Determinism: Am I Going Crazy?

Back in university, I had this idea that the universe was unfolding like an elaborate chain reaction. I asked a friend who was taking physics and he shot down the idea, talking about chaos theory. I didn’t quite understand what he was saying but he knew physics better than I did so I left it. About 15 years later, the idea is still stuck in my head.

I’ve since learned that the idea is not an original thought and that it’s largely referred to as determinism. The reading that I’ve done on it fascinates me, particularly because it’s an area which draws the attention of mathematicians, physicists, and philosophers. For many years I’ve understood these individuals to be among the most genuine seekers of truth.  By no means am I an expert in any of these fields, but I’ve made some observations I can’t seem to disprove.

It rests on a 3 physical laws:

  1. The Law of Conservation of Energy states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant; energy can be transformed from one form to another, but can be neither created nor destroyed.

  2. The Law of Conservation of Mass states that for any system closed to all transfers of matter and energy, the mass of the system must remain constant over time, as system’s mass cannot change, so quantity cannot be added nor removed. Hence, the quantity of mass is conserved over time
  3. Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity expresses the fact that mass and energy are the same physical entity and can be changed into each other.
  4. Newton’s third law states to every action there is always an opposing and equal reaction: or the mutual actions of two bodies upon each other are always equal, and directed to contrary parts.

 

Whatever the entirety of existence is, a universe, a multi-verse or something else we have still yet to comprehend, in it’s totality, it’s still a closed system.  And within this closed system, we have a set amount of matter and energy, which in effect, are the same physical entity.  In this closed system, nothing can be created nor destroyed.  If every action can only produce an equal and opposite reaction, every action operates with a fixed outcome. It’s why 2+2 always equals 4. When you ask why something has happened, you’re identifying cause and effect.  But every reaction is also an action in itself, like ripples from dropping a rock in a pond.  If you go to that last ripple that hit the shore and ask how it got there, you’d follow a chain of causation back to the rock that was dropped in.  Then you could ask why the rock was dropped.  Or how the rock got there.  The reality is that this chain of causation goes back further than even the existence of the rock or the lake.  It likely goes all the way back to the big bang.  In all likelihood, it goes back further than that.  Perhaps when the universe is done expanding, it will reverse course, eventually collapsing in on itself at the exact point and moment that another universe begins.

Anyway…

The problem with this theory seems to be the inability to prove or disprove it. If someone believes in free will, this is a direct challenge to their beliefs and they’ll want to see proof. I was big on free will when I was younger, if someone was talking to me about destiny, I’d say something like, ‘show me what I’m destined to do and I’ll just do otherwise’. Within the theory of determinism though, that entire conversation and outcome are just part of how the universe is unfolding.  As is everything that I’m discussing now.

It occurred to me that if determinism is true, it would be theoretically possible to predict the future to 100% certainty. The problem with testing that theory is that just like a math equation, to calculate an outcome to any level of certainty, you need to know the variables and how they’re interacting. Considering how interconnected everything is, and how little of the universe we’ve yet to grasp, it would be all but impossible to know every variable necessary to predict the next link in the chain. But if you could, theoretically, you could make that prediction with 100% certainty.

So if we accept that we may never be able to test this at a universal scale, can it be proven on a smaller scale? I asked myself, in what situations do we know 100% of the variables and look to predict an outcome? Nothing in the physical realm.. our efforts in predicting weather are a classic example of not being able to see the entire equation.  Then it hit me: Math! As simple as it may be, “2+2=” is a closed system in which 100% of the variables are known and we understand how they’re interacting.  As a result, we can predict the outcome to 100% accuracy. And it doesn’t matter how elaborate the equation becomes or how many variables you include. As long as you know the variables and how they interact with one another, the next step in the chain can be predicted to absolute certainty.

Once this sunk in, a lot of other things started to make sense to me. One was particularly significant though, the question ‘Why?’. When you ask why something has happened, you’re looking at the chain. You’re looking for the action that caused the reaction. Or maybe you’re looking for the action before that, or the action before that. It’s easy to do through the distilled lens of math where you tend to deal with isolated instances of cause and effect. Physics seems to be where we observe how these variables interact over longer periods of time like seconds or years. I suppose then, it’s the philosopher’s role to ask why again and again, until we realize that it is the longest of all roads and one which will always and ultimately take us back to the beginning.

Am I crazy?

I’m envisioning a flip book, the kind that you would doodle an animation with.  Each page is a universe wide, but only moment deep.  Each page looks nearly identical to the last and nearly identical to the next, but as you start to flip them you see the universe unfold.  Each page is a link in the chain of causality.  Each page leads only to the next page.  The story has already been drawn.

I would suggest that free will – the ability to make the universe as we see fit – is not our gift.  Instead, it was the universe that made us as it saw fit.  We were gifted with consciousness, the awareness of one’s self and their place within the universe.  I’ve found this awareness to be deeply humbling and, while providing a great sense of appreciation.  Consider that the matter and energy that makes up every bit of who I am has existed in this universe since long before I came along.  Well before our species came along.  Well before our planet was even formed.  And through some crazy chain of causation, I exist today, with an ability to recognize all this, and write about it.  And that even this moment here, is just part of the story.

President Pelosi

In my excess of free time, I’ve paid a great deal of attention to the world stage as things are unfolding around Trump.  It would seem as though we’re approaching the season finale of Mueller’s investigation and I can’t help but give some thought to what 2019 has in store.

Trump is now known as Individual-1, and in all likelihood is the central target in the redacted “President Donald J. Trump Criminal Investigation”.  He’s now been identified as an unindicted co-conspirator in a case by the SDNY in which Coen has admitted to committing campaign finance violations at the direction of  Trump for the purpose of influencing a federal election.  I doubt they would’ve brought this case against the President if all they had was Coen’s testimony.

