Choose or risk forever surrendering your peace – Why Having Your Own Philosophy Matters

Speak now, or forever hold your peace” could be traced back to the Christian wedding ceremony, where the audience is given the last chance to voice any objections to the marriage. It is one example where it is important to have an opinion and defend it – or else risk surrendering it forever.

Similarly, when it comes to philosophy of life, everyone needs to have their own version of philosophy – we either choose how to think for ourselves now, or risk forever surrendering our peace by letting others choose for us, by letitng others decide what is right or wrong, what makes life worth living, what our course of action should be.

To Swim or Not to Swim, That is the Question

That IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives.

Hunter S. Thompson’s Letter on Finding Your Purpose and Living a Meaningful Life

Almost everything we do is a choice between floating (i.e., default to the curent of others) vs. swimming (i.e., chart our own course). Only those with a philosophy of life of their own knows how to swim.

Thomson goes on to say: “And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Taking a step back, not everyone realizes we are in the water in the first place. There is a joke of two fish swimming along and running into a third fish, which asks them: “Morning, how’s the water?” The two fish stare at each other and ask blankly: “What the hell is water?”

David Foster Wallace’s comment in his 2005 commencement speech “This is Water” is very to the point:

“The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. […] in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance.”

Wallace goes on to say “the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre” is that “a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about ‘teaching you how to think.’

Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal arts cliché about teaching you how to think is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed. Think of the old cliché about ‘the mind being an excellent servant but a terrible master.’

Ayn Rand on Why Having A Philosophy Of Your Own Matters

As Ayn Rand puts it, everyone has a philosophy of some sorts: “As a human being, you have no choice about the fact that you need a philosophy. Your only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation.

In other words, we all have a philosophy whether we consciously acknowledge it or not – the choice we have is whether this philosophy is chosen by ourselves thanks to our mind (“swim”), or chosen for us dictated by others (“float”):

The men who are not interested in philosophy absorb its principles from the cultural atmosphere around them—from schools, colleges, books, magazines, newspapers, movies, television, etc. Who sets the tone of a culture? A small handful of men: the philosophers. Others follow their lead, either by conviction or by default.”

How to Decide Where to Swim Towards?

Choosing a philosophy for ourselves could be harder than it seems. Charlie Munger shares his tip on how to avoid the trap of unclear thinking & decision-making:

I have what I call an ‘iron prescription’ that helps me keep sane when I drift toward preferring one intense ideology over another. I feel that I’m not entitled to have an opinion unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who are in opposition. I think that I’m qualified to speak only when I’ve reached that state.

Charlie Munger

Hunter Thompson shares his advice on how to lead a meaningful life:

A man has to BE something; he has to matter.
*
As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. […] In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.”

The World ALWAYS Makes Sense

When was the last time you felt like this boy:

(Disclaimer: I like square roots. I think maths is awesome.)

We have all had our fair share of saying / hearing the likes of:

  • “This doesn’t make sense.”
  • “I wish it made more sense.”
  • “How can I make sense of this thing?”
  • “Nothing makes sense!”
  • ….you get the idea

Here is the good news: (A) The world always makes sense. As every good news feels lonely without its companion – the bad news – bear in mind that when you feel something doesn’t make sense, (B) what is not making sense is your model of the world.

Note to logical hygiene freaks: Some of you may immediately challenge – “Hey but what you said does not make sense! If both statements (A) & (B) hold, then the logical conclusion is (C) your “model of the world” is exterior to (not part of) “the world,” which is self-defeating if the world encompasses every living organism – your brain (and by extension, your mind) is part of the world.

Fair enough, 5 bonus points if that matters. And now we move on. And yes, I am saying regardless of whether the challenge makes sense or not, I am moving on as if it doesn’t. 🙂

If statements (A) and (B) sound abstract, you may find this analogy below helpful:

Here is what a cylinder looks like in different contexts:

  • 3D environment: cylinder
  • 2D projection: square / circle depending on the angle of projection

In the 2D world, which is a one-dimensional reduction of the cylinder, we could say that both the square & the circle are “true ‘slices’ of the reality of the cylinder; neither alone give a clear sense of the higher dimensional shape’s reality.” This is inevitable because “they are reducing the reality (without realizing it) to a view that simply can not adequately contain it.

How should we deal with the seemingly contradiction of square vs. circle? I think Daniel Schmachtenberger nailed it:

The problem of course is in the reductionism. There is no 2D slice of a 3D object that gives a real sense of what it is. Neither is any 2D negotiation of slices going to yield something in 3D. The cylinder is not somewhere between the two reductionistic views: 50% circle, 50% rectangle… It is 100% of both descriptions…which are only mutually exclusive and paradoxical if they are trying to be reconciled in the same plane, which is the essential mistake.
*
In the higher dimensional reality the object (cylinder) actually lives in, the simultaneous full truth of both partial descriptions (square & circle) is obvious and non-paradoxical…as is the seamless way they fit together as parts of a congruent whole.

Daniel Schmachtenberger, Higher Dimensional Thinking, the End of Paradox, and a More Adequate Understanding of Reality

Blog recommendation: I highly recommend Daniel’s blog Civilization Emerging for some mind-opening posts. In addition, check out his recommended readings on various topics.

To conclude: when we think the world doesn’t make sense, what doesn’t make sense is our interpretation of it – it could that we are futilely trying to find a 2D explanation that 100% fits a 3D problem, which means we inevitably end up with (i) a paradox that cannot be reconciled and / or (ii) a puzzle that cannot be explained, and (iii) a messed-up mind. Note that I used “and / or” vs. “and” – because (iii) is a “gift” that you are 100% guaranteed to get.

To end with a sentence that I hope makes sense: It’s never too late to make sense of how we are making sense of the world, which always makes sense when analyzed under the model that makes the best sense.

Come Out to Play for Fun – On “Finite and Infinite Games”

Context: This post is inspired by the book Finite and Infinite Games. As the subtitle reads, this book offers “a vision of life as play and possibility.” Perspective-changing. At time of writing, I have finished ~1/3 of the book.

Finite games play within boundaries.
Infinite games play with boundaries.

James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”

There Are Two Kinds of Games

Namely: finite games and infinite games. See quote above for what I think is the most important takeaway to remember on what sets the two apart.

But first, let’s talk about what all games have in common: whoever plays, plays freely (by free choice):

In one respect, but only one, an infinite game is identical to a finite game: if they play they play freely; if they must play, they cannot play.

James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”

Other than this similarity, finite and infinite games differ drastically. I summarize below the key takeaways for different types of readers:

A/ For efficiency-maximizing readers => here are your bullet points

P.S._version_fun: I am aware that “efficiency-maximizing” is sometimes used as an euphemism for “I don’t have time” and / or “I don’t care” and / or “I am too important for details”. Just joking. 🙂

How to read: trait_of_finite_games vs. trait_of_infinite_games (I give myself credit for clearly labeling my legend):

  • Goal: to win vs. to continue playing;
  • Is temporally bounded: yes (clear start and end) vs. no (unclear start and no end)
  • Is spatially bounded: yes (within a marked area) vs. no
  • Is numerically bounded: yes (fixed number of players, so that one could emerge as the clear winner and end the game) vs. no (players walk on and off the field as they wish)
  • Rules of the game: contractual terms by which the players can agree who has won, and do not change throughout the play vs. contractual terms by which the players agree to continue playing and are dynamic

B/ For word-lovers and creatives => here is your metaphor

And a bonus picture for the metaphor:

P.S._version_creepy: 23. This number is why I chose the picture above. The 23 enigma is, depending on your perspective, creepy and/or mysterious and/or inexplicable and/or irrational and/or nonsense and/or [insert adjective(s) of your choice].

