The Price of Friendship

The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson suggests that our self-interest drives a lot more of our behavior than we would like to admit. No matter what we are doing or what we are up to, part of our brain is active in looking at how we can maximize the world in our own interest. It isn’t always pretty, but it is constantly happening and if we are not aware of it or choose not to believe that we are driven by self-interest, we will continually be frustrated by the world and confused by our actions and the actions of others.

 

Friendship is one of the areas where Hanson and Simler find our self-interest acting in a way we would rather not think about. When we learn new things, build up skills, and gain new social connections, we make ourselves a better potential friend for other people. The more friends and allies we have, the more likely we will gain some sort of social assistance that will eventually help us in a self-interested way. This part of us likely originated when we lived in small political tribes with only a handful of potential mates. In order for our ancestors to be selected, they had to show they had something valuable to offer the tribe, and they had to be in high enough regard socially to be an acceptable mate. Simler and Hanson ask what happens if we look at friendships through a zero-sum lens, as our minds tend to do, where we rank everyone we interact with and apply some type of value to each person’s time and friendship. They write,

 

“Everyone, with an eye toward raising their price [Blog Author’s Note: meaning the value of their friendship], strives to make themselves more attractive as a friend or associate–by learning new skills, acquiring more and better tools, and polishing their charms.
Now, our competitions for prestige often produce positive side effects such as art, science, and technological innovation. But the prestige-seeking itself is more nearly a zero-sum game, which helps explain why we sometimes feel pangs of envy at even a close friend’s success.”

 

The author’s suggest that friendship is as much a selfish phenomenon as it can be an altruistic and genuine kind social phenomenon. We constantly try to raise our own status, so that we can count as (at least) allies and equals among people who are well connected, have resources, and can help us find additional allies or potential mates. We always want to be one step ahead in the social hierarchy, and as a result, when someone else’s status rises relative to us, even if we stay at the same level, we feel that our status is less impressive relative to them and we feel a bit jealous. All of this paints a complex picture of our interactions and shows that we can never turn off our own self-interest, even when we are participating in ways that can seem as if they are about more than just ourselves. All the things we do to improve ourselves and world are ultimately a bit self-serving in helping us have some type of future advantage or some type of advantage that helps us pass our genes along.

Recognition is Empty

At some point in human history, we were living in small tribes of maybe 50 to 250 people and we were evolving ever more complex brains because our small political groups put pressure on our ancestors to be socially skilled in order to pass on their genes. In a small social tribe, actions and motivations mattered. There was a pressure to do good and impressive things and to appear to be doing those things for noble rather than vain reasons, but it was also not enough to just do good, you had to be noticed by your tribe. You had to make sure your status improved, that people saw you doing positive and noteworthy things so that you could progress up the social hierarchy of the tribe and be permitted to pass your genes along. The traits that flowed from these evolutionary social group pressures are still with us, but the need to seen doing physically and socially impressive things in order to pass our genes to the next generation (and potentially even just to survive on a daily basis with the help of some friends/allies) is mostly gone. This leaves us in an awkward place where our brains still want to impress people and climb up a social ladder (remember that our ancestors social ladder was only about 50 to 250 people tall) in a world where we can connect with millions of people and where competition for security, shelter, food, and a partner just isn’t as life threateningly dramatic as it was one hundred thousands years ago.

 

Pushing back against some of these natural feeling and evolutionary favored behaviors can actually lead to a more fulfilling and meaningful life. This is at the center of the idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego is the Enemy. Holiday encourages us to avoid acting in the interest of our ego, which is to say he encourages us not to act out of our own self-interest with the intent to be seen and with the intent to deliberately rise up the social hierarchy. We can certainly do that and we will have lots of opportunities in our live to chose that path, but Holiday argues that to live a more fulfilling and complete life today, we should look to do great work as opposed to simply being impressive to other people. Regarding a fulfilling life Holiday writes, “It’s about the doing, not the recognition.”

 

This quote has stayed with me and helped me think about why I do some of the things I do and how I chose to do those things. I could go work out in the gym and make sure I take up as much space as possible and exercise as extravagantly as possible so that everyone sees how physically impressive I am. Or, I could find a spot that doesn’t interfere with other people and doesn’t necessarily put me in the center of attention and I could focus on making sure I really do the exercises that matter to keep me fit, healthy, and injury free. I might get stronger with both strategies, but the first strategy is really about my ego and about being seen, where the second approach is actually about health and physical development. I believe much of life is like this.

