We Wanted Tech

“We wanted workers, but we got people instead.”  This line from Max Frisch didn’t just give George Borjas the title of his most recent book.  At last Friday’s immigration conference in St. Cloud, Borjas declared it his all-time favorite immigration epiphany.  The point, he explained, is that immigrants aren’t just machines that produce stuff; they have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.

Borjas is right, of course.  In fact, he doesn’t go far enough.  After all, even machines aren’t just machines that produce stuff.  They too have broad social effects on our culture, politics, budget, and beyond.  If you look closely at any major technological development, you can justly say, “We wanted tech, but we changed society instead.”

Consider cellphones.  When they were first introduced, you might picture them as more convenient phonebooths.  But they’ve revolutionized not only our society, but our psychology.  Many human beings now interact with their phones more than they interact with fellow human beings; go to any public place and you will see this to be true.  Even when we are talking to fellow human beings, cellphones have changed the tone and tenor of our conversations.  When I casually chat with my friends, for example, we often fact check each others’ assertions.  And cellphones are crucial for social media, which has dramatically swayed not only public discourse, but elections and policy.  Without Twitter, would Donald Trump’s candidacy even have been able to get off the ground?

When driverless cars come, they’ll disrupt our whole society again.  Commuting time will plausibly skyrocket, especially in high-rent areas.  If you can relax – or even sleep – in your car, why pay $1M for a tiny apartment downtown?  Indeed, once you get rid of the driver’s seat, we’ll probably turn cars into small motorhomes, so “living out of your car” could become an alternative lifestyle rather than a tale of woe.  And what will happen to all the truck drivers, taxi drivers, Uber drivers, and delivery drivers?

Still not convinced?  I trust you’ll admit that nuclear technology did more to the world than slash electric bills.

Verily, we wanted tech, but we changed society instead.

How should you react to this truism?  You could say, “Duh, everybody knows this already.”  That’s my knee-jerk reaction to Frisch’s quote, too.  But both “duhs” are too dismissive.  “Obvious once you think about it”≠”Obvious.”

What else is there to say?

1. You could retreat to agnosticism.  “Well, there are direct economic benefits, plus an array of intangible social effects.  We don’t know how to measure these intangibles; we don’t even know if they’re good or bad.”  This is basically what Borjas said about immigration in his Friday talk.  There’s no reason we couldn’t generalize it.

Reaction: Philosophically, agnosticism of any kind is incoherent sophistry.  We always have some information.  We can and should combine this information with common sense to form reasonable guesses about whatever question is on our minds.  Crucially, “information” includes psychological evidence about the errors to which the human mind is prone.  And one of the best ways to keep your guesses reasonable is openness to bets.

2. You could start by measuring the direct benefits, then see if any of the broader social negatives are plausibly in the same ballpark.  If not, the standard conclusion still goes through despite the complexity of the world.

Reaction: Once you factor in the value of time, this is typically the best approach for laymen.  It’s a quick way to resolve a wide range of policy disputes, especially if you embrace some version of weak deontology rather than consequentialism.

3. You could try a lot harder to study the measurement of so-called “intangibles.”  This might require a massive research program to fill in the enormous gaps in our knowledge.  Or perhaps if you play around on Google Scholar, you’ll discover that many researchers have already measured the stuff you imagine “no one knows.”

Reaction: This is the best approach for experts.  If you do good work and/or publicize it, you also help laymen reach the truth with modest mental effort.  So earn your paycheck!

Whatever you conclude, know that immigration is nothing special.  Everything has broader social effects.  These complexities are no reason to defer to popular prejudice, which is what I suspect Borjas hopes we’ll do.  Instead, these complexities are a reason to think broader and work harder to get the best answers we can.

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Be An Instigator

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard was to “be first.” Be first to say hello to a stranger, be first to volunteer, be first to take on a challenge.

This is fine advice.

The more I manage to follow it, the more I enjoy my life and see others enjoying theirs as they begin to act, too. With enough action, we can each set in motion a great deal of action in others.

There is something dangerously powerful here – so much so that the right word for the sort of person who does this is “instigator.”

The word “instigator” speaks of someone who stirs up action in others – usually of the rebellious kind. But in our world of inertia and cowardice and status quo living and thinking, isn’t all action inherently rebellious?

Instigate hard discussions, friendships, book clubs, adventures. Instigate parties, projects, businesses, repentance. Instigate revival, restoration, reinvention.

The world needs generative people that call into action the generativity of others.