I bet after you read up on “23” and its stories, you will start to see the number everywhere. Just like how I was able to immediately spot the 23 in this picture when I was searching for theatre-related pics. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. For those who want to go down the rabbit hole of more things that will surprise your brain (disclaimer: surprise could mean “mess up seriously” for some people) – check out the book Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati. My biggest takeaway from the book is: don’t read the book if you want to remain sane. You’ve been warned. This is the one time I am trying (and I think I am actually) being nice.

The metaphor itself (finally emerges after a super-long ad above which does not generate any additional income for me): finite games = theatre, infinite games = drama:

Finite games mirror theatre in –

  • Have a clear ending – finite games end when a clear winner emerges
  • Have scripted roles – all players in a finite game play the role that (they think) will help them win

Infinite games mirror drama in –

  • Avoid predictable outcomes – a game is an infinite game precisely because the outcome is not known
  • No scripted roles – players in an infinite game constantly change to continue the game playing with no ending, and to continue the surprise

Insert-rant: And I totally love I also used bullet points in this section. It is as plain as day that I am an efficiency-maximizing writer. I have deliberately chosen the color red to emphasize how unimportant this rant is. Oh, I meant the color red *and* the italics.

Some addendums on acting: in finite games, “self-veiling” is inevitable, as in all players act according to a scripted role (that they have assigned themselves, or think they ought to be playing). I find this part from the book to be very thoughtful:

What makes this an issue is not the morality of masking ourselves. It is rather that self-veiling is a contradictory act – a free suspension of our freedom. I cannot forget that I have forgotten. I may have used the veil so successfully that I have made my performance believable to myself. I may have convinced myself I am Ophelia. But credibility will never suffice to undo the contradictoriness of self-veiling.

James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”

This reminds me of this quote of Irene Adler in BBC’s Sherlock TV series: “Do you know the big problem with a disguise, Mr. Holmes? However hard you try, it’s always a self-portrait.”

Image result for irene adler self portrait"

Why so serious? (And how to be playful?)

Seriousness is too boring to the playful human condition.

Michael Bassey Johnson

Here is some serious chain-of-thinking delivered in playful tones:

Seriousness is too boring yet all too common, because boredom is the default tone of life, which may not be a bad thing if you believe the existence of “boredom” is what makes the “NOT-boredom” possible, similar to how Taoism tells us that concepts exist in opposites just as brightness cannot exist without darkness, just as the “is” defines the “is not” and vice versa.

I appreciate you moving on to read this line, as the above paragraph has not scared you off. 🙂 Smiley emoji here because: why so serious?

And seriously: why are we so serious?

And the serious answer: “Seriousness always has to do with an established script, an ordering of affairs completed somewhere outside the range of our influence.

Think about it, seriousness always implies there is a script, which implies there are scripted roles. We are more serious than usual when we interact with a uniformed policeman or doctor, compared with interacting them in their off-uniform casual clothes.

In contrast: “We are playful when we engage others at the level of choice, when there is no telling in advance where our relationship with them will come out – when, in fact, no one has an outcome to be imposed on the relationship, apart from the decision to continue it.”

As you may have guessed, being serious is the tone of finite games, while being playful is the game that the infinites play. Importantly, to be playful should not be confused with to be “trivial or frivolous, or to act as though nothing of consequence will happen”. To be playful means acknowledging that any consequence could happen, and welcoming this unbounded realm of possibilities:

To be serious is to press for a specified conclusion. To be playful is to allow for possibility whatever the cost to oneself.

James P. Carse, “Finite and Infinite Games”

Linking back to the common purpose of all finite games – play to win. Yet how can you be truly playing playfully, if you take winning seriously? Thus, being playful is the luxury reserved for the infinite game players – who play playfully with the goal to continue playing.

And I must conclude this section with a playful picture:

Image result for to be playful and serious at the same time"

Pick your poison: Power or Strength?

Of course I am obliged to be playful and “not-so-serious” by this point. So the playful answer is: why not both? Get a personal trainer if you want some help with fitness.

Back to the serious topic: Finite games play for power. Infinite games play for strength.

Power is embedded in the emergence of a winner at the end of the game. Power is passive, it is “never one’s own,” as it requires the voluntary acceptance of the power by others.

Strength is paradoxical. “I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them.” Strength is mocking power in the face and having no thoughts of it whatsoever.

Power concentrates only in a small hand of victors – because winning is not something you could opt into, but something that is decided for you according to the rules of the game.

Strength benefits potentially anyone – because strength is something we could all choose to have, something we decide for ourselves according to the will of our mind.

So my friends – decide how you want to play. Pick your script – or no script. Recite seriously or explore playfully. Fight for your power or defend your strength.

The night is getting dark…

…and time to come out to play.

Secret to Longevity: Make Frequent “Quantum Jumps” to New Reality-Matrices

Disclaimers: (1) This post may mess with your mind, and (2) this post is intended to mess up your mind. #smirk#

Cultural conditioning, in every tribe, is a process of gradually narrowing your tunnel-reality. The way to stay young (comparatively; until the longevity pill is discovered) is to make a quantum jump every so often and land yourself in a new reality-matrix.

Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati

“Reality” is Messed Up!

I mean the word “reality” itself is a messed-up word that is misleading about the reality it intends to convey (pun intended). 😉

In the crazy – and/or – magical – and/or – daring – and/or -neurotic – and/or -creepy- and/or – [insert-your-adjective(s) of choice] book (more like mind-bender), Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati, Robert Wilson thinks it is a misleading pity that “reality” is (a) a noun, and (b) in singular form.

“Reality” (more like realities) is / are “always plural and mutable“. Forget about a single source of truth. Forget about realizing reality. We could each construct our own ‘reality,’ but there is no such thing as THE REALITY that we could all arrive at.

Consider the “conventional wisdom” that seeing is believing:

“We perceive an orange as really orange, whereas it is actually blue, the orange light being the light bouncing off the real fruit. And, everywhere we look, we imagine solid objects, but science only finds a web of dancing energy.”

“The orange has the orange color” is a statement that describes your mental projection (identified image, conscious recognition) of “a web of dancing energy”:

“All of our perceptions have gone through myriads of neural processes in the brain before they appear to our consciousness. At the point of conscious recognition, the identified image is organized into a three-dimensional hologram which we project outside ourselves and call ‘reality’.”

The next time you hear yourself say: “The reality is…” Catch yourself. It is more accurate to say: “My model of the reality is…” The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal. The model of reality is not the reality itself – if it even exists in the first place. This line of thinking is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation, or “model agnosticism”.

As an extension of the “model agnoticism,” there are two principles / rules of the game:

  1. The principle of neurological relativism by Timothy Leary: “No two people ever report exactly the same signals.
  2. The way to “double your practical intelligence” according to Robert Wilson: “Try to receive as many signals as possible from other humans, however wrong-headed their reality-map may seem” and avoid the “habit of screening out all human signals not immediately compatible with our own favorite reality-map.”

Reality (and all behavior) is a Giant Game?

According to the Morgenstern-von Neumann game theoretic model, “most human transactions can be analyzed mathematically by treating them as if they were games”, and personality could be analyzed as “a group process defined by rules of interpersonal politics”.

