You Can’t Tell People Anything

Over the last few years, I’ve come to a fundamental belief: you cannot tell people anything. Coming to a new belief means you need all the infrastructure for that belief, and it generally means giving up other beliefs. It’s rare for people to do that without a lot of preparation, and in most instances, the person has to do that work on their own.

There are exceptions that prove the rule. While in school or in some kind of training environment, we go in with the understanding that we are ignorant of a topic, and we listen to “experts” who will give us the foundations that will lead to education, or a new set of beliefs. Outside of these contexts, I think people aren’t open to hearing what is being said to them. Makes me remember that bit from Mr. Rogers, where he says, roughly paraphrased, that people never change unless in dialog with people who love them.

The Precautionary Principle and Innovation

“First, there are issues of scale: small-scale explorations by lead users are relatively harmless until they are scaled up to become the dependence of mass consumers. Innovations may grow so popular that their production and consumption affect the stability of ecosystems and democracies, such as plastic waste choking our oceans, or Facebook becoming an increasing threat to the stability of democracies around the world.

Second, there are end-of-product-life considerations that are not properly taken into account, such as dismantling a nuclear energy facility or the recycling of electronic waste. 

Third, the harm from innovation may come not from regular use, but from unanticipated consequences, as shown in the Chernobyl disaster.

Fourth, innovation may be undertaken to deceive consumers and regulators about the nature of a product. The classic example from recent history would be Volkswagen’s intentional programming of its diesel engines to give misleading measurements of NOx emissions during regulatory testing. We might also mention here the case of complex financial market innovations designed to trick unsophisticated investors. 

A fifth dimension relates to the social injustice whereby those who gain from an innovation differ from those who lose. A recent Oxfam report estimates that the richest 1% of the world’s population is responsible for more than twice the carbon pollution of the poorest half of humanity during a critical 25-year period of emissions growth. 

Taking into account the downsides of technological innovation as well as the advantages leads us to think about the tradeoffs involved. The ‘precautionary principle’ suggests that regulators should not wait until an absolute scientific or societal consensus is achieved before taking regulatory action against dubious products and processes.”

-Alex Coad, “Innovation is harming us in ways we have yet to understand.” Pando. October 5, 2020.

Why Does DARPA Work?

DARPA PMs need to think for themselves, be curious, and have low ego. Why does this matter? When you are surrounded by smart, opinionated people the easy option is to either 100% accept what they’re saying because it’s eloquent and well-thought through or reject it outright because it sounds crazy or goes against your priors. Thinking for yourself allows you to avoid these traps. PMs need to be curious because building a complete picture of a discipline requires genuine curiosity to ask questions nobody else is asking. A large ego would lead to a program manager imposing their will on every piece of the program, killing curiosity and the benefits of top down problems and bottom up solutions.”

Ben Reinhardt, “Why does DARPA Work? June 18, 2020.

The Fourth Option

We always have three options.

  1. You can change it.
  2. You can accept it.
  3. You can leave it.

But, there’s a fourth option. 4. You can experience it.

Is experiencing something the same as accepting it? It isn’t.

The world is not static. Change is a constant. And, we are too busy reacting – choosing change, acceptance or escape – to be in the moment. We are choosing thinking about an experience over living it.

If we choose to experience a moment, then it means there is no room to try to change, agree or escape from it. All three are attempts to shape the experience to conform to our views and value judgments. When our minds, hearts and bodies are open to whatever that moment has to offer, there is no room for anything else. There is no room for thought.

The only thing that ever needs changing is our mind. Choose experiencing the moment over thinking about it, and you’ll change the world.

There is No Preparation for the Present Moment

“Generally, we tend to prepare too much. We say, ‘Once I make a lot of money, then I will go somewhere to study and meditate and become a priest,” or whatever it is we would like to become. But we never do it on the spot. We always speak in terms of, ‘Once I do something, then …” We always plan too much. We want to change our lives rather than use our lives, the present moment as part of the practice, and this hesitation on our part creates a lot of setbacks in our spiritual practice. Most of us have romantic ideas–‘I’m bad now but one day, when I change, I’ll be good.”

-Chogyam Trungpa, “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” Boston, MA: Shambala Publications, 1987. Pg. 237.

The One Year Rule

If you want your life to change, wait a year. It’ll change. Of course, it may not be for the better.

A study in 2008 found that happiness tends to follow a U-shaped curve, where the lowest level of happiness occurs somewhere around age 46. Yet, there are confounding factors. A death of a spouse, child or close family member, divorce/marital separation, imprisonment, personal injury or illness, or loss of meaningful work can all contribute to shifting our nadir of happiness into a different period. But, knowing that the 40s can be a difficult time, on average, and that life tends to improve after can be a helpful thing to know. It can be a source of hope.

Nothing is sure in this life but change. Are things difficult for you? All you need to do is wait. It’ll change.

!(Usefulness > Happiness)

I keep seeing Darius Foroux‘s writing showing up as a Pocket recommendation through Firefox. Recently, “The Purpose Of Life Is Not Happiness: It’s Usefulness” was the top recommendation. It ends on this note:

“Don’t take it too seriously. Don’t overthink it. Just DO something that’s useful. Anything.”

Being contrary, it reminded me of this famous Zen quote:

“Don’t just do something, sit there.”

Darius states on his main page that his areas of concern are: productivity, habits, decision making and personal finance. It occurs to me that the modern preoccupation with “Getting Things Done,” efficiency, “time management” and so forth is just a secular version of the Protestant work ethic. It’s an extension of the existing culture, where your value or usefulness is determined by how much money you make.

But, let’s take it at face value. Let’s imagine Elon Musk. He’s reinvigorated the space race, electric cars, energy storage, and other industries. Few people could make the claim that they have been more useful to society.

Elon Musk does not have a goal to be “useful,” broadly defined. He has a specific goal, i.e., to facilitate the colonization of Mars before climate change or some other extinction event closes the window of possibility for humanity. Everything he does is geared toward forwarding that goal.

A society needs people like Elon Musk for its long term survival. But, it doesn’t need a lot of them. So, what of everyone else?

Is usefulness to other people a purpose to which we all should strive? And what then of the people that do not have an obvious use, people that are a burden to society? Or, more ambiguously, people that aren’t useful in any obvious way? Or the fact that almost everyone will at some point be “useless”? How will we find value in our lives then?

This is where the Zen quote really gets to the point. People crave money, power and fame. All of these are “useful,” but they are also a distraction. They reinforce the ego. They make people dissatisfied with what they have or scared they will lose it. They make people less adaptable to change. Defining the purposes of life as usefulness is a recipe for creating unhappiness as our usefulness, however defined, changes.

Swallowing the Elephant (Part 1)

“Years ago while interning in the rendering group at Pixar, I learned an important lesson: “interesting” things almost always come to light when a software system is given input with significantly different characteristics than it’s seen before. Even for well-written and mature software systems, new types of input almost always expose heretofore unknown shortcomings in the existing implementation.”

—Matt Pharr. Swallowing the Elephant (Part 1) July 8, 2018.

Probably true of any system.

Chesterton’s Fence

“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”

—”Taking a Fence Down.” The American Chesterton Society. Retrieved November 30, 2017.