OPW: “Our Actions Create Our World”

I haven’t done this in a while, but I’ve been thinking about bringing it back. OPW stands for “Other People’s Words,” and since I moth-balled Link Banana I’ve been sharing most things I would have previously put there on Twitter. But this mini graduation/commencement/life speech from Hank Green, in the form of a YouTube video, was good enough I wanted to put it somewhere a bit more permanent.

Partial transcript:

Hello, future dead person! I have an uncomfortable truth for you: you are very likely, one of the luckiest and most powerful people who has ever existed on this planet.

Now you almost certainly do not feel powerful. It’s difficult to feel powerful unless you suddenly have more power than you once had or have much more power than the people around.

So, you don’t feel that power all the time. And it’s probably good that you don’t, because it might be crippling. But in terms of absolute, not relative, power you are basically a god. You can hold the sum of all human knowledge in the palm of your hand. If you’ve ever taken a hot shower on a cold day, you have experienced a luxury that the vast majority of humankind could never even dream of. …

There is one thing that I can definitely say about the world as it exists right now: we are, at this moment, both creating and solving problems faster than we ever have before. So your job—the only thing anyone can ask of you as a human—is to solve more problems than you create. Also, take care of yourself and and have a good time, ideally. But you are very powerful, and you can make your world and yourself better. So, do that.

… I also live in a world that was created by the actions of people. … Our culture is just the collective actions and decisions of people.

And that culture is, at this point, the single most important factor in the health and sustainability our species. And we all get to collectively decide what that culture is.

Now, it might feel like we have no control of this. That we’re at the whims of what has come before. That we’re destined to end up in a cut-throat world of ever-increasing inequality. But not if we decide to not live in that world. Not if we choose compassion.

We collectively decide what world we’re going to live in by being that world. That’s the real power you have. It’s not your job, and it’s not your bank account.  It’s a power that every human has. Every human ever has had. And it has nothing to do with immortality or fame. And yet, I think that it might be the most important thing that every person does.

The reason we educate ourselves and improve ourselves is so that we can be more effective at making these positive changes. At creating more solutions then problems. Because in the end, your actions are what build our world. So don’t take that for granted.

Personal Development

You’re Either Make the World Closer to Your Ideal, or You’re Not

There are two things about categorical statements: all of them are wrong, but some of them are useful. And so at one level, I think this piece’s title is clearly wrong: some actions don’t quite make the world better or not, they just kind of happen.

But that being said, it’s clarifying to realize that fundamentally this is a choice that every action you make can be categorized into: either it makes the world more like you’d like, or it doesn’t. Either you’re having a positive transforming impact, or you’re not.

One of the complicating factors on this simple dichotomy is that we all want the world be different in some very big and some very small ways. For example, I’d like to know that I was definitely not having an negative impact on the global environment. I’d also like to be able to get to a conference across the country next weekend without having to rely on only my own muscles (and perhaps a bicycle) to get there. What do I do?

Another great example is that I’d like to look like a Greek god. 5% body fat, big (but not obscenely large) muscles. “Ripped.” But I also like the taste of pies, chocolates, and other unhealthy things. And I don’t particularly like to perform all the exercises (in either their specific motions, or the quantity) required. Plus, as much as I’ve learned to like the flavor of vegetables, I couldn’t stay happy for long on those alone.

So what gets in the way of making this a simple and concise hueristic by which you change your actions and thus simply transform the world is that there are these different time horizons where our desires for world transformation operate. Maybe I’d like to lose 10 pounds, but dislike the feeling of hunger. Maybe I’d like to gain 10 pounds, but just can’t fathom how people eat that much food.

This balancing of all the different horizons of our desires is an art, and a constant dance. Like balancing a stick above your hand, it requires continuous adjustment. Sometimes you’re in a place where your short term desires and your long term ones align. Sometimes you’ve got to put your short-term ones on hold to pursue the long ones, sometimes the opposite. It’ll never feel perfect and natural, but the balancing of it is what living is.

Practical Philosophy

What Good is Anger?

Hearing someone lash out in anger, near me but not at me, often makes me contemplate the foolish impotence of anger in modern life. Anger is a very intense feeling, and it’s so common there must be something to recommend it. But I often struggle to find that benefit.

The Downsides of Anger

The most potent and sure thing about anger is that it’s spurred on by a feeling of sharp intense pain. I think of it a bit like a hot coal, surely burning someone. And who’s it definitely burning? The person possessing the anger.

Now it may be the case that an angry person is able to successfully transfer some of that seering pain onto someone else. Surely there are many stories of the weak being made to suffer the anger of the powerful — whether that be through wars between peoples, or the prototypical angry father lashing out at his helpless wife or children. But even in those circumstances, there’s scant evidence to support the idea that the initially angry person is made less angry by having spread their frustration around.

Aside from the obviously problematic transference of anger, it’s got another really bad quality: the angry mind is off-balance; a roiling cauldron of unreason that’s ready to do stupid things. How many dumb choices throughout history were made because someone was angry? When anger made it impossible to reason correctly? Almost certainly too many to count.

