We Should Give Our Desire for Normalcy and Incrementalism More Attention

I think the idea of political stability is generally underrated and under-explored in the context of current American political discussions. We are in the midst of deep demographic changes in our country, we seem to be at a real inflection point in jobs and automation, and inaction on several major policies have driven support for massive upheavals in some aspects of American public policy. Boring incrementalism seems to be very out of favor within both Republican and Democratic sides of the political divide, and the likelihood of clicking a news article with a headline applauding an incremental approach to a policy solution or a marginal change in anything is laughable.

 

But incrementalism is probably what most Americans would actually prefer. Many of us would just like a stable equilibrium, rather than a wholesale confusing and controversial change. The candidacy and relatively strong polling from Joe Biden seems to support the idea that a lot of people, despite news coverage of big events and potential systematic changes, really just want normalcy. The idea that stability itself could be a good thing and a desired political outcome feels undervalued to me.

 

This idea of incrementalism and normalcy isn’t 100% related to the quote that got my mind working in this direction this morning, but I think I can tie things together. In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen writes that the idea that increasing economic growth and equity will reduce social tensions is wrong. He writes,

 

“The 1950s and 1960s are considered a golden age for middle-class income growth in the United States. The same is true for black income growth, as the decades leading up to the 1960’s saw the greatest gains in African American income in the history of the republic. Yet many of the 1960s riots were motivated by race, and many African Americans were prominent participants. In short, income gains are no guarantee of peace.”

 

In the 1950s and 60s, inequality sparked outrage and action by those who were excluded and those who felt a visceral sense of injustice. Rising wages gave people the belief that they could strive for more and reach a better future. People didn’t simply enjoy a rising tide, but used a surge in income to demand that the tide rise equitably for all.

 

Today, in contrast, we have flattening wages and a sense of complacency around most things for most people. I think the majority of American’s would say they are not happy with the status quo, but most are simultaneously too complacent to take action. Some small-ish groups are extremely upset and outraged over the current political and economic dynamics of our country, but their voice is likely overplayed relative to their size and influence. While some energy is swelling for massive changes, as can be seen by the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, an equal mass is pushing for boring incrementalism and stability.

 

Cowen continues, “In the 1960s, Americans expected more, they didn’t quite get what they had set their eyes on, and so they became more restless.”  In a sense, we have just accepted that we won’t get what we have our eyes set on. Five years ago it was common to hear people lament, “we were promised flying cars, and what we got was 140 characters,” in reference to Twitter being our best innovation as of late when we all wanted flying cars. In 2020, we seem to have just given up, and we are waiting for our electric cars, which won’t really have any cataclysmic shifts in our auto industry. Perhaps it is stagnant wages, perhaps it is something else, but I think that Cowen is correct in stating that we have lost our restless spirit. I think the desire for normalcy and incrementalism should be more explored and receive more focus than it does in our current media environment.
Ego is the Enemy

Accomplishing What We Seek

The key to learning, growing, and becoming successful is iterative action. We will never achieve our dreams by going out and taking one massive step to reach our goals instantaneously. Success, and the pathway to success, is defined by the everyday actions we take that build into habits and bend our path toward the outcomes we want. This advice comes from Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy.

 

Our ego, Holiday explains, wants us to be successful right now and wants us to swiftly achieve success so that we can brag and show off to others. We want to demonstrate how easy it is for us to be great and we want other to see that we didn’t even break a sweat in the process. Maybe, like a typical movie, we want to put in a short hard work stretch with some inspirational music attached, but we only want that hard work phase to last for a minute or two and include awesome power-shots of us doing those rope swinging arm exercises at the gym while our favorite high tempo song blasts in the background. This is what our ego sees and imagines for our path to success.

 

Reaching for success without ego looks differently. It involves self-awareness and a commitment to the daily grind, even when those around us can’t see how hard we are working. Holiday describes it this way early in his book, “We will learn that though we think big we must act and live small in order to accomplish what wee seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but iterative — one foot in front of the other, learning and  growing and putting in the time.”

 

We can still have great visions, but we must understand that great accomplishments and success do not come in the form of a lottery. Our goals won’t be achieved in a single windfall. Instead, we reach our goals slowly by preparing ourselves to be the type of people who can become successful through hard work, focus, good habits, and meaningful actions. The grind and the daily small steps can be exhausting, unrewarding individually, and so small that no one recognizes them, but they build a life of purpose and give us something to look back on at the end of the day and feel proud of. Through all these steps and the changes they make to our lives and who we are, we will reach success and feel fulfilled with what we achieve.

