Self-Seeking Versus Unselfishness

“The world is so full of people who are grabbing and self-seeking. So the rare individual who unselfishly tries to serve others has an enormous advantage.”

 

Dale Carnegie wrote that line in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. The line comes right after he describes a day where he encountered two life insurance salesmen. The first mentioned a new life insurance option, but because he didn’t have much information, didn’t press the sale and make much of an effort. The second salesman also didn’t have much information, but showed a lot of enthusiasm, encouraged setting up an additional appointment with someone from the company who knew more, and offered to help handle some of the paperwork to get the sign up process started more quickly. The second salesman got the sale.

 

When I read the quote in isolation I thought about people hording supplies during our current social distancing efforts to limit the spread of the Coronavirus. I thought about how tempting it can be to try to make a quick buck, even if the couple hundred dollars the hoarders might make by selling marked-up toilet paper won’t really make much of a difference in the lives of most of them. I also thought about a conversation from the Ezra Klein Show, where Klein, the host, interviewed Jane McAlevey, a union organizer who discussed the way that employees could instinctive tell if you actually care about them when you show up on the job-site, or if you look down on them and think that they are not as smart and deserving as you think of yourself. To live in a world that doesn’t price gouge during a crisis, and to be effective in working with other people requires an unselfishness that recognizes that you are not better than other people, no matter what your degree, your bank account, or the social status of your job says. Being truly unselfish means that you view everyone as having at least the capacity for having the virtues that you prize in yourself, and being willing to help them express those virtues.

 

There is a difference between the way I thought about unselfishness when reading the quote in isolation versus the way that Carnegie thought while writing the quote in his book. For Carnegie, the idea is that you can use your selfish impulses and personal desires to improve the lives of others, at least if you can step into the other person’s shoes, see what they need, and fulfill that need in a way that is deserving of compensation on your end. It is a capitalistic view of selflessness, and while it is not a terrible thing on its own, it requires the possibility for Pareto efficiency, for the world to be in a state where an action can be taken that would improve the world for both you and everyone else. It requires that our actions have only positive externalities. This is the view the inspired the entire book How Stella Saved the Farm, in which a brave sheep steps us to lead a farm and creates prosperity for everyone working on and depending on the farm through an embrace of good management in a capitalistic system.

 

The other view of selflessness is a much more social form. It doesn’t ask if there is a Pareto efficiency that can be met, but instead asks if our goals and desires are really necessary. It asks if the resources we have can be better used by people who are in need. It is part of a bigger question of whether we can do things that will improve the lives of not just us and the person in front of us, but of the entire society.

 

I don’t think that either view is necessarily wrong, but I do think that both views can easily be overstretched. Thinking of selflessness in purely the context of capitalism, as Carnegie was and as is presented in How Stella Saved the Farm can be good, but it can also create a system where our core societal value is what you contribute and produce in an economic sense. As we are not Homo Economicus, this can put many of us who are not great market thinkers and are not inspired business efficiency and productivity in a tough place where we are viewed as undeserving.

 

The second view sees us as valuable and deserving simply by being human beings, but it does raise question about how we reach economic development. An argument can be made that big business and technological development are crucial for improving living standards and actually improving lives more than just social do-gooding. Indeed, Tyler Cowen has made these arguments, and while I’m not sure he fully considers how damaging many of the negative externalities can be, I think he is broadly correct.

 

In the end, I fall back on what both perspectives have in common, which is captured in another line from Carnegie’s book just a few sentences later than the line that opened this post, “If out of reading this book you get just on thing – an increased tendency to think always in terms of other people’s point of view, and see things from their angle – if you get that one thing out of this book, it may easily prove to be one of the building blocks of your career.” I would switch the final word career to life, but the idea is there. Thinking about the world and others from other people’s perspectives is crucial for avoiding selfishness and for making a positive impact on the world. Whether you chose to do so through business and capitalism, through direct work with those who need it the most, or a combination of both approaches, you must first be able to see beyond your own wants and desires and understand the way that others see the world.

When Are We Happy?

