Signaling Work Potential

“In 2001, the Nobel Prize was awarded to economist Michael Spence for a mathematical model of one explanation for these puzzles: signaling. The basic idea is that students go to school not so much to learn useful job skills as to show off their work potential to future employers. In other words, the value of education isn’t just about learning; it’s also about credentialing.”

 

The quote above is from Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain when the authors talk about why we go to school and what purpose education is serving for our society and for us as individuals. Education costs have been rising and we continue to encourage everyone to go to college. Several presidential candidates on the Democratic side have even put forward plans for free tuition. The idea at play as college tuition rises, as we push everyone toward college, and as our candidates outline plans for everyone to be able to afford college is the idea that higher education is all about learning useful and valuable knowledge that will help every individual and our entire society become more productive and better functioning. We want smart people with extensive education to drive our society forward, and college is the way to make that happen.

 

However, if much of our education is about signaling, then what will happen if we push everyone to go to college? Some students will learning useful information, important skills, and will develop in ways that they could not if they hadn’t pursued higher education, but will it benefit all students? If much of our higher education is about attaining credentials to stand out and show off, then won’t we simply diminish the status and credentials of those who do go to college? There are arguments to be made for and against free college tuition and it is important to understand what is happening with each to develop a better argument and discussion around higher education.

 

First, we must admit that sometimes college is just about signaling and getting a piece of paper to check a box on a job application. By acknowledging that piece, we can start to move forward and think about what opportunities we want to help provide to people. It seems to me that everyone should have a chance to move forward and pursue the education benefits we applaud, but it also seems reasonable to say that we should not overly subsidize what is often just signaling behavior.

 

For those who simply want the credential and don’t care much for the knowledge opportunities along the way, perhaps a greater development in training and education specific to a technical trade or craft would be a better option. Perhaps a less costly signal that focuses more on doing than learning is a valid alternative to the standard higher education model. With an alternative avenue in place, perhaps we can appropriately decide what level of subsidy should be provided to those who do want to go the traditional college rout. Perhaps existing colleges can also adjust to make their signals stronger, while also encouraging more learning as a side goal.

 

I’m not sure what a perfect path forward looks like, but I know we won’t move in the right direction if we believe that education is only about learning and growth. Some of us will learn a lot and demonstrate clear growth in college, but many of us will simply lose time as we strive for more credentials and attempt to signal to future employers that we are the kind of person they should hire.

The Argument That College Isn’t About Learning

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make an argument that we create stories and narratives around how our world operates that make us look as good as possible. We have systems and structures in place that provide us with convenient reasons for behaving the way we do. These convenient reasons are socialable, put us in the best possible light, and make us feel good about ourselves. Simler and Hanson argue that below this surface lie our true reasons and our hidden motives for our behaviors.

 

One area they look at is education. Nominally, we tell everyone that we are going to school to learn something, to prepare ourselves for the future, to build new skills, to make new connections, and to gain new experiences. What we don’t say is that we are going to school to check a box, to gain a credential, and to simply look more impressive to other people. Education is supposed to be about learning and information, not about padding a resume and trying to simply gain something in a personal and selfish manner. Their argument about education relies on a lot of research that is also discussed in Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which I have not read but is referenced in The Elephant in the Brain and who I have heard on several podcasts. To suggest that education is about something other than just the learning we are supposed to do, the authors write,

 

“Consider what happens when a teacher cancels a class session because of weather, illness, or travel. Students who are there to learn should be upset; they’re not getting what they paid for! but in fact, students usually celebrate when classes are canceled. Similarly, many students eagerly take Easy A classes, often in subjects where they have little interest or career plans. In both cases, students sacrifice useful learning opportunities for an easier path to a degree. In fact, if we gave students a straight choice between getting an education without a degree, or a degree without an education, most would pick the degree-which seems odd if they’re going to school mainly to learn.”

 

Sometimes we do learn useful things in school. Sometimes we really do gain new perspectives, have new and meaningful experiences, and grow though our coursework. But students don’t seem as focused on the learning in most areas (some technical degrees at the university level might be different) as simply getting through and getting a diploma. Education includes a lot of signaling aspects that are just as important (if not more important) than any learning we might do.