Some people will find that dangerous. But if you take on the role of instigator, most people will thank you for being the person who makes them feel free to join in on the action. And there are few legacies better than that.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Be the Euphoria You Want To See In the World

Euphoria, n. A feeling or state of intense excitement and happiness

When I experience euphoria

I’m a pretty stereotypical runner guy now. So I’d have to tell you first about the euphoria that kicks in several miles into a long run. I’ve written before that it’s like:

You become an animal – something far more basic than your everyday self. You feel amazing, transcendent even – and you also feel desperate. You are being tested and rewarded. You sweat out your distractions, your pettiness, your greed, your insecurities.

This sort of thing isn’t unique to running, though.

I might get it when I wrap up a difficult jiu jitsu class (or some other session learning some difficult skill).

I just about always get it when I’m vulnerable with someone about attraction, or my failures, or difficult truths.

And I probably get it when I work my butt off to organize an event at work or home, when I’m working late in the office and no one’s around*, and when I hit “send” on an email delivering a hard project at 3 AM in the morning.

The common denominator is that I experience this kind of euphoria whenever I confront the things I might tend to avoid. Chemically, it’s adrenaline. Psychologically, it’s conditioning. Spiritually, it’s growth.

The world becomes lighter, I become stronger, and everything falls into place because I know I can take it.

But there’s also euphoria in reflection and dreaming.

When I’m going for a long drive I’ll reflect on where I’ve been and the beauty and chance and hard work (my own and others’) that has gotten me to where I am. There’s a euphoria that comes with realizing that (despite the many problems) you’re living in the fairest, freest, healthiest, wealthiest, and most peaceful society in all of human history.

Also while I’m driving, I’m probably listening to film scores (one of my favorite genres, judge me) and imagining a more adventurous life. If I’m going fast, with the windows down, with courage, and with the hope of a challenge ahead, I’ll feel just a bit euphoric. Heck, I get this sometimes on the way to work, right where I get to pick up speed.

When I see euphoria in the world

I wouldn’t say I often see euphoria – it’s pretty hard to separate from normal happiness or excitement from the outside looking in. But I do see often enough when people come alive – that low-level hum of euphoria and joy that can characterize not just a moment but a life.

You can tell pretty fast whether someone has that low-level euphoria. They voluntarily spend their time exploring a topic. They start talking faster when it comes up. They alternate between grinning with joy and frowning with focus. They own the adrenaline rush, and their initiative is magnetic. It makes you want to work harder.

I see something like this when I see great young apprentices in the Praxis community. They’re often just 18 or so and moving cross-country to work in startups. And the ones that are asking questions, doing hard work, and eking all the value they can get from their experience clearly have that “alive” quality that I don’t see in most young people.

I also see that low-level euphoria when I see great artists at work, like when I saw Lindsey Stirling perform around Christmastime. She may have been tired after a long tour of the same routine, but she did not show it. In the dancing, the decor, the stories, the music, the humor there was this sense of tremendous effort but also of effortless joy. Stirling was someone who from love brought together all of the best of human potential into this show. You have to be alive to do something like that.

So I suppose the answer is the same – if you want to see euphoria, go where the effort is. You can find it at celebrations occasionally, but you’ll find it often where the most sparks are flying.

Be the euphoria you want to see

How do I contribute to euphoria?

I guess I start by experiencing a lot of euphoria (when I can). I’m a big fan of the popular Howard Thurman quote:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

What I want to do is show people that it’s possible and practical to live a life of joy. Most people don’t believe that and so don’t find much euphoria.

So a good deal of that is on me. I’ve had experiences that have convinced me that truth (a big prerequisite for undivided joy) is worth it, and that effort is worth it. I want to communicate that. And I’ll do that best by taking as many chances as I can to surprise and delight people into the realization that joy is *right there* for anyone willing to act boldly.

I can encourage euphoria just by finding and encouraging others already on the path to “what makes them come alive.” If you’re an alive person, you can basically expect to have my friendship, or at least my alliance. Your fire is precious and deserves respect (the world is boring without people like you). I will root for you at least, and I might even be willing to fight for you in the extreme.

And what I’d like to continue to develop is a philosophical grounding for joy. People need to know that their struggles are worthwhile and their joy possible and good. Plenty of good thinkers (Ayn Rand for me, especially) have started this work. I’ll continue to try to share the words I’ve learned and find new ones that make the case for joy.

*The euphoria here is not much different than the state of “flow” in psychology.

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Living In (All) the Moment(s)

For me to “live in the moment” isn’t really different than most people’s meaning for the term: I’m focused on the now, instead of the past or present.