“During any given day people are typically least happy while commuting and most happy while canoodling,” writes Dan Pink in his book When. I currently have a long commute, and I have found that a long drive makes me more irritable, makes me feel more rushed in general, and really does lower the quality of my day. I’m working to make changes so that my commute is reduced, and it has me thinking about how I spend my time in general.

 

I like to be busy and active, but often end up working on things individually. I spend a good amount of time listening to podcasts by myself while doing dishes, cleaning my car, and putting away laundry. These things beat TV, but still don’t bring me a lot of deep value.

 

As Pink’s quote above suggests, we are more happy when doing things with other people. We like to do social things, to interact with friends and family, and to be around others. The time when we are by ourselves – isolated from the world, not engaging in deep ways with other people – is when we are at our lowest. In our daily lives we should consider what we are doing in isolation and what we are doing as a social group, and shift toward the latter.

 

I remember hearing Tyler Cowen on a podcast say that joining a social group that meets once a month is equivalent in terms of happiness production as doubling one’s income. If this is accurate, then we should shift our jobs so that we don’t take careers (or stay in careers) where we are pushed toward isolation (in terms of commute or other factors) and ultimately have our time wasted instead. We should try to find ways to open more time for ourselves, and then we should try to fill that time by participating in social endeavors. If Cowen is correct, starting new clubs and participating in groups will not just increase our happiness, but the happiness of others who can join in.

 

We shouldn’t necessarily just pursue a life of continuous canoodling, but we can pursue a life of real world connections by limiting our isolationism. It is hard, especially if one lives in a sprawling suburb, to maintain good connections, but by being intentional about our time and lifestyle, we can slowly shift ourselves back to a more communal lifestyle. Some of us are lucky enough to decide we don’t want to keep the job that forces us into a miserable commute, and some of us are lucky enough to be able to move to different cities or parts of town where the traffic isn’t so bad. The research from Pink on happiness, and Cowen’s thoughts on social connection suggest that a cut in pay may make us much more happy if it frees our time and allows us to connect with others. Prioritizing social connections over cash might be the best thing for our happiness.

Providing Meaningful Integration Opportunities for Our Youth

In The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes about a decline in people moving in the United States. Rates of people moving across state lines, from one city to another, or even just across town seem to be on the decline. People seem to be less willing to take risks and put themselves in new places. As a result, we have fewer people from diverse backgrounds meeting each other and getting to know each other. For children, this means they are more likely to grow up around other children like themselves, and are not as likely experience different cultures, communities, and families. They are not likely to meet other kids from different racial, socioeconomic status (SES), and cultural backgrounds.

 

Cowen identifies one counterexample to this trend in his book, but notes that it is more of a temporary departure from the trend rather than a clear reversal. Writing about young college educated couples, Cowen describes a movement back toward cities, often living in artistic neighborhoods with interesting homes and fun opportunities to engage with city life. This gives cities new life and creates pockets of diversity, but only until the children of these young couples reach school age.

 

“When they have children and it is time to send the kids to school, they often move to the suburbs, or to a more expensive part of the same city, or to a different city altogether. The integration is a kind of temporary experiment in white lives, to be reversed once the next generation comes along. It is good that so many people are willing to make this temporary experiment but bad that it doesn’t have greater staying power or turn into a means of integrating young children.”

 

I have not spent a lot of time focused on housing policy or urban planning, but I think part of Cowen’s lament can be explained by a failure in both areas. I currently live toward the outskirts of Reno, Nevada, and live in a rather diverse neighborhood. Our home prices are not as out of control as other areas in Reno, and as a result we have a racially diverse set of people in our small out of the way neighborhood. However, it is hard to get to where we live. There are a only few main streets which all get very backed-up with traffic. We also don’t have a good park in our neighborhood, lack good sidewalks, and don’t have a lot of street lights. These factors diminish the attractiveness of the neighborhood and reduce the sense of (or opportunity for) community among the homeowners and renters here.

 

My wife and I are looking to move to part of town that is more accessible and easier for our work commutes. We hope to have a place with nice sidewalks for walking the dog and some open spaces for picnics or more dog activities. We have been looking into parts of town with higher home prices, which will likely result in us living in a more appealing, yet less diverse part of the city.

