Distraction

February 7, 2010 — 16 Comments

As George Washington left office he famously admonished the country to avoid entangling alliances abroad, particularly those of a military nature. Whether or not people took it truly listened, the message stuck. Even today, you can hardly have a discussion about foreign policy without someone bringing it up. It’s especially loved by politicians – Democrats and Republicans equally – who like to throw it in each others faces when the opportunity arises. And of course, they’re well aware of the irony in doing so because in the same speech Washington emphatically warned against the formation of political parties which had at that point not yet taken hold.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when we strip observations from their context or pick and choose what we want to believe. We’re often left basing important decisions on ideas that are not even wrong.

That’s all I can think about when I hear people talk about the paleolithic diets and hunter-gatherer exercise.

Put aside the dubious science for a second. That Greek hoplites on campaign, for instance, subsisted almost entirely on grain and rarely ate meat – god forbid, we’d ever be cursed with their fitness. (For fun put a picture of a Greco-Roman statue and an African tribesman side by side) It’s an idea with a kernel of truth, stripped from its context and wrapped in contradictions. The real question is why?

What a relatively superficial problem to find with our modern lives. It’s a shame too when there is so much in evolutionary psychology that can be used to make us better people. It can help us understand roots of things like jealousy, ambition, and fear. We can think about these deeply natural drives and how they’ve come to fail us in the world we currently live, not to selectively embrace and emulate the conditions that created them. And what’s the goal here anyway? To not waste your time like the people who try to eat a balance diet and regularly exercise? Those idiots.

What the internet makes easier – and our culture encourages – is organization without sacrifice and beliefs that don’t require much conviction. Oppose a foreign war: quote Washington but cling to your political party. Creating a new diet: use evolution, forget the naturalistic fallacy. It’s the illusion of profundity without any of the risk. And I know it’s cute to think of ‘cavemen in New York City’ but it seems more like an undermining contradiction than irony to me.

The problem is that these ideas ultimately consume so much of our time and energy for muddled results at best. They are lifestyles at the expense of life. Like there is something shameful about waking up as a regular person and dealing with the issues that we all have in front of us: pride, anger, lethargy, accumulation… Do you waste your time playing videogames? Do you have to drink to be comfortable around other people? Do you find yourself consumed by petty office politics and gossip? So much is ignored at the cost of hunting raw meats and bone marrow and so little is gained in return. (For that plug anything)

To me these theories mark the very real temptation to stay busy at the expense of real work. It’s the trap of subbing meaningless discipline in for the kind that forces us to change and improve. All the upside of feeling accomplishment but without any of the risk that you might become a better person for the process.

The Imaginary Audience

January 27, 2010 — 31 Comments

The psychologist David Elkind published an interesting study in the mid 1970′s. Adolescents, he found, believe in an “imaginary audience.” Consider a 13 year old so embarrassed that they miss a week of class, positive that the entire school is thinking and murmuring about some tiny incident. Or a teenage girl who spends three hours in front of mirror each morning, like she’s about to go on stage. They do this because they’re convinced that their every move is being received with rapt attention by the rest of the world.

As strange as this behavior is, it’s all very normal. In fact, it’s an integral part of the development of self-consciousness. The child is becoming aware of their own powerful feelings about themselves and the newness of it often makes it difficult to discern where their thoughts end and other people’s begin. If all goes well, they grow into and realize that, hey, maybe everyone isn’t watching as closely as I thought.

But some psychologists have begun to notice that some people don’t come to this realization. They carry this delusion forward and never shake off the imaginary audience. Emotions that are supposed to peak in 8th grade, stays with them and becomes an enormous part of their identity and ultimately, their narcissism.

There are a lot of parallels between this and how people behave on the internet. Liveblogging. Lifecasting. Oversharing. Alter-egos. Fameballs.

I saw a Facebook post the other day where a guy posted a link to a Haitian charity, which after being criticized by a friend, he responded that he’d be willing to “issue a retraction.” I got the sense that I was the only witness to something very strange. Who was this intended for? What body would be overseeing this formal procedure? Why would he say that?

Schopenhauer had a name for this empty talk, he called it “fencing in the mirror.” It’s more common than you think. Consider all the times you’ve seen some blogger apologize for not posting recently – profusely addressing some concern that likely was never expressed. Or the Twitter updates to 38 followers, half of which are bots or uncaring companies. More realistically, maybe you’ve read too much into looks from a table of girls at a restaurant (a type I evolutionary error). Maybe you like like to roll down the windows in your car, turn up the stereo and know that everyone is just so impressed by your classic taste.

Have you ever seen a person on YouTube who makes elaborate, time consuming videos day after day to a few views a piece? This person who gets objective reports on the audience for their work – as close to zero as numbers get – continues, in their own mind, to capture its attention.

You can either live your life pandering to this empty room or you can be honest with yourself and admit how few people out there are actually watching. How there is really only one, maybe two people in your life that you need to impress. You look like a fool when you act any differently.

Think about it like this, how rare is it that a real public pulpit does someone any good? What on earth would you think that a fake one would be anything but worse?

Entitlement

January 21, 2010 — 65 Comments

I think when you’re younger you see people who work real hard as being suckers. I remember when I first moved to Hollywood, I would leave every night exactly when my required time ended. I looked down on the people that were still there when I left. It’s sort of a lack of perspective mixed with petulance and condescension.

And because you don’t know any better, you start to think that the only thing standing between you and whatever you hope to accomplish is never giving into the life these people seem to have found tolerable. They don’t know that things have changed. The 9-5 is over, unnecessary.