I typically find this state when I’m facing fear. I can tend to dwell on the past or dream and plan about the future, so often I have to be scared and/or adrenaline-d into the moment (maybe this is a fault). A good hard run brings me into touch with the moment, as do most hard conversations or difficult acts of self-integration. It’s very hard to go through these experiences or most challenging new experiences while on autopilot.

But more powerful even than adrenaline is gratitude. And ironically, I find this key to present awareness in past-awareness and global awareness.

When I stop to think about my life (typically this happens when I’m driving), I might come to realize that – compared to both most humans who have ever lived (past awareness) and most humans who are living (global awareness), I have been given so many gifts that I should appreciate. I’m reasonably industrious, reasonably open, healthy, gifted with resources, free. I have stability and live in a peaceful place. In the big picture, I live in a true paradise.

When I do become aware of this, I can be overwhelmed with the input of everything that is blessing me: health, opportunity, skills, family, friends, good memories, good role models, and so on. I become present to the beauty around me in that moment – the sunlight, the skyscrapers – and to the things that have happened to get me to a place of such beauty.

I remember all of the things I’ve done and left undone, and I either celebrate them or resolve to do what needs to be done so I can experience these moments of gratitude and presence without conflict.

So maybe living purely in the moment is overrated anyway. Maybe the best state is really to be able to live in all the moments: to be able to see how your past connects to your present connects to your future.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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The Best Things I’ve Learned About Raising Children

I don’t consider myself a parenting expert, but I have helped raise six kids (along with their mothers), and being a father has been one of the most rewarding things in my life.

And while I’m not a perfect father, I think I’m pretty good at it. Mostly because I absolutely love it.

Eva and I also have some slightly non-conventional parenting ideas that might be useful to parents who are always looking for new ways of thinking about things.

So I’m going to share the best things I’ve learned about raising children, not because my way is the best, but because it’s always helpful to have a discussion about parenting.

A really important note: Much of the work of parenting, if not most, was done by my kids’ moms (my wife Eva and my first two kids’ mom). I can only take a little credit.

Here are some of the best things I’ve learned:

