In my life I want to remain open to the world around me, try new things, and stretch myself in areas where I recognize I don’t have much experience. In order to successfully live an open and exploratory life, I will have to accept that I am not as great as my ego wants me to believe I am, and I will have to accept that I don’t already know everything I need to know about how to live a good life. If I begin approaching the world as though I already have it figured out and as if my way of life is superior to the way that other people live, then instead of branching out, I will likely turn inward, away from a changing world.
“No group ever decided to pull inward and cut off contact with the outside world because they believed their own group was inferior,” Colin Wright wrote in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. It is hard to avoid judging other people, and even easier to judge other groups rather than just other individuals. “Moral superiority is probably some degree of confidence in their social group and their support of their social group. That is, people are especially willing to express moral superiority when they’re expressing the superiority, not of themselves individually, but of the group of people they’re within together,” Robin Hanson stated in an interview with Tyler Cowen for his podcast Conversations with Tyler.
Allowing ourselves to see ourselves and our groups as morally superior to others limits our world and puts us in a place where we are less likely to connect with people who are not like us. I see this a lot with the relationships between runners and people who do cross-fit. It seems almost universal that runners criticize cross-fit athletes. I have thought about this a lot, and I think that what is happening is that runners are trying to express their (moral) athletic superiority over cross-fit athletes as a way to justify why they don’t do cross-fit themselves. To acknowledge that cross-fit is a good workout and accept that a cross-fit athlete is just as athletic, talented, hard-working, or smart as a runner places the runner in a position where they have to defend their sport and their choice to do running when a potentially more well-rounded and fun type of exercise exists.
The runners versus cross-fit example is just a small example of how our in-group versus out-group thinking manifests in real life. This type of thinking, of believing that we and our group are superior to other groups can have serious consequences. It can lead to our group becoming more close-minded. It can lead to us individually being less open to people who live differently. It can lead to enclaves and divisions within society that see conflict and threat instead of opportunity and learning. By becoming aware of these feelings of superiority, recognizing how frequently these feelings lack any solid rational basis, and by trying something new, we can prevent ourselves and our groups from becoming isolated. This will give us a chance to learn new things, gain insightful experiences, and it will help us provide more value to the world.
In America we are obsessed with being more democratic than any other nation. As the world’s oldest democracy, we have made changes to open government ever further and to be more democratic so as to show the world how great we are based on ever expanding participation and openness in government. We love our democracy, and we constantly fight to make our democracy more representative, less driven by special interests and big money, and more accessible by the average citizen. These are all excellent goals for our country, but they contribute to what Richard Pildes has called Romanticizing Democracy.
In his book Political Realism, Jonathan Rauch reviews the ideas of romanticizing democracy and thinks about political participation from a realistic and pragmatic point of view. What Rauch finds and what is important to remember is that more participation in government and more direct democracy does not necessarily translate into better outcomes. He writes, “The general assumption that politics will be more satisfying and government will work better if more people participate more directly is poorly supported and probably wrong.”
Rauch is not arguing that fewer people should vote in elections or be knowledgeable about issues, programs, and what is taking place in government, but that our country does not need to continually reshape systems and institutions to be ever more democratic simply because they could be more open. When we push government to rely on more direct democracy, our systems require more input from a citizenry that is poorly informed of any given issue. Continually opening government or forcing government to rely on input from public constituents makes it more likely that issues will become polarized, leading to charged discussions driven by shadow actors. Rauch writes, “Where direct engagement with politics is concerned, the polarized and financially interested have an inherent advantage.”
Not everything in our system should be operated by and determined by the opinions of experts, technocrats, and academics, but at the same time not everything needs to be decided by direct referendum from the public. Some features of government should be opened to the public, but other aspects are poorly understood by the public and do not need to be spaces that rely on public input. On his podcast The Ezra Klein Show and on his media company’s show The Weeds, Ezra Klein has often remarked that congress (which we have made more democratic and transparent) has dismally low approval ratings while the Supreme Court (which is less democratic and less transparent than almost any other part of government) has very high approval ratings. More transparency and direct participation does not always mean better outcomes and a more satisfying democracy.
In his book Considerations, Colin Wright discusses the importance of opening up to others when pursuing your ideas, goals, and aspirations. He argues that it is more important to share your thoughts and plans with others (especially ideas for new creative ventures) rather than locking them in. In the book he writes about adopting a mindset of abundance, and looking at ideas as just one of many potential opportunities in a life time. This helps us see that we can put our idea out into the world without fear of failure because future opportunities will follow.
Wright writes, “This concept of abundance doesn’t just apply to ideas. With any kind of creative work, if you hold back and hoard your projects, not only will you be denying others a glimpse of what you have to offer, you’ll be denying yourself the potentially direction-changing feedback they might provide.” In this quote Wright hits on the importance of sharing our creative ideas to add more value to the world and put ourselves in places where we can be fulfilled by our work. His quote also shows ways in which others can assist with our creative work by engaging and shaping the direction we take to reach our goals.
When you are afraid to approach others about your idea because you fear that they will steal what you have already worked on you build a negative mental image of the world. Afraid that others will hurt instead of help you, your idea becomes limited and boxed in due to selfish constraints. When your creative venture focuses on adding more value to the world, then you are open to others stepping in and providing advice and assistance. The success of the idea becomes more important than your own success, and you focus on improving something for others as opposed to improving your bank account. Those who are in positions to help you will recognize this positive tilt on your part, and be more willing to help you provide value to the world. When you view others in a negative light and hide your ideas from them out of fear, your selfishness will be noticed, and your idea will not have the same support or traction.
