Everything Matches

Tyler Cowen is worried about our matching technology. We have algorithms which tell us what TV shows to watch, which books to read, what wine to drink, and what shoes to wear. We can be matched with romantic partners and music, and very often our matching gives us exactly what we wanted and were hoping for. But, in the eyes of Cowen, all this matching has a dark side. It can make us complacent and can lead to greater segregation between people with different backgrounds, experiences, and interests.

 

In his book The Complacent Class Cowen writes, “Better matching for all its pleasures and virtues, is also in some regards uncomfortably close to the concept of more segregation … Very often we match to what we already like, or what is already like us. Matching brings many new and varied delights into our lives, but in a lot of spheres, the like-to-like effects of matching outweigh the ability of matching to shake us up. That is partly why matching can make us so happy.”

 

We like matching. We like knowing that other people like us already like the restaurant we are going to, or the show that is on tv, or the song that is about to play. We like when things are similar to what we already know. It reduces our cognitive burden and eliminates the stress of picking something and spending money on something we ultimately do not like. We are all risk averse to losing money, and hate the feeling of sunk costs. Matching makes us happy by making decisions more simple and helping us avoid the feeling of loss. It reduces our worries and in many instances, such as auto-playing shows online, we don’t even have to make a decision at all.

 

At the same time, matching technology reduces the chances for us to find something new. Up-and-coming artists with a new take on an old style can have trouble breaking through if the algorithms don’t match them with our tastes. We might miss out on great new content because our matching technology put us in a certain silo. When we reduce opportunities for new experiences, we stagnate, leading to the complacency that Cowen feared as we lose a belief that we could be something better than what we are and currently have.

 

A further downside to the matching technology we use is the potential for extreme segregation. If we really like one sport, then we can be pushed ever further into the specifics of that sport. Our algorithms can provide more and more specific content, advertisements, and connections to that single sport, eliminating things unrelated to the sport from our orbit. As we get further along, we might find that all the people we interact with are also obsessed with our particular team from one particular sport, and we will lose some ability to be with people who are not also living in the same bubble.

 

The sports example is a relatively harmless side of segregation, but it can be worse. Racial, political, and religious segregation are also possible with our matching technology. As we burrow down in our own communities, in real life or online, we may alienate those who do not look, think, and hold the same preferences that we do, leading to situations where we cannot have meaningful interactions with diverse people. This type of segregation is not healthy in a democracy because it makes shared visions and understandings of society and culture impossible across different isolated bubbles.

 

Our matching might make us happy and reduce our cognitive load, but it certainly comes with dangerous downsides. We can embrace the matching technology we have, but we should also be aware of what can happen if we let it make too many decisions in our lives. We should also find ways, times, and spaces where we can get beyond the matching to try something new and experience something beyond our typical bubble.

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.

Thinking About Meaning

A challenge for me over the last few months is thinking about building a meaningful life and a career within that life. I am at a stage in life where it feels that a lot of doors are open for me in terms of a career trajectory, and choosing one direction is scary because I don’t want to close out better opportunities than where I decide to point myself, and I don’t know exactly which direction is indeed going to feel the most meaningful and fulfilling.

 

I have come to understand that in many ways what we choose as our ultimate goal is less important than the effort we put into achieving that goal. Colin Wright puts it this way in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be, “The journey itself is meaningful. The goal is important, but the act of working toward it, even when painful or disheartening, is meaningful by association.” I want to have a solid and inspirational goal to work toward, but I also recognize that the effort toward the goal will teach me unexpected lessons, will create new avenues for opportunity, and can be what helps my life be fulfilling.

 

As I move forward, I am trying hard to identify problems that I have a skill set that I can apply to those problems. My hope is that I will identify a goal where my abilities can help contribute something positive to mitigate a serious problem to at least a marginal extent. With a solid trajectory, I believe I can find satisfaction by continuously  engaging in habits and processes that help me work toward that goal. I am frustrated that I cannot see my path forward as clearly as I can see where I have come from, but I am confident that meaningful action will open the right doors for me.

 

I think that my thoughts on fulfillment are something that should be shared more broadly in society. We seem to find meaning in things that don’t really exist and we don’t really seem to know what we mean when we say we want to have meaning in our lives. Finding meaning in a spiritual sense is not something that resonates with me, and is not something we should expect to resonate with everyone on the planet. Finding meaning in material goods is problematic for a whole host of reasons, and ultimately seems to leave a void in our lives. Identifying goals that in one way or another make the world a better place and trying to work daily to improve the world by pursuing our goal appears to be a robust way of at the very least creating fulfillment in our lives. Finding absolute meaning in our goal may still be difficult or impossible, but hopefully the actions that take us toward that goal will make us feel valuable and useful, and hopefully that will create a sense of fulfillment.

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.

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.