If you are wondering WTH that really means, consider the application of model by Timothy Leary, a psychologic best known for his exploration of psychedelics:

What are the players actually doing in space-time? […] What are the rules of the game? How many strikes before you’re out? Who makes the rules? Who can change the rules? These are the important questions.

Timothy Leary

Leary developed a seven-dimensional game model to analyze all behavior, with respect to:

  1. Roles being played;
  2. Rules tacitly accepted (by all payers);
  3. Strategies for winning;
  4. Goals of the game;
  5. Language of the game (and the semantic world-view implied);
  6. Characteristic space-time locations, and
  7. Characteristic movements in space-time.

As Leary said: “If you can’t describe those seven dimensions of a group’s behavior, you don’t understand their game. Most so-called ‘neurosis’ is best analyzed as somebody programmed to play football wandering around in a baseball field. If he thinks football is the only game in the universe, the other players will seem perverse or crazy to him; if they think baseball is the only game, he’ll seem crazy to them.”

As of such, in the eyes of Leary, most psychological terminology are “pre-scientific” and “vague.” He thinks it makes much more sense to analyze it like a game.

Is Discordianism (the Cosmic Giggle Factor) the Best Way to View Reality?

So far it sounds a bit depressing – “reality” is / are messed up, “reality” is a complicated game with seven dimensions, and “THE reality” may be forever beyond our grasp (if it even exists).

You may feel your mind exploding. What is the best way to view reality?

One approach is Discordianism, invented by Thornley & Gregory Hill in the 1950s, dubbed as the first true “true religion.” Discordianism worships the Greek goddess of chaos & confusion, Eris:

Discordianism is the religion or belief in which chaos is thought to be as important as order…in contrast with most religions, which idealize harmony and order.

Discordia Wiki
“Sacred Chao” – the symbol of Discordianism

In the words of Wilson, the first law of Discordianism is: “Convictions cause convicts.” In other words, “whatever you believe imprisons you,” “”belief is the death of intelligence,” and “the more certitude one assumes, the less there is to think about.”

Some view Discordianism as a parody religion, but Wilson makes the case to take it more seriously:

“I saw Discordianism as the Cosmic Giggle Factor, introducing so many alternative paranoias that everybody could pick a favorite, if they were inclined that way. I also hoped that some less gullible souls, overwhelmed by this embarrassment of riches, might see through the whole paranoia game and decide to mutate to a wider, funnier, more hopeful reality-map.”

Wilson hopes Discordianism would persuade more people to “make a quantum jump” to a “new reality-matrix”, different from the narrow tunnel-reality that culture has conditioned them into.

To sum up, the biggest takeaway from Wilson’s book is probably this:

Our models of “reality” are very small and tidy, the universe of experience is huge and untidy, and no model can ever include all the huge untidiness perceived by uncensored consciousness.

Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger I: Final Secret of the Illuminati

What are things that blew your mind about how you view reality? Leave a comment or write to me at fullybookedclub.blog@gmail.com!

Defending Selfishness and Questioning Altruism (on Ayn Rand’s philosophy)

“Why do you use the word ‘selfishness’ to denote virtuous qualities of character, when that word antagonizes so many people to whom it does not mean the things you mean?”
* * *
To those who ask it, my answer is:
“For the reason that makes you afraid of it.”

Ayn Rand, “The Virtue of Selfishness
Image result for the virtue of selfishness ayn rand

Context: This article looks at the virtue of selfishness & the vice of altruism, according to Ayn Rand‘s philosophy – widely referred to as “objectivism”. Rand is a Russian-American writer and philosopher, best known for her novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. She has also published two collections of essays: The Virtue of Selfishness and For The New Intellectual. She is a strong advocate for rationality and capitalism (while being a firm critic of mysticism and socialism).

Popular Opinion: Selfishness = A Vice of Negative Value

“Sweetheart, do share your toys with other children, don’t keep it to youself selfishly!”
– parent to child

“How could you be so selfish and only think about yourself when you make decisions?”
– husband to wife

“For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
– Bible, James 3:16

“Is selfishness is a virtue or a vice?” If I ask this question, I would not be surprised to see a few folks roll their eyes or stare at me with a isn’t-this-obvious look.

The dictionary definition of selfish often has a negative connotation to it:

The Cambridge Dictionary : Selfish (adj.)
– caring only about what you want or need without any thought for the needs or wishes of other people;
– someone who is selfish only thinks of their own advantage.

It is a popular belief that “selfishness” is a vice to be corrected, and its opposite “altruism” is a moral ideal to be embraced. This narrative is so dominant – in fact, we rarely hear alternatives – that most people have taken it for granted.

However, just because something is “conventional” does not mean it is “wisdom”. Conventional wisdom is no substitute for thoughtful wisdom – and it is time we re-examine what it means to be selfish, and whether being selfish has its own merits.

Ayn Rand: Selfishness is Morally Neutral as a Term

Ayn Rand argues that the negative connotation we assign to the word “selfishness” is misplaced. On the contrary, she argues that the word “selfishness”, at its core, is a morally-neutral term:

This concept (of selfishness as concern with one’s own interests) does not include a moral evaluation; it does not tell us whether concern with one’s own interests is good or evil; nor does it tell us what constitutes man’s actual interests. It is the task of ethics to answer such questions.

Ayn Rand

Applying a similar logic, Rand argues the positive connotation assigned to the word “altruism” is misplaced. Being altruistic itself is not necessarily virtuous or beneficial. Rand says there are “two moral questions which altruism lumps together into one ‘package-deal'”, namely:

(1) What are values?
(2) Who should be the beneficiary of values?

Rand is firmly against the cult of altriusm:

Altruism substitutes the second (moral question) for the first; it evades the task of defining a code of moral values, thus leaving man, in fact, without moral guidance…the beneficiary of an action is the only criterion of moral value—and so long as that beneficiary is anybody other than oneself, anything goes.

Ayn Rand

In other words, Rand is saying the fact that the beneficiary of an action is someone other than oneself (i.e., altruistic) – this fact alone – does not give us any information about this action is more justifiable than others. We learn nothing about the underlying values associated with this action – and hence we should not jump to a moral judgment too soon, too wrong.

Whether a selfish act (or altruistic act) is morally justifiable or not – this is a situational question that should be looked at case by case. Rand presents this thought experiment: imagine two people – A is a “selfish” businessman who produces goods that society wants in order to earn money; B is a “selfish” robber who loots. A and B are both selfish, but most would argue that A’s selfishness actions are more morally justifiable than those of B’s.

In the words of Rand, there is “a fundamental moral difference between a man who sees his self-interest in production and a man who sees it in robbery”:

The evil of a robber does not lie in the fact that he pursues his own interests, but in what he regards as to his own interest; not in the fact that he pursues his values, but in what he chose to value.

Ayn Rand

It is not contradictory to say: (a) man should selfishly pursue his own interests, and (b) some interests are morally justifiable and others aren’t. Being selfish is a means to achieve one’s goal – whether that goal is ethical is a separate discussion.

Nature vs. Nuture: Is Everyone Born Selfish?

Some believe we are born with the natural desire that the world revolves around us – we are born with selfishness.

For Ayn Rand, being selfish requires one to first have a proper “self”. Having a (proper) sense of “self” is the prerequisite to being “selfish”. Rand defines self differently from popular usage of the term:

A man’s self is his mind – the faculty that perceives reality, forms judgments, chooses values.