Look at the shit in this idiot’s bio. It takes what we’d consider to be ordinary and lists them as accomplishments. He met Penelope Trunk! He shook Warren Buffet’s hand! He hosted a charity mixer! He doesn’t just want you to know this, he wants to be credited for it. Congratulated even. If only he could think for a second about:

A horse at the end of the race…

A dog when the hunt is over…

A bee when its honey is stored...

All this talk about blogs, and start-ups, and self-publishing and global micro-brands. It’s a mask for a enormous sense of entitlement. In a weird way, it has created a culture of people I know who almost disdain work, or at least, anything that might be perceived as traditional kinds of work.

They want to have a blog where they can communicate with some imaginary audience. Or they’re going to work at start-up and babble about equity. Or travel and live abroad. These all seem like normal teenage idealism, but to me they feel like schemes.

An interesting fact about recessions is that in them, people tend to be more likely to fall for scams and charlatans. Oh, I’m making a ton of money flipping houses. I support myself by playing online poker Uh-huh, and what do you think “I’m a social media strategist” is, or “I’m a location-independent freelance consultant.” It’s the same bullshit. It’s the same lie.

As a human being, your job is to work. To show up. To learn. To contribute. Not to come up with excuses, surround them with buzz words and demand thanks for coming up with a new way of life. Because you didn’t. You just found what weak minds have always gravitated to: a false sense of superiority at the expense of a real opportunity.

The Terrain

January 10, 2010 — 16 Comments

Your mind plays tricks on you. They brought me in because I’m the best. They want me to implement my way. This is foolish. This is ego-driven self-destruction.

Most of your impulses are bullshit. Most of your ideas suck. What you think is so important now will embarrass you not long from now.

Now that you’re out of school and on your own, you need to carve a space where these failures don’t define you. Where they don’t provide ammunition for others to dismiss you. In fact, the most important thing a company looks for when they hire a young person is not his skill but his ability to maintain and utilize those skills within the existing order. Doing this depends on your ability to understand and appreciate the terrain – the realities of the environment you’re hoping to succeed in.

Terrain takes a variety of forms. In social politics, Alinsky knew that tradition was the terrain. On the internet, it’s the way that information is communicated and spread. In organizations, personalities are the terrain.

Understanding and internalizing these intricacies requires a certain type of patience and humility. The wherewithal to come in and say nothing. You have to subjugate what you want with how things are.

Michael Polanyi, the scientist and philosopher, knew that belief in tradition was the key with which scientists often unlock the greatest discoveries. Each advancement takes for granted those that preceded it – implicitly they value the current system by nature of expanding and altering it. Those without the ability to take certain assumptions as a matter of faith are unable to proceed in any direction. They’re paralyzed by their own skepticism, like a revolutionary movie producer so distracted by the inefficiencies in union rules that he takes on the Teamsters at the expense of actually making a movie.

Thurgood Marshall had a mentor who refused to give him a job after law school. He told him he needed to get his “head kicked in” before he was worth anything to him. So Marshall left and was thrown around by racist judges and double standards and garbage cases. Through it he learned the secrets of the white legal system, secrets he later used to dismantle its many problems.

Consider a scientist who rejects Polanyi’s notion or a more conceited Thurgood Marshall. Both are stopped short of contribution because of their inability to develop a foundation with which they advance their goals. They are like a young person too fragile to stomach and tolerate conditions they don’t approve of.

The next time you find yourself in a new environment, dedicate weeks or even a few months to understanding the terrain. Give yourself time to be underestimated. Familiarize yourself with the system so you know what to do when you fuck up, so nothing is irreparable or permanent. Quieting your ego is not the same as changing your principles, in fact, it’s the best way towards implementing them.

Stop. Examine. Reconsider.

January 3, 2010 — 9 Comments

The first time a recovering addict thinks about relapsing and outsmarts the impulse, they’ve formed a additional layer of consciousness: a constant examination of why they might be driven to do something.

Most of us lack this. It’s strange that in our most formative period we were not taught to think this way. Remember back to when you were a teenager. It was almost exclusively a matter of whether some was or was not allowed. Never: “why are you doing this?” “tell me what compels you to get so wasted?” “have you ever wondered why you want a 26 year old boyfriend?

There is no prompting to question the desires themselves – only to check them against the posted rules and guidelines. This creates addicts. Addicts, losers, constant wall-crashers, the people who just can’t seem to function like the rest of us. It strips you have the ability to notice patterns in your own behavior – to catch what strikes impartial observers as being obviously reactions or connections. Most importantly, you learn to make a habit of trusting “the little voice inside you” long before its developed a track record of success.

As a child, parents often recognize this duality. Excuse him, he’s just upset because he hasn’t had his nap yet. And later, in adulthood, we tacitly acknowledge it all the time. The serial single are supposed to recognize what causes them to submarine relationships and men are expected to resist the humorous temptations of their mid-life crisis. But where are these skills taught?

Certainly nowhere I’ve ever been. In fact, we pay lip service to the opposite all the time. Go with your gut. Do what feels right. Follow your own path. But we are the problem.

By definition, what addicts leave with is an ability that transcends the “self” in self-awareness. It is calling the credentials of your instincts into question – auditing them, forcing them to stand up under scrutiny. So while this might not technically be self-awareness, I think it is certainly a kind of self-respect. And do you really believe it’s available only to people who have hit bottom?