 

We can make excuses for doing the flashy things that help us rise through the social ladder and we can lie to ourselves and others about our motives for doing those things (our brains literally evolved in small groups to do this). However, with several billion people on the planet, we hit a point where this strategy is counter productive if we actually want to be fulfilled and content with our lives and actions. We no longer live in the small tribes we evolved for, and we have more options to make an impact for the people in our lives and societies in which we live. We no longer need to set out to make sure we are seen and recognized for doing great work to build allies for survival. We will likely receive all the recognition we need from the people who matter most in our lives if we set out to do good without setting out to build a reputation. Part of us may still want that recognition and be happy when we receive it obliquely (maybe even more happy to receive it this way) which is fine. The point is that we can be more content and fulfilled when we take this oblique path to success and recognition and build habits and work that are about doing and not about being applauded.

Self-Reflection and Seeing Your Place in the World

When we think of ourselves and who we are as people, we can easily fall into a trap where the best parts of who we are standout and shine, while the worst parts of ourselves are hidden in the shadows where we are not able to recognize them. We are rational beings, and we are so good at being rational that we can explain away almost anything. Our bad behaviors are never just our own bad behaviors but they are a result of someone else’s bad behaviors in the first place, and our bad habits really are not habits and they really are not that bad, and our lack of initiative on that thing we tell everyone we are working on is due to how hard we work on everything else and how busy we are. In the end, we paint a picture of ourselves in our mind that makes us really awesome. Our decisions are motivated by all the right reasons and we are on the correct side of any given political debate, parental decision, and freeway driving style.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats grew up constantly questioning and challenging this instinctual way of thinking. In my last post I described his mother’s method of punishment when he got in trouble as a school child. His mother would make him sit down and write about his poor behavior and answer questions about why he was disrespectful, why his behavior was frowned upon by his teachers and by society, and why he thought it was ok for him to do the things that got him in trouble. He explains that all this writing did little to change his actual behavior as a child, but it gave him a unique skillset, the ability to look at the world, ask why it was the way it was and why people acted the way they did, and to then turn inward and ask if he himself acted the way that others did, and why he acted as he did. His mother built a sense of self-awareness in him that shaped his life and the way he understood the world.

 

What Coats found when he became more reflective of himself was a world that was not as innocent as many have believed growing up. Each time he got in trouble he was forced to recognize that he was not the perfect person that he wanted to see in the mirror. He was forced to acknowledge his shortcomings and negative instincts, and he began to make connections from himself and his behaviors to other people. About his reflective writing Coats writes, “Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?”

 

We all act in ways that best serve ourselves, or ways that we think will best serve ourselves and our tribe. We shape the stories we tell about the nature of the universe to align with the lifestyle, the privileges, and the opportunities we have. This is part of our human nature, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. When left unchecked, this part of us does not always lead to perfect outcomes for everyone. Our impulses may lead to tribal decisions that reflect discriminatory biases and our habits may disempower other people. If we cannot build a practice of self-reflection in our own lives, then we end up searching out and defending our decisions with information that is comforting to us, but not connected with the reality of our actions and the reality of the world that other people live within. Coats began to question the world around him because he understood his impulses and his own thoughts and behaviors. He understood why he got in trouble, and began to see that other people were not just the perfect individuals they presented as, but dealt with the same impulses and the same dark side that he dealt with. From this perspective, Coats could ask new questions of himself, his society, and how everyone built a shared understanding of who they were and where they came from.

Building a Purpose

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw,

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Acting toward meaningful purposes is not easy and there is always a fear of the hard work, planning, and other people that will be part of the journey. Only by overcoming these initial fears and getting involved in the world can purpose and meaning be sparked in life.

The quote that Booker shares opens a conversation about a man named Frank Hutchins who was a longtime housing advocate and tenant organizer in New Jersey when Booker met him. In the story Booker explains that he dedicated himself to understanding people and helping them find true meaning in their life. Booker recalls his hero, and though he did not die as a hero surrounded by millions of people, he focused his life on something meaningful and impacted thousands of people though many likely never knew who he was.

