotiation social status, and playing politics, while “we” – the self-conscious parts of the brain – manage to keep our thoughts pure and chaste. “We” don’t always know what our brains are up to, but we often pretend to know, and therein lies the trouble.

 

The last few days I have written about a few instances where we deceive ourselves and hide our true motives from ourselves. We do this so that in our political and social world we can appear to have high-minded motives and reasons for doing the things we do. Simler and Hanson show that this does not just happen on an individual level, but happens at group and society levels as well. We all contribute to the failure to acknowledge what it is that drives our decisions and why we do what we do.

 

This process takes place behind the conscious self that experiences the world. In the past, I have borrowed from Ezra Klein who has used a metaphor on his podcast about a press secretary. The press secretary for a large company doesn’t sit in on every strategic decision meeting, isn’t a part of every meeting to decide what the future of the company will be, and isn’t part of the team that makes decisions about whether the company will donate money, will begin to hire more minorities, or will launch a new product. But the press secretary does have to explain to the general public why the company is making these decisions, and has to do it in a way that makes the company look as high minded as possible. The company is supporting the local 5K for autism because they care about these children in the community. The company has decided to hire more minorities because they know the power of having a diverse workforce and believe in equality. The company was forced to close the factory because of unfair trade practices in other countries. None of these reasons are self-interested, but the final decision made by the company may be more self-interested than altruistic or even necessary.

 

On an individual level, our conscious self is acting like the press secretary I described and this passes along throughout the levels of society. As individuals we say and think one thing while doing another, and so do our political bodies, our family units, our businesses, and the community groups we belong to. There are often hidden motives that we signal to, without expressing directly, that likely account for a large portion of the reason for us to do what we do. This creates awkward situations, especially for those who don’t navigate these unspoken social situations well, and potentially puts us in places where our policy doesn’t align with the things we say we want. We should not hate humans for having these qualities, but we should try to recognize them, especially in our own lives, and control these situations and try to actually live in the way we tell people we live.

Value as Human Being

Ezra Klein has had a few interesting conversations on his podcast recently that hit at the work we do and where we find value in our society today. On my way into work this morning, I was listening to an interview that Klein recorded with David Brooks. At one point Klein and Brooks discussed the shortcomings of our nation’s meritocracy, our system where the people who achieve the most, who become the most capable, and who have the right credentials and education are able to rise to the top. We align ourselves with people who are successful and claim that we are deserving of our success because we have put in the time to get an education and build the right experience to lead to where we are at now. Meritocracy is well aligned with our system of capitalism and ideally works to reveal who is worthy and deserving of praise and who is not.

 

What meritocracy misses, David Brooks argued in his interview, is any sense of moral or spiritual fulfillment. Meritocracy puts us in a position where we only find value in ourselves and others based on our achievements and outcomes. It narrows the scope of what is possible for us and our family. Any decision that does not clearly lead to a better economic position, a better career, and higher status is abandoned. Any friendships that can’t help us climb the social ladder or give us some future benefit are left behind. Praise and love are only given based on whether someone is working, what type of car they purchase, and what bumper sticker is on the back of the car. This works well with capitalism, but it doesn’t seem to work well in a cooperative society that depends on trust and love.

 

The biggest downfall of the system of meritocracy is that at any given time, our level of merit or success is not a permanent fixed quality. Success and status change. Basing our life and value on either will always lead to competition, frustration, and fear. “With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. We cannot put all of our faith in our accomplishments because we will find that we cannot be fulfilled with just our work and with just what we accomplish. If we look at ourselves and others as only being valuable and worthy based on the ideas in our meritocracy, we will look for things to critique all around us and we will fail to build meaningful connections in our lives.

 

Brooks argues that relationships are what give life meaning and make us feel fulfilled. If we can find a way to base our value as a human being on the fact that we are a human being who is capable of connecting with others in a social bond, then we can build more permanence into who we are and what we do. We can be more accepting of our failures and more honest about our success. Rather than defining us directly, our success can be something we share with those around us and something we use to help improve the lives of those around us. Our failures will no longer destroy our value as a person, and we can better accept and learn from our shortcomings, giving us a chance to be vulnerable and accept the support of those around us.

Work and Identity

On a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, Klein interviewed two journalists to talk about the central role that our work now plays in our lives. For many people, work is becoming increasingly important as a way to define oneself and as a way to give life meaning. I have seen reports and experienced in my own life that we have fewer close friends, fewer social groups, and fewer organizations outside of work that we participate with. The work we do ends up taking on more importance and more space in our lives as our lives outside work becomes less fulfilling.

 

One of the big problems we can face in this type of world is with the way we value ourselves. Having a kick-ass job ends up being the determining factor as to whether we are meaningful and valuable, and it can end up putting us in a place where we make bad decisions and can’t enjoy who we are without achieving success in work. Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy wrote about what happens when how we value ourselves as a person is connected to our work, “The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, admitting that we might have messed up.”

