Think About Your Measuring Sticks

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie includes the short story Father Forgets by W. Livingston Larned. The story is told from the perspective of a father, in roughly the 1920s/1930s, reflecting back on his day while standing at his sleeping son’s bedside. The father thinks about the times he criticized his son during the day, and how his son nevertheless ran into the father’s study at night to give him a hug good night. The line from the story which really stood out to me reads, “I was measuring you by the yardstick of my own years.”

 

The father realizes that he was treating his small child as if he were a full grown man behaving poorly. He was punishing his son for simply being a boy with the interests, the wonders, and the carefree spirit of a kid. It is a great story for any parent who is frustrated that their children don’t behave and act as perfectly as they want, and it is a great story for any of us who find ourselves criticizing the people in our lives.

 

I don’t have kids, so I won’t analyze the story and the quote that stood out to me from the perspective of a parent, but I am married and I do interact with plenty of other people who I know don’t share the same goals, the same genes, and the same history that I do. I find it easy to look at the world and find fault, especially when I see someone I can criticize for not having some virtue that I think that I possess. It is easy to take the yardstick that I measure myself with, and use it to judge others. However, when I do this, I am just like the father, using his measuring stick for evaluating his personal life, and applying that same standard to his small son.

 

Before we begin to measure others with our own yardstick, we should think about the yardsticks we use to measure our own lives. We often default to monetary yardsticks to judge the success of others, a habit that doesn’t accurately capture the value of a human being. People who are in great shape may apply a different yardstick to people, judging others for not being physically fit, without really considering the factors which may limit another person’s ability to get to the gym or buy lots of fruits and veggies. Similarly, parents might look down on people who don’t have kids, people who read a lot might look down on non-readers, and people who drive a Tesla might look down on people who drive trucks. In each instance, someone is taking a value of theirs, assigning it a certain weight, and then judging others using the measuring stick that they have built for their personal life.

 

The story about the father and his son shows us how useless this practice is, and hints at how harmful it can be. The father’s criticism is pushing his son down a path toward resentment, and the father recognizes there is still time for him to reverse the trend and recognizes that he can develop a real relationship with his child. Similarly, applying your own measurement to others is unfair because you do not know what history has shaped the person you are criticizing for not measuring up to your standards. You are not considering the environmental factors that create barriers in their lives to being the perfect person you criticize them for failing to be. People at different stages of their lives with different experiences and backgrounds may hold different values than you do, and that undoubtedly leads them to have different measuring sticks for their own lives. Additionally, it is not the responsibility of anyone else to live up to the measuring stick of your personal life. It is instead your responsibility to live in community with others, and to develop relationships to help others become the best version of themselves, meeting them where they are, understanding who they are, and helping them achieve a meaningful version of success that fits who they are and what society needs. The measuring sticks we need are not the ones we develop on our own, but are those which help us cooperate in society to encourage flourishing for all.

Understanding and Forgiving

It is popular today to have strong opinions about the shortcomings and moral failures of other people. Democrats will gobble up news about the crazy things our president does and says, people who work will be quick to call out the laziness in others, and it is easy to condemn the greed and excesses of billionaires. I would argue, however, these criticisms speak more about ourselves than the people whose supposed wrongs we are railing against.

 

Being critical is easy, and it props us up by showing how far beneath ourselves we find another person to be. It is easy for us to say how terrible another person’s actions and thoughts are while we are not in that person’s shoes, and it creates and easy space for us to feel good about ourselves for not having the vices we see in others. What this meaningless venting misses, however, is that we live in a society where the drivers, decisions, and behaviors of everyone is interconnected.

 

I like to remind myself that no one succeeds or fails on their own. Consider a student as an example. In order to be a great student you need to have a healthy space in which to do your studies. Things that would make that space livable and easy to do studying in might be things like loving parents, a desk, a heater for the cold months, and sufficient lighting for you to do your work. You did not discover the light bulb or the electricity that runs it, you did not pay for the energy to run the heater, and you didn’t purchase the house within which you studied. You may have put in the hard work necessary to be a successful student, but you depended on parents who could provide the structure and environment for you. Even if you were missing those things, and did your work at a library, you similarly were dependent on others for your success. Lacking these things, and being a failure, was similarly not your fault. You could not chose to be born in a situation where you would lack encouragement, electricity, or a safe place to do work.