  1. Your main job is just to love them. We have to take care of their basic needs, of course, but parents add all kinds of extra things on top of that, and make the job really hard. Parenting is often not that complicated — OK, taking care of basic needs is a lot of work, but the basic job of parenting is to love your kids. You don’t need to shape them, to pressure them to be better, to make them do all kinds of activities to become the perfect kid. They’re pretty damn perfect already. Just love them as they are, and make sure they can feel that love.
  2. Don’t hover — let them fall sometimes. Parents these days tend to be overprotective, to be constantly trying to make sure every need is met, and to be afraid of the smallest fall. Nah. Let them live. Let them have some independence. Let them go out and play without you. Let them fall down and scrape their knee. Let them fail at things. This is how they grow. Imagine if you sheltered kids from failure and pain and struggle their whole lives … they’d be totally unprepared for the adult world! I’m not saying you should never protect your kid, but the less you can do that, without them dying, the better. Then help them cope with the failure or pain on their own, with you helping them to understand how they can do that. Be there for them, but only to the extent that you’re helping them learn to do it on their own.
  3. Harsh disciplinarian methods are more hurtful than helpful. When I first started parenting, I would yell and spank my kids and punish them for all their wrongdoings. It was totally hurtful, and made them afraid of me. Yes, they would do everything I told them to do, but only because they were scared to do otherwise. And often they’d just hide the things they did, so I wouldn’t know. I’ve learned to mellow out over the years, to control my temper and be more compassionate. I’m not perfect, as I said, but now I see everything as an opportunity to educate them, an opportunity for them to grow, and a chance for me to just love them. If your parents were disciplinarian, that doesn’t make it the way you need to do things.
  4. Reading to them regularly is one of the best things I’ve ever done. I read to my kids most days. My wife and I have done that with all the kids, and it’s a wonderful way to spend time with them, to foster a love for reading that will help them for the rest of their lives, and to explore imaginative new worlds together. My kids have found a love for reading on their own that came from cuddling with me and reading Dr. Seuss and Harry Potter (a series I’ve read 4 times over with different kids) and Narnia and Arabian Nights and Don Quixote.
  5. Let them direct their own learning. Four of my kids are unschooled, but all of them have done learning projects on their own, and I encourage them to learn about whatever they’re interested in. Many kids are so used to top-down learning (where they’re told what and when and how to learn) that they don’t know how to direct themselves. They’ll have to learn as adults. But instead, we can encourage them to learn what they’re interested in, help them with learning projects until they can do it on their own, and have them learn like adults do.
  6. But give them fun challenges and encourage them to try new things. Self-directed learning is an incredible method, but sometimes they need inspiration. I like to encourage them to look things up, to dive deep into a topic that interests them, to learn about something they don’t know yet will interest them. I try to talk about these things in positive ways, that show how interesting I find them, and I’ve found that sometimes, that interest and curiosity are contagious. Other times, I challenge them — let’s do a drawing challenge, a pushup challenge … let’s see if we can travel a month with only a backpack each, or memorize the capitals of all the states, or as many digits of pi as we can. Let’s try to program a simple game. Kids (and adults) respond well to fun challenges.
  7. Teach them to do things on their own, early. As soon as we could, we taught our kids to do things on their own. Tie their own shoes, brush their teeth, shower and dress themselves, make their own breakfast and lunch, wash and dry the dishes, clean the house, do their own laundry. For one thing, it made our job as parents easier, if they were helping plan meals, do the grocery shopping, and cook dinners once a week. Soon we didn’t have to do very much for them. But just as importantly, we were teaching them self-sufficiency — they don’t expect things to be done for them, and they learn that they can do anything for themselves that they want taken care of.
  8. Let them take charge of things or participate in work when you can. Along the same lines, we try to get them to take charge of things … for example, planning a trip. They do research, look for Airbnb apartments, plan train routes, book flights. When they get to adulthood, they already know how to do these things. They also know how to take responsibility.
  9. Try a democratic process of decision-making. When we decide where to eat out, or what we should do this weekend, we have a discussion, each contribute ideas, and take a vote. This teaches them to take part in making decisions, instead of having their lives decided for them. But it also teaches them to respect the opinions of others, and that what they want is not the only thing that matters. We do similar things when planning for a trip, deciding whether we should move to a new city, and so on.
  10. Practice mindfulness with them. I have meditated with all my kids. Not regularly, but enough that they know what it’s all about. When my daughter comes to me upset about something, we practice mindfulness of how the emotion feels in her body. Being with the emotion. When my other daughter is feeling anxiety, we talk about how to practice with that as well. They’ve also seen me meditating in the morning, so mindfulness practice becomes a normal thing for them.
  11. The main way you teach them is by your example. Speaking of watching me meditate … this is the main way that I teach them anything. By my example. By how I am in the world. If I want to teach them not to fight, I have to be peaceful. If I want to teach them to be good people, I have to be compassionate, considerate, loving. If I want to teach them to not be on their devices, I have to do the same. If I want them to be active, to eat healthily, to read, to meditate … then it starts with me doing it. And talking to them about what I’m doing and why and what I’m learning and how I’m doing it. They learn almost everything from what people around them do.
  12. Don’t pretend like you know everything. That said, while I try to do my best in life, I have to humble myself and admit that I don’t know everything. In fact, I barely know anything. I can’t always think I’m right, nor can I pretend to have all the answers, even if I’m the dad. Maybe my kids know somethings I don’t. Maybe we can learn together … but it starts with me saying, “I’m not sure, let’s find out!” This mindset of not-knowing is where learning starts, the space that we can explore together, the space where we become open to each other. Many parents (and people in general) come at you with the stance that they know exactly what they’re doing, know the answers. This leaves no room for anything else. It’s fundamentalism.
  13. Admit when you’re wrong. Apologize. Make it right. Along those lines, when I think I’m right, and insist on it … that’s often when I’m wrong. And I’ve been humbled like this so many times. What I’ve learned is … instead of continuing to pretend like I’m right, it’s so much better to admit that I’m wrong. To humble myself. Actually apologize if I’ve done anything to hurt them. And do what it takes to make it right.
  14. Let them earn and pay for things early. And teach them about debt. In our house, we don’t have an allowance. We buy them the basics of what they need, but if they want anything beyond that, they have to pay for it themselves. And earn the money through things beyond their basic chores. They might do things for us, or work for my business, or make things or do services for others to earn money. This also teaches them to save for goals. I also talk to them about the dangers of getting into debt, the high cost of credit card debt, and some simple financial truths that I’ve learned.
  15. Don’t shield them from sex and drugs and technology. Some parents don’t want their children to hear anything about sex or drugs, and shield them from that for as long as possible. This just makes sex (for example) a taboo subject, and gives the kids an unhealthy idea of how bad it is. I’ve found it much better to speak frankly about it, and if I were going to do it all over again, I’d start that frank talk much earlier. Sex isn’t something that should be made dirty or forbidden. It’s a natural thing that all adults do. Kids should get that sense from adults, and be helped through that confusing world by their parents rather than having to figure it out through what they hear from friends or happen upon online. I think the same is true of drugs. Another thing that some parents shield their kids from is technology — no devices ever! But that means that kids don’t learn a healthy way to deal with technology. It’s better to just help them learn to deal with all this stuff, rather than not trust them.
  16. It’s OK to hang out without them, and let them have separate time from you. I love hanging out with my kids. But that doesn’t mean it’s healthy for them to be with me every second of the day. Sometimes, they can go play by themselves, while my wife and I have alone time. Sometimes, they can have an evening at home while we go on a date (when they’re old enough). Other times, we can drop them with a relative and go on a trip by ourselves, or with friends. I think alone time, and time away from parents, is a healthy thing for kids. Give them space. Let them learn to deal with being on their own (again, when appropriate). Give yourself space to replenish yourself, or find romance with your partner, without them.
  17. Parenting ain’t over when they reach adulthood. I used to joke, “If I get my kids to 18 years old alive, I’ve succeeded as a parent!” Of course, that’s absolute bunk. I’ve learned that parenting is far from over once they reach adulthood. Four of our kids are adults now, and it’s a whole new challenging phase of parenting for us. We’re trying to teach them how to do adult things, how to be financially self-sufficient, how to get the dream jobs they want, how to deal with relationship stuff, and much more. I love it, but it’s not like I can just retire now.
  18. In the end, they will be the person they are. You don’t get to decide who that is. Each kid is already a fully formed person when they’re young. They continue to grow every year, of course, but their personalities when they’re young continue to be mostly the same as they grow older. We don’t shape these kids, they are already themselves. They will choose their own paths, decide what life they want, and grow in the direction they choose. I don’t have control over any of that. In the end, that’s what we parents need to accept — we don’t really control our kids. We just try to guide them when we can. And love them for who they are.

