Reputation

How do norms shape our behaviors? As social animals we rely on a good reputation which helps us gain allies, build coalitions, and have close bonds between family and friends. A good reputation increases trust, convinces others that they should invest in our friendship, and tells the social group give us a hand every now and then if we need help. When it comes to building and maintaining a good reputation, norms are crucial.

 

As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “It’s rarely in people’s best interests to stick out their necks to punish transgressors. But throw some reputation into the mix and it can suddenly become profitable. Someone who helps evict a cheater will be celebrated fro her leadership. Who would you rather team up with: someone who stands by while rules are flouted, or someone who stands up for what’s right?”

 

Standing up to point out things that are wrong can be dangerous. The person breaking the rules could fight back, people close to the rule breaker might retaliate, your time could be wasted, and you might lose social status if people don’t really care about the rule breaker’s actions. Being the person who enforces norms is not always the best on an individual level.

 

However, as a social group, our reputation helps us maintain the norms and institutions which help us function and allow us to have whistle-blowers, police, and people who generally care that rules, laws, and regulations are actually being followed. We often have a temptation to slack off, to do something that we enjoy but know to be bad for ourselves, or to engage in some sort of activity that is fun but reckless. Knowing that we will have to interact with people in the future, that we will rely on social groups in the future, and that we will need others for anything we want to do later constrains our actions and behaviors in the moment. We try to be the type of person that society favors because we know it will benefit us at a future time. We care about our reputation because we might need substantial assistance from others at some point in our life, and we know that if we have a negative reputation, people are less likely to trust us and assist us in our time of need. As social creatures, developing an invisible system of reputation is what helps bond our norms together and hold them in place.

Self Sufficient

Ever since Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler’s book The Elephant in the Brain came out I have been seeing the world, especially the world of politics, through a Hansonian framework. Our big evolutionary drive is to ensure that our genes are passed on to the next generation and for a social species that evolved in groups and communities, that means that we try to obtain ever greater status to ensure that we can pass more of our genes to future generations and then ensure that our progeny are successful, have supportive allies, and can further pass along their genes.

 

This mental framework has made me particularly sensitive to people’s attempts to improve their status in the eyes of others. I am in my late 20’s and I have a lot of friends on social media who seem concerned with telling people that they are self-sufficient. Many of my friends seem to want everyone to know that they have worked hard for the thing that they have, and have not had to rely on hand-outs from either government or from their parents. There seems to be this urge to let everyone know how capable we can be, and I suspect that what my friends are really doing is signaling their skills and abilities and attempting to increase their social status by suggesting that they have good judgment, an industrious nature, and have achieved their level of wealth through their own abilities.

 

Self-sufficiency in this view is all about how valuable one appears. Politically it is expedient to say that everyone should be self-sufficient, that we should all be able to provide for ourselves without relying on the assistance of others. My fear, however, is that self-sufficiency is really just acting on the central themes identified by Hanson and Simler. If we have achieved a certain level of success, we will look even better if we can tell other people that we became successful on our own, without help from others. We will look impressive if we have achieved something difficult that other people can’t seem to do without lots of help and advantages from birth. The typical idea of self-sufficiency, it appears, is really not about being self-sufficient, but about making ourselves look good to boost our social status.

 

Seneca offers us an alternative idea regarding self-sufficiency in Letters from a Stoic. In one of his letters he writes, “The wise man is self-sufficient. This phrase, my dear Lucilius, is incorrectly explained by many; for they withdraw the wise man from the world, and force him to dwell within his own skin. But we must mark with care what this sentence signifies and how far it applies; the wise man is sufficient unto himself for a happy existence, but not for mere existence. For he needs many helps toward mere existence; but for a happy existence he needs only a sound and upright soul, one that despises fortune.”