By focusing on your wants and desires you miss the opportunity to do something meaningful to help improve the world for other people. You may find great success, live comfortably, and have lots of things, but wealth alone does not provide an answer for the purpose question. Only our actions and connection with the world can answer that question. I am not religious, but my wife is and I frequently go with her to community groups and church services, and even within Christianity purpose is built on the actions and connections we have with a world. Those actions and connections are guided by scripture 2,000 years old, but they are natural human tendencies that surely pre-date the idea of a monotheistic god. Developing relationships with others and working to make the world a better place, putting aside hedonistic tendencies and short term thinking was a focus of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, and was so important that it became part of the Christian bible. It is so important yet often so paradoxical that Booker found the need to explore the idea in his life and book, and in our own lives we are still surprised by the idea.

Reflecting Your Inner Self

Without self-awareness I have found that it is easy to fall into a place where my actions do not hold to the values that I profess to live by. Even with self-awareness, I have found that there are still times where my actions fall short of what I think should be my ideal. Occasionally I know what must be done in a situation, but I desire the opposite, am held back by fear, or I am just too lazy to take action. There are times when virtues truly stand out, and times when they don’t shine through. A quick quote from Cory Booker may help explain what is taking place within me during these times. “The wold you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you.”

My disconnect between my actions and thoughts is an example of my inner self being reflected on the outer world. I think my example branches away from what Booker’s quote truly hits at, but I think it is a useful place to start. Our actions show who we truly are inside, while our words and stories are used to tell ourselves and others what we want to hear. We may have ideals that we strive to live by and we may be able to inspire others with virtuous tales, but it is ultimately our decisions and actions that show who we truly are and what is truly important to us and driving our decisions.

Luckily for us (myself included) we can become more aware of our actions, reactions, thoughts, and habits to begin to change what we do and what it is within us that motivates and drives our behaviors. Focusing inward can show us what operating system has been guiding our lives. We can use reflection to examine our actions and determine whether we have actually been living up to the ideals we believe in. From this point we can begin to create change by first adjusting what is internal, creating an environment for what is external.

My other viewpoint on Booker’s quote, and I think the idea he was driving at more directly in his book United, relates to our perception of the world around us. A simple read of the quote is that if we are insecure in our life, we will see insecurities in the lives of others. If we are kind in our life, we will see kindness throughout the world.

Booker is sharing an idea that we perceive the world as a reflection of our inner character and opinions. We will somehow come to view the world the way we expect it. Our preconceived notions of the world, our biases, our desires, and other beliefs will be projected from inside our head onto the world we see and experience. If we choose to focus not on animosity but on love, we will see not just other people’s actions of love, but we will see where we can step in and be a force of positivity in the world. If we choose instead to be greedy and struggle for power out of hedonistic tendencies, then we will see others as motivated by the same forces, and we will see a word fraught with selfish competition.

Ultimately who we are inside is projected on to the world through our perceptions, and who we are inside is manifested in the world through our actions. Our internal values and goals shape the way we come to understand the world, which in tern shapes the way we act. We reflect our inner self through thoughts and actions.

Lasting Imprints

“What we do or fail to do—to one another, for one another, or with one another—leaves a lasting imprint beyond what we can imagine.” Cory Booker includes this early on in his book United as he reflects on the lessons he learned from family and the connections he sees between all people. We often fall into a world where we think primarily of ourselves and we do not consider those around us. If we do consider those around us, we usually only think about those we are the closest to, our family and close friends, and we do not see how we are connected with those we have never met. Remembering that our lives are deeply connected with everyone, including those who came before us and those who will come after us, helps us remember just how important our actions are.

 

No matter what we do, our actions will always be infinitesimally small in the history and course of the entire world, but we always have an opportunity to improve someone’s day or to help establish a world that we would be proud to live in. Despite the limited impact of our actions on world affairs, the simplest gesture can still be important in the life of another person. What Booker is explaining in his quote, is that we can never predict how our actions will truly impact those around us and those who are connected to us, and we can never predict the value that our tiny action will have on the world. By believing that our tiny actions can be of value in the world and shape the planet in the direction we want, we can begin to approach the world in a more deliberate sense.

 

Booker’s quote is interesting because he directly refers to the impact of what we do not do. Do we fail to stand up for justice? Do we fail to acknowledge the value of another human being? Do we restrain ourselves from lashing out at others when we feel threatened? Thinking about what we do not do, not just the actions we perform, helps us value our decisions even more strongly. Recognizing the times when it is appropriate for us to show restraint and to honor another person builds self control in a respectful manner. Being aware of times when we want to move toward passiveness and inaction helps us confront fear and develop the courage to stand up and act during challenging times that require our effort.

