The Rules

January 7, 2011 — 5 Comments

One thing I’ve learned is that people are gluttons for punishment. Or, well, they are but unintentionally so. I mean this in the sense that we needlessly repeat mistakes and suffer their consequences and then wonder why we feel bruised and beaten down.

There was an episode of that gameshow where crazy Asian people humiliate themselves for lame prizes and one of the obstacles on the course was 5 rows of 3 walls. One of the walls in each row was a trick and the others were solid. The contestants had to crash through the faux-wall in each row as fast as they could before moving on to the next part of the course. I think of this image on a regular basis, as I watch people repeatedly hurl themselves against walls instead of trying the one next to it see if it is a trick. A favorite: forgetting that to ask for permission is to seek denial.

Scientists describe two kinds of learning environments known as wicked and kind. In a kind environment, we have clear visibility between causes and effects. Through this linkage, we’re able to properly evaluate our methods based on feedback and hopefully improve on an iterative basis. The medical community, for instance, has instituted a variety of procedures to make treatments as kind as possible to doctors. From the Socratic approach to the differential diagnosis to morbidity and mortality conferences, the profession is designed to create educational feedback from peers. In wicked environments, the visibility can be much different. A black box scenario is one type where trial and error is difficult because you have no sense of what or why things happen. You input, it outputs but middle process is not illuminated—it is a black box. A worse environment is where things are so chaotic that you get unreliable feedback. That is, the effect is incorrectly linked to a cause or, like a bad compass, the arrow points you in the wrong direction.

Our lives are a mix of kinder and more wicked environments than we tend to think. We have clear evidence that our approach is just not working and yet we try the same thing over and over. On top of this, there are politics and personal complications which run us into disincentives—logic that doesn’t compute right and leads to bad assumptions. The key to navigating this reality, I’ve found, is to have a sense of a larger purpose.

Robert has a saying that “it’s all material.” What he meant was that everything that happens to him can be used for something, like one of his books or a talk or a business venture. Since he’s a writer, this is a pretty understandable approach. But it’s freeing in other important ways because the larger purpose (going through bad things to get good material) allows you to be dispassionate in the immediate present. You’re simply collecting data. By bifurcating whatever it is you’re doing now from what you intend to later, you get to look at the data from two perspectives and it’s this process that makes it easy to spot anomalies. This develops a loop of action, [skeptical] evaluation, and change that becomes almost sub-conscious and runs on autopilot. The approach combines the trial and error of the kind environment with the presence of mind that transcends the traps of the wicked.

When James McPhee described basketball as a game of “subtle felonies,” he was expressing a similar idea. The best players operate by ignoring and violating the rules in each given situation, as appropriately as the circumstances allow. There is what the system tells you through direct feedback and a filter of your own larger goals which parse the data properly—putting it in distinct categories which you can access and learn from.

There is nothing quite as miserable as the act of throwing yourself against a door that won’t budge. As being stuck inside your own fetish for punishment because you can’t step back and understand that every situation is telling you something, ignoring the fact that you’re the only one who can decipher what it means and how to act on it. But this is what people do, as others slide right through trick walls and open passageways they aware enough to check.


December 8, 2010 — 17 Comments

There is a famous speech by Demosthenes that he ends by chiding his fellow statesman for their flattery. As was common in Athens, the speakers who’d gone before him had filled their orations with examples of great and proud moments in the country’s history like victories at Marathon and Salamis. This was a distraction, he said, a trick to tell the audience what they wanted to hear instead of prompting them into the action they desperately needed to take, which in this case was war. “Reflect,” he concluded, “that your ancestors set up those trophies, not that you may gaze at them in wonder but that you may also imitate the virtues of the men who set them up.”

This is an interesting way of looking at things. Particularly for whatever it is that you may consider to be high arts of human achievement—be it sports or music or religion or finance. For me, I’d think of a book that was important. After we’ve finished we tend to think about how impressive or ground breaking it was. Maybe it changes how we think about the world or we use it for a project we’re working on but then after we’re finished, we just put it on a shelf…like a trophy. But Demosthenes’ point is that this is a hollow use of their achievement—even a self-destructive one.

Ignore this impulse. And ignore the charlatans who try to sell you a kind of congratulation by association—retroactive or through proxy—instead of on the bold action that they required. Focus on the precedent set by the accomplishment and the people who put it together. Like Demosthenes figured out: make them exhortations instead of examples.

The Dress-Suit Bribe

November 17, 2010 — 46 Comments

There’s a theme in the works of Upton Sinclair called the “dress-suit bribe” which he returns to over and over. It’s the the name of a play written by a character in Dragon’s Teeth, a throwaway line in his essay Mammonart, and called out as a corrupting force in his expose on the American university system. But it’s mostly clearly defined in a chapter of The Brass Check on how good people get turned around. It goes something like this:

You pay a shoeshine $5 to shine your shoes. But do you know what you got paid to have your shoes shined? You might buy a suit for $500, but do you know how much you get paid to be well-dressed? Or to drive a nice car, to shave and get your hair cut a certain way, to orient your life around an arbitrary schedule of this hour to this hour for this many days a year?