 

My social media friends, talking about their own self-sufficiency in purchasing a home, landscaping a yard, or getting through college are not thinking of self-sufficiency in terms of happiness. Nor are they recognizing just what they need from others in order to be able to do something sufficiently on their own. None of my friends are subsistence farmers, cultivating all the food that they consume. None of my friends walked out of a box into the world to discover how to act and succeed in our society – they all had good luck in the form of parents or teachers or friends or mentors to give them advice and serve as models for success. And all of my friends relied on public infrastructure, roads, water systems, telecommunications networks to build their own success. There was a certain amount of hard work, good decision making, and avoiding harmful vices or wasteful uses of resources that undoubtedly contributed to the success of my self-sufficient friends, but every one of them benefited enormously from a huge number of factors that came before them and that they had no part of.

 

As Seneca writes, our happiness and our responses to the world are the only things where we can expect to find true self-sufficiency. For the rest of the world, unless we want to survive by subsistence farming with no help from others, we will never be entirely self-sufficient, at least, not in the way we seem to imply on social media.

Pride and Ego

Ryan Holiday describes pride in his book Ego is the Enemy as a force that “takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one.” It is the piece of us that ascribes our success to some essential character of ourselves and hyper-inflates that piece around us. It is the sense that we are inherently something  special because of our qualities and accomplishments.

 

Holiday explains the problem with pride by writing, “Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the – when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do  you realize that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.”

 

Some days I am proud of my writing. Some days I am proud that I just ate a simple and healthy lunch or that I did at least some type of exercise at the gym. These are minor accomplishments that build on each other over time to lead to positive lifestyles and that is something I can find very comforting and take pride in. To me, it seems that the problem with pride is when we take these small things, and begin to boast and brag about them as though they set us apart from the rest of humanity. When we intentionally post a picture of us snacking on apple slices with peanut butter because we know we have friends who are currently at a bar. When we use seven hashtags in our gym post about how a fit life is somehow morally superior than sleeping in and having waffles. And when we complain about how hard it was for us to publish a blog post 7 days in a row, we are taking the small things that can make life meaningful and elevating them (along with our ego and pride) to a level they don’t deserve.

 

Holiday presents pride to us as something that distorts reality in the same way that many other elements of our ego do. It creates situations where your actions become the most important thing about you and about the category of people you belong to. Other people can only fit in with you if they also do these small and meaningless things that you take pride in. Pride says that someone can’t really be a baker if they don’t use specific cookware, that someone can’t really be a runner if they don’t have a new GPS watch and post to Strava, someone can’t really be smart unless they have graduated from the right college or gotten an advanced degree. Pride is a way of creating barriers between us and other people. It gives us a reason to believe we are special, and that as a result we can self-segregate into groups of people similar to ourselves and distance ourselves from the undeserving “others”.

 

None of these outcomes of pride are healthy, which is why there are so many warnings to avoid pride and remain humble. We can be proud of the small actions that drive our life in the right direction, but we should be aware of when we are bragging about those small actions and when we are trying to use those as justification to suggest that we deserve more than what we have or more than another person. We must do our best to include other people in our positive lifestyles and remember that we can only do what we do and be who we are with the support of an entire society, so our pride must also include a sense of community and belonging with everyone who supports us in our lives.

The Achievement is Not Really Yours

The great thing about an individualistic culture is that you get to own your success and feel great about your achievements. You can feel pride in winning a race, skiing down a mountain, having the best Christmas lights, or getting a promotion. Individualistic cultures treat these achievements as something more than just activities and outcomes. They become reflections of you and who you are, and in many ways your achievements become part of your identify. We show our friends our achievements on Facebook, we hang our achievements behind us on our office walls for everyone to see when they look at us, and we celebrate achievements with shiny objects that sit around on shelves and desktops.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh encourages us to take a deeper look at our achievements than we typically do in an individualistic culture. He encourages us to look deeply at the successes in our lives and to ask how we contributed to the success, how other people had a hand in our success, and the role that luck played in our achievements. When we truly reflect on our achievements, we can begin to see that what we my think of as our own achievement was really a convergence of our own hard work and effort with many other factors that we had no control over. The outcome that we call an achievement is often less of something that we directly influence and more of something connected to the larger groups and societies to which we belong.