Impeachment exists for high crimes and misdemeanors, and it is Congress’s responsibility to provide oversight for the executive branch.  They will be bound by duty and law to draft and pass articles of impeachment.  I think it’ll get past the house, but I think the senate is a wildcard.  If it’s only campaign finance violations, even if it was for paying off porn stars to keep quiet about affairs to boost your chances of winning an election, I’m not confident the republican senate will care.  At least some will argue that it wasn’t to influence the election or that Obama had a campaign finance violation and he wasn’t impeached for it.  Others will realize that the Republican landscape for the 2020 senate rate is a steep uphill battle and that choosing party over country during historic impeachment proceedings might be political suicide.  Knowing Trump, he might just be able to create enough noise and disinformation to keep people within their party lines.

Enter season 2.  I’m not sure what happens first: Mueller releases his report or the Democrats take the house.  Whichever happens first, it’s likely going to kick off a rather dramatic series of events.  If Mueller releases his report, it’s likely to show conclusive evidence that Trump was a criminal prior to his presidential bid, won the election through criminal means, and has been operating a criminal presidency.  If the democrats take the house first, they’ll use their subpoena powers to obtain records like Trump’s tax returns, and probably leak them to the public shortly after.  I would be surprised if it didn’t show direct or indirect ties to Russian money laundering.   However this plays out, the first few months of 2019 will be a reckoning for Trump and Republicans by extension.

A lot of Trump supporters say that if Mueller had anything on Trump, they would’ve released it already.  They suggest that an absence of evidence available to the public, is the same as an absence of evidence within the investigation.  I would disagree.  If Trump is the criminal that he appears to be, Mueller needs to deliver the most conclusive report possible.  There’s a saying, something along the lines of, ‘if you’re going to shoot the king, aim for the head.’  It suggests that if you’re going to deliver evidence against the most powerful person in the world, suggesting that they should be removed from power and placed in jail, you’ll only have the one shot.  The report needs to be so complete, and so conclusive, that it leaves no doubt in any rational person’s mind.  And creates doubt in the minds of those who aren’t rational.

I don’t think the Republican party will survive that report.  It’s going to be a very interesting demonstration of self-preservation.  I suspect that multiple members of the Republican party were compromised via the Russian’s hack on the RNC email server.  Those individuals will support Trump well beyond what most would consider to be reasonable.  Then you’ll have those who are looking to tow the party line but are unsure about whether it’s the party of Trump or the party of Republican values.  Then you’ll have conservatives who realize that their best chance of staying alive is to stand up for traditional American values again.  I think it’s that latter group that can give the Senate enough votes to remove Trump from office.

Should Trump be removed from office for crimes relating to a fraudulent election, it wouldn’t make sense that his administration would be allowed to continue under Mike Pence.  If I’m not mistaken, the chain of command actually falls to Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.  In a very roundabout way, 2016 may have actually given us our first female President.

I know a bit about her but not nearly enough to have an educated opinion.  From what I’ve seen, it suggests that she’s a capable individual who could probably mind an interim-presidency.  Should it pan out this way, I would encourage her to recognize her role, not one as leader of the American people, but rather as a custodian of the Presidency until the next election.  And during that time, I would encourage her to focus on damage control.  There are alliances around the world which need to be repaired, policy decisions which need to be undone, trade agreements that need to be redone.. all of it.  I also think this would be a remarkable opportunity to truly drain the swamp.  Republicans, democrats, lobbyists, dark money, foreign influencers… all of it.

It’s about time we cleaned things up a bit.

A New Economy

I find it interesting that so much of what we consume, we consume for free.  At least when it comes to the internet.  Looking for a recipe?  Good chance it’ll come from a blog or site that you don’t have to pay for.  Wanna watch something on YouTube?  Also free.  Wanna cruise through a slideshow of cool pictures?  Instagram.  Wanna listen to music? Spotify.  Have a weird question that you hope someone has an answer for?  Quora.

How is it that so much of the value we consume on a daily basis, we consume for free?  These companies aren’t exactly operating at a loss either.  I wonder if these platforms have anything else in common?  Like sourcing most of their content from their audience.. or monetizing via ad revenue.. or monetizing data collected from their users.

Well, are the content producers at least earning a living wage?  Some are but the vast majority aren’t.  Maybe these platforms just need to charge more for their services so they can pass some of that income along to the content creators.  I don’t think the audience has the disposable income for that model.  Why?  Because the blogs people are writing, the pictures people are taking, the videos people are making, and questions people are answering are being paid for in views and likes instead of dollars.  Ironically, those who are the exception to the rule tend to be paid in ad revenue.

Our economy seems to be based on the consumption of goods or services.  Yet so much of what we’re producing now is based in knowledge or art.  It also seems like the only way we’re interested in compensating the production of knowledge or art is through a cut of consumerism.  There’s something very backwards about that.

It’s occurred to me that our economy is evolving.  The introduction of the internet ushered in the information age and it’s an era where knowledge is the most important asset we can generate.  Yet we have an economy which doesn’t know how to value this asset or appropriately compensate those who have produced it without a direct application to a good or a service.  The traditional capitalist might suggest that without a direct application to a good or service, something is worthless.  To that individual, I would remind them of our efforts in space exploration.  These aren’t goods or services for the sake of consumption.  At it’s core, it’s exploration for the sake of exploration, something that’s been a very real part of the human spirit for all of recorded history.  And throughout history, our sense of exploration has always led to new found prosperity.  Not least because we have to invent a whole bunch of cool new stuff to get us to where we want to go.

Whatever this next economy looks like, it needs to find a way to better allocate resources and value.  No longer should a home take 20 years to pay for.  No longer should a luxury brand command a high price on a poorly manufactured item.  No longer should the internet need to rely on ad revenue to provide their services.  No longer should research facilities rely on government funding.  No longer should content producers require millions of fans to make a living wage.  It’s time to spread the wealth.  Not for the sake of spreading it or creating ‘equality’, but because we need to find a way to deliver the wealth back into the hands of those who are creating value we consume.  The world we currently live in is one where you could inherit a house from your parents and never have to work again.  Meanwhile, rent is so expensive that saving up for a home is unrealistic for most.  In that world, financial prosperity is largely determined by how wealthy your family was.  That’s taking us back to the feudal times where a divide existed between land owners and peasants.  Fuck that.  That’s not good for anyone.