 

Booker’s ideas align with Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way and a quote he shares from Leroy Percy, “A man’s job is to make the world a better place to life in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal…” We cannot predict what impact our actions will have, but we can make sure they are moving people in the right direction and helping us make a difference in the world.

 

What Booker and Holiday truly encourage is to consider our actions more deeply. To think beyond how out actions benefit us right now, and to ask ourselves, what impact do out actions have on the lives of those around us, on the lives of those beyond out community, and on the lives of future generations? When we build this sense of awareness into our actions we can begin to make the world a better place, and we can begin to also recognize the things that have helped us and allowed us to become the people we are today.

Privilege, Opportunity, Character, Honor

United is Senator Cory Booker’s story of his time living in Newark, New Jersey and the start of his venture into politics. The son of IBM business executives who overcame racial obstacles to find success in the business world, Booker grew up keenly aware of the challenges that people face on their journey through life, and he received down to Earth advice and support from his parents. Booker’s parents, despite their wealth and success in the business world, always remembered the struggle and fight of those who came before them to create the opportunities they enjoyed, and they made sure Booker understood the ways in which he had benefitted from the actions and decisions of others.

 

In his book he shares a quick message from his parents, “Privileges and opportunities say nothing of character and honor, they would tell me. Only actions do.” His parents taught him that social position and that a person’s socioeconomic situation at birth are not what define them, but rather actions are what make us who we are and who others understand us to be. For Booker’s parents, character is enacted in our actions, and honor is demonstrated by the way we live.

 

The quote from Booker’s parents reminds me of three quotes that I recently wrote about. In his book, Come Back Frayed, Colin Write states, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.” His idea of actions aligns perfectly with the message from Booker’s parents. Having privilege and opportunity means nothing if our actions are not in alignment with the message we try to present to other people. We may be able to fool ourselves by telling others about our character and about what we want to do, but ultimately, our actions reveal what is truly important for us and demonstrate our true character.

 

On opportunity Ryan Holiday writes, “If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities  that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.” The idea in Holiday’s quote stretch beyond the lesson of Booker’s parents, but still connect through the idea of actions and opportunity. Booker’s parents did not simply accept the status quo in their pursuit of career success and the lifestyle they wanted, but instead they made deliberate decisions to drive toward the future they wanted. The opportunities they experienced were open to many, but they put forth true effort and lived in a way that made the most of the opportunities presented to them.
The final quote that comes to mind from Booker’s parents also comes from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, and is a quote he uses to express the importance of our actions:

 

“The great psychologist Viktor Frankle, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.
    In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.
    Right action—unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative—that is the answer to that question.”

 

What builds our character and our honor, in the eyes of Viktor Frankle is not the outcomes of our lives that we often drive toward, money, nice things, a powerful career, but rather the actions we take to reach those end goals. The opportunities and privileges we are born with are nothing if we cannot make unselfish and creative decisions that we can act on in dedicated and masterful ways. Through action that is beyond ourselves and designed to put others first we can show that our honor and character are priorities in our life, and we can use the opportunities we experience to build something greater than ourselves and the situation we are born into.

Priorities

What is our time worth and what are our priorities with our time? Author Colin Wright encourages us to think about how we are using time and where we are focusing our time in his book, Come Back Frayed. The book is about Wright’s time living in the Philippines, and is very much an exploration of how he strives to live his life, the differences he has experienced across cultures through his travels, and the differences he has experienced in his reactions within various cultures. Wright strives for flexibility and greater freedom in his life, and his awareness helps him to be particularly perceptive of times when we are not in alignment with what we claim is important. In his book he discusses how our actions are what bring our priorities into the real world and he writes, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.”

 

I read Wright’s book a while back, and I had forgotten about this quote. When I look back on it now, I feel that I am forced to look into my own life and actions to determine if I am putting the right things in the right place. Am I choosing to take part in activities that I claim are important to me? Am I spending my time in a way that aligns with what I tell people is the most important? Are there activities that are sapping time from my day without me realizing that they are not aligned with the growth and future I desire?

 

The self reflection encouraged by Wright reminds me of a podcast I recently listened to. Design Matters host Debbie Millman interviewed Tim Ferris for her podcast, and Ferris said, “Any time I take off in a plane, I ask myself, ‘Would I be happy with what I’ve been doing for the last 24 hours?’” By reflecting on his last 24 hours and building in a set time for reflection Ferris is evaluating his life to see if his actions have aligned with what he finds important. Thinking about our last 24 hours and whether or not we are proud of that time is a great way to consider whether or not our priorities are focused where they need to be.