 

When I think about how dependent we are on others for even the most basic parts of life, such as commuting on roads we did not build to school or work, I am reminded of how important it is that we think beyond individuals when we want to criticize someone for their behavior. When we see someone who is lazy, we should ask what was missing in their life that did not properly encourage them to be the best version of themselves? When we see someone who is needlessly greedy, we should ask, how did society let this person down so that they came to see having more money or power than anyone else as being the most important thing for them to pursue? And when I see someone who directly harms others, I want to ask, where did society fail to help this person value relationships and value the interconnectedness which we all share? Just as we cannot claim 100% responsibility for our most incredible successes and must attribute something to the community when we succeed, we must do so with the failures of ourselves and the individuals we see around us. To simply criticize is to the ignore the role of society, which we are a part of. To end the negative we see around us, we must give more of ourselves to our community and work harder to ensure that what has made us a good person or a success as we define it, is there for everyone. (I know there are some people who are exceptions to the examples I gave above, but they are likely not the majority.)

 

As Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, “Any fool can criticize, condemn, and complain, and most fools do. But it takes character and self-control to be understanding and forgiving.”

Trying to Improve Others?

We spend a lot of time criticizing other people and trying to change those around us, and that energy might be misplaced. Instead of spending so much time thinking about others, worrying about their decisions and choices, and trying to get them to act differently, we should look inward, and consider if we are living up to the standards we are trying to set for someone else.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie writes, “Do you know someone you would like to change and regulate and improve? Good! That is fine. I am all in favor of it. But why not begin on yourself? From a purely selfish standpoint, that is a lot more profitable than trying to improve others-yes, and a lot less dangerous.”

 

Carnegie seems to suggest that we should be thinking about how we can help other people become better versions of themselves, but that we should first focus on making ourselves the best version of who we are. The gains that we will see in life will be greater if we focus on self-improvement rather than trying to change others. By focusing on ourselves we can improve our effectiveness, ensure we are engaging in the world in a meaningful way, and become more self-aware of the things we could do better. All of the gains in these areas will help us be the kind of role model that other people can look to when they try to make their own lives better.

 

It is through starting with ourselves that we can have an impact in the lives of others. Once we have made meaningful changes in who we are and what we do, once we have established habits of greatness, we can share what we have learned with others and provide them with advice regarding the things we have done to become successful, more engaged in the world, and more connected to the people around us. This will help us to change people and further the positive impact we have on the world. It all starts, however, with changing ourselves first.

Recognize Your Thinking When You Are Displeased

A great challenge for our society is finding ways to get people to think beyond themselves. We frequently look for ways to confirm what we already believe, we frequently think about what we want and, and we frequently only consider only ourselves and how things make us feel in the present moment. Shifting these mindsets in the United States is necessary if we are going to find a way to address major problems that impact the lives of every citizen, and in some cases impact the entire globe.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie provides advice for people who want to better connect with others and have a greater impact with their lives. We are social creatures, and understanding how to improve our social connections with others is important if we want to be successful, take part in meaningful activities, and enjoy living with other people. Early on in the book, he provides a warning about how we will often fall short of the advice he recommends in the following chapters.

 

“You will probably find it difficult to apply these suggestions all the time. … For example, when you are displeased, it is much easier to criticize and condemn than it is to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint; it is frequently easier to find fault than to find praise; it is more natural to talk about what you want than to talk about what the other person wants; and so on.”

 

Remembering these points where our minds go astray is important if we want to avoid them. Most people probably won’t systematically make an effort to be considerate and to change their behavior towards others, but for those who do want to improve their social interactions and create new companies, groups, and social events that bring people together, remembering the points that Carnegie highlights as potential failures for being more considerate are important.