Centuries ago, we used to have an economy based in farming, back when 90% of the population had to farm in order for us to get enough food.  Now, less than 5% of the world’s population produces all the food that we eat.  It led the way for a the industrial revolution where production shifted to factories.  And it was through that manufacturing boom that we developed an economy based in goods.  Once we started automating more and more of the manufacturing process, the economy shifted again to the consumption of goods and services.  Well with automation making another push, what happens to our economy when 10% of the world’s population can produce 100% of the goods and services we require?  I would predict another industrial revolution.  One where goods are manufactured at home by your 3D printer.  One where services are more likely to be provided by an AI than by a person.  In this economy, do we continue to insist that knowledge and art have no value on their own?  That unless you are the producer of a good or service, you are not valuable to our economy?

If we stay on this path, we would require a basic income to afford our basic needs.  Those who own the companies which provide these services would be the only ones generating an income.  I’m not sure how they would charge the rest of us for their services so they’d probably be free.  But they’d have to pay their own bills, so ad revenue?  But who’s buying their stuff when everyone’s broke?  And you know how the government will fund everyone’s basic income?  By taxing the few companies and individuals who are making money.  Meanwhile, everyone else is doing one of two things.  Wasting away in depression with a lack of purpose in life…. or producing something of value for the rest of us to consume.. for free.

It would be downright remarkable for someone to introduce a currency, unique to the free-economy.  Upvotes, blog views, likes, listens… when someone consumes the value you’ve produced, you receive those points and those points can be spent on the goods and services produced by others in this economy.  Imagine if food was available via that currency.  Imagine rent.

Now that’s disruptive.

Politics/Finance Need New Metrics

I just got a notification from Yahoo finance (a surprisingly good app), “Nobody has a clue what’s happening: Bumper jobs growth after Poloz calls economy disappointing.”

It’s not the first time I’ve heard a stat suggesting that job growth and unemployment are at their best numbers ever.  Not the first time I’ve heard someone refer to the economy as disappointing either.  What I personally find disappointing is the comment that nobody has a clue as to what’s going on.

Let’s start by pointing out a few key facts.  Wealth has systematically shifted from the many to the few.  Cost of living has grown several times faster than wages.  Full-time work no longer guarantees a living wage.  The majority of North America is now living paycheck to paycheck.  Automation has replaced most unskilled labor.  Millennials are the most educated generation yet.  Student loan debt is at an all time high.  Depression is at an all-time high.  Drug use is at an all-time high.  Suicide rates are at all-time highs.

Damn right we need new metrics.

Every time someone says unemployment rates are at all-time lows, I get rather frustrated.  It’s only part of the picture.  The idea of a job for everyone who wants a job is a great idea.  But you know what else has a 100% employment rate? Slavery.  The difference between the two is that with employment, you’re paid for your services and can choose to work elsewhere.  And that you’re responsible for your own cost of living. And if nobody is willing to pay you a livable wage, that’s your problem.

Where I live, someone came up with the stat that it cost a little over $300,000 in annual income to support a middle class lifestyle.  This was defined as owning a modest home, 2 cars, 2 kids, university educations, and annual vacations.  The average household income here is about $75,000.  The unemployment rate takes none of that into consideration.  We could have a 0% unemployment rate and the city would still be filled with people who couldn’t afford to buy a home, raise a family, or any of what we have come to understand as basic entitlements.  Perhaps home ownership isn’t something we should feel entitled towards.. perhaps the same with having a family.  But then I ask why we’ve had to give these up, and it just doesn’t add up. Then I ask what happens if we just accept it.. and it’s not good for anyone.

First things first, we have to agree on what we’re all aiming for.  I think the most universal answer to that is happiness.  Everyone just wants to be happy, and for those who prefer things like power.. well.. they have the current system.  If happiness is the goal, we need to start focusing on the metrics that are most closely correlated.  Two things that we know of that are strongly and negatively correlated with happiness are cost of living and debt.  While breaking unemployment records, North America is also setting new records in debt and cost of living.  That seems to tell a story:  The average American is educated, overworked, underpaid, in debt, and losing hope.

Tell me again about how great our unemployment rates are.

Or maybe recognize that an unemployment rate is only part of the equation and that equal attention much be paid to the rest.  First would be the alignment between the skills of your workforce and the jobs they’re in.  If you have a nation of computer programmers, scientists, and writers but your job market is filled with part-time customer service jobs, you did it wrong.  Second would be whether or not your workforce was being fairly compensated.  If you have a low unemployment rate and most of most of your workforce can’t afford a basic cost of living, you did it wrong.  Third would be how well prepared your workforce is for the future.  Jobs are being lost to automation at an increasing rate and we’re likely approaching an economy where AI and robotics will be able to handle 80% of the existing jobs within the next 20 years.  If you’re bragging about anything that’s happening this year without preparing for that future, you’re doing it wrong.

You see a lot of stats when you read articles or watch the news.  We use them to try and understand what’s important.. but in the process of doing so, we seem to have lost sight of what’s important.  It really is about being happy.  Imagine a national happiness index being reporting on quarterly.  Imagine politicians seeing that number as their most important metric.  If you knew that increasing the cost of living would lead to stress and unhappiness, why would you celebrate a real estate boom?  If you knew that the bottom 80% of Americans only own about 7% of the stock market’s value, would you really be celebrating a booming stock market?

How about this stat, a ratio of healthcare spending against military spending.  Let’s be honest about it and see how much we’re willing to spend on healing people versus harming people. Or let’s push that a step further and compare military spending to humanitarian spending.  How much money are you willing to spend on helping versus hurting.  I can just about guarantee that would be a far better foreign policy than what we’ve seen play out of the last 20 years.