The Tech Empowered Ego

Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego Is the Enemy, is a critique and critical evaluation of the way our ego can dominate our lives and create challenges for us that are hard to overcome. In his book, Holiday addresses the ways in which social media technologies fuel our egos and drive self-congratulatory behaviors. The ability to communicate our egos to a wide audience has never been easier, and if we are not aware of it, we can easily begin blasting our ego across the internet and across technology in plain view for anyone who wants to see (and for those who do not want to see).

 

What technology and ego blasting leads to is captured in the following quote from Holiday, “…we’re told to believe in our uniqueness above all else. We’re told to think big, live big, to be memorable and “dare greatly.” we think that success requires a bold vision or some sweeping plan–after all that’s what the founders of this company or that championship team supposedly had. (but did  they? Did they really?) We see risk taking swagger and successful people in the media, and eager for our own successes, try to reverse engineer the right attitude, the right pose.”

 

Our technology doesn’t share everyone’s ego equally. It is used to share the most lavish and extreme egos, or the worlds of those who claim to be the most successful. In a race to increase our status, we share more and more on social media and make ever greater efforts to distinguish ourselves from others by having the biggest goals, being the most unique and creative, and taking the biggest leaps and most daring risks. The problem is that for many of us, this is the wrong approach, and instead incremental growth is what we should focus on. For many of us, success is not as easy to come by as it looks on social media. We are all starting at different places and we all have positive and negative moments in each and every day. The ego blast of social media doesn’t show the advantages that another person had from birth, the challenges that another person has faced to get where they are, and social media hides the incremental changes and steps that lead to the big moments that we all want to share. Furthermore, sharing those big moments and receiving thumbs-up from all our peers tells us that this type of ego inflation is what we should be doing, and it fuels a part of us that wants to live and act for other people, and not for ourselves. This takes away from the value of the present moment and puts more pressure on us to live for others and try to be a virtual person that lives up to an impossible ego.

A Rational Relationship

Some Thoughts About Relationships is an exploration of how we live, behave, and interact with others. Author Colin Wright looks at what it means to build friendships and relationships with people in the modern age, and offers timeless advice and perspectives on connecting. He kicks off his book by bringing the idea of rationality into relationships, something most people probably argue is not possible. He writes,

 

“Being rational in relationships means that you acknowledge cause and effect, the possibility of iterative improvement, and the potential to pull apart and assess problems to find solutions.”

 

Not many of us in our marriages, friendships, business partnerships, or other relationships truly take the time to think about our relationships in a rational manner. It is hard to reflect on a relationship in general, and finding the time and ability to sit down with another person to evaluate a relationship and seek growth seems like a rarity. Wright’s suggestion is to build self-awareness into the relationship and to be able to stand back and look at reactions and decisions within the relationship to try to find better ways to move forward. This process involves self-reflection and awareness from both members of a relationship, and a willingness to accept emotions but not let emotions be the main driver of a relationship.
Another idea presented by Wright in the quote above that I think is rare in today’s world of relationships is a focus on iterative improvements. I recently took a course at the University of Nevada, Reno focused on government budgeting, and one of the key concepts in the class was the incremental nature of the government budget. Incrementalism was first described as a theory to explain growth and progress within government policy by Charles Lindblom in a journal article The Science of Muddling Through, and its role in budgeting was described in detail by Aaron Wildavsky in his book Politics of the Budgetary Process. What Lindblom and Wildavsky argued in their reviews of government, is that improvement is possible in small steps, and that growth is possible when we think about where we have been, what is available to us, and where we want to go in the future. This is understandable for budgeting, but probably not something we do in our relationships. Wright seems to suggest that we should think more deeply about our relationships and where we think we need to grow in our relationships to allow ourselves to take small steps toward improvement and growth. Wild jumps and changes in our relationships in this manner will likely seem improbable if we are looking to actually improve our relationships, just as wild changes and adjustments in government budgeting are too confusing and risky to be implemented. Rationally reflecting on our relationships can help us find avenues for growth and iteration to help us determine where to focus our time and energy with that other person.