Category Archives: The Human Condition

Advice -> Endorphins or Habit Change?

There are many inspirational posters on many walls across the world.

Most of these posters do not change the behaviors of those who purchase them, frame them, hang them, and look at them.

Rather, most of the posters deliver a sequence of endorphin boosts that very quickly fade.

In a short matter of time you pass the poster and you feel nothing.

Why Do People Seek Advice? 

Most people who seek advice are not that serious about changing their behavior.

They want to change their behavior, and they want to feel the endorphin rush of wanting to change their behavior, but they do not want to put in the work that behavior change requires.

People like to feel that they can change.

People like to get advice on how to change.

People do not like the process of change.

If you are seeking advice, you’d do well to be aware of why you are seeking advice.

If you are giving advice, you’d do well to clearly articulate what it will require to implement this advice.

Or, at the very least, understand an advice session for what it is: a form of human banter that makes everyone feel good at the time but has little lasting effect.

What Advice Have You Received that Has Become a Habit? 

It’s worth reflecting on what advice you have received that has become a mental habit, both to reflect if you’re doing the hard work of behavior change, as well as to understand why some advice leads to change and some does not.

Here are some pieces of advice that have truly change how I think and act:

Nobody promised us anything (my father): As my father was dying from Parkinson’s disease, I asked him if he was sad, and he responded: nobody promised us anything. I think about this phrase a lot – as well as a sister phrase that I’ve incorporated into my thinking: the world is not ordered for my own happiness. When I am feel frustrated, indignant, or consumed with self-pity, I say this phrase to myself and, in the moment, reorient my mindset as best as I can, which is often a good amount.

Workout and mediate everyday (self-help books): Basically every self-help / self-improvement book I’ve read and have hammered home the importance of exercise and meditation. And for good reason! It’s taken time, but I’m not at least 5-6 days a week for both. Working out and meditation have become long-term habits.

Lead congruent organizations / teams (Nancy Euske, NSNO management team): After a few initial failures, I am now very deliberate about leading teams and organizations that have an explicitly aligned mission, strategy, culture, structure, tactics, people management systems, and goals.

I’m sure there are other pieces of advice that have become habits – but these standout to me in that they have greatly impacted my life, five years ago I did none of these three with any regularity, and I continually track my behavior to ensure the habits stick.

The Biggest Mistake I Made with Habits

For years, I would read books for knowledge rather than behavioral change. For some types of books (novels, history, etc.) this is fine. For many other types of books (business, self-help, etc.), this is not fine.

But I get high off learning new information, which is dangerous. I used to rip through dozens of business and self-help books a year – and while this made be an interesting dinner party companion (or terrible depending on your conversation tastes) – it rarely led to behavior change.

Now, I only read a business or self-help book if: (1) I have the time to read it deliberately enough to draw out behavior change possibilities; and  (2) I have the time to practice and implement the behavior changes.

The Ability to Adopt New Habits is an Incredible Competitive Advantage

Most people will spend over forty years working.

Over the course of a career, being able to adopt a few important habits a year will provide an incredible competitive advantage over people who do not adopt important habits.

Growth mindset and intellectual curiosity are amazing mindsets – but it’s the ability to form habits that unleashes their true power.

Book Review: The Wealth of Humans

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I just finished Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans: Work, Power, and Status in the Twenty-First Century.

Summary: Economic Disruptions Require New Social Contracts, which can be a Bloody Process 

Ryan’s primary argument is as follows:

1. Periods of rapid technological innovation usually lead to increased prosperity, but the transition can be very disruptive to the existing social and economic order.

2. During these periods of disruption, workers, the economic elite, and those in governmental power have to create the social contract will be for the new order. This is a very difficult process that involves a lot of trial and error.

3. The last time this happened was after the industrial revolution, where numerous wars and revolutions eventually led to a few dominant orders: capitalism and the welfare state (in the West, South and Central America, and parts of the East), socialist dictatorship (in China), and resource based dictatorships (primarily in the Middle East). Of these different variations, capitalism + the welfare state have proven most successful.

4. The digital revolution, which is being driven by continuing gains in computing power, will requite a new social order, especially if this revolution leads to massive surpluses of labor.

5. Creating a new social contact for this age could be just as bloody – or bloodier – than the last go around (WWI, WWII, Mao, the Cold War, etc.).

Reflection #1: Time Between Disruptions is Decreasing, Power of Weapons is Increasing 

I generally agree with Ryan’s argument. One additional issue to consider is that the time between economic singularities is decreasing. It took us a very, very longtime to get from hunter gathers to farmers, and a very longtime to get from farming to the industrial revolution.

It’s barely taken us a 150 year to get from the industrial revolution to the computing revolution.

