Local, global, catastrophe

The world is complex. In my mind, that means that there are non-linear higher order effects to every action. For example, the collapse of an institution sometimes has the effects we anticipate, but more often it has unforeseen downstream consequences that we never could’ve comprehended, yet alone predicted.

It is for this reason that I am suspicious of those with grand ambitions. By “grand ambitions”, I mean desires that fall under the umbrella of “Global Change”—remaking the social order, dramatically altering the current cultural climate, disrupting governance, that sort of thing. Sure, these ambitions seem noble. Who doesn’t want to make the world a better place? Who doesn’t want to banish poverty, eliminate poor quality of life and see human rights implemented universally? But we go about the attainment of such ideals in the wrong manner. We try to implement sweeping, top-down changes and these result in more harm than help.

Here’s how I see it:

Local ambitions yield global progress; global ambitions create local catastrophes.

The human intellect has a notorious reputation for its inability to comprehend scale and higher order effects. As such, the intellect required to make global changes and mitigate the inevitable negative consequences of sweeping change in a complex system is one that comes along maybe once in a generation. Perhaps once every few hundred years. And even then, what are the chances that said person even gets into a position where they can make the changes they are uniquely equipped to make? Tiny. So I think it better that we acknowledge the limitations of our minds, recognise the complexity of the world we inhabit, and opt for the pursuit of local ambitions as the most effective deliverer of global progress.

Sequence

The human mind is, undoubtedly, a complex system, and when it comes to complex systems the sequence matters. A prime example: specialists and generalists.

Imagine that each person is a blank slate before entering the education system, and that upon exiting it they can either be a specialist or a generalist. Also imagine that people can switch their focus—change to narrow or broad later on in their life. Now, a question:

Can a specialist become a generalist as easily as a generalist can become a specialist?

No. The sequence matters. A generalist can specialise more easily than a specialist can generalise. The reason is that it’s harder to unlearn than to learn. A specialist adopts one framework, a singular way of seeing the world. The generalist adopts many lenses, and thus finds it easier to pick others up and put them down.

This is, perhaps, the biggest problem with the upper end of traditional education—we train specialists then make general demands of them. Really, it should be the reverse. Zack Kanter brought to my attention a speculation of Charlie Munger:

“…Charlie, Sr. is saying that he’d like to create a true liberal arts college in which students have no major and few elective courses. They would have a set curriculum in which they learn enough about math, sciences, economics, history, and so on, to be truly well-educated for today’s world. No specialisation would be allowed until graduate school. The problem with many of today’s young people, Munger argues to his unconvinced offspring, is that they specialise too early and never learn some subjects they can’t live well without. They don’t know enough about the world.”

That, to me, sounds like a good educational institution.

Deed-dependent

Is honour gone, or is it experiencing a resurgence? Are we, as a people and as a species, less or more honourable than in the times gone past? Look to social media. Look to standard interactions between friends, between colleagues and between strangers. Think about the values of society, the values of the individual and their relationship. Is honour alive, or dead?

I don’t know. But considering its definition—

“Honour … is the idea of a bond between an individual and a society, as a quality of a person that is both of social teaching and of personal ethos, that manifests itself as a code of conduct, and has various elements such as valor, chivalry, honesty, and compassion. It is an abstract concept entailing a perceived quality of worthiness and respectability that affects both the social standing and the self-evaluation of an individual or institution such as a family, school, regiment or nation. Accordingly, individuals (or institutions) are assigned worth and stature based on the harmony of their actions with a specific code of honour, and the moral code of the society at large.”

—it is obvious that it is deed-dependent. When it comes to the question of honour, what we say doesn’t matter. All that is important is what we do. And we should judge others and ourselves accordingly.

What am I paying for?

When considering a purchase—be it the service or product of a business, or a book and the ideas it contains—it’s helpful to ask, “What am I paying for?” Considering this question, I’ve come up with three categories of things we pay for: principle, perception or practice.

“Principle” is general insight. It is the identification and explanation of over-arching themes and patterns. For example, many books contain principles that have been distilled by an individual through decades of experimentation and involvement within specific industries and environments.

“Perception” is particular insight. It is the identification and explanation of over-arching themes and patterns manifested in specific domains. For example, a general insight for a venture capitalist could be Peter Thiel’s “Escape competition”—a central idea from Zero to One. A particular insight, related to that idea, could be how to identify a company within a young industry positioning itself to have no competitors.

“Practice” is the application of general or particular insight. It’s not generic or specific knowledge, more what to do with it. For example, I could go to a nutritional coach and ask for help. Their assistance would help me implement good habits and set up structures in my life that support said habits. I’d be paying the coach for assistance with practice, not general or tailored information.