 

Our egos want us to have great jobs and be impressive to everyone around us. When this becomes the only thing that gives us meaning and determines our value, we can’t take chances because a failure reflects onto us. Rather than allowing a failure to be an attempt at something new, the result of multiple factors, and driven by an unpredictable economic climate, failure is viewed almost as a moral shortcoming on our part. Our ego can be so fearful of failure that it drives us to bad decisions and drives us away from taking responsibility for our actions when failure occurs. Rather than learning, we deflect, and try to position ourselves as a victim. As a society we will need to move to a place where our work is still important, but where we have fulfilling lives outside of work. Existing under this pressure where we define ourselves by the work we do will take away from the richness of life and shut out people who may not be greatly positioned to contribute economically, but still have value by virtue of being human beings and can connect with us and others in meaningful ways that will help us find fulfillment as a society. We can still work hard, but we should find additional ways to value ourselves and our time.

How a Lack of Dialogue has Built Resentment

I frequently listen to the Ezra Klein Show, and the host, Ezra Klein, has been working through an idea since his show launched in February of 2016. What Klein has recognized, questioned his guests about, and worked to better understand is where white backlash originates in our country and how white perception of race is shaped. Klein argues, and I think correctly, that the conversation around race in some way points to white people as active villains in a way that most white people do not understand. When we call out white people and the racists outcomes of our society, organizations, and our communities, there is a tendency for white people to become defensive and to push back against our observations.

 

This tendency is described well by President Barack Obama in a quote included in Michael Tesler’s book, Obama’s Race: The 2008 Election and the Dream of a Post-Racial America. President Obama made a speech in Philadelphia in March of 2008 and in his speech he said,

 

“Most working and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. … So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves have never committed; when they’re told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time. Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren’t always expressed in polite company, but they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation.”

 

Klein in his podcast has recognized the way in which middle class white American’s, particularly those without a college degree, have faced more challenges in our society compared to others in recent decades. Their job outlooks do not look as good as they once did, and there is a sense that their values, particularly if they are Christian, are becoming less valuable or even a liability in our country. Combine that with the ideas laid out by President Obama in his speech and you end up with a country and society that is sending a message about white people’s responsibility in racial injustices that does not match what seems to be the reality experienced by many white people. Our push engenders a backlash, which only makes our claims seem more vilifying, creating a dangerous cycle. In a recent interview for the podcast, Conversations with Tyler, Malcom Gladwell explained to Tyler Cowen how much he has seen this backlash shape our American history.

 

I find it vital to better understand the historical racial tensions and relations between white and black people in our country, and I want to share a message that pushes back on the white tendency to minimize racial problems or describe them as simply excuses by those who don’t succeed. At the same time, I worry that pushing a message into the faces of those who are themselves slipping back relative to their parent’s social and economic position, or relative to the social and economic position of groups they once found themselves ahead of, will only increase the backlash which prevents us from moving forward. A true dialogue about race relations and about the vulnerability that all American’s experience can help us overcome these challenges, but we need safe settings and conversations that are more deescalatory than inflamatory.

How We Argue – Talking Past Each Other

Senator Cory Booker discusses the state of national debate in politics in his book United and I think accurately describes an unfortunate reality of today’s political discourse. The arguments that we make today often don’t seem to be in alignment. Each side is arguing in a way that does not seem to actually address the point being made by the other side, and does not seem to be operating with the same set of facts, values, or baseline understandings. Booker writes,

“We often end up in national conversations that are akin to arguing about what  the temperature is in a room without looking at the thermostat. What we need is a collective call to the common good based upon indisputable facts and the broader aspirational ideals to which we all ascribe.”

Booker’s point is well intentioned and falls in a recent theme among books that I am currently reading and podcasts that I listen to regarding language, reason, argument, and understanding. Booker is absolutely correct that we are arguing without a baseline and without a common set of facts, but the challenge is that his final point rests on political decision making, and even for an individual, deciding what aspirational ideals should be ascribed to is a struggle.

Author Colin Wright’s new book, Becoming Who We Need to Be, looks at one of the problems with arguments today and how we end up talking past each other. We fail to develop a shared understanding of the world and issue at hand because we use language differently depending on our viewpoints. We apply labels (acronyms, descriptions, names) to elements of an issue or argument, and if those labels are not well defined or shared, we end up at a point where our argument is in some way unintelligible to someone who sees things differently.

I have also recently listened to a couple of podcasts on Julia Galef’s show, Rationally Speaking, where the ideas of self-interest, rationality, and decision making have been challenged and examined from very nuanced perspectives. It turns out that we are not so good at determining what is in our own best interest, and much worse at understanding how other people determine what is in their best interest.