And it’s likely that the computing revolution will seed another revolution (perhaps general artificial intelligence) in another 50-100 years – and who knows what next economic singularity will spring from superior artificial intelligence…

Additionally, technological advancement increases the power and scope of our weapons. We will likely continue to build new weapons that can wipe out humanity, such as synthetic viruses.

In short, the time between the rolls of the dice will decrease, while our odds of losing any given die roll may increase.

One way to reduce the odds of losing is to disperse ourselves and / or our decendents amongst the cosmos in order to decrease the fragility of single planet living.

Reflection #2: A Minor Guess of How to Ease Into the Next Social Order

The more I puzzle over the accelerating impacts of the digital revolution, the more I come back to wage subsidies as the best tool we have for stumbling our way into the next social order.

While universal basic incomes might at some time be warranted, this will be incredibly expensive (given current productivity) and we don’t yet know how to structure a modern society where many people simply don’t work.

Wage subsidies, on the other hand: (1) maintain the connection between work and income (2) lead to less economic distortion, especially compared to minimum wage raises (3) can be raised over time to maintain a sense of economic progress, and (4) help avoid an economy where purchasing power (and presumably social power) consolidates with the top 10%.

Reflection #3: What is Inflationary? What is Deflationary?

Over the past few decades, goods have faced deflationary pressures (most things you buy for day-to-day uses are cheaper now).

Education and healthcare, on the other hand, have been subject to inflationary pressures (they cost more than they used to).

From a pure material progress standpoint, a deflationary future means that wage subsidies might not be necessary to keep improving welfare.

However, if healthcare, housing, and education continue to eat up budgets, people will need higher wages to keep up, especially those that don’t receive government subsidies in these areas.

Lastly, it’s possible that even if purchasing power increases, if income inequality is still increasing, social unrest could still be a major issue.

All this is to say: it’s worth looking at both income and expense.

Reflection #4: Consider Yourself, Consider the Monkey, Consider the Dog 

To the extent humans survive the new social order that comes after an artificial intelligence singularity, it’s worth considering what this existence might be like.

Dogs, for example, have done quite well during the era of human dominance. Specifically, they were bred to be happier.

Dogs have also been provided a universal basic income in the form of shelter, food, and treats.

I often struggle with the gap between what I believe to be the best version of myself and the actual reality of the current version of myself. I sometimes get depressed by the lack of progress I’m making.

The fact is that it’s incredibly difficult to become an even better person once you’ve eaten up the low-hanging fruit of adopting classical liberal beliefs and not murdering your fellow humans.

So it’s worth noting that humans (perhaps?) have created the best version of dogs.

Perhaps our descendants will do the same for us, especially if we are able to bring value to whatever is they are seeking in life. Interestingly enough, more intelligent primates have not faired as well as dogs and cats. So don’t assume being #2 on the intelligence pecking order means you’ll be ok.

This may all sound crazy, but it seems extremely unlikely that humans are the endpoint of evolution. So it’s worth considering – what comes next?

The Challenge of Separating Emotional and Intellectual Agreeableness

There is a decent amount of research showing that agreeableness (as measured by the five factor personality test) is not always associated with strong professional outcomes.

Specifically, agreeableness can reduce results orientation and create opportunities to be taken advantage of by colleagues who better use power to achieve their desired ends.

That being said, agreeableness need not be all bad: to the extent that it helps cultivate large, loose networks, agreeableness is likely of use to leaders in attracting talent and coalition members, especially in the non-profit sector.

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Many times, I’ll be in a conversation with a colleague, grantee, or potential grantee and there will be a small war going on my head: part of me wants to nod my head, smile, and ask probing but pleasant questions – while another party of me wants to dig in very hard on everything that might be wrong about what we’re discussing.

I have a strong desire to be both emotionally agreeable and intellectually disagreeable.

Which begs the question: is it possible to be emotionally agreeable while being intellectually disagreeable?

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I’m not sure. But here’s some things I try to do:

  • Utilize processes that create a safe space for intellectual aggression (i.e., assigning someone to be the devil’s advocate in a meeting).
  • Using hedging phrases such as “I might have this wrong, but….” that soften the blows of intellectual aggression.
  • Trying to separate my empathy for a person with my disagreement with her ideas – so that my intellectual disagreeableness does not bleed into full blown personal animosity.

If you have any other tools, let me know.

I struggle to get the balance right.

Sometimes I feel like I’m too agreeable, and sometimes I feel like I’m too intellectually aggressive.

2015 Year in Review: Is the World Getting More Fragile?

Through what lens do you understand the world’s hardest problems?