 

Education tells people we are the kind of person who can earn a degree. Good grades tell potential employers that we are the kind of people who can figure out what is demanded of us, and we are the kind of people who will then do what is demanded. Much of what we learn we will forget, and once we get on the job we will be expected to do a lot of training to learn how to do the actual thing we were hired to do based on our education. We learn a bit in school, but we also signal a lot about ourselves in the process.

Curious Conversations

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson investigate human communication and ask why we are so quick to speak, communicate, and share information we have acquired, even if we acquired that information at great personal costs. Humans communicate a lot, and we generally like to be the one talking and expressing something about ourselves and our experiences. The problem however, is that it would make more sense for us to do all the listening, and only talk when absolutely necessary or when we were getting a reward.

 

If I spend a lot of time reading a book and learning something interesting and useful, I should desire a reward for the cost of learning the information I know. Before I write a blog post about interesting information, pontificate at the water cooler, or tell my family something I find fascinating, I should ask to be compensated. Instead, what we usually see, is that we can’t wait to tell people about the interesting thing we have learned. We expend a lot of effort in learning new information, and then we give that information away as quick as we can to anyone.

 

We also don’t do a great job listening. Rather than spending a lot of time absorbing what the other is saying, we prepare ourselves for what we are going to say next, missing the entire thing that is actually being said as we mentally prepare for our turn to talk. From an economic standpoint, this does not make sense.

 

“We aren’t lazy, greedy listeners. Instead we’re both intensely curious and  happy to share the fruits of our curiosity with others.” Write Simler and Hanson, “In order to explain why we speak, then, we have to find some benefit large enough to offset the cost of acquiring information and devaluing it by sharing. If speakers are giving away little informational ‘gifts’ in every conversation, what are they getting in return?”

 

I’ll explore this idea a little more in coming posts, but the authors argue that conversation is not really (at least not solely or even primarily) about conveying information. We do a lot of group and alliance signaling in our conversation. We show how creative and insightful we are. We demonstrate to others that we are willing to go learn new and useful information that can benefit the whole group and we show how altruistic we are by sharing this information which we acquired at a great cost. These are important but often unrecognized or unacknowledged parts of our communication. When we speak and when we share information, we are doing much more than just telling people what is inside our head.

Building Models and Examining the World and Our Thoughts

This morning listening to an episode of Conversations with Tyler, Russ Roberts, the guest on the show said something that really stood out to me, “I used to believe that…my models described the world, as opposed to gave me insight into the world.” We operate in a world where there is no way for us to ever have complete information. There is simply too much data, too much information, to much stuff going on all around us for our brains to perfectly absorb everything in a reasonable and coherent way.

 

You do not notice every blink, you could never possibly understand every chemical’s smell that makes up the complex aroma of your coffee, and you can’t hold every variable for that big business decision in your head at the same time. Instead, our brains filter out information that does not seem relevant and we key in on what appears to be the main factors that influence the world around us. We build models that sometimes seem like they describe the world with spectacular clarity, but are only a product of our brain and the limited space for information that we have. Our models do not reflect reality and they are not reality, but they can give us an insight into reality if we can build them well.

 

No matter what, we are going to operate on these models in our daily lives. We develop a sense of what works, what will bring us happiness, what will create well-being, and how we will find success. We pursue those things that fit in our model, toss those things that don’t fit in the model to the side, and somewhere along the line begin to believe that our model is reality and criticize everyone who has a model that doesn’t seem to jive with ours.

 

A more reasonable stance is to say that we have developed a model that gives us insight into some aspect of reality, but is open for adjustment, improvement, or could be scrapped altogether in favor of a new model if necessary. The only way to do this is to be an active participant in our lives and to work to truly understand ourselves and the world around us. The quote from Roberts on Cowen’s podcast aligns with the quote that I have from Colin Wright today. From Wright’s book Becoming Who We Need To Be I have a quote reading, “It’s not enough to just smell the fragrances that drift our way every day. We have to take the time to pull those aromas apart, to figure out what components go into them, and compare and contrast them with others. We have to be awake and aware, not just alive. We have to be participatory in our own lives, and give our mental capacities a reason to keep operating and expanding, otherwise they will, quite understandably, if we’re using biological logic, begin to shut down to save energy.”