 

In detail, he writes, ” Recall the most significant achievements in your life and examine each of them. Examine your talent, your virtue, your capacity, the convergence of favorable conditions that have led to success. Examine the complacency and the arrogance that have arisen from the feeling that you are the main cause for such success.”  In my own life, I look back at my achievements and I never have a problem remembering the hard work that I put in to achieve my goals. It is easy to remember the studying and reading I put forward to graduate from college. It is easy for me to think about how much I did to earn my grades, but if I am being honest with myself, I can also see how often I was not serious about my studies and how often I was able to benefit from a nice curve on a test.

 

Hanh continues, “Shed the light of interdependence on the whole matter to see that the achievement is not really yours but the convergence of various conditions beyond your reach.” I received substantial financial support from an uncle during college, and as a result I did not have to work full time and was able to enjoy leisure time. I was able to focus on my studies and had time to be in the library because I did not have to work 40+ hours a week to support myself and complete college. My success academically is directly tied to the support I received from my uncle. I can think about completing my college degree as my own success and as a display of my own virtue, but I relied heavily on assistance from a family member, assistance I can take no credit in receiving.

 

What is important to remember, and what Hanh highlights, is that in an individualistic culture we are often too willing to give ourselves credit for our successes and to view our achievements as entirely our own. When we do this, we artificially inflate ourselves to levels that we do not honestly deserve. It is important that we acknowledge the assistance provided to us from a fortunate birth, our family, random strangers, great teachers, and sometimes from just being in the right place at the right time. Letting go of our achievement as badges of our identities reduces our arrogance and makes us more open to helping others and connecting with those who have not had the same fortune as ourselves.

The Burden of a Nation

Today we have a problem with the number of people we arrest and the destroyed potential futures for those who have been arrested. As we arrest greater numbers of individuals for drug related offenses, the more families we break apart, the fewer people we have available to work, and the more our nation must spend on housing those who have been arrested. Prior to reading Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, I had assumed that this system operated fairly and I had criticized those who had been arrested for their own faults and personal shortcomings. What I did not see before her book are the choices that we made as a society that lead to the crime, the policing, and the levels of arrests that we see in our nation. We have a choice in determining the criminality of low level drugs like marijuana, and we have a choice in how harshly we will arrest and punish those who break the laws that we create. At a certain point, we must begin asking ourselves, beyond what an individual has done wrong, what has society done wrong so that so many people are violating drug laws, and should our response be imprisonment or less expensive and less socially damaging responses to crime.

In her book, Alexander writes, “Du Bois got it right a century ago: “the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs.” It is up to all of us, not just up to criminals and those living in ghettos or low income areas, to solve the crime problems our nation faces and to strengthen our communities. Those of us who do not act and do not take steps to make our world better are equally at fault as those who commit crimes and make our society more segregated and less equitable. Alexander continues, “The reality is that, just a few decades after the collapse of one caste system, we constructed another. Our nation declared a war on people trapped in racially segregated ghettos—just at the moment their economies had collapsed—rather than providing community investment, quality education, and job training when work disappeared.” Our choices created the ghettos and in response to the effects of concentrated power, we decided that incarceration was the best option to deal with the crime that resulted. Alexander looks at the history of segregation in our country and how that has impacted our development, our communities, and the policies put forth by those in power. Our reaction to minorities has historically been to shut them out and deny them of opportunity, and today, when people in communities that have been isolated and exiled result to crime, we find justification in our actions and arrests.