 

First, when we are upset or displeased with something, we will simply condemn others. However, a more constructive approach to improve the situation and treat the other person with more respect is to think about and try to understand why they did what they did and how they understand the world. We might not agree with their decision in the end, but hopefully we can find a point of common humanity from which we can have a better discussion than simply telling the other person who has upset us that they are an awful monster.

 

Second, finding ways to provide others with praise, thinking about what other people want, and understanding their viewpoints helps us have better conversations and develop better relationships. If we are engaging with other people in social endeavors then we will need to cooperate with them and hopefully work with them in some capacity for the long term. This requires that we find ways to motivate, develop real connections, utilize the strengths of others. To do that, we have to think about what others want and what motivates them. Allowing ourselves to be self-centered prevents us from doing this, and will lead to us criticizing those who we think fail to measure up, and ultimately won’t help us build great things. Thinking about the ways that our minds default toward this negativity will help prepare us to be more considerate and help us drive toward better outcomes for ourselves and our society.

Timing Impacts Test Scores and Life Outcomes

“Indeed, for every hour later in the day the test were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education – or missing two weeks of school a year.”

 

The quote above is from Dan Pink’s book When in a section where he wrote about researchers who studied test scores for children in relation to the time of day that tests were administered. School children performed better on tests when they took place early in the day, and worse on tests when they came later. The difference was not enormous to the point where students were passing with flying colors in the morning and failing in the afternoon, but it was meaningful.

 

I find this incredibly interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that I think 8 hour work-days are horrible, and the second is that I think we ascribe our success or failure in life to our own efforts far more than what we should.

 

Starting with the first point, if I were suddenly named king in the United States, my first act would be reduce the standard workday to 6 hours instead of 8. Most American’s no longer work at a factory where they need to be active on a line pushing a button or hammering a nail in order for widgets to be produced. When that was the case, 8 hour workdays may have been necessary, but in a knowledge economy where our main output comes from our mind and not our hands, 8 hour workdays likely harm our work more than they allow us to produce meaningful outputs. My big fear is that increased time outside of work will lead to more urban sprawl and longer commutes for people rather than to more valuable time spent in communities or with family.

 

Ultimately, however, I think giving us more time for sleep, for exercise, and for family will help us be better people. I believe that many people claim to be more busy than they actually are at work, and often spend a lot of time focusing on low value tasks that keep them busy but don’t provide much benefit for anyone. Shortening the work day would force people to be better schedulers and to use their time more wisely, and would hopefully create a happier workforce and nation.

 

Second, it is important to recognize that simply the time at which students took a test impacted the score they got. The test in some ways is measuring their knowledge, but it clearly is also measuring endogenous factors unrelated to their learning. We are grading and scoring our students in ways that can be influenced by meaningless factors beyond the students’ control.

 

I think this example is revealing of a basic fact of our lives. We feel like we are in control and as if the outcomes that people experience are directly related to their own effort and skill. However simply the time of day can have a big impact on our achievements, regardless of our skill or effort. Beyond test scores, perhaps you had a job interview in the afternoon, and both you and the interviewer were a little less sharp than you would have both been at 10 a.m. for an interview. You might not come across as the best candidate, and the time of day may be the biggest factor that prevented you from getting the job. In many ways small factors like timing can shape our lives in ways that we can’t even imagine. Sometimes luck is just as important as our skill and effort, and we should recognize that when we think about where we are and how we got to the point we are at.

Considering Death

I’m only in my late 20’s, and while I recognize that one day I will die, I am still in the somewhat invincible feeling stage of life. It is easy to think that life will always continue on as it has, and thinking about death and a world existing without my conscious thought is not pleasant. However, I believe that remembering our impermanence on this planet is important if we want to use our time to meaningfully contribute to a world that is better when we leave than when we arrived. Despite being young, I still try to consider death.

 

This is a notion that is common among stoic thinkers today and was presented in writing by Stoic thinkers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca a couple thousand years ago. By reflecting regularly on their own mortality, these stoic thinkers were able to develop clear senses of the importance of their lives and the actions they took. They could be more considerate in how they lived and how they approached each day.

 

In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike. We are not summoned according to our rating on the censor’s list. Moreover, no one is so old that it would be improper for him to hope for another day of existence.”