I’m still learning. I still don’t know what the hell I’m doing. And yet, I hope some of what I’ve learned so far will help a few of you.

I love being a dad. It’s an incredible privilege, and one of the deepest joys in my life. Thank you kids. And moms.

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Homosexuality Isn’t The Issue

Back when I was a follower of a religion which condemned homosexuality, I went along and believed it was wrong, just like I was told to believe. Still, I could never really figure out how it was supposed to be a threat to me. I didn’t give it that much thought.

During my teenage years I had begun to realize my youngest sister was probably a lesbian, although I never said anything to her about it. It wasn’t an issue and was none of my business until she chose to make it my business.

In my early 20s I got “hit on” by an older guy at a park while I was taking my lunch break away from work. I wasn’t rude– I just mentioned my wife and hinted I wasn’t interested. There was no problem; the guy just went on his way.

Years later, a gay friend hit on me at karaoke one night. Again I just said I wasn’t interested in guys and let it drop. We remained friends.

I’ve been propositioned online several times over the years, especially during the chat room days. There was no need for me to be rude about it. I can’t blame someone for taking a chance.

As the years passed I became more and more libertarian (even before I knew what to call it). This powered up my inability to be offended over such things. I came to see that all humans have equal and identical rights, and that’s that. No one has “extra” rights; no one has “limited” rights. Your sexuality doesn’t even figure in. I see this more clearly every passing day.

Which brings us to now. There is one apparently homosexual person who is offending me, and some are trying to twist my offense into being about homosexuality. I don’t think it is.

My 11-year-old daughter has a “frienemy” who has been trying to bully her– with the encouragement of the girl’s parents– into a lesbian relationship. It has been going on for a year and a half now. This girl acts like a friend until she draws my daughter in, and then she does the nastiest, meanest things I have ever seen a kid do– totally crushing my daughter with her backstabbing. This drives my daughter away from her. As soon as she realizes my daughter is out of her control, she acts sweet and reels her in again– and convinces her that she’s my daughter’s only “real friend” and that her parents can’t be trusted. This repeats endlessly. This has led to some difficult and uncomfortable parenting decisions on my part.

The other girl’s parents have even tried to talk my daughter into leaving home and moving in with their family so the girls can be together. They are all trying to make this into an issue of anti-gay bigotry, when it is nothing of the sort. You abuse and backstab my daughter, and manipulate her to try to drive a wedge between us, and I don’t care who or what you are. I’ll hope for your destruction. My older daughter was trapped in an abusive heterosexual relationship for 7 of the last 8 years of her life. This is a line you don’t want to cross with me. My tolerance for such things has been used up.

“Mad” doesn’t begin to cover it.

My daughter can choose to be in a developmentally appropriate relationship with whoever she chooses, but I will do what I can to protect her from an abuser. And this girl is quite definitely an abuser and a bully, even if my daughter refuses to see it.

And, by the way, my (lesbian) sister agrees with me.

Interesting times.

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