Ayn Rand

A true sense of self is based on an active choice of values, rather than a passive imitation of what others value. Sadly, the sense of self is lost to those who live everyday being the person they think others would want them to be:

The abdication and shriveling of the self is a salient characteristic of all perceptual mentalities, tribalist or lone-wolfish. All of them dread self-reliance; all of them dread the responsibilities which only a self (i..e, a conceptual consciousness) can perform, and they seek escape from the two activities which an actually selfish man would defend with his life: judgment and choice.

Ayn Rand

Judgment of reality and choice of values – these are the two prerequisite activities that an “actually selfish” man would perform relentlessly – and he would defend with his life the right to define himself. The best of such men are what Rand calls the “New Intellectuals”, i.e., people who are “willing to think” and “who know that man’s life must be guided by reason”:

There are two principles on which all men of intellectual integrity and good will can agree, as a “basic minimum,” as a precondition of any discussion…a. that emotions are not tools of cognition; b. that no man has the right to initiate the use of physical force against others.

Ayn Rand

Knowing how to be “selfish” in a proper way is a privilege, a skill, a capability – not a trait we are born with, but rather a subject we should study.

Asking the Non-Obvious: What is Wrong with Altruism?

Following a defense of critism, let us switch to the opposite side and look at Rand’s critique of altruism. She calls altruism “the basic evil” that is “incompatible with freedom, with capitalism, and with individual rights.”

As before, let us first clarify what Rand means by the word altruism:

What is the moral code of altruism? The basic principle of altruism is that man has no right to exist for his own sake, that service to others is the only justification of his existence, and that self-sacrifice is his highest moral duty, virtue and value.

Ayn Rand

Importantly, Rand says altruism should not be confused with “kindness, good will or respect for the rights of others”. These are possible consequences, but not defining primaries or traits, of altruism (and altruistic actions). I find this analysis of Rand to be extremely powerful:

Do not hide behind such superficialities as whether you should or should not give a dime to a beggar. That is not the issue. The issue is whether you do or do not have the right to exist without giving him that dime. The issue is whether you must keep buying your life, dime by dime, from any beggar who might choose to approach you.

The issue is whether the need of others is the first mortgage on your life and the moral purpose of your existence. The issue is whether man is to be regarded as a sacrificial animal. Any man of self-esteem will answer: “No.” Altruism says: “Yes.”

Ayn Rand

Rand goes one step further to challenge the notion that giving makes the giver happier:

Even though altruism declares that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” it does not work that way in practice. The givers are never blessed; the more they give, the more is demanded of them; complaints, reproaches and insults are the only response they get for practicing altruism’s virtues (or for their actual virtues).

Ayn Rand

Even from the perspective of a consequentialist, Rand claims that altruism does not lead to “a recognition of virtue”, “self-esteem or moral innocence.” To the contrary, Rand believes altruism suffocates the giver with guilt – placing a burden on him to give constantly, selflessly, tiringly; casting a spell on him to think it is his moral responsibility to give:

If the giver is not kept under a torrent of degrading, demeaning accusations, he might take a look around and put an end to the self-sacrificing. Altruists are concerned only with those who suffer—not with those who provide relief from suffering, not even enough to care whether they are able to survive. When no actual suffering can be found, the altruists are compelled to invent or manufacture it.

Ayn Rand

Concluding Remarks: Being a New Intellectual

At the end of writing about Rand’s philosophy, I must confess that I am fully aware of this: I am getting ahead of myself in writing about Rand. I have read so little of her writings (or writings about her) that my representation of her philosophy could be missing out key pieces.

Despite being new to Rand School, I did not hold back on writing about Rand, with the most important reason being that few philosophers have hit me hard like she did. It is the feeling of exaltation mixed with exasperation when I turn the pages of her books. It is the realization that there are so many questions out there that I have not asked (consciously or subconsciously), so many meanings out there that I have not pondered. It is the impulse that I must never stop the quest to understand the questions that define what it means to be alive, what it means to be human. These and so much more that I am at a loss of words to describe.

I leave you with words of Rand discussing The New Intellectual. I aim to live up to her definition and expectation of what it means to honor one’s intellect:

To support a culture, nothing less than a new philosophical foundation will do. […] The greatest need today is for men who are not strangers to reality, because they are not afraid of thought.

The New Intellectual will be the man who lives up to the exact meaning of his title: a man who is guided by his intellect – not a zombie guided by feelings, instincts, urges, wishes, whims or revelations.

[…] He will be an integrated man, that is: a thinker who is a man of action. He will know that ideas divorced from consequent action are fraudulent, and that action divorced from ideas is suicidal.

Ayn Rand

I part with two quotes (callings) from Rand at the end of her essay:

“Gentlemen, leave your guns outside.”

“The intellectuals are dead – long live the intellectuals!”

How Strangers Confused Spies and Diplomats (Reading “Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell)

Malcolm Gladwell is back in town with a new book this month: Talking to Strangers. Great read – insightful & crisp like Gladwell’s earlier works. Never dry, sometimes actionable, frequently inspiring. Full of specific stories & research, a walking example of Gladwell’s belief: “Most interesting people talk about things with a great deal of specificity.

For podcast lovers: Oprah Winfrey interviewed Gladwell about this book in the latest episode of Super Soul Sunday. A nice intro into the book.

Related image

From Neighbors to Strangers: Change in Interactions

Setting up the context in the opening chapter, Malcolm talks about how we interact with others have changed:

Throughout the majority of human history, encounters – hostile or otherwise – were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules.

Our ancestors mostly interacted with “neighbors”, as in people who lived in close proximity and had a common base for communication – including a common language & common cultural norms. This “common ground” reduced the cost of communication, making it very unlikely that things were “lost in translation” – both literally & metaphorically.

In contrast:

“Today we are now thrown into contact all the time with people whose assumptions, perspectives, and backgrounds are different from our own…struggling to understand each other.”

Today, we live in an Era of Strangers – people whose beliefs, upbringings & habits that are drastically different from our own. Yet, we could be terrible at times in understanding these differences. As Malcolm put it, the book “Talking to Strangers is about why we are so bad at that act of translation.”

Let’s dig in to look at key takeaways from the book.

Two Puzzles We Got from Spies & Diplomats

Fidel Castro released a documentary on Cuban national television titled The CIA’s War Against Cuba:

“Cuban intelligence, it turned out, had filmed and recorded everything the CIA had been doing in their country for at least ten years – as if they were creating a reality show…On the screen, identified by name, were CIA officers supposedly under deep cover…The most sophisticated intelligence service in the world had been played for a fool.”

The Cuban government had, in effect, converted almost all of CIA agents in Cuba into their agents, and fed fake information back to CIA for years. Years!

Malcolm says the CIA’s spectacular failure brought up Puzzle #1: “Why can’t we tell when the stranger in front of us is lying to our face? Why did the CIA – with the world’s top minds trained in espionage – failed to realize their agents lied to them for years?

Similar misjudgments happened on the other side of the world, in Britain. Before World War II broke out:

“(Then UK Prime Minister) Chamberlain’s negotiations with Hitler are widely regarded as one of the great follies of the Second World War. Chamberlain fell under Hitler’s spell. He was outmaneuvered at the bargaining table. He misread Hitler’s intentions.”

Others in Britain saw through Hitler – Winston Churchill was one of the people who “never believed for a moment that Hitler was anything more than a duplicitous thug.”