 

The failure of housing and urban policy is in the way we set up neighborhoods to encourage homogeneity. I understand from a housing developer that it is easier to have 3 or 4 relatively similar track-homes, however this creates a neighborhood where all the residents will have roughly the same income. Lower income individuals who cannot afford one of the houses will be pushed to less desirable neighborhoods and those who can afford to buy into the homogeneity will do so. Repeat this process enough times and you end up with the type of segregation Cowen described in the quote above.

 

I don’t want to approach the issue by saying that we will all benefit by making our neighborhoods more diverse. I don’t want to just accept that this is how things are and that “not-in-my-backyard” (NIMBY) sentiments are too strong for us to make changes. Instead, I want to be able to start a conversation that encourages us to live up to our belief that everyone deserves an equal opportunity.

 

Right now, there are children in my neighborhood who face a long commute if they want to be socially engaged with sports, music, or other extracurricular activities. These kids don’t have great places to go to play outside, and don’t have opportunities to connect with people near them to build connections to help them later in life. As a contrast to their experiences, I grew up in a neighborhood with ample space to play outside and be active, and I had neighbors who had connections that have helped me. If we truly believe in the idea of equality of opportunity, we need to find better ways to integrate young children and reverse the failures of our housing and urban development policies. These children deserve opportunities to maximize their lives and shouldn’t be locked out of opportunity simply because they grow up in parts of a city that don’t offer the same access to resources as children in other parts of the city.

The Whole

The United States is an interesting place. We have become an incredibly wealthy nation and have done things to advance things like technology, living standards, and scientific knowledge in ways that have improved the entire globe. The achievements of the United States have come while we have simultaneously adopted a narrative of individuality and individual success. It is our freedom, our pursuit of capitalism and greatness, and our individual desires to achieve and become great that have pushed our country to what it is today.

 

At least, that is the story we tell ourselves. While this narrative has taken hold, we have also had countless people who have advocated not for just individual freedom and success, but for national unity and for a cohesive vision of our society. Individuals who have been willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for the welfare of others has also been part of our American story, but it is often forgotten or at least not celebrated in the way that ruthless capitalism is (think about all the books written about Steve Jobs). Forgetting the connections between us all, the degree to which some people do everything they can for others, and the importance of becoming one people across the country is not new.

 

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis takes a critical look at the actions of four of our founding fathers to bring about the adoption of our current constitution following the Articles of Confederation. In my last post, I wrote about John Jay, a relatively unknown founding father, and someone who made decisions across his political career to drive forward the national interest rather than a personal or state interest. An example of his nation-first mindset is given in The Quartet surrounding the question of Vermont Statehood. The state of New York at one point included what is now Vermont, and most New Yorkers did not want to allow Vermont to become its own state. Jay, however, recognized that Vermont statehood would be good for the United States as a whole, even if it was not in the immediate interest of New York. “Despite pressure from the New York legislature,” Ellis writes, “he would not budge from his conviction that the whole needed to take precedence over the parts, the first clear expression of his national orientation.”

 

I don’t have a prescription for the perfect balance between individualism and group centered thought, but I think the United States would do well to better recognize our interdependence and to encourage more actions that made personal sacrifices for the good of national unity. There have been studies recently that demonstrate that greater income inequality, particularly between an extremely wealthy few and the masses can lead to political instability, which could be damaging for the country as a whole. At the same time, encouraging individual success and achievement is of crucial importance. As Tyler Cowen describes in his book The Complacent Class, achieving economic growth should be a top priority, as increased GDP will lead to increased living standards and compounding returns on development and advancement. Encouraging wealth building potential can help with GDP growth, but on its own and without recognition of the value of social cohesion, instability can erupt and dismantle economic progress and development. The policy implications and solutions are difficult to think through, but on an individual level I think we can all do more to better respect the whole and discount our own personal interests.