What about a stat that shows up how much tax large multi-national corporations are paying?  Something that takes all sources of government funding into consideration so we know just how much of their operations are subsidized by tax-payers.  Military defense contracts anyone?  What about major tax breaks for fossil fuel companies..

We gotta have something that covers national debt too.  A big deal was made of this years ago but the story got stale.  Now we have a president who was notorious for running up debt and bankrupting businesses.  As a result, in a matter of a few years, the country’s single largest expense will be it’s debt payment.    Maybe we need a catastrophe more than we need a metric on this one.

The whole point of statistics is to reduce a great deal of information down into key points.  When done well, those key points illuminate the important parts of what should be an ongoing conversation.  Unfortunately, we now have stats for the sake of stats.  And it’s no longer a conversation but an argument.  It’s not a pursuit of the truth or a more accurate understanding of the situation, it’s a tribal battle for power in which stats are only used to support your argument or undermine theirs.  I wish we could get back to the same side of the table.

Unsolicited Advice (Part 3)

Reflecting on it now, I don’t think I give all that much unsolicited advice these days. I doubt that was the case when I was younger… but I’ve learned that energy is better spent in some directions than others.  I think that most of this friction happens when someone shares their perspective, and I share one which is in conflict with theirs.  Personally, I enjoy this exercise as it’s an opportunity for us both to learn and for our perspectives to evolve.  If it’s something I don’t know much about, I’m much more of a listener than a talker but if it’s something I’ve researched or studied, I’m eager to present what I know in the hopes of the other person learning something.  When the other person is open-minded and also looking to learn, it usually leads to a great conversation.  Think Joe Rogan with Neil Degrasse Tyson.  The problem seems to arise when the other person is closed-minded and not looking to learn.

When I’m talking to someone who’s well researched and knowledgeable, they’re more likely to teach me something than I am to teach them.  When talking to someone who’s rooted in their beliefs, it’s like there’s no progress to be made.  My logic and evidence only serve to frustrate them.  That’s usually where I get called a know-it-all. They get further frustrated by the idea that they can’t change my mind without logic or evidence.   That’s usually when I get called argumentative or combative.  Then I’ll say something along the lines of, “without any evidence, is it possible that it’s not true?”  And that’s where I get labeled an asshole for challenging their beliefs.

I’ve spent most of my life trying to understand those criticisms.  The first several times I heard them, I took them to heart and assumed that the other person was right.  Like I said, I want my friends to challenge my beliefs and call me out on my nonsense.  When they do, I almost always give them the benefit of the doubt and do all that I can to understand things from their perspective.  But then I learned that people carry a great deal of bias in their own advice and that you can’t take everything at face value, especially with an open mind.  If you do, you can be convinced of anything.  And Along the way, I was convinced of many things.  And learning that they weren’t true the hard way, I’ve adopted a new strategy.  If someone can’t explain something to me in a way that I understand, then they have no right to ask me to adopt that perspective.  And rightfully so, if I can’t explain something to someone in a way that they understand, I have no right to expect them to agree with me.  I quite like this approach as it prevents the bad information and the only limit to the good information that gets in is your ability to understand it.  It’s important to be both open, *and* critical.

Even with this approach, people will label me as argumentative, or combative, or stubborn, or someone who thinks they’re always right.  It’s exhausting at times.  Especially when they’re trying to explain something like creationism or flat earth and they’re frustrated with me because it’s not working.  The truth is I don’t care if *I’m* right, I care what’s right.  As someone who embraces the unknown, if I don’t think I know what I’m talking about, I’ll simply say I don’t know or here’s my best guess.  If I think I know something and I’m wrong, the best thing that can happen to me is someone pointing out why I’m wrong.  Why?  Because that’s my opportunity to learn, improve, and arrive at a better understanding.  But what happens when I think I’m right, and someone else thinks they’re right?

This is what I’m trying to navigate right now because everyone seems to have a strong opinion about everything these days.  Someone will volunteer a perspective, and I’ll challenge it.  They’ll provide their reasons, and I’ll provide my criticisms.  I’ll provide my reasons and they’ll provide their criticisms.  In a real conversation, this is where the fun part begins and through facts, reason, and good faith, you hopefully arrive at a common understanding.  When that dynamic plays out through enough people, collectively, humanity gets way smarter.  Unfortunately, that dynamic isn’t nearly as common as “well you have your beliefs and I have mine, so we can just agree to disagree.”  Imagine someone telling you that about the earth being flat.  Seems silly right?  What about someone telling you that about evolution?  Less silly considering that most of the world is deeply religious.  What about politics?  Well considering how divided we are right now, how are we supposed to make up any ground while we’re all agreeing to disagree?

While I’m not committed to this perspective, something has occurred to me.  When people call me stubborn, or argumentative, or someone who always has to be right… it’s usually when I’m standing my ground on something.  If I only stand my ground on things that I  know well and am rather confident in, is that a fair reaction? If I’m always open to seeing new evidence or logic that would challenge my understanding of something, why the animosity?  So I’ve reflected back on some of these claims over the last year:

  1. Racism is not the solution to racism.
  2. Big corporations aren’t inherently evil.
  3. Crystal healing is most likely placebo.
  4. Truth and reality matter.
  5. It’s important to be punctual.
  6. Science and religion are not the same.
  7. We shouldn’t assume something to be true without sufficient evidence.
  8. The end doesn’t justify the means.
  9. Compassion and intelligence are important to problem solving.
  10. Weed isn’t all bad.
  11. Trump is a corrupt individual and most likely will not finish his term.
  12. Technology isn’t evil.
  13. The earth is not flat.