What’s interesting, though, is although Chamberlain spent hours with Hitler in person, Churchill only read about Hitler on paper. “The people who were right about Hitler were those who knew least about him personally.” Here comes Puzzle #2: “How is it that meeting a stranger can sometimes make us worse at making sense of that person than not meeting them?

Even trained spies & diplomats could get it all wrong when it comes to strangers – just imagine how complicated this whole thing is:

“We have people struggling with their first impressions of a stranger. We have people struggling when they have months to understand a stranger. We have people struggling when they meet with someone only once, and people struggling when they return to the stranger again and again. They struggle with assessing a stranger’s honesty. They struggle with a stranger’s character. They struggle with a stranger’s intent.”
* * *
“It’s a mess.”

Talking to strangers is a mess indeed. Below are some tips that may provide some guidance.

“Default to Truth” is A Mental Shortcut that Works Most of the Time, but Trips Us Over at Unexpected Times

Psychologist Tim Levine did an experiment: he asked participants to watch videos of students talking, and try to spot liars among them. The result:

“We’re much better than chance (>>50%) at correctly identifying the students who are telling the truth. But we’re much worse than chance (<<50%) at correctly identifying the students who are lying. We go through all those videos, and we guess – ‘true, true, true’ – which means we get most of the truthful interviews right, and most of the liars wrong.”

Malcolm calls this “default to truth: our operating assumption is that the people we are dealing with are honest.” More importantly, Levine finds “we stop believing only when our doubts and misgivings rise to the point where we can no longer explain them away”. In other words, for us to switch off the default-truth mode, we not only require some doubt – we require enough doubt, unshakable doubt, undeniable doubt that it would take an insane person to not change his or her opinion.

Borrowing words from the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty” here, we all practice the mental shortcut of “trust until proven a lie” – and this burden of proof has an extremely high threshold. We require evidence to go way, way, way beyond reasonable doubt.

As Malcolm summarizes it:

“That is Levine’s point. You believe someone not because you have no doubts about them. Belief is not the absence of doubt. You believe someone because you don’t have enough doubts about them.
* * *
“Just think about how many times you have criticized someone else, in hindsight, for their failure to spot a liar. ‘You should have known. There were all kinds of red flags. You had doubts.’ Levine would say that’s the wrong way to think about the problem. The right question is: were there enough red flags to push you over the threshold of belief? If there weren’t, then by defaulting to truth you were only being human…doubts trigger disbelief only when you can’t explain them away.”

Our mental shortcut of “default to truth” is not completely useless – to the contrary, it is an evolutionary toolkit that gives us “efficient communication and social coordination” – at the cost of “an occasional lie”:

Lies are rare…it doesn’t matter so much that we are terrible at detecting lies in real life. Under the circumstances, in fact, defaulting to truth makes logical sense. If the person behind the counter at the coffee shop says your total with tax is $6.74, you can do the math yourself to double-check their calculations, holding up the line and wasting 30 seconds of your time. Or you can simply assume the salesperson is telling you the truth, because on balance most people do tell the truth.”

Every day, we make countless decisions about whether or not to trust someone. Our default decision is to opt for the higher-probability scenario, i.e., the other side is telling the truth. In a handful of scenarios, we misjudge and pay for misplaced belief in a liar.

But overall, the total cost we pay is lower than the reverse “default to lie” position – imagine aggressively fact checking & analyzing every word others say, every action others take. It would be impossible to go on with life without becoming schizophrenic!

“Default to truth biases us in favor of the mostly likely interpretation.”

Related reading: A case in point of when “default to truth” goes wrong is the story of the scandal of Theranos – a company that made repeated lies that tripped over some of the world’s best investors & experts, who refused to change their belief in the company despite red flags. I highly recommend the investigative journalism into this: Bad Blood. Page-turner. Amazing story about ethics, business, and the human mind.

Image result for bad blood john carreyrou

What the TV Show “Friends” Got Wrong: Transparency of Feelings is Rarer than We Think

For those who watched Friends, think about this: “it is almost impossible to get confused (when watching the show)…you can probably follow along even if you turn off the sound.” Why is this?

Malcolm cites research done via the Facial Action Coding System (FACS), a scoring system for facial expressions:

“FACS analysis tells us that the actors in ‘Friends’ make sure that every emotion their character is supposed to feel in their heart is expressed, perfectly, on their face…the facial displays of the actors are what carry the plot. The actors’ performances in Friends are transparent.”

Malcolm defines “transparency” as “the idea that people’s behavior and demeanor – the way they represent themselves on the outside – provides an authentic and reliable window into the way they feel on the inside.”

I would define transparency as an idea about consistency: “transparency” = the facial expression someone displays is consistent with what the majority of people would display, if they felt the same feelings. Borrowing the terminology “group-think”, perhaps this could be called “group-face”, i.e., have facial displays that the majority of your group would put on if put in the same shoes.

For example, a person who feels happy and wears a wide grin is being ‘transparent’, whereas the same person would be considered ‘not transparent’ if he frowns instead. Friends is a TV show of high transparency.

Image result for friends TV show

Fans of Friends, beware – the transparency you see in the show is rarely seen in practice!

“Transparency is a myth – an idea we’ve picked up from watching too much television and reading too many novels where the hero’s ‘jaw dropped with astonishment’ or ‘eyes went wide with surprise.'”

German psychologists Schutzwohl and Reisenzein carried out an experiment – they created a scenario that would surprise participants, who were later asked to describe their facial expressions. Almost all of the participants “were convinced that surprise was written all over their faces.”

But it was not:

“In only 5% of the cases did they (researchers) find wide eyes, shooting eyebrows and dropped jaws. In 17% of the cases they found two of those expressions. In the rest they found some combination of nothing, a little something, and things – such as knitted eyebrows – that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with surprise at all.”

The researchers concluded “participants in all conditions grossly overestimated their surprise expressivity…[t]hey inferred their likely facial expressions to the surprising event from…folk-psychological beliefs about emotion-face associations.”

So the next time you think you have “read” someone from their facial expressions, think again. People are less transparent than you think.

Related TV show: Lie To Me is a US TV series about solving crimes analyzing micro-expressions, i.e., voluntary & involuntary facial expressions which happen so fast that they are not captured by the untrained naked eye. The show’s story-line rests on the premise that certain micro-expressions may be involuntary and universal across cultures, a helpful tool for investigators to decipher the real feelings that criminals are trying to mask. Consider it as an alternative to your regular lie detector. There is academic research into micro-expressions too, though I have not looked at it in-depth.

Image result for lie to me TV show

What Suicide & Criminal Behaviors Have in Common: Both are Coupling Behaviors

In 1962, gas suicide was the #1 form of suicide in England, accounting for over 40% of the cases. By the 1970s, town gas throughout the country was replaced with natural gas that contained no carbon monoxide, that would give you “a mild headache and a crick in your neck” at the worst, but nowhere near lethal.

“So here is the question: once the number-one form of suicide (town gas) in England became a physiological impossibility, did the people who wanted to kill themselves switch to other methods? Or did the people who would have put their heads in ovens now not commit suicide at all?”

If you think people will go for alternative forms of suicide, then you believe in displacement, which “assumes that when people think of doing something as serious as committing suicide, they are very hard to stop.” If you think suicides will drop once the top form of suicide becomes impossible, then you believe in coupling: “the idea that behaviors are linked to very specific circumstances and conditions.” Statistics suggest suicide and crimes are both coupling behaviors tied to specific contexts.