Political Realism

The last presidential election in the United States was undoubtedly an election unconstrained by political reality, feasibility, and truth. Both parties saw candidates from the outside make huge promises and sweeping generalizations during the campaign, with little or no consideration for how things could actually work in our political environment and economic system. President Trump outlandishly called for a wall along our southern border though few felt that it would be practical, possible, or effective, and Senator Sanders passionately announced his desire for a new healthcare system run entirely by the federal government, all the while downplaying the program’s costs, its political unfeasibility, and the fact that he did not have much of the implementation planned out.

 

Political realism operates in a different way than seems to be successful in our extravagant presidential elections. We prize bold energetic ideas and characters when electing a president, and realism is left to the side. To be a political realist, you have to be honest about the current situation, about how the status quo could change, and about what improvements or harms could possible arise. Observing that the status quo is not too bad and that there are may potentially worse situations that society could be facing does not win elections, but being more aware and asking these types of questions does help government improve.

 

Large grandiose plans and visions do not hold up over the long term. It is important for policy planners and decision-makers to think about political feasibility and to think about alternatives so that plans can be chosen that can actually be implemented and to meet the needs of society. We live in a world with limited resources like time and money, so we must think rationally and strategically about what we have. Large sweeping changes and plans are difficult because they must find a new way to rearrange the already limited resources we have.

 

Jonathan Rauch describes political realists in his book Political Realism by writing, “Always, the realists, asks: ‘Compared with what?’ Principles alone mean little until examined in the harsh light of real-world alternatives.” When we elect leaders based entirely on principle and charisma, and not based on an evaluation of alternatives, we end up in a place where good plans are abandoned for fantastic plans that could never truly be put in place, at least not in a good way. When our leaders are constrained to a limited set of principles, their policy options are limited and less imaginative, and as a result, good policy is thrown out. If we can’t meet all our principles in this model (our current model for politics) then we don’t take any action and we don’t improve the status quo in any meaningful way. Political realism isn’t sexy and doesn’t always win elections, but it does help society move forward with policy that can actually be implemented.

 

Today, as I reflect back on this quick post that I originally wrote in May of 2018, I can’t help but think about the power of signaling. At the end of the school semester I read Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain and was captivated by a conversation that Hanson had with Tyler Cowen. Much of what we do in politics is signaling, and describing grandiose plans and visions signals your belief in the future prosperity of the country. Your huge plan is also a signal to voters that they should align with you because you think that what we need is the most scaled up version of what your co-partisans say is necessary. In a sense, politicians are signaling their loyalty and willingness to defend party ideas, even if those ideas are practically impossible. Political realism just can’t bring the same signaling firepower to the conversation, and may ultimately signal a betrayal of the party platform and a betrayal of a core group identity.

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.

Cory Booker on Cynicism

Being Cynical is easy. Being Cynical is also dangerous and damaging. Toward the end of his book United Senator Cory Booker reflects on the cynical state of politics and society today, and what it means for individuals and for the nation to be as cynical as we are today. Booker writes, “cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change.” When we don’t take action to be involved in our city, when our knowledge of politics (or anything else) is only cursory, and when we fall into a habit of not looking beyond our own perspective, we begin to think everyone is like us, and we accept the easy cynical story. Booker, in United, challenges inaction, challenges cynicism, and challenges the idea that only bad people are involved in how government and society operates.

 

I study Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and it has forced me to focus on the realities of government, which is that there are a limited number of resources available for society, and somehow we must decide who gets what, when, and how. Any time you think about the way the world operates and begin to consider the world, the word ‘should’ undoubtedly pops up, indicating that you are making a judgement statement about your beliefs of the world. I don’t use belief in the religious sense of the word, your opinion and worldview could be shaped and reformed by objective empirical data to a large degree, but ‘should’ indicates political preference, ideology, and what you think would work best for an individual or collection of individuals in a situation. The important thing about the word “should” is that there is almost never 100% clear evidence that the suggestion following it is the only answer. When dealing with limited resources we must make political decisions, meaning that we must write down our “should” and our perspectives influence how we decide what is the most important.

