Obstructions

Obstructions

In Good to Great, Jim Collins suggests that instead of spending time and resources “motivating the troops” companies would be better served focusing on eliminating demotivating factors. He argues that if you have the “right people on the bus” (people who are intrinsically motivated to do great work), the problem isn’t getting them to do great work, but getting rid of the inefficiencies and energy drains that keep them from doing great work.

This is also a great way to look at our own lives. Provided we have enough self-confidence to think our ourselves as a people with the potential to do great work (I hope this is the case), our time should be spent eliminating the things from our lives that drain our motivation (and you know, actually doing our work). Instead of frustrating ourselves looking for “something to inspire us” and “finding our passion,” most of us would be better off investing our time eliminating that shit from our lives that makes us want to give up and become invalids. Of course, some things will always suck. When we’re in our 20s we’re probably not going to be able to afford to pay someone to do our laundry for us. But a lot of the bullshit can be cut from our lives pretty easily if we invest the effort. This means getting organized, getting rid of useless shit, and cutting down contact with our stoner friends. For me, my obstructions are usually feeling overwhelmed, distracted, or disorganized (which probably sounds familiar). The solution is to prioritize on a note-card every morning, uninstall Facebook on my phone, and buy some damn folders. Works much better than beating myself up over my “lack of motivation.”

“Deep”

When I was a teenager, being called “deep” was an affirmation I constantly sought. I had a friend who would always come away from our conversation so impressed with my thoughts. “That’s so deep,” she’d say, and I’d be so pleased with myself.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize how ego-driven and superficial most of this was. If I think back to most of the “deep” conversations I used to have in high school, most of them were nothing more than regurgitated societal truisms or some flashy concept I’d read in a book the week before. Of course, like most of the social acknowledgments we yearn for in high school, “deepness” is ultimately just another affirmative title we use to prop up our value and self-worth. Perhaps striving to be acknowledged for our intellectual ability is a bit nobler than striving to be thought of as “hot,” “cool,” or “chill,” but it’s fundamentally just as superficial and status-driven.

I’d like to convince myself that our infatuation with sounding smart or profound is a problem confined to our teenage years, but observation tells me this is not the case. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be thought of as smart, but it’s important to remember that our worth is decided by what we accomplish, not our high sounding ideals.

Complicit

If you look at hugely successful stand-up comedians like Aziz Ansari, Trevor Noah, and Amy Schumer, you’ll find that their acts are largely about highlighting the destructive behaviors we’ve become complicit in as a society. It’s not that any of them put on “social conscious” airs, rather that their jokes flow authentically from the observations and struggles of their lives. This is oversimplifying a bit, but for the most part Aziz focuses on the struggles of dating, Noah makes observations about race, and Schumer details her experiences being a woman.

These comedians value, and popularity, flows from the fact that thousands of people can relate to each of their experiences, or at least empathize enough to be fascinated with what they have to say. Sometimes we relate to the experience the comedians have had themselves–I knew exactly what Aziz was saying when he complained about having a conversation with a girl via text, asking her out, and then having her take two hours to response “yes” or “no”–but often times we’re forced to admit that we’re the people complicit in committing minor crimes against harmonious living. Whether we’re like Aziz’s well-meaning guy friends and encourage our hapless single friends to futility hit on women out of their league by saying things like “go talk to her bro, what’s the worst that can happen?”, or we irrationally feared African travelers during the Ebola crisis, we’re all largely complicit in some form of bad behavior or another without even realizing it.

These comedians are so successful because of their ability to get people to nod along and think, “hey yeah, that is total bullshit that people do that.” And, hopefully, if our defenses are down enough, we’ll let ourselves admit “hey yeah, it’s sorta bullshit that I do that.” And we become better people by acknowledging all the bad behavior we unconsciously commit because we didn’t know it was bad in the first place. After all, it was what everyone else is doing.

Theodore Roosevelt’s Beans

When Theodore Roosevelt was leading the Rough Riders in the invasion of Cuba during Spanish-American War around the turn of the 20th century, he got word of a solution to a longstanding problem that had plagued him and his men: awful army food. Him and his men had been subsisting for a prolonged period of time on nothing but hardtack, bacon, coffee, and water, and were in dire need of a change of fare to help raise their moral. Roosevelt learned that a full 1,100 pounds of beans were available at the nearby commissary, and went to go retrieve them for him and his men. Unfortunately, the commissar refused him, citing some obscure subsection of the army’s regulatory code which dictated that beans were reserved for officers only. Roosevelt didn’t protest, he simply requested all 1,100 pounds of beans to “feed his officers.” He got the beans. Just as importantly, he got a story that powerfully raised his men’s moral for the bloodshed ahead.