 

Wright’s quote also reminds me of a metaphor I have been using and recently re-evaluating regarding time. On 5/27/15 I first wrote about time and priorities in the sense of packing a suitcase. Julie Sheranosher on an episode of the Beyond the To-Do List podcast shared the idea that we have limited time in our lives, as we have limited space when packing a suitcase, and need to select the most crucial things to pack first. Making sure our priorities are set properly requires reflection on what is important in our lives, and consideration of how we can fit those things in our suitcase of life. We must decide what we bring with us and what we leave out when the suitcase is full. Recently, I have been hoping to update this model by thinking of our time and actions as a certain area illuminated by light. What we can focus on and put into action is in the illuminated area, and what is beyond our focus and attention is left in the shadows. Our focus and our actions reveal what our priorities are, while our self talk and stories to others outline what we think our priorities are. Only through awareness and reflection of our actions and decisions can we evaluate whether our talk and actions are aligned.

Our Actions are the Answer

In writing about our ability to turn obstacles into opportunities for growth and our ability to always strive toward new goals, author Ryan Holiday turns to an Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl for a unique perspective. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday writes,

 

“The great psychologist Viktor Frankle, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.
    In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.
    Right action—unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative—that is the answer to that question.”

 

Holiday is explaining in this quote that each moment of each day, our present decisions and actions, define the life we live. How we respond to the world around us, what we choose to do with our time, and the perspectives we adopt are all part of what creates our purpose and reality. We build our own meaning, and it is established in the actions of our lives.

 

For Holiday, this means that the obstacles we face and how we react to those obstacles is all part of the meaning of life. Will we react positively and overcome our challenges, or will we be defeated and complain about the difficulties we see in our own lives but not in the lives of others? Will we build upon a solid foundation of meaningful action, or narrowly act in our own self-interest for our own desires? Recognizing that our life is not defined by the things we have or the lifestyle we pursue can help us see that we are truly defined by how we interact with the world around us. In each moment we decide how we will act, and we can decide whether those actions will be shaped to fit our own desires, or whether they will help us move toward greater ends. There is no ultimate truth that establishes the ends toward which we strive. It is up to each of us to decide what a truly meaningful existence will entail, and our actions and decisions will reflect the reality of what we find important and meaningful.

More on Perception

Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, looks at the ways we think about and approach the world around us, and offers suggestions and ideas for how we can become more adaptive and better suited for the challenges of life’s journey. A common theme in his book is the power of perception and the importance of being able to step back and expand our perspective. Holiday writes, “It’s our preconceptions that are the problem. They tell us that things should or need to be a certain way, so when they’re not, we naturally assume that we are at a disadvantage or that we’d be wasting our time to pursue an alternate course. When really, it’s all fair game, and every situation is an opportunity for us to act.”

 

Holiday’s quote has two parts for me. The first part is the idea that we are constantly approaching the world with certain perspectives, and as we do so, we have preconceived ideas about how things should be. Our expectations become powerful guides dictating the experiences we expect, and how we interpret those experiences. If we can begin to better recognize our perspective we can hopefully get to a point where these preconceived ideas are no longer hidden from us, but rather are clear for us to see and leave behind. When we can get rid of ideas for how the world should be, how we should feel, and what is the right way for  the world to organize itself around us, we can be more complete and true versions of ourselves. Our emotions cease to drive our behavior and we can remain more level in our emotions as we are not wrought by the failure of the world to reach our expectations.

 

The second part of Holiday’s quote focuses on an idea of taking action and thinking about ourselves relative to others. It is challenging not to think of the world as a constant contest, and it is hard to avoid comparing ourselves with others who come from different backgrounds, have different interests, and have different skills. Constantly expecting a certain outcome because we have confidence in our ability can only lead us to frustrations when the outcomes we want fail to materialize. What is even worse, we may fail to act at all because our preconceived ideas about what will result from our action do not line up with what we would want. The true problem when we dictate our world based on hidden preconceived ideas is that we are giving up our focus on the present for our imagination of what the future provides. Our preconceptions are driven by the past and keep our attention fixed to an uncertain future. Remaining present in the moment grounds us to our current actions and eliminates our preconceived ideas for what we want and expect, allowing us to be the best version of our selves and to put our best effort into what is currently in front of us.