So, what good is there to be found in anger?

There are a couple upsides to anger. The most potent is probably evolutionary: anger is a clear and animalistic corrective to slights to an individual. Imagine a pack of monkeys where the most powerful male has dispropiatate breeding rights to all the females in the group. If he doesn’t get angry when his dominance is threatened, he’s likely to not be dominant for long. And so he’d have fewer offspring than those males more jealous in the protection of their role and power.

That sways me: anger is an effective low-intelligence impulse to beneficial social competition throughout the history of life. It also, in a more subtle but not trivial way, impels even meaningful correctives to problems of injustice in modern societies. While we idealize the struggle against British rule of India, for civil rights in the USA, or against apartheid in South Africa as rooted in a deep sense of love for justice, we’re being foolish to pretend that all three of those moments weren’t fueled by righteous anger.

But in those three movements, there is the paradox of anger in modern human society. Those movements are remembered fondly by people on both sides of them not because of the righteous anger or impulse to violence that started them. The troubled and largely unsuccessful history of the America’s militant Black Power movement (and specifically the Black Panther Party whose manifesto you see above) — rooted more deeply and completely in righteous anger than its predecessor — makes clear that while anger is an effective impulse to create action, it’s not a very successful way to fight systemic injustice in the long term.

The Strategic Use of Anger

The civil rights movements that are most fondly remembered on all sides — from those in power, and those fighting that power — were not violent or overtly angry. They were quiet and slow and deliberate. They thus allowed the powerful space for learning and understanding the scale of the injustice. They allowed the oppressors a period for growth (or culture-driven democratic replacement), and made space to cultivate wide understanding of complex ideas like love, justice, and forgiveness.

Anger’s use, then, is in sensing and finding the places where wrongs are being committed, and being sharply aware of them. Anger’s risk is that it convinces us that it knows the most effective response to that wrong. And if history shows us one thing, it’s that the violent and angry response, even if justified by the facts, is unlikely to lead to meaningful stable change in the long term.

Practical Philosophy

The Hidden Power of Acceptance

Most people think of power as assertive and domineering. That power rides up to the world and forcefully changes the way that it flows. Sometimes, power does look like this. And it’s undeniable that this kind of power is the most visible and compelling.

But as many martial artists know, there’s a lot of power in taking the way the winds are blowing and modestly intervening to better align it with your interests. While the traditionally powerful fighter will stride confidently into the ring and forcefully throw punches at will, a clever and skilled master in any of a number of martial arts will seize this as a great and powerful opportunity. When the opponent is assertive and driving the fight, a defender aware and knowledgeable of what the attacker does is able to take advantage of the weaknesses his style exposes.

Acceptance of the opponent’s style is powerful in fighting because it allows you to turn a fight from a one-on-one affair into a two-on-one match. Me and my opponent’s aggressive style against my opponent. There’s a reason martial arts movies love to tell this story, and a reason we keep needing to hear it — we still don’t really get it.

We continue to insist that we know the way to do things in the world, and that way is to set a course and push valiantly in that direction until we succeed. And that can and does work at times. But it works only when it’s got all the luck of the world flowing behind it. When it (more typically) fails, we think that we’ve failed. But the failure’s root cause will likely be that we allowed ourself to completely ignore the way the world really is.

To many, especially stereotypically Western, mindsets, acceptance is something that weak subservient people have to learn. This mindset leads to the belief that world is led (or should be led) by those who have the ability to dominate and change present conditions. But even the most strident person can probably think of at least a few times when acceptance would have helped.

Acceptance’s power lies in its lack of denial. Where the domineering mindset may well have to fights two fights — against both reality and it’s actual fight — simultaneously, a wise acceptance constrains the problem to its own fight. By accepting, respecting, and taking full view of reality as it is right now, acceptance allows one to start from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. And by working with reality, acceptance has a lot of power.

I’ve used this quote more than a few times on this site, and it’s been a defining one in my life. But I always return to it because it’s so accurate. Henry Miller:

Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end.

The power of acceptance is that it removes from play all those hidden corners of reality that can defeat you. By accepting everything you can see and sense fully, the world as it is becomes yours to change. By denying any facet of reality, the world is yours to slowly and blindly fight against. The choice is yours, but I recommend acceptance.

Personal Development

Taking Responsibility for What You Control

I’d realized before that one of the most powerful things in the world is understanding the difference between the things you do and don’t control. It’s only recently, however, that I’ve really grasped the importance of taking full ownership of those things that you do control. Seeing yourself as completely responsible for the things you truly control is as or more important a skill than understanding the distinction between what you do and don’t control.

I’ve known for a while about the fact that there’re many things I can’t control. And that trying to take ownership of those things that I do not control was simply a great way to go crazy. The distinction between those things is hard to see completely clearly, but I’ve been polishing that skill for a while. That however isn’t my focus here so we’ll set it aside.