The dress-suit bribe works particularly well because it doesn’t seem like a bribe. People can’t say no, because it wasn’t directly proffered so much as sublimated inside ordinary things. Think about the first nice business lunch someone took you to. This was the offer. How long did it take you to work your way back up to sitting in a chair at that same restaurant for a purely social occasion? This was when you took the bribe.

Forget answering: my salary is ________. This is about all the little things that you think are your preferences but were actually given to you like gifts. People like nice things so they’ll lease themselves the car it becomes OK to have. People want to be recognized so of course they’ll join you at the right events and press flesh with the right folks. People need to be responsible so they’re going to save up for a down payment on a house. It is, after all, an investment. When I was younger I didn’t realize that these acts were bridges, and that there would come a time where you were pressured to cross them. And that in many cases, it wasn’t clear that you’d done so until after you were on the other side.

What Sinclair meant to provoke with his question was an understanding that seemingly benign decisions trigger commitments to larger ideas than we might imagine. In the case of something like a mortgage they are literal contracts that require decades of a very particular kind of lifestyle. Which should explain the forces that act on a person to ring that bell.

On the lower rungs of the system, we can clearly see the relationship between service and payment—like in the case of a shoeshine. However our own position in the scheme remains in a fog of rationalization and unintentional obfuscation. The things we have to do as employees, as a member of a class, as a certain type of professional are tacit extracurricular duties that not only coincide with the amount in our paychecks but make us dependent on getting one every week. If we really calculated this labor, we’d realize it not only wasn’t cheap but if we stripped away the illusions, we’d see that we weren’t asked very nicely if we felt like doing them. They were as mandatory as wearing a uniform and saying “Yes, sir, let me know if I can get your anything else.”

The Ties That Bind

November 10, 2010 — 20 Comments

A good contemptuous expression to remember: how power is inextricably linked with its inverse. Become empowered and simultaneously disempowered. For instance, the now standard prescription for a president after he leaves office—the former most powerful man in the world—is sign a book deal, relegating him, no obligating, him to slock it on television shows and an endless series of hostile interviews. Then he has to raise the money for his own monument to his own honor, the Presidential Library. And it’s all downhill from there, see: Bill Clinton, the most powerful man in the world twice removed, finding himself on Pittsburgh’s 96.1 Morning Freak Show with Mikey and Big Bob.

Listen to a CEO answering dumb questions from shareholders during conference calls with resigned disdain. Watch celebrities gain the love of the world only to lose the ability to ever be in a loving relationship with one person. Wonder why the narrative of history seems to be inescapably similar for every generation of important people. Think about often authority over actually means compelled to and that the more powerful the position, the more inalterable the prescription. This is what Seneca meant when he said that ‘slavery dwells beneath marble and gold.’

It goes without saying what an empty, misguided emotion jealousy can be but it’s a little more difficult to consider that what we’ve been aspiring to was really to wrap ourselves up in chains. That we seem to think that achieving more and moving higher is to take a step towards freedom instead of what it really is: a different but likely smaller cage. This is not to convince ourselves to sit around and do nothing but to come to the conclusion, after adjusting our eyes just right in order to see how comically predetermined most of the choices famous, rich, powerful or otherwise ‘inspiring’ people make, that perhaps we ought to orient our priorities accordingly.

A general rule to follow: you’ll be a lot happier if you never hold cognitive dissonance against someone. Say you share a cause or an unpopular opinion with someone and they abandon it with flimsy justification. Unless you enjoy disappointment, remember that this didn’t happen on purpose. In fact, to them, switching feels right, like they are doing the more honest thing. It’s not personal, it’s biological.

Cognitive dissonance is easier to fall prey to if you don’t know yourself, if you aren’t regularly taking stock of yourself. To Demosthenes, at the end of virtue was constancy, and at its beginning was reflection. Reflection often means self-criticism, taking blame or generally coming to terms with reality of the world that surrounds us. So what did you expect? You can’t fault people for not developing a personality trait that ultimately tends to make difficult situations more unpleasant.

So sometimes the alternative is just too taxing to bear. Maybe they helped create the problem, maybe their livelihood depends on looking the other way. Whatever the reason, it’s OK! Remember: you decided it (reflection, taking stock, intellectual honesty) was worth doing because it was real. But you’ll get nowhere anticipating—thinking you’re entitled to—other people agreeing to that tradeoff. Nowhere, that is, but angry, let down or alone.