On Empathy II

Penn Jillette shared some fascinating insight recently. Do we not have a natural propensity to be deeply affected by the emotions experienced and portrayed by others right in front of us? Do we not want to either reach out and hold them, to soothe them or on the other end, to smile and to dance with them? Imagine the ability to view someone suffer, in some great way, perhaps someone you know, from behind a sound-proof one-way mirror. Our empathy would be barred, stunted. What if I told you that from an early age we are trained and conditioned to repress this natural propensity due to this barrier? Assuming this is the case, what effect does this have on us as empathetic creatures? Now, you might be wondering what in the world I am talking about. I am talking about something that humanity never experienced until the last century. I am talking about the emergence of witnessing other people’s grief or happiness and not having any responsibility for sharing in it. Never before have human beings witnessed other people’s emotions that were not right in front of them, that is, not until the invention of video recording devices and the creation of cinema. That’s something to think about, and today’s two cents.

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They Miss Economic Concepts and Incentives

I think there is an intuitive criticism of free markets that I have empathy for, but is totally wrong. I find something somewhat sexy about this contention … but I do think it is incredibly myopic.

I like to think I am a good businessman. I think I am uniquely capable at running a pest control company. However, I think many people could learn the knowledge I hold, and many other great businessmen could also run a successful pest control company.

I can observe many other businessmen who hold qualities better served towards the goals I have. I am incredibly proud of what I have built and the results I have earned, but I hold no illusion that there are people who could’ve created more value than I have.

This all being said, I think I have unique abilities in other fields that I am vastly more uniquely skilled in. I am a trained singer. I am a trained instrumentalist. I am a trained conductor. I am a trained teacher. I am a trained director. In fact, Vastly more people can run a pest control company better than me than can run a choir, opera, or musical theater production better than me.

If a person doesn’t understand economics they would think my resources are being inappropriately allocated, but they would be wrong. They miss many economic concepts and incentives that show I should probably be leading a pest control company rather than pursuing music. The main misunderstanding they have is in understanding subjective value. In short, people are willing to pay vastly more for quality pest control than the difference in mediocre choir direction and great choir direction.

People in the arts think this is a misallocation of resources, but that is mere arrogance. The reality is that people don’t find relative values in these artistic skills as these artists think they should.

I think I am a skilled performer, producer and director. In fact, I think I am amazingly skilled in certain arenas that other people aren’t. That beings said … what I am uniquely skilled in isn’t that valuable, and I accept that. Ergo, I will learn skills that I am not quite uniquely talented in, but has vastly higher market demand. People who critique the market cannot accept this because they can’t accept subjective value. People think others ought to change their values.

I think I am a better choir director than I am a pest control businessman. However, I make much more as a businessman because the market forces at work value a good businessman more than a great music director. Even if I am better at one task, I am more valuable to people’s subjective preferences at another.

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In Defense of Objective Morality

There are those who discredit the philosophy of objective morality, their reason being that we, by virtue of our disparate life experiences, fail to derive a homogenous concept of morality, rather a more subjective take on morality.

Over the last year I’ve come to defend the legitimacy of objective morality based on the concept of natural law among other philosophies. That is, if a benevolent action is acceptable to be performed by a group, it should hold true that the action would be seen as acceptable for the individual as well.

Conversely, if a malevolent action (as defined as a contradiction to natural law) is not acceptable to be performed by an individual, then a group performing malevolent acts shouldn’t be acceptable either.

If one looks at the world today, how many malevolent acts are being perpetrated by groups of people? Why are they being sanctioned, accepted, and even celebrated when these actions are immoral based solely on the violation of natural law?

All this is not to say that natural laws and man made laws are always in opposition. If I could whip up a Venn diagram I could show several overlapping laws covered by both ideologies. Murder, theft, rape, assault… any action which results in a victim pretty much covers it.

It’s the victimless “crimes” that fall under the purview of man made laws that concern me. These laws are the constructs of men and women with no regard to objective morality or natural law. Laws borne of a lust for power and control, not of a spirit of empathy and equity.

Without the understanding of natural law and objective morality one can become tacitly complicit in the illegitimacy of man made laws and possibly suffer the dire consequences themselves.

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How to Become a Self-Help Rock Star

Today I would like to say something about the value of enthusiasm and optimism, but the chances are high that you’ve already heard a million quotes about the virtues of whistling while you work or the value of doing everyday chores with a sense of pride.

Instead of giving you another quote about this topic, I’ll share an important distinction: Inspirational philosophy versus Inspired practice.

Inspirational philosophy refers to any set of ideas relating to self-improvement, optimal performance, and professional development. Inspired practice refers to a pattern of behavior grounded in such ideas. Inspirational philosophy is a way of seeing. Inspired practice is a way of being.

You’ve probably heard this distinction before too, but the chances of forgetting it are greater than ever before now that we have an unprecedented ability to shower the world with positive stories and sayings.