In Your 20s

I am currently 25 years-old and I have been working to find a solid path forward in my life. I feel that I have a lot of opportunity, but that I am being asked  to choose a path that somehow limits the direction I can travel. In his book, United, Senator Cory Booker sums up many of the feelings I have about my current point in life. He writes, “Your twenties are a decade without clear paths, as if you have been walking for a good while on a well-lit road and now it ends at a dark forest; there are hundreds of directions you could  take, none of them obviously right. Like many, I fond myself standing and staring, hoping for a sign.”
Booker describes the insecurities he felt as he went through law school and thought about the possibilities of his future. He described the challenges that he and his other classmates faced in preparing themselves for the next steps after college, especially when the next steps were not clear. It is reassuring to read Booker’s story and see that many people face the same challenges and insecurities that I go through. I am back in school after graduating with a degree in Spanish and Political Science, and I am pursuing a Masters in Public Administration at the University of Nevada. Despite a good job and the opportunity to pursue further education, feelings of insecurities and a pressure to have a clear plan still well up inside me.
The quote from Booker and his honesty about his fears helps me recognize that my doubts and worries are baseless. I am reminded of a quote from Colin Wright, “the fear of accidentally working too hard to get someplace we don’t want to be can be paralyzing, but it’s an irrational fear.” The message from Booker is to keep moving and be actively engaged in the world, and when we remember the quote from Wright, we see that we can let go of our fears of not ending up where we want to be. That type of fear is not based on the reality of our experiences, and is therefore, irrational. The important thing to remember during periods of doubt is that we are not alone in feeling insecure, and that our actions will ultimately open new doors if we have the courage to push forward through the forest of unclear choices.

Becoming the Master of Our Own Destinies

Why do we hesitate before taking on new opportunities, especially when those opportunities are ones that we tell people we have wanted? Why do we wait for another person to be a catalyst for action in our own lives? These are questions that Colin Wright asks in his book Come Back Frayed. He looks at our hesitation during times of opportunity and our lack of self belief during  times of challenge, and encourages us to be the ones who drive and dictate our lives instead of leaving our lives to be shaped by people beyond us.  He writes,

 

“We create our own continuity. We mustn’t depend on someone else to construct our frame works for us. … But we are the masters of our destinies and direction. We are the most capable, competent, correct people for this particular job. All we have to do is recognize this and accept the responsibility.”

 

Wrights quote comes after an explanation of how our reactions to struggles either provide us with opportunity for growth or keep us from being able to change for the better. By adapting to the obstacles we face and using the experiences and challenges as building blocks for growth, we can make sure that our personal evolutions are marked by positive changes. When we do this, we create our own future. We decide how we will react to the world around us and build our own scaffolding toward the success we desire.

 

Throughout his writing, Wright seems to acknowledge how much of the world and universe truly lies beyond our control. We cannot shape how other people will behave, we cannot control natural disasters, and we cannot truly predict any future event, but this does not mean that we must surrender our lives and allow ourselves to be pushed in any direction by the forces outside ourselves. Instead, by controlling our mind (the only thing we can possibly have control over) we can shape the direction of our journey through the choices and reactions to those outside factors.

 

The first step in this process is accepting responsibility for our decisions, actions, and thoughts. From this point we begin to decide how we will react to what goes on around us and if we will use adversity to propel us forward. It requires that we stop looking at limitations in our lives as reasons not to move forward or pursue a goal, and it requires that we elevate our vision of what we believe possible for ourselves, recognizing that our mental framing will determine how creative our future can be, and how persistent we can be on our path forward.

 

I want to also push back against Wright’s quote and some of the suggestions that this perspective may create. Controlling the faculties of our mind and accepting responsibility for our own agency does not mean that we will find economic success, which is the default version of success that American’s refer to.  Epictetus certainly believed in his own agency in his thoughts, decisions, and reactions, but he lived as a slave for much of his life without an opportunity to pursue wealth. The forces that are beyond us may be so limiting as to squash any hopes that we have of reaching specific goals, especially in a world so easily shaped by inherent bias, but nevertheless, we can thoroughly evaluate our motivations and goals, and always find a reasonable measure of success which does not tie in with monetary figures set by people external to us. Wright’s suggestion encourages us to pursue great goals and to be the agents driving toward those goals, and while it is important to practice building that mindset, what we also must consider is how arbitrary those goals can become, especially if not set by ourselves and our own true reflection.

Thank Your Parents

In his collection of letters from creative people, Take My Advice, James Harmon includes a two sentence note written to him by Bettie Page, and the first sentence reads, “Show your parents that you love them by thanking them for all the good things they do for you.”  I really like this quote because so often we get caught up in life and forget to be thankful for the things we have.  I think in this quote Page is referring to the same idea, but in regards to the way we treat our parents. Not everyone had super star parents, but for those who did, it is important to remember the sacrifices that parents made so that their children could grow up in a positive situation with plenty of opportunities.

 

For me it has been easy to look at other people and feel as though their parents helped them more with certain things, but when I do, I am being blind to the many ways that I am lucky to have the parents that I have.  By refocusing on the positive things that my parents did to help me become the person I am today, I shift my thoughts towards being grateful for their help.  I think that Page is encouraging everyone to try and see their parents in this way, but to go beyond simply thinking about how lucky they are, and to actually make an effort to thank their parents for all of the love, support, and guidance that they receive from their parents.