And yet when I stand my ground on my understanding of something, it’s said that I’m being difficult.  If I provide evidence and sources, I’m exhausting to deal with.  I look forward for opportunities to agree with people, but I won’t agree for the sake of getting along.  I can disagree with someone and get along just fine… but in an age where your collective identity matters more than your individual identity, and your identity is established along ideological lines… it seems like agreeing with your tribe is more advantageous than ever.  In the short-term anyways.  I suspect we’re witnessing what happens when it plays out in the long-term term.  Rather than using the tools that allow us to learn and find a common ground with one another, we’re opting to avoid people we disagree with and surrounding ourselves with those who are ‘like-minded’.  But what happens when you have a disagreement with those people? Feminism seems to be approaching some sort of civil war as they fight over things like whether women in porn objectification or liberation.  As this plays out, we get more and more fragmented.. always chasing a safe space that we feel good in.  And eventually, we’re alone.  As the individuals we were meant to be, with our own views and perspectives, based off our own unique experiences.  If only we could appreciate that individuality today, we might be more motivated to find the common ground with one another.  If we had that motivation, perhaps we would refine the tools needed to challenge our own beliefs and understand the perspectives of others.  Perhaps with those tools and confidence, we’d be able to appreciate how disagreements and good conversation are an easy opportunity for everyone involved to learn and be better off.  And maybe with that optimism, we would be much more open to hearing the advice of others.

It’s funny, I often say that people are easier to understand when you think about them like squishy robots.  I may have had a breakthrough.  It occurred to me that when changing the mind of someone else, what you’re effectively doing is changing the programming.  What happens if you introduce a new line of code to an existing program that is in direct conflict with the previous programming?  You get an error.  And if you’re the computer program who has been mostly functional in its tasks, you have to decide whether to reject that new line of code or rewrite the program to accommodate for that new line of code.  I think that’s a lot of what we’re seeing right now.  These facts or ‘updates’ are coming out, and not everyone wants to update to the most recent version.  Some people don’t understand the updates or why they’re necessary while others don’t want to deal with having to rewrite so much of their existing programming to accommodate for the update.  The end result is that the majority of us aren’t working on the most up-to-date software and it’s creating some very serious issues.  When people are working on different versions of software, it makes communication much more difficult.  If the updates are far enough apart, it’s like they’re not even speaking the same language anymore.  And there’s no shortage of people who think that they’ll be just fine without the update.  But we all know how that turns out… you get left behind.

I think the solution to unsolicited advice isn’t hacking the primal or emotional parts of the brain.  It’s the logical brain that understands things and it’s there’s a permanence to understanding things which doesn’t exist in feelings or urges.  I think the key to unsolicited advice is in understanding how to change someone’s mind and that the key to changing someone’s mind is reprogramming them from the ground up.  Before you can introduce that line of code, you have to address the underlying lines of code which are in direct conflict.  Before you can drop some truth on someone,  you have to address the underlying beliefs that it challenges.  Otherwise, it just doesn’t add up and it’ll be easier for them to reject the new information for the sake of comfort in their old beliefs.

Unsolicited Advice (Part 2)

This last year has been a rather interesting case study in my effort to help people.  During this time, I’ve probably had my greatest success and greatest failure.  I’ll start with my failure, the co-founders of the company I was working with.  They’re in their 50s and very much seasoned social justice warriors.  They are of the perspective that feminism can do no wrong, big corporations are inherently evil, and all white people are racist.  I got the impression they held some of these views but they never really came up as we had so much else to focus on.  When they did come up, I did my best to challenge them respectfully.  For example, I would say something like, “I was raised as a feminist, but it doesn’t seem like I have very much in common with the more radical feminists of today.” or, “Within all of feminism, have you seen anything that you wouldn’t support?”  These questions weren’t well received.  The fact that I was even asking them was enough to show that I wasn’t loyal to their cause.

When we first got into these conversations, I thought I was making headway.  Someone would bring up a topic, someone else would agree, someone else would double agree… then someone like me would try and introduce a difference voice into the echo-chamber.  Not for the sake of changing minds, but for the sake of engaging with differing perspectives.  Once people were engaged, I’d say something like, “From what I can tell, melanin can only tell you two things about someone: The color of their skin, and how likely they are to get a sunburn.”  Which would be supported by something along the lines of a, ‘YAASS QUEEN!”  Then I’d follow it up by saying something like, “this idea that you can determine how much privilege someone has experienced by the color of their skin is just silly.”  The response would be much less enthusiastic.  But it did open up more serious conversations, which was my intent.

The more serious conversations usually took place in smaller groups or one-on-ones, and in person or across chat.  When they didn’t understand my perspective, I provided sources.  I’d suggest something like reverse racism wasn’t going to be the solution to racism, and use a well-known quote from MLK to show that he understood the same thing.  Or I’d suggest that not all big corporations are evil and point to Tesla which is arguably doing more for climate change than any individual or small business.  I was hoping that these would be the challenges that would open them up to another perspective, but I was wrong.  Instead, they just stopped engaging with me.  Many of these conversations stopped dead in their tracks because they never responded.  If asked why, they were busy.

This dynamic came to a head this summer.  After they had already established that I wasn’t ‘their kinda people’, we had one more clash.  Twice in two weeks, the founders had showed up 15-20 minutes late for our weekly meeting and instead of apologizing and getting straight to work, spent the first few minutes testing out new healing crystals they were given.  The first time, I was given one and asked if I could ‘feel’ it’s power.  I humored them, held it and followed instructions, and felt nothing.  I was told that I just didn’t have ‘it’.  I laughed it off and and we proceeded with the meeting.  Later that night, rather than playing to my own bias, I thought it would be better if I did some research on crystal healing.  Turns out it’s probably placebo and nobody has ever been able to demonstrate otherwise.  The second time they brought out healing crystals to start a meeting, I mention it.  I don’t come out and say that crystals are fake and they’re silly for believing in it.  I say that after the other week, I didn’t want to hold a biased perspective so I went and looked up some studies.  I asked if they’d be interested in hearing what the studies said.  They said sure, so I did.  The founders snap back and I’m told that they’re just scientists and that science is just another form of religion so it can’t be relied upon.  I challenge that view saying that the difference between science and religion is that with science, you’re encouraged to accept new evidence so that your perspective can evolve, whereas with religion, you’re discouraged to accept new evidence so that you can maintain your existing perspective.  Both of them started going on about personal experiences with crystals and said something along the lines of ‘you can’t tell me that what I felt wasn’t real’ to which I say, “you’re right, but I don’t think it’s fair to assume that those feelings came from the crystals and not your body.”  They start aggressively asking how do I explain psychic mediums and astrology.  I tell them it’s psychology, primarily the Barnum effect and that I’d be happy to show them what’s going on there too.  They end up getting really frustrated with me and snap, “Don’t challenge our beliefs.”