“Of course those communities are suffering from serious crime and dysfunction today. Did we expect otherwise? Did we think that, miraculously, they would thrive?” Alexander pushes us to reflect on ghettos and segregated areas of concentrated poverty. Rather than uniting our communities and putting forth greater resources to help people in ghettos, we have decided to arrest individuals, which diminishes future potential and career opportunities, feeding back into a vicious cycle of crime, poverty, and disfunction. Rather than try to build the areas in new and novel ways that put low income individuals next to more affluent families and people, we isolated the poor and the minorities so that they could be forgotten. It is expensive to provide community support to those who need it and to improve our ghettos, but it is certainly expensive to warehouse individuals in prisons and jails and to react to the crime committed by those who have lost future possibilities or live in disjointed households.

Peace and Creativity

In his book 59 Seconds psychologist Richard Wiseman evaluated research on how to maximize our time to bring about the desired results that we want in our lives.  He examined everything from creativity, to success, and happiness.  When researching creativity Wiseman found that our environment and emotional feelings toward our environment played a large role in our creativity.  Wiseman writes, “When people feel worried, they become very focused, concentrate on the task at hand, become risk-averse, rely on well-established habits and routines, and see the world through less-creative eyes.  In contrast when people feel at ease in a situation, they’re more likely to explore new and unusual ways of thinking and behaving, see the bigger picture, take risks, and think and act more creatively.”

 

I think this is a powerful section from Wiseman and one that I wish I could share with every business leader. Encouraging employees to be more creative and push for new ideas can help a company grow and succeed, but many employers don’t give their employees a chance to be creative, and they expect them to be in simple boxes where their routine is set and their actions are limited.  Focusing on your employees environment and attitude can help an employer create a place where employees are more at ease and able to think more creatively to build better habits and produce better results. I am currently reading Return on Character by Fred Kiel, and the thesis of his work is that leaders and CEO’s who focus on building an organization focused around integrity, honesty, and forgiveness provide greater returns for their companies, employees, and stakeholders.  When we consider Wiseman’s quote about people becoming more creative in relaxed environments, we can see how Kiel’s CEO’s who create those environments become more successful.  By maintaining a strong moral character a CEO can create a space where employees feel welcomed to perform their best and are not restricted in their actions and approaches to greatness.

 

However, I am afraid that sharing this quote with every business leader could backfire.  Those employers who do not see their employees as being in creative positions may read that quote and think that they can put their employees under pressure to have them focus better on the single task at hand as opposed to being distracted by the people and environment around them.  The quote could be read to suggest that developing well established habits and putting employees into risk-averse mindsets may be useful for employees who work specific and routine jobs.  This idea falls flat when you think about wanting to be a company that excels, with employees that excel at every position, especially if that employee performs any sort of customer service function.  Encouraging the creativity of employees by helping them fee comfortable and relaxed at work will lead to better results when employees are free to be creative and break away from ordinary habits.  When they are worried they will not risk trying something new in their daily routine and will never develop a habit that could drastically improve the quality of the work they produce.

 

In the end, I think we need to try and understand creativity as being something that we all have access to.  Wiseman’s quote shows that building supportive environments and bing at ease helps people become more creative. Those who deal with a high amount of anxiety tend to display a less creative vision and provide less innovation.

Friendship

Continuing from my last post, philosopher W.V. Quine in his letter to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, ends his letter with a note about friendship.  Quine writes, “Above all, cultivate easy and sincere friendships with kindred spirits and enter into them with generous sympathy.  Sharing is the sovereign lubricant against the harshness of life.”  I love this quote because it is all about putting others first so that one can build real relationships to not just serve themselves, but to serve everyone and help everyone enjoy their life to a greater extent.
Quine’s quote addresses the challenges and difficulties that result from the dull and tedious nature of hard work, and how friendships can ease those difficulties.  What he is saying is that good friendships, where neither person is trying to gain something from the other but both people are openly sharing, are what help people through the rough, mundane, and tedious parts of life.  What Quine is talking about is not the type of friendship where one seeks the help, advice, or aid of another simply for their own benefit.  The friendships which he discusses, the friendships which build meaningful relationships and help people overcome challenges, are built not on an expectation of returns, but on a true interest in knowing  another person.