 

Deciphering the aromas is a metaphor for understanding how we are interacting with the world and how the world exists around us. If we retreat to safety and comfort by believing that our models are correct and perfect, then we fail to improve our understanding of the world and our place in it. Our mind atrophies, and the potential we have for making the world a better place is continually diminished. Simply believing something because it benefits us, makes us feel good, and is what people similar to us believe can drive us and the world into an inefficient place where we fail to do the most good for the most people. There is nothing wrong with that world, it is an option, but if we believe that human flourishing is worth striving for and if we believe that we can help improve the living standards for ourselves and the rest of humanity, then we must use and expand our cognitive capacity to better understand the universe to improve the world for ourselves and the rest of humanity. Your model is incomplete and gives you insight into one aspect of reality, but you must remember that it is not a perfect description of how the world should be, and you must work continuously to build a better model with better insight into the world.

Most Trouble is Temporary

One thing I have been working on recently is better seeing and understanding the opportunities around me in my life. Often times when I have made a decision to do something, my choice has felt as though it is final, as if there is no going back. In reality, most of our choices are never really final. We can start over, go back, or try something different as if we had put on an outfit, walked outside, and decided t hat the weather wasn’t going to fit what we had grabbed.

 

This same idea of more opportunities than we realize also applies to how we think about success and failure. Things for me have often felt like an ultimatum, either I succeed at this thing in front of me, or I will never be successful in life. This is my only shot and if I don’t get it right this time, then I will never have another chance in the future. However, most of the time a failure is either a temporary set back or an opportunity for us to change course. Unless we are competing in the Olympics or are at the end of a college sports career, we will have more opportunities to find success. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy, “Only ego thinks embarrassment or failure are more than what they are. History is full of people who suffered abject humiliations yet recovered to have long and impressive careers.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about the ways that our work has become tied with our identity. As part of our identity, a workplace failure takes on new meaning, and almost grows to represent some type of moral failure of us as a human being. However, this pressure is just a story created by our ego. In reality we will have more avenues for success in the future and our failure is only permanent if we allow it to drag us down. We can experience terrible failure and grave mistakes and still take steps forward. We may need to be creative and find new avenues to move forward toward success, but we never need to live with failure in a way that prevents us from ever having goals and dreams in the future. Our Ego prefers to avoid potential failure altogether by never trying or by continually deflecting any criticism to others, so that we never have to accept any blame or reveal any flaw in our own skills and abilities. By failing to accept failure and by failing to move forward from failure, we stop ourselves from learning and probably put ourselves in situations where we make bad decisions and drive ourselves toward the failure we fear.

Maintaining Your Character

“It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.”

 

Ryan Holiday starts one of the chapters in his book Ego is the Enemy with the above quote from Marcus Aurelius. Holiday, in both Ego is the Enemy and his previous book The Obstacle is the Way, outlines principles of stoic philosophy and connects stoicism with the modern day. The only thing we can control, Holiday explains, is how we react to the events of the world around us. We are going to experience a lot of good and bad luck, and it is how we react to the events of our life that determine whether we will be successful.

 

No matter what goes on around us, Holiday argues that we can always think about how we are behaving and reacting and choose to act in the way that will be the most helpful for us. Whatever bad luck, failure, loss, or challenge rolls our way, we can decide how we will react to it and what impact it will have on who we are. We may lose the physical ability to do something, we may lose a spouse or family member, our property could be taken away from us, our career paths may be derailed, or our Facebook post might not get any likes. In each of these situations, we could react as though our life is over and as though there is no possible recovery. If we do, then we will create an almost self-fulfilling prophecy where the negative thoughts and opinions of our minds manifest in our lives. Stoic philosophy would encourage us to look at the loss around us and see that within the misery exists the opportunity to display strength in character and to maintain clear thoughts.

 

Most of us will never be tortured in our lives, but Holiday does give examples in his two books of prisoners of war who used stoic philosophy and maintained their character to stay united and survive the horrors of torture. There are people who are trafficked and exploited, and their pain and trauma is certainly real and help and guidance is certainly something they should seek out, but a touch of self-awareness can help everyone look at their current situation and think about how they can move forward in a positive way. For most of us, we can recognize that we will struggle and will feel as though things could never get worse, but we can also remember that people have faced far worse pain and recovered.