*Sigh*

I thought I was helping.  I really, really did.  I thought I was being nice.. and reasonable.. and supportive.. and understanding.. and none of it seemed to matter.  We never fully recovered from that disagreement and I’m no longer in a leadership role with the company as a result.  But what was my alternative?  Contribute to their echo chamber to make them feel more comfortable around me?  Not say anything because we disagree? Not be motivated to help them?  Not find solutions to the problems I’m faced with?  None of those seem like reasonable solutions.

 

The second example is someone who I met earlier this year, but I’d like to spend a few minutes on where..  I met her at a personal growth seminar which a mutual friend had invited us both to.  Heading into the seminar, they asked that we choose something that we’d like to get out of the seminar.  My request was learning how to tell people what they need to hear in a way that they want to hear it.  I never made the assumption that I would always know what someone needed to hear.  I only accepted that there were times where I saw an obvious solution to an obvious problem and wanted to effectively communicate that to another person.  Since it was a weekend seminar and acted as an intake program for their bigger package, there were a lot of people who arrived skeptical.  By the third day, most of the room trusted the facilitator completely… to the point where many of them were willing to shell out close to $10,000 for a week-long leadership camp after a, “and if you sign up now, for a limited time, we’ll give you the super discount which won’t be available later!” kinda pitch.

I learned the same thing from that seminar that I’ve learned through watching politicians for years, it’s not about what you say, it’s about making the other person feel good about what you say.  The seminar absolutely presented a lot of good information, including a few hard truths.  But following each of these exercises, their senses were bombarded by positive affirmation.  The affirmation showed up in a variety of ways, including applause from the crowd, personal touch in the form of hugs, words of affirmation from your peers, even the kinda music you’d hear from a Disney movie when your favorite character has their big breakthrough.  It’s as if they understood that they could explain things to their crowd logically, but that it wouldn’t be as well received without an element of emotional reinforcement.  There’s a great book about marketing by Simon Sinek called ‘Start with Why’ which suggests (quite accurately) that people don’t buy your product because of your product, but rather because of how they feel about you.  When crafting your marketing, it’s not about what you do or how you do it, but rather why you do it.

When I first saw Simon Sinek’s TED Talk on the topic, I thought it was genius.  I still think it’s genius, but now I think it also highlights a deep flaw in our ability to analyze and be critical.  Sinek, is effectively saying it doesn’t really matter what you’re doing or how you’re doing it, as long as people agree with why you’re doing it.  As long as people agree with your why, they’ll be willing to overlook the how or what.  I gotta say, that explains a lot of the world right now.  Trump supporters don’t seem to have any consistency on approving what he’s doing or how he’s doing it… but just about all of them agree on the why… “Make America Great Again!”  Just about every major Trump policy has been rebuked for good reasons and from real experts.  Almost all of Trump’s policies are ultimately going to be counter-productive to making America great again.  But it doesn’t matter.. because it isn’t about the how or what, it’s why.

Taking that another step further, does everyone who cares about why over how and what?  Not really.  The engineering crowd, the coding crowd, the legal crowd… these are careers that are built on the how and what.  These are also careers that require a deeply logical mind.  How and what are functions of logic and therefore functions of the brain’s neo-cortex.  The why that Sinek seems to refer to isn’t a philosophical why (a logical why), but rather one which is designed to invoke a strong emotional reaction.  That emotional reaction sits in our limbic brain and is a very powerful driver of behavior.  Arguably the only stronger drivers of behavior are our most basic of instincts, fight, flight and sex.  When you consider how often and how effectively sex has been used in marketing, this starts to make sense.  It seems as though a very real approach to marketing is triggering the more primal parts of the brain into adopting a positive stance on a product or service, in the hopes of it driving purchasing behavior.  If sex doesn’t sell, use emotion.  Why are we so reluctant to communicate with our customers based on the merits of our products or services?  Well… probably because it doesn’t work very well.

We spent a lot of time angry at corporations for what they do to us with very little consideration for the fact that they reflect our demand.  I don’t think it’s fair to be upset at companies for marketing to our baser instincts or the lowest common denominator when that’s how we insist on shopping.  Just like it’s not fair to be upset with those who choose to support their friends by just listening and trying to make you feel better.  Because that seems to be what we’re looking for.  Personally, I put the responsibility on the individual.  If you’re shopping, don’t abandon the why, but don’t ignore the how or what either.  In fact, once you find a why you like, feel free to be very critical about the how and what to give yourself the best chance at being happy with your purchase.  Similarly, when you’re going through something and want input from a friend, don’t abandon the value of getting something off your chest or speaking your mind, but don’t expect that friend’s input to only be things that make you feel good.  Being presented with a hard truth is very uncomfortable.  If you accept it, it forces you to realign your entire reality with something you just learned.  This is not easy.  But consider the alternative.

 

And now we actually get to my second example, the friend who I met at the personal growth seminar in the spring.  From my understanding, she lived a fairly sheltered childhood, then went off to university for a business degree.  In her early 20s, she got a decent paying corporate gig and partied her heart out.  As she started to grow beyond that phase, she found that Yoga had played a very positive role in her life and started the journey of becoming a Yoga teacher.  When I met her this spring, she was most of the way through that training and actually off to Costa Rica for another Yoga camp.  We got along really well during the seminar, and started hanging out a bit afterward.  I’ve now known her for about 8 months and I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone grow as much as she has in those 8 months.