For example, after a suicide barrier was installed on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a survey followed up on 515 participants who once attempted to jump from the bridge – only 25 of them (<5%) tried to kill themselves in other ways.

Similarly, crime is also shown to be a coupling behavior. Studies in different cities have converged on the same result: “Crime in every city was concentrated in a tiny number of street segments.” This is referred to as the Law of Crime Concentration. Malcolm thinks the lesson for takeaway is:

“When you confront the stranger, you have to ask yourself where and when you’re confronting the stranger – because those two things powerfully influence your interpretation of who the stranger is.”

Don’t Fall Into the “Illusion of Asymmetric Insight”

Let’s play a game of word completion. Suppose I showed you “G L _ _”, which word would you fill it with?

Now suppose I handed you 3 words that a participant has wrote: WINNER, SCORE, GOAL, what could you infer about this participant’s personality? In one response, an interviewee wrote: “It seems this individual has a generally positive outlook toward the things he endeavors…indicate some sort of competitiveness.”

Now let’s flip the game on its head – suppose I asked you to complete the words, and then asked you what these words you completed reveal about your personality. Guess what? The majority of participants in this game refused to”agree with these word-stem completions” as a measure of their own personality.

This is what the psychologist Pronin calls the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight:

The (biased) conviction that we know others better than they know us – and that we may have insights about them they lack (but not vice versa) – leads us to talk when we would do well to listen and to be less patient than we ought to be when others express the conviction that they are the ones who are being misunderstood or judged unfairly.”

As Malcolm phrases it, it is easy to blame it on the stranger: “We think we can easily see into the hearts of others based on the flimsiest of clues. We jump at the chance to judge strangers. We would never do that to ourselves, of course. We are nuanced and complex and enigmatic. But the stranger is easy. If I can convince you of one thing in this book, let is be this: Strangers are not easy.

If I could leave you with only one takeaway, then let it be this: strangers are not easy. What is easy to do is to blame the strangers for any meaning lost in translation – without assessing our own biases. Hopefully this book has given all of us some actionable tips on “talking to strangers”. Once again, I highly recommend reading the whole book from cover to cover – I hope you will find it to be a page-turner as I did.

What does it mean to be “Educated”?

Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience…the process and the goal of education are one and the same thing.

John Dewey

Education is a continuing reconstruction of experience – at least according to philosopher John Dewey. John’s quote was splattered across the first page of Tara Westover’s memoir Educated. This book is so amazing that I am at a loss of words to describe its impact – parts of it hit me like a truck, while parts of it softened me like a lullaby; parts of it sent chills down my spine, while parts of it swelled warmth in my chest.

If I could only recommend one book to read this year, Educated would be my pick. In the words of Bill Gates, this is “the kind of book everyone will enjoy. It’s even better than you’ve heard.”

Tara’s book is aptly named and poses this grand question, among others: what does it mean to be educated? What makes one deserving of this word?

Educated = Claiming Selfhood. Unapologetically.

You could call this selfhood many things. Transformation. Metamorphosis. Falsity. Betrayal.
* * *
I call it an education.

Tara Westover

“I am not a good daughter. I am a traitor, a wolf among sheep; there is something different about me (from my family) and that difference is not good. I want to bellow, to weep into my father’s knees and promise never to do it again.”

Traitor. That was how Tara Westover felt when her father & family wrestled for control over her life, and she attempted to fight back.

That was how Tara felt after she rushed her injured brother to the hospital instead of to her mom’s herbal therapy. That was how Tara felt for simply thinking about going to school instead of growing up into her “rightful” place as a stay-at-home mom & wife. That was how Tara felt for telling her brother to stop physically abusing her and throwing her onto the floor. That was how Tara felt for wanting to try on jeans & fitting crops, clothes that she were told to belong to “whores”.

There were moments where Tara had doubts about what she was taught by her parents:

“Sometimes I wondered if perhaps school was less evil than Dad thought, because (my brother) Tyler was the least evil person I knew, and he loved school – loved it more, it seemed, than he loved us.”

But these seeds of doubt & curiosity rarely blossomed into the fruits of action. These prescient signs of Tara’s claim to her selfhood were crushed time and time again in a vicious loop:

“Mother had always said we could go to school if we wanted. We just had to ask Dad, she said. Then we could go.
* * *
But I didn’t ask. There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.”

Naval Ravikant said: “If you want to see who rules over you, see who you are not allowed to criticize.” I would take that one step further – if you want to see who has the greatest power over you, see who you do not allow yourself to even question.

Such power at its most forceful throws its slaves into this endless cycle of rejecting one’s claim to selfhood, over and over again. Such power at its most damning whispers the hyptonizing words “to simply be is to be evil,” until these words are tatooed into the victim’s soul. One feels its chilling effect from Tara’s words: “I believed then – and part of me will always believe – that my father’s words ought to be my own.”

The most lethal poison is one that you drink as if your life depended on it; the most deceitful mask is one that you wear as if it were part of your natural skin. Eventually, you are no longer able to discern between what is your voice vs. what is the voice from others – they blend into one, and you take the latter as your own. You have rejected selfhood. You have given up believing in selfhood.

The dictionary definition of “selfhood” is “the quality that constitutes one’s individuality; the state of having an individual identity”. Interestingly, according to Google Books, the frequency that the word “selfhood” appears in English works have been on the rise in the past two centuries. This upward trend coincides with the rise of individualism and freedom of expression:

I argue what sits at the core, as the prerequisite, of being “educated” is to claim our selfhood. To claim our selfhood unapologetically. To question others’ claim over our selfhood critically. Becoming educated starts with saying: “I recognize and honor my innate right to define and continuously redefine my self.” Selfhood is where education starts. Selfhood is where identity starts. Selfhood is where living as a free, breathing being starts. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.”

Tara remembers vividly the defining moment where her brother, Tyler, stood up for his selfhood:

“‘College is for extra school for people too dumb to learn the first time around,’ Dad said (when Tyler wanted to go to college). Tyler stared at the floor, his face tense. Then his shoulders dropped, his face relaxed and he looked up; it seemed to me that he’d stepped out of himself. His eyes were soft, pleasant. I couldn’t see him in there at all.”
* * *
“I will always remember my father in this moment, the potency of him, and the desperation. He leans forward, jaw set, eyes narrow, searching his son’s face for some sign of agreement, some crease of shared conviction. He doesn’t find it.”

Selfhood starts when we no longer copy the “shared conviction” of the group. When we “step out of ourselves” to inspect who we are. When develop convictions that we could truly call our own.

Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me by my father, and to use those truths to construct my own mind…If I yielded now, I would lose more than an argument. I would lose custody of my own mind. This was the price I was being asked to pay, I understood that now.
* * *
What my father wanted to cast from me wasn’t a demon: it was me.

Educated = (Re-)Creating the Structure of Life. Unconstrained.

You are like a river. You go through life taking the path of least resistance…The underlying structure of your life determines the path of least resistance.
* * *
Structure determines behavior.

Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance
The shape of water is defined by the structure it is in

“‘It’s time to go, Tara,’ Tyler said.
The longer you stay, the less likely you will ever leave.
‘You think I need to leave?’
* * *
Tyler didn’t blink, didn’t hesitate.

‘I think this is the worst possible place for you.’ He’d spoken softly, but it felt as though he’d shouted the words. ‘There’s a world out there, Tara…And it will look a lot different once Dad is no longer whispering his view of it in your ear.