 

Ultimately, we can look at the negative pieces in our lives and the decisions we make each day and try to move in a direction which continually improves our character. The good things and the bad things in our life are only good or bad based on our opinions and decisions. Nothing can ruin our lives unless we decide that it has the power to ruin us. Choosing to maintain our character in any situation always gives us the option of being strong in the face of obstacles and turning those obstacles into learning opportunities for ourselves and the people around us.

Turn Off the Ego and Learn

There is always something we can learn and something we can better understand. No matter how smart we think we are or how smart we feel, we can always adopt new perspectives, work to see things from new points of view, and begin to see the world in a more clear way. Challenging ourselves to see the world beyond the perspective we are accustomed to or beyond the perspective that is comfortable can open up new possibilities and help us understand the people in our lives who we would otherwise find puzzling. We never fully understand everything there is about something, and even if we feel we are a true master in a field, we likely don’t have a full grasp of how exactly our field connects with adjacent fields. Adopting this attitude however, cannot be done if we don’t clear our ego.

 

When we allow our ego to take over and tell us that we are smart and have it all figured out, we cease to learn. The ego wants us to believe that our perspective is the best, that our way of thinking is the only truly valuable way of thinking, that the contradictions in our thoughts are not contradictions at all, but rational decisions that others just don’t see clearly. The ego doesn’t want to be challenged, it doesn’t want the boat to be rocked, and it wants us to be morally and intellectually superior to others.

 

When we abandon this ego drive, we can be more open to the world around us and better learn as we move through an ever changing world. By being more humble about just how much we know and understand about the world, we can become more genuine people who better appreciate those around us. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. He writes, “at ever step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn – and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.”

 

Everyone has both received and given the advice to be a sponge when you start a new career, hobby, athletic routine, or cooking class. We tell young people to learn as much as they can from those who are successful and from those who have been in their shoes. For some reason though, we seem to reach a point where being a sponge for knowledge fades away. Holiday would argue that our ego has a big part to do with why we stop focusing on learning from others and from experiences. We get to a point where we feel that we have become the wise elder, the successful person, the one with all the knowledge, and our job becomes teaching others and not learning. But continual learning is crucial if we want to continually adjust to the world around us, maintain the success we build, or even if we just want to stay engaged in the world and have meaningful relationships with those around us. If we can accept that we always have more to learn or that we always need refreshers on basic lessons from our past, we can better connect with the world and approach people and situations with a better perspective focused on gaining more understanding rather than showing how much we already think we know.

Helping Yourself by Helping Others

In The Ego is the Enemy, author Colin Wright encourages us to get beyond our own selfish thoughts and desires. He encourages us to be aware of our ego and the times that our ego kicks in to run the show and determine what we do. The Ego, Holiday writes, seeks things for our own self-interest, and puts us in situations where it actually becomes harder to achieve what we want or to live the life that we want. Rather than pursuing our ego, Holiday suggests that we work toward or goals by helping others first. He suggest that we practice humility and put in the grunt work, tackling projects that are small and seem unimportant but will help us learn and grow over time.

 

He writes, “Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships. You’d have an enormous bank of favors to call upon down the road.”

 

Helping others in this way truly does help ourselves. It puts our short term self-interests aside as we assist other people and show that we care about them. People want help and are more likely to give you opportunities to grow when what you are doing is serving them rather than serving yourself. To pursue this type of strategy, you have to accept that your work may be kept in the background and that other people may get more credit than you for the work you do or the ideas you produce. Holiday encourages us to be confident that this approach will still lead to long term success even if it feels we are being overlooked in the short run.

 

This strategy aims toward is positive results in the world, your company, or in your family. What matters most is that you are part of a successful team and that the world is made better with your actions. Where we can be confident is that in the long run we will be recognized as the source of the great ideas, or as the person who put in the hard work to keep things moving in a positive direction. But even if we are not, we still benefit in the long run by a rising tide that lifts us with the other people in our company, family, or group. Pursuing success and helping others become the best versions of themselves will ultimately help us more and create more cohesion among the groups we belong to than will our selfish attention seeking ego.

The “Learning vs Ego” Clash

Its is not obvious, but our ego prevents us from learning. Our ego is that piece of our brain that thinks we are amazing. It is what drove Kanye West to hang a giant picture of himself in his house so that it is the first thing you see when you walk in. It is the piece of me that put a 1st place plaque in my office at work. And it is the part of our brain that posts “proud mom” photos on Facebook or sticks student of the month stickers on our bumper. Our ego tells us we are amazing, good at everything, and already know it all.