A few short pages into his book Considerations, author Colin Wright explains the book with the following, “This is not a how-to instructive tome, and you won’t find solutions to all of life’s problems in its pages, but you may find some tools worth using, which you can apply to your own life, your own questions, your own problems, your own perspectives.” As soon as I read this quote I knew that I had picked up the right book. Recently I have been working hard to understand other people, their ideas, beliefs, and views of the world, and what I have found is that adopting any single belief about the world and sticking to it is dangerous. Whether that belief is political, ethical, behavioral, or something else, it is dangerous to think that you are correct and that others are wrong, especially if you try to press that idea on to others.
What I have also begun to see is that there are many more gray areas in life than we want to live with. In certain areas we want the explanations and truths to be simple, but in a world of multiple perspectives, backgrounds, and social choices it is difficult to pinpoint the best answer to anything. What Wright explains in his quote above is that he does not have answers for us, but that he can help us reach better places of understanding. By considering new ideas and being open to change, we can better behave and grow in a way that answers the biggest questions we have. When I read the quote above I left myself a note, “don’t search for answers, but search for important tools.” Wright’s idea made me think of the value in living a full life and pursuing a full life through growth. By looking to expand my toolbox for understanding life, I will reach a more satisfying place. By looking for answers and truth, I will only feel more discouraged by the vast gray area and the lack of concrete solutions.
Two key aspects of Colin Wright’s writing and philosophy are personal flexibility in our growth and seeking out multiple perspectives for how one interprets any aspect of life. Wright has an incredible ability to see more than what is in front of him, and to adopt the perspectives of others. He tries to live a very flexible and free life by determining his own path and searching for meaning and reason in his own way. Many of his decisions center around the idea of how much freedom, time, and options his choices provide him. In his book Act Accordingly the author ties this idea in with philosophy, “All else being equal, a job that would give you greater flexibility in terms of promotion would be better than the alternative, and the same goes for a philosophy. A set of beliefs and personal rules that allow for a great deal of evolution and growth are superior to ones that do not.”
What I love about this quote is that Wright breaks down his definition of philosophy for us in a simple and clear way. According to Wright, a philosophy is not something contained in a dusty book on a shelf, and philosophy is not limited to politics or religion. Instead, a philosophy is a set of ideas, rules, guidelines, beliefs, and emotions related to any area of life. We can have personal philosophies about driving, keeping our house clean, developing a work ethic, or even a philosophy about cat videos. What is being advocated for in Act Accordingly is the development of personal philosophies that accept multiple perspectives. Wright spends much of his time reading, and he has come to understand that as we read we learn and see things from new perspectives. For him, it is crazy to develop personal philosophies in any area that limit our possibilities and ability to change. As we grow and learn throughout life our ideas and positions will shift, and it is important that we have a personal philosophy that will allow those belief systems to change with us.
The author is also advocating that we search out as many new perspectives as possible. In our work lives we will constantly be looking for new opportunities, promotions, and ways to expand what we do, but we don’t always think to do this with our personal philosophies. It is difficult to encounter ideas and perspectives that seem to run against the philosophies that we have developed, but if we never explore the perspectives and ideas of others we never grow. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is studying at a private christian university. He and I have very different religious views, but we both value that we can have discussions regarding our views that present our ideas and backgrounds without becoming argumentative and explosive. At one point during his discussion he said to me that he was disappointed that many of his classmates never explored ideas of people from other religious backgrounds or those who lived without a religious belief system. In his mind, by not exploring difficult and often scary ideas that do not align with those that we already have, we miss out on a chance to understand our ideas better. This is at the heart of Colin Wright’s philosophy, and it is only by pushing ourselves to expand our thoughts and perspectives that we grow and better understand others.
Dave Birss writes in his book, A Users Guide to the Creative Mind, about being creative, finding new solutions, and combining ideas and perspectives to create something new. On solving problems he writes, “The best way to find the right solution is to make sure you’re asking the right question.” I am a huge fan of this quote because it shows how important varying perspectives can be, especially when combined with persistence, a desire to improve, and flexibility. Too often in our daily lives, be it business, our personal lives, and even national politics, we settle into a single perspective and we begin to approach problems from one side with everyone asking the same question.
If we follow Birss’ advice, then we begin to reach out to find solutions to our problems from new perspectives. In my mind it is as if we take a problem, and leave a two demential space where we are looking at the problem as if it were a wall in front of us, and enter a three demential space and look at the problem as if it were a sphere where we could change our angle and vantage point at will. When we begin to look at problems from new perspectives we find that we have different questions about our original problem. In fact we may see that our problem is actually a goal, an opportunity, or just a thought that others have not acted upon.
Asking the right questions is an exercise in persistence because you have to reach beyond the first thoughts and questions that you develop. You must begin to think of things in new ways, ask others for their thoughts and advice, and not be afraid to voice opinions that may be different. Our openness to new ideas will help us change our perspective, and our new perspective will help us ask new questions regarding our problem. When we take this approach to push forwards and constantly grow, we will build new bridges and make new connections with a more well rounded and flexible mind.