I’ll give you an example. While writing this post, I Googled “inspirational quotes” and here’s one of the first things that came up:

This is a quote from Maya Angelou that says “If you’re always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”

When you read that quote, did you think “When I take a walk this weekend, I’m going to really ponder that one. I’m going to identify my assumptions about what makes a person normal and then I’m going to honestly consider how much possibility I might be overlooking because of these assumptions”?

Or was your reaction more like “Sure, I agree with that. It’s common sense”?

I’m guessing that most people have the second kind of reaction.

When a profound concept first strikes human consciousness, it seems revolutionary. When that same concept gets repeated over and over again, it starts to sound redundant. As our ability to say “I’ve heard that before” increases, our ability to say “I need to spend some serious time thinking about that” decreases. There’s a quote for that too: “familiarity breeds contempt.” But I’m sure you’ve heard that one before. It’s hard to believe that you need to wrestle deeply with an idea if you’re constantly hearing about it in pop culture over and over again. Because of this constant exposure, we lose sight of the most important aspect of inspirational quotes: they are easier said than done and better done than said.

Everyone has seen a well-designed graphic telling them to live, love, and laugh, but fewer have seen the well-designed life of someone who finds a way to love and laugh through real problems faced in the real world.

I frequently hear people ask for advice on things like how to be a life coach, or how to be a motivational speaker, or how to make a living by being a force for inspiration.  If you’re one of those people, I have good news and bad news.

Here’s the bad news: We live in a world where it’s extremely difficult to be special if you want to share inspiring things.

I can’t even count the number of blogs, podcasts, TED Talks, seminars, books, and online courses promising you a thousand and one ways to hack your life, improve your health, increase your income, grow your audience, raise your level of consciousness, activate your chakras, accelerate your manifestations, and so on. Whatever you want to share has probably already be seen or heard a few dozen times this week alone.

So if you plan on getting into the “self-help business”, I offer the same advice I heard an old theater professor give to someone who said they wanted to be an actor: “If you have something else you can be happier doing, go do that instead. Don’t do this unless you know you can do it for fun. If you can show up and do this kind of work enthusiastically even if you never win an Oscar or get on the big screen, then you’ll always find a way to work and you’ll have a better chance of making a living if you’re lucky. But if you can’t devote yourself to this without a steady paycheck, find another career and do this for leisure when you have the time.”

Now here’s the good news: While it’s very difficult to be special at the level of sharing inspirational ideas, the bar is pretty low for those who actually practice inspirational ideas. 

The world probably won’t praise you if you share a tweet on enthusiasm, but the individuals who have to work with you every single day will appreciate it if you show up to your job like you actually want to be there. You probably won’t get a bunch of retweets for sharing that Steve Jobs quote about being a non-conformist, but you’ll break the status quo in half by acknowledging the people you see every day with dignity and empathy. You probably won’t have a crowd of fans demanding to hear your voice on the world’s most popular podcast, but there’s a crowded world out there of people who feel alone, afraid, and apathetic. Asking them how they’re doing and listening for two minutes would make you a rock star in their eyes.

George Washington Carver wrote, “when you do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world.”

If sharing inspirational material is more common than ever before, the way to do it in an uncommon way is by embodying inspiration as way of life.

You’ll command far more attention if you smile and say “hi” to only 1 out of every 5 people you see than if you share 1 positive quote for 5 days a week.

You’ll build a much more powerful network by being a team player at your day job than by sharing a dozen tweets about how to network.

I once received a promotion at a restaurant because every single day I would walk up to the bar and ask the bartenders if they had any trash they needed help throwing out. They almost always said “yes” because things were usually busier at the bar and having a full trash bin was nuisance. They praised my team spirit highly for this and it eventually led to a better position. This wasn’t part of my job description, but I did it because I wanted to help. I built a reputation as an inspiring co-worker not because I was trying to help people deal with their psychological garbage. I was just literally trying to help them deal with their physical garbage.

Helping people take out the garbage. This is the context where where we have the greatest power to be forces for inspiration. While the wannabe rock star obsesses over being the person on stage, the real rock star obsesses over helping some “nobody” make it up the stairs.

As the Zen saying goes “Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”

If you’re enlightened enough to be someone’s life coach, don’t just send them a pretty picture with a positive quote while you move on to the next life hack article. Help them chop wood and carry water. Be a decent human being towards them. Be a great person to work with. Be a great person to have around when there are boring but important things that need to be done. Be the kind of person who will help someone take out the garbage even if it’s not part of your job description.

That kind of thing is not as glamorous as being a celebrated coach, but it certainly builds the kind of character you’ll need if you ever plan on becoming one. And here’s the paradoxical thing: when you focus on inspiring people by inspiring yourself to serve them in whatever way you can, the character you develop will shine through your actions in a way that makes them pay attention to the inspirational stuff you want to share. And even if your words aren’t anything special, the energy behind them will be strong enough to reverberate.