Julia Galef was also interviewed herself on a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show, and in the podcast Ezra and Julia discuss the problems that arise in our arguments. We are not open to the other side, and often shut out ideas that seem to be oppositional to ourselves or come from people we find disagreeable. This means that before we even begin an argument or debate, we are judging how aligned we are with the other person, and determining how much we should agree with them on any issue before we have even begun talking or listening.

I think Booker is correct that we are arguing without understanding what we are arguing about or what the baseline is, but trouble with how we use language, how we determine what is politically best for us or others, and how we rationalize what we and others believe make it politically challenging to ever decide what we should all ascribe to and how we could reach that goal. One solution would be an increased validity in political and knowledge institutions. A greater sense of support and acceptance of reports from academic institutions and politically neutral government agencies can help us be more aligned in our debates and discussions. This would require serious effort and commitment on the part of the agency or academic report to be seen as non-partisan, and it would also require the public to accept reports and findings that did not align with political ideals.

Horizons You Didn’t Know Existed

In his recent interview with Ezra Klein on the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen continually referred back to what he called “the status quo bias” which he defined as the preference to continue and default to do what we are already doing and comfortable with. Making changes in our routines, starting new businesses, introducing public policy, and even our every day thoughts fall into the trap of the status quo bias where we prefer what is familiar over what is new and different. Over the course of the interview, Cowen referred to an idea he suggested is the best possible way to overcome status quo bias, and it aligns with a quote I read from Colin Wright last year:

 

“Travel provides the chance to think, to work, to learn, to experience, to process, to spread one’s wings, to relax, to be pushed up against one’s limitations, to work every muscle in one’s body and mind, to feel uncomfortable and grow accustomed to the feeling. It’s the chance to see horizons you didn’t know existed, and to crest those horizons.”

 

Cowen discussed the importance of travel, at one point saying that he did not know a better way to gain new perspective and to push back against the status quo bias. In Wright’s book Come Back Frayed the same ideas are presented. The title of the book represents the stresses, fractures, and strains of travel, as your normally well woven world is shifted and pulled apart to be viewed from new perspectives.  Wright explains that travel makes you think and consider new possibilities and ways of life, and in his interview with Ezra Klein, Cowen expressed the same ideas. Seeing new cultures lets you see what is common among humanity, but more importantly, what is different and what could be applied in your own life to find new growth.

Unpredictability

Come Back Frayed is Colin Wright’s book about his time in the Philippines and his evaluations of the way that people exist within and between cultures. He focuses on his personal reactions to changing environments and life in an area of the world that sounds amazing, but can actually be quite inhospitable for long stretches of time. Addressing how we react to the places we live and the order in our lives, he writes, “We all have a different level of tolerance for unpredictability and incomprehension. Some of us have a tolerance that is almost a need: we require novelty and a regular dollop of confusion and disorientation to feel complete. We need to have our world set spinning so that we can ever so slowly bring it back to a more regular rotation on a sturdy axis.”

 

The quote above seems to very accurately describe Wright himself, and it resonates strongly with me despite the fact that I am incredibly routine focused. I do not do well when it comes to planning long term for vacations and I feel that I really perform well when I can build a set schedule that incorporates the things I love like, running, reading, writing, and listening to podcasts. But despite my love for routines and the benefits of performance and success that routines bring, I also recognize the human need to get away from what Tyler Cowen calls “the status quo bias”, and wright is an excellent example of how manage such a feat, and why shaking up our worlds can be so important.

 

Wright explains that he also thrives with strong routines, particularly in regards to health and writing practices, but by traveling consistently and exploring the world, Wright has been able to incorporate vastly different perspectives of the world into the frames from which he understands the universe. He has allowed his travel destinations and living places to be directed for him by his fans, and it was actually his fans’ suggestions that sent him to the Philippines. Along the way, Wright has been able to expand his thought processes and tolerance for change while also recognizing how routine actions, such as simple exercise and writing habits, can allow one to stay grounded, disciplined, healthy, and proficient during times of change in wildly different social and cultural environments.

 

My life in Reno, Nevada is not the most exciting of all time, although in a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen argues that boring environments can push one to explore in greater depth the online world (for example blogging), but I enjoy the region and the routines afforded to me. Learning to incorporate Wright’s strategy for travel would help me shake up my world in a way that would give me new perspectives. Wright would argue that changing my routine and challenging the comforts and consistency it offers would push me to grow and discover new parts of myself, creating engaging and exciting experiences to help me feel more connected to myself, society, and perhaps all of humanity. From the interview I listened to I think Cowen would agree that efforts to avoid status quo bias can pay off in the long run and satisfy some part of our humanity that craves change, even if we have a small tolerance for the novelty and uncertainty it brings.