This kind of circumnavigation of flawed systems is an extremely valuable skill, one that most people fail to master. The majority fight and claw at entrenched systems, and are often rewarded with little to no progress. It takes a political master like Roosevelt to manipulate and outmaneuver illogical regulations and systems rather than try and fight them directly. It’s a skill that featured powerfully in his remarkable success throughout his public life.

Story from The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Self-evident politics

Whenever I start following politics/political news media to the slightest degree, I inevitably find myself in awe of the insanity of some people’s beliefs. It’s not that these politicians/pundits out there have rational beliefs that differ from my own, that I could understand and respect. And it’s not that these people are uneducated or unintelligent, as that too I could understand. But for smart, educated, hard-working governors, senators, representatives, pundits, and anchors that often graduated some world-class school, how to they end up with such crazy beliefs.

I can only conclude that at some point these ostensibly intelligent, well-educated people locked into a system of beliefs which caused them to deny global warming and racism despite the ever-present evidence. To me, the problem/lesson here is less about any individual issue or liberalism/conservatism and more about how easy it is for people to hold erroneous, misguided, prejudiced beliefs.

Yet despite the amble evidence history provides as to the ease at which people are duped, most people remain utterly convinced about the correctness (and righteousness) of their own beliefs. This holds true across the political spectrum. And it’s a problem.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be so convinced that we are right. Perhaps we could use a little bit more self-doubt. Figuring out what we believe and why hard, time-consuming work that’s almost always neglected is. But perhaps we should only feel confident in what we believe after we’ve done the work necessary to be make sure we believe correctly, not because the “truth” struck us as self-evident and obvious.

Why do you love Apple and hate BP?

A professor of mine once posed our class with a question “Why do we love Apple and hate BP?” We had been studying the oil industry and the innumerable ways petroleum makes our modern way of life possible. Yet the public opinion about BP is exceptionally awful. In many ways, their bad reputation is warranted. They get huge tax breaks, make ridiculous profits, and dumped a couple million gallons of oil on the heads of baby birds. Yet their products make our modern way of life possible and power/provide amenities so ubiquitous we take them for granted.

The professor held up his Macbook adapter and told us we probably have a pretty good feeling about Apple, despite the fact that they charge us 80$ for a little trinket which probably cost then under $2 to make by utilizing outsourced laborers who work in largely deplorable conditions. Yet, he guessed correctly, we all feel pretty good about Apple and buying Apple products, even if we bitch about the cost.

Then he asked us to envision how far we could drive on $80 of gas. I have a 1997 Subaru Outback in shitty condition, but let’s (optimistically) say I average 20 miles a gallon highway. Gas right now is around $3.50 a gallon, so for $80 I could drive from San Francisco to San Diego. Which when you think about it is pretty incredible. And I can buy this gas anytime, 365 days a year, and always have it be high quality. Yet we all hate BP.

What’s responsible for this huge difference of opinion? Primarily its the story we tell ourselves about each company (though that I know of Apple has yet to drown baby birds in oil). This whole thought exercise is a fantastic way to show just how bad our brains are at performing moral calculus correctly, and how notorious they are at latching on to a story such as: “Apple = good” “Oil = bad”, even when the proper judgment  is much more ambiguous.

I’m not sure if the “answer” to all this is to hate Apple a little more or BP a little less. Perhaps the best answer is just to be aware of how our perceptions are so easily influenced by factors other than the sheer facts.

Jeffersonian Leisure

In Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power a pre-presidential Jefferson writes a letter home to his daughter outlining her daily regiment of activity:

With respect to the distribution of your time, the following is what I should approve:

From 8 to 10 o’clock, practice music.

From 10 to 1, dance one day and draw another.

From 1 to 2, draw on the day you dance, and write a letter the next day.

From 3 to 4, read French.

From 4 to 5, exercise yourself in music.

From 5 til bed-time, read English, write, ect.

We marvel at how Jefferson and his contemporaries accomplished so much, but when we look at the lifestyle they lived their accomplishments start to look a lot less like genius and a lot more like the natural result of a rigorous work ethic (of course combined with a great deal of privilege).