Arnold Kling’s Three Axis Model posits that conservatives understand the world on an anarchy-civilization axis, liberals understand the world on a oppressor-victim axis, and libertarians understand the world on a coercion-freedom axis.

I find this model useful, and for much of my life I understood the world on the oppressor-victim axis; over the past few years, the coercion-freedom axis has also become a frame of common use.

2015, however, was the year when I more fully adopted a new axis: the fragile-antifragile axis.

In short, while I find Three Axis Model useful in understanding how others think, I find it out of synch with my own values (none of this an attack on Kling, he was only describing the dominant camps).

Moreover, I read two books this year (War! What is it Good For? [non-fiction] and Nexus [fiction]) that reenforced the notion that the traditional three axis viewpoints did not reflect how I approached the world’s hardest problems.

The Fragile-Antifragile Axis

Quite simply: things that make the world more fragile are bad, and things that make the world less fragile are good.

Nassim Taleb wrote a book about it. There’s a lot in that book I disagree with, but I think the thesis is roughly right.

The Issues at Hand 

The following things are making (or have the potential to make) the world much more fragile: climate change, AI, weapons of mass destruction, Donald Trump becoming president.

The following things don’t really affect the fragility of the world: domestic gun policy, reproductive rights, tinkering with tax policy.

Now, all of these issues are important, and I care about all of them. But when viewed through the fragile-antifragile axis, some or much more important than others.

Moreover, some of these issues (weapons of mass destruction) cause me to be open to supporting policies that I would not support if I only viewed the world through the liberal or libertarian axises.

How to Make the World Less Fragile? 

I previously spent a few months worth of free time creating a pitch deck for an existential risk venture fund, whereby success would be measured in reduction of existential (fragile) risk rather than profits. I pitched it to a few high net worth individuals but got nowhere. Perhaps I got rejected because this is a bad idea.

But this year has seen the rise of two anti-fragile funds: Open AI and the Gates energy fund.

Also, Elon Musk has plans to make humanity less fragile by colonizing Mars.

And when you consider the Paris climate treaty, a taxonomy of antifragile tactics begins to emerge: innovation (Gates), knowledge equity (Open AI), exit (Mars), and coordination (Paris).

Is the World Getting Less Fragile?

This seems difficult to quantify. On one hand, given the size of our population and the advanced nature of our technology, we can survive many things that would have wiped our ancestors out.

On the other hand, these very two conditions – the size of our population and the advanced nature of our technology – also increase fragility. In a world where it becomes easy to build a virus that wipes out the world, it’s pretty dicey to have billions of people out there walking around.

It’s interesting to think about what was the least fragile time in human history (1890s?).

If I Had to Bet

My guess is that exit is the best strategy to reduce fragility.

And while I appreciate Musk’s strategy (humans on mars), my guess is that exit will be achieved via robots (less fragile bodies) all over space (less fragile geography).

Though of course I’m not sure.

Anyways, that’s my reflection on 2015.

Book Review(s): 6 Books on Our Mental Limits

I’ve had some good reading time over the past two months and have been able to get through six books (as well as the new Dragon Tattoo book, which will not be reviewed here):

  1. Triggers: Creating Behaviors that Last (adult behavior change)
  2. Superforecasting (predictions)
  3. Work Rules! (Google’s HR systems)
  4. Simple Rules (utilizing simple rules to guide decisions)
  5. The Evolution of Everything (evolution as a principle for all change)
  6. Hive Mind (how national IQ is more important than individual IQ)

All are worth reading.

Here are some major themes that ran through them all:

We Have Weak Minds

Triggers pushes hard on how much environment impacts us.

Super forecasting details how badly pundits do at prediction because they rely on situational judgment rather than baseline data.

Simple Rules makes a convincing case that the world is too complex to navigate by fully analyzing every situation.

The Evolution of Everything rightly argues that even our geniuses are most often well situated for breakthroughs due to past intellectual evolution, not because they along were capable of achieving such breakthroughs.

Collectively, We Have Better Minds

Hive Mind demonstrates how individual minds are made more effective by having other good minds around.

Triggers lays out an accountability regime whereby other people hold you accountable for your behavior commitments.

Superforecasting talks about how even the best forecasters improve when working together.

The Evolution of Everything narrates how it is our collective knowledge, built over the ages, that allows to enjoy the fruits of modernity.

Those Who Use Data Effectively Will Win 

Work Rules! vividly portrayed how heavily Google relies on data analysis to make any decision, be it about people or anything else.

One memorable quote went something like a manager saying this: “If you don’t give me data, I will give you my opinions, and you don’t want that.”

Super forecasting is all about how baseline data is needed to anchor any situational judgment.

Triggers recommends systematic daily tracking of any desired behavioral change.