 

Planning is important in our lives, but not as important as ensuring that in the present moment we are making the most out of the faculties available to us. In any given moment, we could fall victim to tragedy, and while the universe itself may not care and while the world will continue to spin, stoics argue that we should live in a way that will make our absence noticed. That is not to say we should strive for fame, glory, or riches, but that we should strive to live in a way where we make meaningful contributions to the world to help it become a better place for ourselves and for others.

 

Seneca continues, “every day ought to be regulated as if it closed the series, as if it rounded out and completed our existence.” Each day, and any given moment of a day, can be useful and meaningful. If we think about ourselves as always having a chance to do good later, we won’t make the most of each day. If instead we think about how we can be complete in the moment, we can begin to shift our choices and design our lives in ways in which we make an impact in all that we do.

 

Focusing on death changes the way we approach each day and changes the way we design our lives. It helps us to think about our contributions to the world, and to build habits that help us become the best possible versions of ourselves. Remembering and acknowledging our mortality allows us to grow and get things done today that we might not achieve if we did not consider the possibility of our time on this planet being so short. We shouldn’t fixate solely on death and our mortality, but remember that our time is bound, and that if we want to live meaningfully, we have to live accordingly in each moment.

Where You Live (& Are Born) Matters

Raj Chetty, a Harvard researcher, has done some pretty interesting work that shows that the zip code you are born into can have a huge impact on how much money you earn over the course of your life. Down to the neighborhood level, where you live, the people around you, and the connections you happen to make in life can be major determining factors in what job you take, what college your children attend, and how well off you end up financially speaking. We don’t like to address this very often, but we recognize that it is true, and we have seen increased segregation as we try to separate ourselves from living next to undesirable people and places.

 

In his book The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream, Tyler Cowen writes, “in 1970, only about 15 percent of families lived in neighborhoods that were unambiguously affluent or poor. By 2007, 31 percent of American families were living in such neighborhoods.” We are moving in directions where we separate ourselves from people who are not like us in terms of socioeconomic status (SES). Today, relative to 30 to 50 years ago, we are less likely to interact with someone who is very poor if we are rich. We are less likely to know anyone who does not share a generally similar SES, and we are far less likely to have any meaningful interactions with someone from a different SES. Cowen continues, “for where you live, income matters more than ever before, as can be shown by a simple perusal of the apartment ads for most of America’s leading cities.” 

 

This segregation by home value and SES has some obvious consequences, such as schools becoming more segregated by income and race and skyrocketing home prices in some regions of town coupled with deterioration and disinvestment of other regions. However, as the research from Chetty shows, there are other, less obvious consequences from our SES segregation. Where you live influences the opportunities available to you and your children.

 

We like to think that it is our own effort, talent, and hard work which determines how much money we make and where we end up financially and in terms of the home we are able to buy. Since talent, intelligence, and work ethic are evenly distributed on a genetic level, we would expect that everyone could achieve the same ends regardless of where they happened to be born. Instead, we see huge disparities by zip codes and neighborhoods in terms of ultimate SES. Our segregation is leading to situations where those who are born in wealthy areas are able to make valuable connections, learn the unwritten rules of networking to getting ahead, and receive visible reminders of what can be achieved through hard work and perseverance. Certainly people from the lowest SES background can still network and can still see the benefits of hard work, but research also suggest that when people from the lowest SES don’t have any interactions with people who are economically well off and successful in their careers, they do worse.

 

Cowen argues that our segregation by SES is making us a less robust society. Partially because we are leaving other people out, but also because it narrows the world for all of us (not just those in low SES neighborhoods) and stymies innovation, development, and progress. We are comfortable in neighborhoods with people who have a similar background and SES to our own, but this does not help us better understand the world, does not help us advocate for and support policy which might help us and others, and does not help us identify and encourage the top talent born in our country. Our complacency as we all search for our own individual American dream is crippling the American dream that we share as a nation by segregating us into complacent bubbles.

