Josh Haas's Web Log

Relatives, absolutes, and changing the world

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At my last job, part of the company folklore was a story called “the frog and the boiling water.” Although I believe this is biologically untrue, the tale is that if you toss a frog into a pot of boiling water, the frog will jump out to preserve its life, but if you raise the temperature of the water gradually, the frog, complacent, won’t notice until it is too late, and will boil to death.

Frog in boiling waterPeople have a hard time comprehending absolutes. It is much easier to judge in terms of “better” or “worse” than “good” or “bad”. Give me a terrible bottle of wine and follow it up with a bad one and I’ll praise the second one. The effect is muted in day-to-day life, because we can more-or-less easily think back to the last good bottle of wine, so it becomes a matter of degrees, but as we leave the grounds of our own experience, the distortion can become profound.

Consider the difference between your life and the life of someone born starving in Africa (if you’re reading this as someone who’s fought their way out of poverty in Africa, pick a different hypothetical of your choice). Compared to that, most of the difference people spend time and energy on — the size of our apartment, the number of blemishes on the face of our significant other, whether or not the cool sneakers are on sale — are as significant as whether you can taste the hint of oak in a bottle of two buck chuck.

Okay, but we (the majority of my readership, I’d guess…) aren’t fighting day-to-day for their survival, so while this is an interesting thought experiment, especially if it turns out those sneakers are in fact not on sale, who cares whether or not the majority of our concerns are trivial in the grand scheme? They may be small things, but at least they’re our small things.

Flip the scenario around, though. What if there were people to whom our lives are like those of third world children born with AIDS? Who can only look at us with mute incomprehension, almost too distant to actually pity us?

Let me suggest that that isn’t so terribly far-fetched. Put the employees of Dunder Mifflin in the same room as a bunch of Nobel-prize winning scientists, peace activists, political leaders, Olympic athletes, or world-traveling poets, and the conversational comprehension gap would very much be along the lines of wondering what to say to “hey, Jim was able to find some muddy water this morning by digging next to the latrine with a stick.” Good for him? I’m sorry?

Most of the people reading this are probably somewhere in between the existence of the drones on The Office and world-changing leaders at the height of their abilities. I don’t slave away 40 hours a week at a meaningless, tedious job, subject of a petty dictator boss, with nothing ahead of me other than eventual retirement after my best years are over (a dream, pathetic as it is, that is becoming increasingly unrealistic in the current economic conditions), but neither am I fully living up to the potential that I can imagine for myself. Everyone has a shadow self, consisting of unrealized dreams and ambitions; people approach that self in varying degrees, and I think it is a rare person who fully closes the gap, who no longer fantasizes a future for themselves because they are already living it.

What is the difference between someone who starves to death in a third world country and someone who succesfully emigrates or rises to a degree of local prominence and security? What is the difference between someone who dies in a shitty retirement home after a career of paper-pushing, and someone who lives a life that’s remembered for a hundred or a thousand years after they’ve passed? Is it inborn genetic ability? Pure luck and circumstances? Divine intervention?

The truth is that it’s probably a little of everything, and varies from person to person. But in the absence of sheer ill-luck, I think mostly it’s a matter of individual behaviors and beliefs: things like perserverence, hope, and wisdom. Innate genetic abilities such as raw strength, intelligence, artistic ability, etc., do make some difference, I’m sure, and in zero-sum games — such as who wins the Olympic gold medal for sprinting — they may be strictly necessary, but I think people overestimate their importance, most especially in the non-zero-sum games which are far more prevalent. Even athletics, which would seem to be at the far end of the abilities vs behaviors spectrum, is very much a mental game. Consider the career of the 5’3″ basketball player Mugsy Bogues, remembered as one of the greats: who would predict that someone two feet shorter than his peers would predominate in a game that depends on height?

The interesting thing about behaviors and beliefs is that they can be changed. Putting aside the question of its initial origin, it’s clear that the character people are born with is not necessarily — though often is — the same as what they die with. Probably only a very small percentage of people ever move the needle on their character enough to dramatically change their life outcomes. But its the small percentage that interests me, because if it is possible, then it is repeatable.

Imagine a world where instead of 1% of people fully living up to their human potential, 99% of people do. What would that look like? How would things be different?

A lot of what exists today would fall apart. Many of our institutions and economic engines are premised on a supply of people willing to be cogs in a machine. If the change happened overnight, there would probably be chaos. But if it happened more gradually, I think we would adapt, and build a world that’s almost unimaginable by the standards of the current one. Problems that seem completely intractable today would disappear. Healthcare reform, for instance, looks very different in a world where the majority of people aren’t sitting around the TV and eating themselves to death to take their mind off the fact that their lives are miserable compared to their hopes. If you replace old problems, new ones arise, of course — I doubt this would be some kind of utopia — but it might look like utopia from the perspective of people like us who are trapped in this third world country called America.

This is not just wishful thinking. The problem of raising the percentage of people who live up to their full potential is just that, a problem: no more ambitious than other problems we’ve solved in the past such as putting a man on the moon. Time travel Back to the Future-style may be impossible; we know for a fact that people can change their own characters because people have already done it. The only open question is how best to scale that process.

There have been past attempts to change the nature of human beings, and they’ve generally ended badly: eugenics and Communism are the two main ones. Their proponents tried to impose a vision of what humans should be like in a top-down, coercive manner, based on ideological preconceptions about reality. This of course is a recipe for disaster. The main characteristic of someone living up to their potential is freedom: any attempt to mandate or set norms for good behavior is inherently working in the opposite direction of humanity at its best, and the enforcement of said norms via violence creates an environment of fear that is completely antithetical to the stated goals of the project. Any succesful attempt would have to happen in a bottom-up way: offering the technology of change as a choice, and winning adherents by virtue of the superior results it yields. Likewise, an empirical attitude must be taken to the technology itself or else it will be no more than ineffective dogma.

Albert Einstein once said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” The advances of the last century have largely been in terms of what people can accomplish at a material level. What we need today are advances in how people use that which we’ve accomplished. I see this as the biggest open challenge for humanity right now, and personally, my goal is to move this from dream to reality. Wanna help out?

Written by jphaas

June 26th, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Posted in Uncategorized