When I met her, she was still somewhat sheltered, but clearly very smart.  As we started chatting, I found that she had really committed herself to the ‘spiritual’ side of yoga.  It wasn’t that she was already there but rather, she was trying to learn and fit in.  Some of it made sense to her, but as she put it, some of the other stuff seemed ‘witchy’.  For example, it made sense that we all had a deep connection to nature which we don’t understand all that well.  It made less sense to pour the blood from your menstruation in a clockwise fashion under a tree during a full moon (I hope I got that right).  She knew that there was wisdom in some of what she was learning, but also had some serious reservations about the rest.  Because of the tribal dynamics in those groups, it was an all-or-none kinda thing.  Either you’re in, or you’re out, and I got the impression she wasn’t sure.

In response, I told her that from my perspective, there was a lot of wisdom in spirituality.. that it was a metaphorical way of understanding things that science hasn’t figured out how to explain just yet.  I gave examples that resonated and let her know that she could still be a great yoga teacher knowing this… and that perhaps this would be a path for her to become an amazing yoga teacher.  Considering that she was targeting men and the corporate crowd, a greater emphasis on the how and what might be just as valuable as the why.  This made sense to her, and it led to a lot of great conversations between us.  And then it didn’t.

One of the things I’ve complimented her on endlessly, and deservedly so, is her open mind. I think it’s an absolute gift and responsible for her not being rooted her in beliefs.  But I’ve noticed a downside to that open mind, and it’s that it changes often.  On more than one occasion, she came to me with a new perspective, which was much more in line with her old beliefs.  Because it was be such a pivot from our last conversation, it wasn’t hard to notice that she had been talking to someone else who had a strong opinion on what she was doing.   In each case, it seemed like someone from that tribe saw that they were losing a member and did their best to reinforce the tribe’s beliefs.  She would come to me projecting strength and confidence but all I could see was conflict and lack of clarity.  It’s why I’ve done my best to never tell her what to think, only how to go about understanding her world more accurately.

In these conversations, I challenged her beliefs, called her out on her nonsense, and encouraged her to make thoughtful decisions over emotional ones.  All the kinds of things I would hope for from a good friend.  Sometimes the conversations were difficult.  Sometimes there were tears.  Sometimes she was legitimately upset with me… but I don’t think she ever doubted my intentions.  I really did see someone who was taking just about everything that I was throwing at them… all the things that it took me years of blood, sweat, and tears to learn… and was just chewing through them all.  A little discomfort here and there seemed like a very reasonable price to pay for this level of progress.

A couple weeks ago, she came to me with the biggest smile on her face and said that she finally listened to some Jordan B Peterson and Neil Degrasse Tyson.  While from vastly different perspectives, both speak to the value of truth, reality, and developing the tools to understand them better.  She spoke like the entire universe had opened up to her in the clearest of ways, and I knew exactly where she was coming from.  It was something I had been through.. and something I was trying to help her get to.  I was confident that once she was here, she would have the foundation and tools necessary to arrive at her own understanding of the universe… not one based on beliefs borrowed from others.

That big breakthrough wasn’t the result of some strategic link I sent her or a witty thought I had planted in her mind months ago.  It was her.  I had encouraged her to listen to these individuals before but for whatever reason, they didn’t stick.  Then months later, she rediscovered them on her own and there it was.  That didn’t upset me in the least as the breakthrough itself was the ultimate goal and I was just super happy she had arrived.  And she thanked me for my part in helping her get there.  That moment is exactly why I do what I do.  We both had big smiles on our faces and were excited about what this meant for her in the bigger picture.

It was in that moment, I reflected on a dynamic I’ve been trying to improve.  She would arguably be a best case example of me trying to help someone grow as an individual.  She and I had differing perspectives when we met, but (I think) we were always respectful of one another and eager to approach things with an open mind.  While most of our conversations were academic, some became very emotional and led to discomfort and tears.  In those moments, I did my best to be supportive while also maintaining the point I was trying to communicate.  While I suspect this made those moments more difficult at the time, I also think that this was imperative to her stepping outside her comfort zone and truly challenging those beliefs.  Maybe this can be understood as me forcing her to face her beliefs.  Maybe this can also be understood as her forcing me to accept her beliefs and me standing my ground – in the interest of her future well-being and our friendship.  Either way, there had to be a better way of going about this.  An approach that didn’t risk giving up the breakthroughs she’s had, but also an approach which doesn’t risk what happened with the co-founders.  It’s easy to say that someone’s mind must be open before it can be changed, but I’d like to put the responsibility back on myself.

A few nights ago, she texted me asking for moral support after she had seen some disturbing pictures.  As she had spent so much of her life sheltered, she managed to avoid knowing about some of the atrocities going on in the world.  I told her that her naturally positive attitude towards life is a quality that I admire, but it’s not the same if you arrive there while ignoring the darkness in the world.  I think it takes an enlightened mind to remain genuinely positive while being aware of humanity’s greatest misdeeds, and that it’s something we should all strive for.   As someone who had just looked at pictures of things like decapitated children, she was having a very strong emotional reaction.  Considering that she had texted me, and was asking for support, I thought I should probably start by listening and let her calm herself down by articulating what she felt.  Then I asked her why she felt that way, knowing that if she could turn these emotions into thoughts, she would no longer feel the way she did.  Even better, as thoughts, you retain all the same advantages of that emotion, without having to deal with the burden of such intensely negative feelings.  Despite trying to listen and understand, I was reprimanded for not giving the kind of support that she needed.  She was looking for emotional or moral support, and this clearly wasn’t it.  I was so confused.

She said things like why couldn’t I just be there for her this time and look to help her next time?  I responded by saying that sounded like a dick-move.  If I had the option of helping you get through this in a healthy way this time or next time, why would I wait until next time?  Wouldn’t that mean you would have to go through something like this twice?  Why would a friend want that for you?  Why would you want that for yourself?  We had a good laugh… I think she understood where I was coming from.. but it still didn’t feel the way she wanted it to.  So I had to ask, how do you tell someone something that they need to hear, in a way that they want to hear it?