How I’ve Changed Because of these Books

  1. After reading Triggers, I created an end of the day 10 question checklist to hold myself accountable for the behaviors I’m trying to implement (I use an app to record them every night).
  2. After reading Superforecasting, I’ve tried to ensure that we conduct a  research review of any issue before even beginning to make judgments, to ensure we understand baseline data.
  3. After reading Work Rules! I reflected on how much I over relied on my own judgment when I led NSNO. I should have done a better job of always asking for the data before making any managerial decisions.
  4. After reading Simple Rules, I revised a decision checklist I had made for grant making to include a priority rule (most of them were boundary rules and stop rules).
  5. After reading Hive Mind, I reflected on my strong preference for very open immigration. While I still hold this belief, the book helped me understand where and why I might draw limits.

I don’t know if I will be successful in sustaining any of these behavior changes. But I hope I can.

If you have a chance, I recommend picking any of the books up for holiday reading.

The Iceberg Theory of Judgment

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I just finished reading Ian Morris’ Foragers, Farmers, and Fossil Fuels. It is well worth reading.

Morris’ thesis is that human values evolve based on a society’s ability to harness energy. Over human history, there have been three major eras of energy extracting ability – foraging, farming, and industry – and, according to Morris, each of these eras eventually selected the values that were best suited for the predominant mode of energy extraction.

Whether or not value changes were tied to modes of energy extraction, his argument that there have been three major eras of human values is supported by others, including Robin Hanson.

When you combine the “three value eras” theory, with Jonathan Haidt’s theory of the biological underpinnings of morality, with Kling’s “three axis” framework, with Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, you can begin to build what I’ll call the Iceberg Theory of Judgement.

I’m just trying to sort this theory out, so much is probably wrong (or not novel) about the Iceberg Theory of Judgement. But anyways, here goes.

As the picture above shows (and as common knowledge now holds), most of an iceberg is underwater.

You can’t see it.

So too with the drivers of our judgements.

The Iceberg that Exists Under the Water: Biology, Culture, Schema

Biology 

Haidt gives us a biological framework. According to him, humans are hardwired to make judgements on specific moral issues: harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and purity (Haidt notes that more moral foundations might be discovered). However, due to biological differences, some of us react more strongly to certain foundations than others. For example, conservatives tend to place more value on authority, while liberals place more value on fairness.

When you judge something, you are doing so based on your individual expression of our biological moral foundations – foundations which have been selected for over the history of humanity.

Culture

Your biology then interacts with the culture of the day. If Morris is correct, there have been three major human cultures, each of which was driven by the predominant mode of energy extraction. One could come up with other theories of why these cultures became dominant. One could also argue that these three cultures are too broad, that they mask too much real variation. This might be true. But, at any point, some culture exists, and your biology interacts with this external environment, and this creates your values.

When you judge something, you are doing so based on the values produced by the interaction of your biology and the culture of your time.

Schema

Kling’s Three Axis model gives a schema that explains how our current biology and culture interacts to produce filters by which we understand the world. Kling’s axis include: a civilization-barbariansim axis, a oppressor-oppressed axis, and a freedom-coersion axis. Broadly speaking, in our day conservatives see the world through the civilization-barbarianism axis, liberals through the oppressor-oppressed axis, and libertarians through the freedom-coersion axis.

When you judge something, you are doing so based on a schema that organizes the values that are born from your biological and cultural underpinnings.

The Iceberg that Exists Above the Water: What You Feel, What You Think 

What You Feel 

Once you process something through your schema, you get an emotion. Most of the time, we simply act on this emotion, using what Kahneman calls “System 1” thinking. While some might call this subconscious decision making, I put this type of thinking “above the water” because you are aware that you are feeling the emotion (whereas you are not naturally aware of your biology, culture, and schema).

When you judge something, you usually acting on an emotion that is produced by an idea being run through your schema, which organizes the values that are born from your biological and cultural underpinnings.

What You Think

In times of maximum deliberation and reflection, you use what Kahneman calls “System 2” thinking, which, in its purest form, bypasses both your schema and your emotions.

Of course, you are still making a judgement, and this judgement will be grounded in your biological and cultural context, but all shortcuts (schema, emotion) will be eliminated.

When you judge something with maximum reflection, you produce a judgement that is highly congruent to the fundamental values that have been produced by the interaction of your biology and the culture of your time.

In Sum

When you are judging someone, you are likely judging them because you emotionally reject the values produced by the interaction of their biology and culture.

In moments of maximum reflection, you are judging them because you have analytically determined that you reject the values produced by the interaction of their biology and their culture.

This is not to say that your moral judgements are of no use.

Rather, it’s to say that the sources of your judgement and the object of your derision are both born from the same fundamental process – most of which exists under the water line.