Conspicuous Consuption

Conspicuous consumption is probably one of the most damaging aspects of American society. It involves using our purchases to serve as a way to show off a particular aspect of who we are want to be. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “the idea that we use purchases to flaunt our wealth is known as conspicuous consumption. It’s an accusation that we buy things not so much for purely personal enjoyment as for showing off or keeping up with the Joneses.”

 

Throughout the book Hanson and Simler look at human behaviors and consider them alongside the stated reasons, beliefs, and excuses that people have for those behaviors. There are many things in life that we do without acknowledging ulterior motives. We have motivations that lie beneath the surface and drive our thoughts, feelings, and opinions. We do not examine and acknowledge these motivations, but they are real, and they are there.

 

Conspicuous consumption is the use of our wealth and ability to make purchases in a way that is ostensibly about one thing, but very likely are about something else that we would like to keep hidden from others. When we buy a fancy new sports car, we will tell others about incredible new technology, about how hard we have worked and how we deserve to treat ourselves, or about the incredible performance of the car. What we likely won’t tell people is that we felt that we deserved more attention and wanted to show off that could afford a new sports car. What we won’t acknowledge, even to ourselves, is how much our behavior is driven by others and by a desire to fit in, be praised, and make sure everyone is aware of our beliefs about our personal value.

 

Each of those things (showing how much we fit in, telling people how valuable we are, and receiving praise) are aspects of social life that we can’t just go around and obtain directly. Instead, we have to signal those things through behaviors and activities that we can spin as more sociable and more acceptable behaviors. Money and wealth gives us a chance to show off and to signal our competence or connectedness to the outside world. It gives us a way to brag without having to outright brag. We can be more humble in the ways that we show off by being indirect.

 

However conspicuous consumption can drive us to ignore climate change and the externalities of our actions. It can create stress as we strive to make purchases that put us in perilous financial situations – the opposite of what the purchase is supposed to signal. And it is ultimately all about gaining more status at the expense of others who cannot keep up. We spend a lot of time and energy attempting to show off our wealth so that we can be rewarded not by the thing we purchase, but with praise and respect of others that we may not really deserve. We should acknowledge these pressures and chose when we are going  to be conspicuous with our wealth, and when we will exit the signaling contest avoid showing off.

On Forms of Status – Dominance

In The Elephant in the Brain authors Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about our hardwired desires to increase our status. No matter who we are, where we are, or what we are doing, we are subconsciously aware of our status and we are pretty much always trying to increase our status one way or another. The authors describe two type of status, and how our attempts to increase our status change depending on the form of status we seek. They write,

 

“Status comes in two distinct varieties: dominance and prestige. Dominance is the kind of status we get from being able to intimidate others – think Vladimir Putin or Kim Jong-un. Dominance is won by force, through aggression and punishment. In the presence of a dominant person, our behavior is governed by avoidance instincts: fear, submission, and appeasement.”

 

Tomorrow I will continue their quote and write about prestige, but for now, I’ll share a few thoughts that I have on dominance. Dominance as a strategy for obtaining strategy to me feels more primitive, and while it may be the kind of status we often seek in sports, courts, and boardrooms, it is not the kind of status that usually seems to be the most effective. In a politicized world where many weaker individuals can gang up on the stronger more dominant individual, this path can be a dangerous route to take. In other parts of the book Simler and Hanson seem to argue that our brains evolved to be more successful in seeking status in other ways.

 

People who seek greater status through dominance alienate a lot of people. They may be impressive in their abilities to bulldoze through their competition and they may achieve great success, but in the social and political species that we are, having friends and allies is important. Dominance does not encourage greater cooperation among talented individuals, but instead seems to force away those who are less dominant. It is not hard to see how this could lead to a small number of dominant sycophants sticking together to ward off attackers, and it is also easy to see how this strategy could backfire and fail to produce long-term status.

 

Ultimately, seeking status and seeking dominance seems to be a “careful what you wish for” type of approach. When your status is based in your dominance of other people, you can never be successful or attain a sense of success on your own. Our status is always tied to others by nature of being relative, but the dominance approach leaves you vulnerable to every slight. Achieving great status in this way is likely to leave you in a point where your status is high in only select groups, and despised in others.

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.