The question works the other way around as well. As an entrepreneur, instead of asking, “What am I paying for?”, it’s valuable to ask, “What am I offering?” Is it principle, perception, or practice? General insight, particular insight, or an application of the two?

Speech is easy, and ambiguous

It sometimes happens that someone perfectly elucidates an idea or insight you’ve been struggling to patch together. It happened to me yesterday—I was scrolling through my Twitter feed when I came across this from Adam Elkus:

“I have the opposite prejudice as the one famously expressed in Phaedrus. I’m inherently suspicious of anyone that privileges orality over written communication.

Most of my suspicion has less to do with the paper trail issue and more with the ways in which a charismatic speaker can get people to quite literally lose their grip on reality

This can also be done with the written word. But the significance of nonverbal communication in phonocentric modes of communication makes it also both easier to do and harder to diagnose.”

I understand where Elkus is coming from. Firstly, he is—to a greater degree than me—critical of Jordan Peterson, the “secular evangelist” at the helm of one of the culture war’s biggest hype trains. I suspect the above comments are made partially with him in mind. Second, after reading much about the Second World War and Nazi Germany, I’ve come across Adolf Hitler’s ability to make his audience “lose their grip on reality”, typically via vague assertions of political policy, generic appeals to ideology, a liberal use of us-versus-them posturing and exaggerated displays of emotion, all wrapped in a facade of unquestionable authority and irresistible momentum.

But the more interesting consequence of Elkus’ statement is not that I agree with it, but that it correlates with the uneasiness I feel when I think of podcasts.

Everyone and their mum has a podcast now. The reason, perhaps, is that it’s easy to do. As Seth Godin says, no-one gets talker’s block. Further, most of the time, the host has “interesting people” as guests, so the conversation usually covers old ground instead of breaking new ground—guests talk about current or previous work, instead of uncovering new insights or treading new trails of thought. Thus, when it comes to podcasting, the barrier to entry is low.

However, as Brent Beshore observed, more people seem to have “life-changing” experiences because of a podcast episode than because of a book they’ve read. And I think it has to do with what Elkus talked about—ambiguity in speech versus concreteness in prose.

Both oral and written communication are proxies of thought. But it just so happens that the latter is a much better indicator than the former. Try it for yourself. Try explaining a closely held idea to someone by speaking and to a different person via writing. It’s easier to talk about something than write about it because verbal communication has fewer barriers. Whereas when you read something someone has wrote about an idea, it’s easy to diagnose either the idea or its communication as shoddy.

So, oral communication is a more ambiguous representation of thought and thus more impactful on the majority than the written word. It’s why podcasts are so popular, why politicians are able to be so slimy, why demagogues are able to rise to positions of power, and why we should be wary of those who persuade with their mouth instead of their pen.

Emotion

Tiago Forte recently tweeted that “The key to ultimate productivity is being completely driven by your emotions.” A few years ago I’d have vehemently disagreed. But nowadays, I think that Tiago’s idea is an understatement. See, I think the foundation of all great human achievement is found in emotion.Those great discoveries that we typically attribute to reason? What was the driving force behind them? The great structures, the great inventions, the reality-altering modes of thinking and doing? What compelled the person who found them to look and keep looking? Emotion, emotion, emotion.

The claim that our ability to use reason to check emotion is what separates us from our ape ancestors is, thus, off the mark. What separates us from our descendants, what has enabled humanity’s ascendance, is the use of emotion to empower our reasoning. We are only able to fly so high—and stoop so low—because emotion amplifies our thought to the most incredible degree. Emotion—be it positive or negative—is what enables us to endure, to create, to speculate, to challenge, and ultimately, to care.

The grand function

I’m a proponent of the many paths approach, the idea that the human mind functions best when it has multiple avenues of activity to explore and proceed down. However, what I believe really empowers the many paths approach is the connectedness of the different avenues. Essentially, by engineering your activities so that each one supports every other it is possible to attain otherwise unattainable achievements. I’ll give you an example from my own plate of activity (of the interconnectivity of avenues, not of unattainable achievement).

I keep a master project list. It currently has seven entries, six of which are related to the reading-writing spectrum, and all of which support one another. Here’s how it works:

I read (project 1) old and new books, and online material sourced through Reddit, Twitter, newsletters, and browsing. What I read is then filtered and entered into my commons (project 2), into my scrapbook (project 3), is directly incorporated into my blog (project 4), or tagged as research for my current book (project 5). This reading and writing then serves as practice for my editorial work (project 6). Further, what I write in longform, shortform, or for editorial work, informs what I read online and off, how I read it, and what I’m looking for.

The aim here is a more organic structuring of activities. Consider the human body and it’s various systems—respiration, digestion, the senses, the muscles. Each one has its own particular function but they all contribute to and enable the grand function. That is the ultimate goal: every project supports and informs the other, and they all align for the achievement of a higher end.