Leave. Leave home. This was the advice Tara’s brother Tyler gave her, before he himself walked away from home, and never looked back.What Tyler was really telling Tara was this: change the structure of your life. As long as you are stuck in the same structure, you will never know what the world is like out there. Worse still, you will never be able to imagine what life on the other side is like.

Tara’s recalls her experience taming a wild horse:

“In the space of a moment, he had accepted our claim to ride him, to his being ridden. He had accepted the world as it was, in which he was an owned thing. He had never been feral, so he could not hear the maddening call of that other world, on the mountain, in which he could not be owned, could not be ridden.

People commonly believe that if they change their behavior, they can change the structures in their lives. In fact, just the opposite is true.
* * *
If you are in a structure that leads to oscillation, no solution
will help. This is because these psychological solutions do not
address the structure, but rather the behavior that comes from
the structure.

Robert Fritz, The Path of Least Resistance

In the memoir, Tara wrote about native Apache women, whose fate were dictatated by the customs & rules set in their community:

I thought about the Apache women. Like the sandstone altar on which they had died, the shape of their lives had been determined years before…Decided. Choices, numberless as grains of sand, had layered and compressed, coalescing into sediment, then into rock, until all was set in stone.

Just like the Apache women, the shape of Tara’s life has been determined years before she was born. Before she was born, her parents had decided not only what she would become, but also what she would believe. She would believe schools and medicine were evil. She would believe women should not work. She would believe giving birth at home with a “midwife” without any formal training or certification was safer than giving birth in a hospital. She would believe the “non-believers” – those who held opposing beliefs – were out here to get her. She would believe the Feds could come with their guns to hunt her family down anytime.

As long as Tara was stuck in this structure, she would never have a shot of truly breaking free:

“I could have my mother’s love, but there were terms…that I trade my reality for theirs, that I take my own understanding and bury it, leave it to rot in the earth.”
* * *
“All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs, and I could have my family.”

Leaving her birth family was an educated decision for Tara. It is hard to imagine how she felt as she wrote these words: “You can love someone and still choose to say goodbye to them…You can miss a person every day, and still be glad that they are no longer in your life.”

It takes education and courage to re-create the structure of life, such that the path of least resistance takes you to where you want to go, such that you re-shape the cup so the water morphs into the shape you have in mind.

This could mean saying goodbye to people you love and / or people who love you:

“We think love is noble, and in some ways, it is. But in some ways, it isn’t. Love is just love. And sometimes people do terrible things because of it.
* * *
“It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you…It’s very difficult to continue to believe in yourself and that you’re a good person when the people who know you best don’t.”

Perhaps part of us would always miss the old structure that we broke away from, just as a part of Tara would always miss her family – or rather, the parents she wish she had:

“…(I thought of) my father as I wished he were, some longed-for defender, some fanciful champion, one who wouldn’t fling me into a storm, and who, if I was hurt, would make me whole.”

But to be educated means the ability to detect the unsolvable conflict between the present structure & your future self. To be educated means the audacity to craft a new structure where your true self could blossom. After the initial ‘cultural shock’, you will eventually find peace:

“I shed my guilt when I accepted my decision on its own terms, without endlessly prosecuting old grievances…I learned to accept my decision for my own sake.”

Believe it: you will eventually find your inner peace when you let your inner self blossom.

Education is about Making a Person

I leave you with one last quote from Tara:

An education is not so much about making a living as making a person.

Tara Westover

Educated means claiming selfhood – your right to define yourself as a person. Educated means crafting structure – the birth-bed to let your selfhood flourish.

Borrowing words from the rationalist school of thought that it’s not about being more right but being “less wrong”, the making of a person is not about becoming more perfect but “less flawed” and “less plastic”.

Circling back to John Dewey’s quote at the very top: education is the continuing reconstruction of experience. I wish we all continue smoothly along the journey of education, of bringing us closer to the person we want and deserve to be.

[Big Ideas – Special] Understanding Markets via “Narrative Economics”

The secret of effective market game-playing is to recognize that the market game hinges on the Narrative, on the strength of the public statements that create Common Knowledge.

Epsilon Theory Manifesto

Nobel-winning economist Robert Shiller recently published Narrative Economics, a book on “How Stories Go Viral and Drive Major Economic Events“. Shiller gave a talk at LSE on the big ideas (video, audio, related 2017 paper).

Context: This article is part of the Big Ideas series, where I synthesize takeaways from the world’s best experts in multiple disciplines. This article is a special in the series, because unlike other articles that are synthesized from Discover magazine expert interviews, this piece is largely inspired by a public lecture.

What is a Narrative?

Let’s start with definitions. According to Shiller:

  • Narrative = a telling of a story that attaches significance, meaning or emotions to it;
  • Story = a chronology of events.

What is Narrative Economics?

Shiller makes a key distinction between narrative economics as defined in the dictionary vs. defined by himself. The textbook definition of narrative economics is “economics research that takes the form of telling a narrative about economic events”.

For Shiller, narrative economics should have a narrower focus, i.e., only investigating popular economics narratives that “went viral”, “changed things” and “became contagious”.

Shiller thinks economics narratives are powerful in affecting (& shaping) economic decisions. He identifies 9 perennial economics narratives:

  1. Panic vs. confidence narratives – e.g., the Big Depression is a panic narrative;
  2. Frugality vs. conspicuous consumption – e.g., Trump’s book “Think Like a Billionaire”;
  3. Monetary standards – e.g., the Gold Standard vs. Bimetallism debate;
  4. Technical unemployment, i.e., labor-saving machines replace many jobs;
  5. Automation & AI replace most jobs;
  6. Real estate booms & busts;
  7. Stock market bubbles;
  8. Boycotts, profiteers & evil business;
  9. The wage-price spiral & evil labor unions.

Broadly speaking, the 9 narratives above focus on the macro economics momentum / “culture” (1-3), employment (4-5), investment (6-7) or actors in power (8-9).

Shiller argues that data sources are at the root of economics evolutions. He believes the recent “digitization of search” is and will bring shifts to narratives. Moreover, Shiller claims that big events occur often not because of a single narrative, but because of a “confluence of narratives“, i.e., as a result of the chemical reaction of multiple narratives.

With an interesting twist, the word “narrative” appears less frequently academic articles in economics & finance compared with other subjects – see this analysis of JSTOR articles below:

Studying Narrative Economics via the Virality Model of Epidemics

If we think of a narrative as a disease, then we could study its spread by borrowing patterns from research on epidemics. In other words, we could leverage research on how viruses “go viral”, and try to figure out how narratives get popular.

The Kermack-McKendrick (1927) mathematical theory of disease epidemics is a breakthrough in medicine, because it “gave a realistic framework for understanding the all-important dynamics of infectious diseases” in the words of Shiller.

The Kermack-McKendrick model divides the population into three groups: susceptibles, infectives, and recovered. Importantly, the model suggests the curve of the number of infectives to take a “humpback” shape, i.e., rising sharply before declining at a similarly fast speed:

We could see similar “humpback” shaped curves in data that could serve as proxy measurements for how popular an economics narrative is.

Here’s an example on how frequent the phrase “stock market crash” appears in news & newspapers:

Here’s another example on how frequent the phrase “Great Depression” appears in news & newspapers:

The Future of Narrative Economics

Shiller is hopeful that ” the advent of big data and of better algorithms of semantic search might bring more credibility to the field”.