Inspirational quotes are now commonplace and easy, but inspired living is still rare and difficult. If you want to be a self-help rock star, master the latter.

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Lyft and Uber Are Bringing Cultures Together

By now, if you haven’t ridden in a Lyft or Uber vehicle, you at least have heard one amazing story from a friend who has. Philosophical conversations, sports talks, business opportunities, and friendships have all been born of these rides taken with strangers.

One of the things I love about these rides with strangers are the moments of randomness they insert into my life. I have encounters with experiences and with people I wouldn’t normally expect. Sometimes these are thrills like riding in a Tesla roadster for the first time. But more interesting have been my rides with people whose cultural backgrounds differ widely from mine.

Like most people, I tend to flock together with people who share my culture, my assumptions, my experiences, my worldviews, and yes, my ethnicity (frequently because many of those things tend to come in packages). It’s easy to subconsciously and automatically separate ourselves from cultures and people foreign to us, even when they make up our own cities. Through the activities we choose, the areas we visit, and the crowds in which we run, we broaden the gap between ourselves and our neighbors. Some of this in-group flocking is benign, but often this causes us to lack empathy and respect for people who are different than us, to fail to build trust with other communities, and to miss out on a full understanding of the world.

But as others before me have noted, technology does not have the capacity to discriminate – even subsconsciously  Through the delightful randomness of their driver-rider algorithms, ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber have put together this farm-bred white boy with a Nigerian immigrant, a Colombian salsa music fan, a veteran from the Pacific coast, and a member of one the native tribes of Alaska, not to mention many more interesting people.

A Lyft or Uber ride forces us to spend a stretch of time in the company of someone who may be very different than us. In those awkward moments of introduction to strangers, our instinct is to search for common ground. In those moments, brought to us (and our cities) by Lyft and Uber, we share our own vulnerabilities about salsa dancing, our shared entrepreneurial dreams, and our love of the city we all call home.

I’m sure it’s been mentioned before, but someone ought to notice the public service Lyft and Uber are doing for the world. Through commercial interactions, they are helping to break down walls between cultures and and replace them with bonds of neighborliness.

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Regular Self-Interested Human Beings

There is a lot of debate on how liberty-minded people ought to handle personal association. Often this ends up being a point of angst and cognitive dissonance. I thought I would share some of my ideas on the matter.

There are two major camps on personal association. Both hold interesting insights, but I believe are flawed.

The first camp is often embraced by many of the moralists and activists. I’ll try to lay out their argument.

“How can you proclaim to love liberty, and yet associate with/befriend statists? If you believe that government is violence, and you believe that is wrong, how can you possibly proclaim to love liberty while associating with people who are cool with murdering you for a disagreement?”

I think this is a very powerful argument. Why do I choose Johnny (the socialist) as a friend instead of Bobby (the capitalist)? Is the fact that Johnny is funny compensate for his violent views of human organization? I think there is an argument that can say he is misguided, harmless, and that differences are okay. However, when he starts voting and engaging in other political action, can we possibly believe that is true?

The other camp doesn’t have much of philosophy or argument, but rather appeals to moderation. They will throw a lot of various arguments at the wall to see what sticks.

“Everyone is just trying their best.” “We should be friends with everyone to further the cause.” “Aren’t we weird enough without secluding ourselves?” Etc.

I think these are often very weak arguments given their proclaimed beliefs. However, there is something tangible here that they aren’t exactly hitting in their arguments. We are incredibly social creatures and our relationships and preferences are deeper and more complex than our proclaimed political philosophies.

I think the problematic foundation people use in evaluating these questions is a question of foundational individual principles. Libertarians aren’t fundamentally libertarians. When you dig down through several layers of philosophy, they are regular self-interested human beings. Once people accept this premise, they are able to tackle this question much more appropriately.

This is a more robust answer. “I have friends who provide many of the social resources I need. I accept their murderous ideology because I understand their incentives. If I had other people who could provide the resources I desire who didn’t believe in socialism … I would be able to start letting go of the associations that aren’t as valuable.”

This answer isn’t very sexy. However, it reflects human nature vastly more accurately.

To some degree I have a lot more empathy for the first camp. I’ve known many “libertarians” who surround themselves with socialists because they want to be cool. This does seem like they are intellectual cowards, and someone who doesn’t understand their values. However, the first camp is rationalistic and misunderstands human nature. We are egoistic, social beings who believe society is best organized through peaceful interactions. We aren’t Libertarian Man.

Personally, I have no one I would call a friend who doesn’t have libertarian inclinations. However, I am ultra social and I’ve been able to collect neat people throughout my life who appreciate my radical views. On the flip side, I am also friendly in business and in public to all sorts of people. I am incredibly outgoing and talkative with most anyone.

I think this discussion gets clouded because people think they are guided by their principles. They aren’t. Humans are guided by self-interest. Since we are an incredibly social species, self-interest will often be making friends with the people we are familiar with and the people who benefit us.

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