I pointed out that even with her, there was plenty of pain and discomfort in our conversations.  While the end result seems to be something we’re both very happy about, I’m hoping to learn of a better way of getting there.  Given the nature of the conversation, she was still upset with me for not giving her the kind of support she had wanted.  As a result, she challenged me saying that I’m not always right, and that I subscribe to my own story, and something along the lines of I’m too confident for my own good.

*sigh*

Unsolicited Advice (Part 1)

Back in the day, I had a friend forward me a Harvard Business Review article on sales types.  There was an element of sales to our job and he wanted to point out that I fell into the ‘challenger’ category.  The challenger would hear the customer out, identify where they had a mental block around the transaction, and then challenge that block.  While this was among the most successful approaches, it was not the most common.  The person in this position had to be confident in their own expertise, accurate in their analysis of the situation, and willing to tell the customer that they were wrong.  In most cases, the customer would hear that they’re wrong, be surprised, and want to know why.  This was an opportunity to drop some knowledge on them that could very well influence the sale in a positive direction.  This has proven to be one of the the most effective approaches when buying the product or service was genuinely in the customer’s best interest,

But what if your solution is in their best interest, but the person doesn’t want to hear it?

This is what I’ve been running into over the years and I’ve found it rather challenging.  I’ve learned that at the core of who I am, I’m a problem solver.  If you bring me a problem, there’s a good chance I’m going to try and provide a solution.  It’s like a reflex.    I also learned that unsolicited advice on how to live one’s life was rarely well received.  It didn’t matter if the problem was clear as day, or the solution was tried and true, if they didn’t want to hear it, they didn’t want to hear it.

Perhaps the most classic example I’ve faced is trying to be supportive of a girlfriend who’s facing a problem with an emotional mindset.  When men reach out to other men about their problems, they’re usually looking for a solution.  From my experience, when a woman reaches out to you with a problem, offering a solution will make the situation worse.  There’s a short but highly entertaining and informative YouTube video that speaks to this call It’s Not About the Nail.  You have a young couple sitting on the couch and the girlfriend is talking about a pain in her head and the anxiety she has around it.  Then a new camera angle shows that there is an actual nail in the girl’s forehead.  The boyfriend sheepishly asks if it might be the nail causing all this pain.  She snaps at him saying it’s not about the nail.  He pushes back saying that the nail in her head might be the cause of all this.  She snaps at him again telling him to stop trying to fix everything, that all she needs is someone to listen to her.  He tries once more suggesting that what she probably needs is that nail taken out of her head, but she cuts him off and says “see, you’re not even listening now.”  He says fine and decides to listen, so she goes on to describe all these symptoms of the pain from the nail.  He musters up a, “well that all sounds.. really hard.”  She responds with a soft, “thank you.”

I still find this dynamic to be so confusing.  I do see value in having someone to talk to about the problems you’re facing, but I also think that you should also be interested in the advice of the person you’ve chosen to confide in.  Perhaps it’s based in comfort.  When I face a challenging moment, I pay very little attention to how I feel in that moment because I’m focused on overcoming the challenge.  Perhaps for some, it’s not about overcoming the challenge but about feeling better.  And perhaps for those individuals, telling someone who will nod along, be agreeable, and gives that impression of unconditional support is what helps return you to feelings of safety and comfort.

This has proven itself to be a significant challenge in my life as my two biggest motivators seem to be solving problems and helping others.  When I see someone facing a problem, my mind races to a best solution and I’m eager to help them get there.  But it seems as though the more I want to help, the less interested they become in hearing what I have to say.

After having been through that ‘Nail’ scenario a few times, it wasn’t difficult to see that if a woman came to me with a problem, it was unlikely that she would be looking for a solution, and more likely to be looking for someone to listen and understand.  I also noticed that women, in this context, were far better listeners than men.  In one relationship, I said that I might make a better problem solver than her friends, but that I probably wouldn’t make as good of a listener for the same reasons.  I suggested that if she just wanted to vent, that her friends were a better option.  But that if she was ready to solve a problem, I was always ready to help.  She understood, thought it was fair, and I was excited to see how it worked.  It worked terribly.  She called me in tears one day about her pet having injured himself.  I clued in and realized that she was probably looking for someone to listen… so I did my best and I think I did pretty well.  Then she calmed down and shifted to asking about some legal issues she was facing from a car accident a couple years ago.  So I ask if she’s looking for me to listen, or for solutions to problems.  She thanks me for checking in, asked for solutions, and proceeded to lay out the problem.  The solution happened to contain an inconvenient truth.  She didn’t want to face the fact that she would bear some responsibility for the incident and that there would eventually be consequences.  She broke into tears, was upset with me for not being compassionate to her situation, and then decided that she wasn’t ready to hear what I had to say and hung up.  A few months after we broke up, she texted me to let me know how much she appreciated those moments and how valuable they were to her in the long run.

It was almost a couple years ago that she sent me that message and it helped me notice something.  A big part of what I do is I try to understand the situation in the most honest terms possible.  If I see a difference between my understanding of the situation and their understanding of the situation, I’ll try to understand why.  In most cases, it seems as though the problem is rather obvious and the solution is rather simple.  The difficult part is that it includes a hard truth, an inconvenient fact which they’ll have to face if they are to truly solve this problem.  The problem I’ve observed about hard truths is that they challenge your existing beliefs, and it can be much more comfortable to retreat to your existing beliefs than it is to venture into the unknown.  And instead of recognizing that this fear, discomfort and anxiety are a result of moving away from the comfort of your beliefs and towards truth and the unknown… you assume the messenger is the one making you feel this way.

I came across a Mark Twain quote recently that speaks to this dynamic and something bigger that we’re all dealing with in some way right now, “It’s easier to fool someone than to convince them they’ve been fooled.”