Meanwhile, narrative economics faces challenges, including:

  • On data collection, we need to move beyond “passive collection of others’ words, towards experiments that reveal meaning and psychological significance”, e.g., via focus groups or social media – though the proper design & implementation of such experiments is not easy;
  • Dealing with the overlap & “chemical reactions” of multiple overlapping narratives is difficult;
  • Causality is tricky. As Shiller says, one challenge is in “distinguishing between narratives that are associated with economic behavior just because they are reporting on the behavior, and narratives that create changes in economic behavior.”

Nevertheless, the challenges make the field more interesting. I am particularly interested in predicting which narratives will gain momentum. Perhaps the narrative machine will serve, to some extend, as a crystal ball that offers a narrow glimpse into the future.

The Best Relationship Advice: “When People Tell You Who They Are, Believe Them”

The golden rule for relationships – any type of relationships – is encapsulated in 9 words: “When people tell you who they are, believe them.”

Such are the words of wisdom shared by Dr. Maya Angelou in a conversation with Oprah Winfrey. Oprah added onto what Dr. Angelou said: “When people show you who they are, believe them the first time. Don’t wait until the 29th time. When a man doesn’t call you back the first time, when you are mistreated the first time, when someone shows you lack of integrity or dishonesty the first time, know that this will be followed many many other times, that will some point in life come back to haunt or hurt you.

Here is a great story to illustrate this Golden Rule for Relationships. In the memoir Educated, Tara Westover shared her struggles living with her abusive brother Shawn. A brother who called her a whore. Broke her toe. Dragged her on the floor. Pushed her head into the toilet.

Tara recalled the day when she was assaulted again by Shawn:

That night, with a heavily wrapped wrist (hurt by Shawn), I scratch out a journal entry. I ask myself questions. Why didn’t he stop when I begged him? It was like getting beaten by a zombie…like he couldn’t hear me.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

Tara struggled to find an explanation for Shawn’s abusive behavior:

I began to reason with myself…I decide that if I had asked (him to stop hurting me) differently, been more calm, he would have stopped. I write this until I believe it, which doesn’t take long because I want to believe it. It’s comforting to think the defect is mine, because that means it is under my power.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

Such is the paradox of fabricating an excuse to explain why someone mistreated us: on one hand, excuses serve as a painkiller – by telling lying to ourselves that he/she is neither crazy nor hurting us on purpose, by telling pretending to ourselves that he/she still cares about us, we numb the pain with a false sense of control. We feel as if we could not control what happened to us in the past, we could at least control how we feel about it at present – even at the cost of ignoring the discrepancies between reality and our perception of it.

On the other hand, the excuses we fabricate are the deadliest poison that kills our self-esteem, the tightest chains that defines our slavery. The excuses are the reasons we stay, even though we would like to be treated better. Because somehow we tricked ourselves into believing the pain of staying & withering a little every day is better than the pain of leaving & tearing apart. We think we are hiding in a safe haven by staying, but in reality we are digging our own graves by not leaving.

As Tara continued to reflect and replay the assault scene in her head, she had a sudden revelation:

His expression is unforgettable: not anger or rage. There is no fury in it. Only pleasure, unperturbed. Then a part of me understands, even as I begin to argue against it, that my humiliation was the cause of that pleasure. It was not an accident or side effect. It was the objective.

This half-knowledge works in me like a kind of possession, and for a few minutes I’m taken over by it. I rise from my bed, retrieve my journal, and do something I have never done before: I write what happened. I do not use vague, shadowy language, as I have done in other entries; I do not hide behind hints and suggestion. I write what I remember.

Educated, memoir by Tara Westover

And here comes my favorite part of Tara’s reflection. She wrote in her journal: “It’s strange how you give the people you love so much power over you...He had defined me to myself, and there’s no greater power than that.” The illusion of empowerment brought by our excuses always dies down. In its place, at its core, is the erosive power that feeds on our self-esteem.

It is not easy. It is damn hard to walk away from the people you love and care about. But to get the relationships we deserve, we must abide by the 9-word rule: “When people tell you who they are, believe them.” Believe that they are not who you think they are (or would want them to be). Believe that they are not meant for you, nor compatible with your identity. Believe that leaving is an easier & better option than you imagine it to be.

It is the truth – truth of the world, truth with ourselves – that always sets us free.

I end with this quote by Dr. Maya Angelou:

When a person says to you that “I’m mean” or “I’m selfish” or “I’m unkind” or “I’m crazy” – believe them. They know themselves better than you do.

Dr. Maya Angelou

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here.

The Tastiest Pizza is often the Messiest One

Splitting a city into residential, commercial and business zones is like throwing dough, cheese and pepperoni into the different compartments of a bento box and calling it a pizza.” In this article, Uber product manager Florent Crivello write about what he calls the “efficiency-destroying magic of tidying up”.

Florent shares this picture that he calls “an urban planner’s dream pizza” – I bet it’s not what you have in mind as your perfect pizza:

The word chaos has a negative connotation in most contexts. In fact, the Oxford dictionary defines chaotic as “in a state of complete confusion and disorder“. Chaos tends to stir up emotions of being lost, not knowing what to do.

When we are at a loss of what to do, more often than not it is because we do not truly understand. The flip side of that is, in the words of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein: “To understand is to know what to do.”

This was echoed in Florent’s article:

If outsiders complain, but people living inside the system seem happy with it, it probably means that the chaos is serving them right, and that it’s just foreign eyes who are unable to perceive its underlying order.

The Efficiency-Destroying Magic of Tidying Up, by Florent Crivello

It is tempting to equate a lack of order (or at least lack of what we perceive to be order) with a lack of value or quality, which justifies a need for intervention. This is not ill-advised in some cases, with the emergency of rule of law as a case in point. A complete lack of any legal order in a community threatens the safety of its members.

In contrast, some corrections of chaos could produce outcomes that go against our wishes instead of in their favor. Apart from the pizza example above (I assume 99.9999% of the population prefers a ‘messy’ pizza where the ingredients are mixed instead of separated), another example is the free market vs. central planning: a “chaotic” free market is magically more efficient than central planning, in terms of the total sum of outputs produced. Of course, free market is not without its limitations – which is a separate topic.

The point here is: the presence of chaos does not automatically equate a need for correction. If chaos should warrant anything, it should warrant a drive to understand the underlying order, the “invisible hand”, the hidden structure that are yet elusive to our foreign eyes.

Resisting the urge to “correct” chaos may not be that easy. As Brian Arthur, pioneer of complexity theory & complexity science, mentioned in an interview, subjects such as economics seek “equilibrium, a place of statis (stability) and simplicity”. In a sense, equilibrium is (perceived to be) at the opposite side of chaos.

Brian Arthur points out what seems to be in equilibrium could be different from what is actually in equilibrium – this depends on how macroscopic vs. microscopic our view is. For example, the sun seems to be in equilibrium when we look up at it in the sky – it is a beautiful sphere held in place by gravitational forces. Yet, the sun close up is full of plasma bursts – what you could call “chaotic” reactions.

Instead of viewing chaos & equilibrium as opposing concepts, we could view them as relative concepts instead. Instead of being either chaotic or in equilibrium, an object could be both – depending on the context & our level of understanding.

So give chaos some credit – just as the tastiest pizza is not the orderliest one, the best scenario may not necessarily be the most organized one. The next time you find yourself anxious about a chaotic environment? Think about how delicious that bite of pizza littered with messy toppings is – then sit back & relax.

Enjoyed reading this? Apart from publishing articles on this blog, I also send out a newsletter with original content and curated ideas. Subscribe here or view past issues here.