 

Cynicism fails to recognize what is happening when the word “should” is introduced into discussion. It assumes there is an easy answer, and assumes that resources are not constrained and that we do not have to make difficult decisions that undoubtably give some people more resources or access to resources than others. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we are looking at a shell of any given situation and seeing what we want to see. We look for the negative and criticize what is in front of us. Being cynical is not about finding the errors and problems in a given situation and looking for a solution. Instead it is about propping ourselves up and placing ourselves on the right side of a moral divide, in much the same way that we use outrage to feel better about ourselves.

 

Booker is critical of cynicism, arguing that it takes our power away from us when we need to take more action on our own. Rather than recognize that we can band together to improve the world, cynicism looks at the status quo and assumes that we cannot make a difference. It is the result of what Tyler Cowen calls the “Complacent Class” that does not want to put in the effort and focus needed to make a change in the world. Cynicism allows “should” statements to exist in isolation within the brain, never challenged by new facts, and never actually introduced to the world. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we accept complacency when the world needs action and initiative. Cynicism is self-perpetuating, and fighting it off is a struggle, but if we want to grow individually, and if we want to see the world improve, we must understand that our world view will always be incomplete, that other people will have different motivations and will make mistakes, and that it is only by our actions that we can change the world for the better, even if our actions will be infinitesimally small in the course of history.

Do We Actually Want Our Goals?

In the book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright is honest about his goals and explains a feeling that I think is not well addressed by most people. Focusing on the times when the direction of our life seems to be able to shift, Wright comments on the difficulties and challenges of pivoting. He encourages us to reflect on our path and destination, and be prepared for moments when our path takes a sudden turn, and we find ourselves moving toward a new destination. At these times, when our course changes, he encourages us to ask why we were on our original path? What set our goals and built our motivation to reach those goals? What are the stories we have been telling ourselves as travel toward our goals? These self reflective practices dive deeper into who we are and what we want than we often allow ourselves to think, and they can help us be more flexible in our journey, and more aligned toward goals that actually help us get to a place where we belong.

 

Wright asks, “If one’s goals are suddenly within reach but one doesn’t take them, what does it say about one’s knowledge of oneself and the truth of those goals?” I interpret this quote in two ways. The first being that we are complacent and our goals are impressive, but not more important than the status quo in our lives. And second, that we strive toward goals that were never in alignment with what we actually wanted. Wright continues in the book to detail what the second interpretation means, and I will explore both briefly.

 

Tyler Cowen, a George Mason professor and author, is relentlessly striving to wake people from what he describes as the complacent class. He believes that people too often favor the status quo, don’t push for change, and don’t have a strong enough drive toward worthwhile goals. My first interpretation of Wright’s quote aligns with Cowen’s views on the complacent class. Sometimes our goals are out there and within reach, but we need to take uncomfortable steps and put ourselves in challenging positions to reach the goals.  We can achieve what we tell ourselves and others that we want, but we make excuses for why we can’t actually achieve our goals or why this moment isn’t the right time for us to take the tough steps toward our goals. When we stop and reflect, we can see how far we truly are from success and begin to ask what we can do to move forward. If we see that we can achieve our goals, but do not put in the effort to reach them, then we must assume that they are not important to us, and that we are more comfortable where we are. This can exist at a base level of an individual who says their goals is to get a job, but instead plays video games, or at the executive level with an individual who states that they want to be a CEO, but never steps forward when an opportunity arises.

 

The other view of Wright’s quote is that we are striving toward goals that other people have set for us, or that we have adopted to try to please others. It could be that the individual in my second example above has felt pressure to be a CEO because her parents always wanted her to succeed and challenge barriers in society, but she may feel perfectly in alignment with her current position and lifestyle. When we put goals in front of us that do not fit who we are and what we truly want, steps toward our goal will actually be a detractor from our overall happiness. When we see the way to reach out goal, and we recognize that we are procrastinating, we should reflect to determine whether our goal is something we actually want and if it is in line with who we are or want to become. If we see that it is, then we should lean into the obstacles that slow us down, but if not, we should redirect ourselves and find goals that better fit who we are as opposed to who others want us to be.

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.