 

This is where the ego clashes with real learning. When we look back at our high school and early college years we all seem to recognize the same thing, that we thought we knew everything when we were younger. As we age and go through new life experiences, we constantly see that we have a lot to learn. Some of my favorite thinkers have often remarked in books or in podcasts that as they have  gotten older, as they have studied a subject more thoroughly, and as they have paid more attention to the world around them, they realize how little they actually do know. When we push aside our ego and look at ourselves truthfully we can see that we really don’t know that much.

 

Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy. Starting with a quote from Epictetus he writes, “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows,” highlighting the importance of being honest about ones knowledge or lack of knowledge. Holiday continues, “You can’t learn if you think you already know. You will not find the answers if you’re too conceited and self-assured to ask the questions. You cannot get better if you’re convinced you are the best.”

 

Holiday shows that our ego directly interferes with learning and growing. When we are at least slightly humble and can admit that we don’t know everything, we open ourselves up to learning something new about the world. When we admit that we are not the best in the world (or the best we possibly could be) at something, we can begin to see areas where we can improve. Our ego, the piece of us that wants to brag to the world, does not want to admit that there is something we don’t know, that we don’t understand, or that we don’t have everything perfected and we still have areas where we need to get better. The ego makes excuses about all of these things and contorts reality to fit the image that we want to project to the world and see all about us.

 

If we can push past this ego urge and think about the world in a more well-rounded way, we can actually start taking steps to improve ourselves. If we approach the world without a need to validate our ego, we can adopt more perspectives and possibilities that allow us to learn from others and practice things that will allow us to grow in important areas.

Learning From Others vs Being Fearful of Others

Ryan Holiday shares stories from leaders and masters of their craft in his book Ego is the Enemy, and the lessons he shares show us how some people have been able to put their ego aside to become truly great at what they do. One of the people Holiday uses as an example is Kirk Hammett who became the lead guitarist for Metallica when it was still an underground metal group. Hammett had a great opportunity with the band early on, and recognized that there were many areas where he needed to improve if he wanted to help the band truly reach the next level. Despite being successful and in a lead position on an up-and-coming band, Hammett reached out to another man, Joe Satriani, for lessons starting with the most basic fundamentals. The lesson that Holiday shares is a lesson in self-humility. Even when things are going our way and we are in the positions we want to be in, we can still learn a lot from those around us and from those who have also been working in the same or similar areas where we have begun to find success. In order to truly learn from those around us, we have to be open to the idea that other people can teach us something important, and we have to put aside our pride in the accomplishments we have already achieved. We have to accept that we don’t know all there is to know and that someone else (potentially someone who has not had the same level of success as us) can still show us something new.

 

Holiday writes, “We don’t like thinking that someone is better than us. Or that we have a lot left to learn. We want to be done. We want to be ready. We’re busy and overburdened. For this reason, updating your appraisal of your talents in a downward direction is one of the most difficult things to do in life–but it is almost always a component of mastery.”

 

It is always tempting to tell ourselves that we are much more smart, talented, and hard working than everyone else. It is reassuring to say to ourselves that we deserve what we have received (or that we don’t deserve to be passed over for an opportunity) and that we are going to have even more opportunities for greatness and success simply because we are awesome. What is harder to do, and what Holiday shows us is critical to truly be a master at what we do, is to seek out other leaders and other skillful individuals to learn from them. Looking around and seeing that other people are just as skilled, smart, and competent as us often feels threatening, as if they will be recognized for their greatness and we will be left behind, discarded as a fraud. Its tempting to ignore others, or to tell ourselves stories about why we somehow are more deserving or just better than the rest.

 

True greatness, however, looks at our competitors, colleagues, and other people in our space with respect. From this vantage point, there is something we can learn from others as we press forward. If we step back and take a more objective view of ourselves relative to the world, we can see that we are not always as amazing as we would like to be, and that is OK. We can reach out and learn lessons from those who we may otherwise denigrate and we can begin to prepare ourselves for our next opportunity rather than over-inflate our pride only to be terrified when the next challenge rolls around.