What I want to talk about here is realizing the other half of the power of the distinction between the things you can and cannot control. That is: once you understand what you do fully and completely have responsibility for, you must see yourself as the one responsible for its upkeep.

It’s only in the last few years that I’ve learned how to really take responsibility for the things I can control. And it is in taking on that responsibility that I have become healthier, happier, and much more certain about my ability and value.

It was only when I really learned that I was the only one who was feeling the anger that I felt that I realized I was the only one who could decide how I dealt with it. It seems kind of obvious looking back, but my anger at various things in the world — my position in life, unfairnesses directed at myself or someone else, the opinions espoused by political opponents, etc — was only experienced by me. And that when I tried to spread this anger to other people they didn’t experience a conversion as a result.

I now know that it is impossible to convince someone with your anger. And I also know that being angry is a really unpleasant experience. So whenever anger starts to rise in me, I take responsibility for controlling and reducing it. It’s not an easy journey, but with time I can confidently report that taking ownership of my anger is the only thing I’ve ever found that made me less angry and more productive in addressing the causes of my anger and frustration.

It’s not easy, but knowing what you control and taking responsibility for those things is one of the most powerful things you can do as a person. I’m no master, but I know with certainty that this is something that all masters know and do.


Nothing’s Gonna Change My World

I suspect that one of the most pervasive and damaging problems that people face is their inertia. Surely in some situations there are actual formidable forms of social or political opposition which cause people real harm but outside of that, inertia comes first.

Most people, myself included, have a thought inside their head of the kind of life they’d like to be living. And they have this life, usually at least some distance removed from that ideal, that they’re actually living. They may spend time, a lot of time even, fantasizing about how to bring those two halves together.

The thing about fantasies, imagined trajectories, plans made in the air, are that none of them will ever cause anything to change. Only taking action — doing the work to take what is inside your head and making it concrete and real in the world — can ever make anything change.

It’s possible that a few people, in the entire arc of history leading to our present situation, have had the ability to change the world without the hard work of doing it being their responsibility. Most of these people were born lucky, which typically means that were born rich.

But for the rest of us, the vast unwashed masses of us, it’s pretty much on our shoulders. If we’re lucky we’ll find a few people who’ll help along the way. People who will help us polish our vision, make it stronger, make it realer. But it’s hard for changes to reach that stage. It takes a lot of demonstrated value and progress for someone to throw their lot in with you and help you make your dream real.

So mostly, it comes down to you. It will be your choices and actions determine the course of your life. The sun does shine brighter on some fields than others, it’s undeniable. But whatever field you find your self in, the beauty and brightness of your flower is pretty much up to you. You control if you bloom, when, and for how long.

personal, ruminations, world

The Mandarins

A few days ago I created a new text document on my desktop–the way I almost always jot down notes when I’m at the computer–and titled it “the mandarins” and put this inside:

I used to believe that the world was controlled by extraordinary individuals who were somehow different than people like me. I’ve come to realize that the world is filled with extraordinary individuals like me and run by no one.

As with all seemingly-profound insights I have, I quickly realized its flaws. The most glaring to me is how hollow this sentiment is in an authoritarian state. Perhaps those leading a state, Burma for example, are no more exceptional than their citizens but they are clearly and unquestionably running things.

The same can be asserted, to varying degrees, in all countries which currently exist. Perhaps George Bush doesn’t run the world, but it’s hard to deny that he could make life profoundly uncomfortable for almost anyone anywhere in the world should he be so compelled.

Though the idea fails to be easily reconciled to political reality, I don’t really think it was intended as a treatise on modern political realities. Much more so it was a way I viewed the world and average people (read: those that aren’t able to readily command large militaries).

Part of this is likely an outgrowth of the cultural zeitgeist. Like never before, previously average people can become knowledgeable, credible, and important experts on any topic. Perez Hilton, even if his expertise is incredibly trivial, does represent something of new paradigm. So does Wikipedia.

I also think it’s true that that text document represents a second end of parental infallibility. It’s a well-known and widely-understood stage of development: the revelation that your parents don’t know everything, can’t fix everything. This realization is similar. It’s the realization the much revered purveyors of culture and knowledge aren’t infallible and impossibly knowledgeable. They regularly make errors just like everyone else.

In this way, the document perhaps serves as visceral proof of my naivete. I’m okay with that possibility. I’ve known academically for some time that presidents can and frequently do make mistakes. So do CEOs, journalists, and academics. But the intellectual understanding of a fact is very different from active awareness of it.

Mostly I think the document was feeble attempt to convey one of my strongest conviction–which is perhaps both naive and mundane–that we’re all essentially the same. For a while this was my magic bullet, perhaps it still is. Somehow I was (and still am) convinced that if every person in the world understood this fact–viscerally not intellectually–we’d all live much better lives.

Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe I’m right. Maybe I’m naive to think that we’re really all the same. Maybe it’s naive to think that everyone in the world could ever come to that realization. But as I said yesterday, naive and hopeless causes are my favorite kind.