How People Make Ideas Powerful

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What makes an idea powerful? This was a question posed to Marxist geographer David Harvey among others at a recent panel at the London School of Economics. Before launching into the unasked question of why Marx is not covered all that much at the world’s leading schools of economics, he did give a couple of insights. The first is that powerful ideas can and perhaps should be a material force in history. Second, a powerful idea reveals something that you didn’t see before. And finally, that to effect change in the world, regardless of the idea, you also have to transform social relations. This last point is I think the most important and one that was not really discussed all that much.

I was recently trying to figure out why it was that I can’t seem to “take it easy” on a run when I’m supposed to. For some reason I always feel the need to push myself and do something better than I did on the pervious run. I need a more efficient heartrate, a better split time here or there, a better average pace, faster cadence, etc. There is always something to improve and the little Polar device on my wrist records the data I then use it to push myself. I ran tonight for the first time after a month off for the flu and to mend a painful kneecap. And rather than take it easy, I had to seek a certain level of competence.

Part of this obsession with performance is an imagined social pressure. I share my data and want other runners to see how well I think I am doing. I don’t want to appear slow or lazy. I have sort of imagined this club where I need to post certain numbers to be accepted. This is foolish since no such club exists and runners are some of the most open and accepting people I have ever met. That you are running is the thing – not the numbers you post. However, most of this drive is because I am still trying to figure out this body of mine. I was never an athlete and I am just learning about my own limits and capabilities. The numbers do give me a clue as to my relative level of competence in running. They give me a steady stream of data to tweak and improve. No matter what pace others are running, I can always improve my own. It is just me and the numbers and improving my perfomance is my prime motivation.

So what measures competence in ideas? These are trickier. In science some ideas simply work better than others. If yours happens to work the best, the designation of theory might be yours to own. There are objective measures in science to determine this, but no theory exists without a great deal of smart people to confirm them and disseminate the knowledge on behalf of the person who thought the thing up. Science progresses not just from numbers and facts, but in so far as these numbers and facts work through communities of scholars at the right time and place. Just ask Galileo or Bruno about time and place. Who you know is important.

Science and art connect in this social dimension. I have for years fancied myself something of a writer, but unlike the numbers I can improve on a run to improve my performance, art is a far less an objective sort of arena to test one’s competence. I do know many people who had a certain knack for their art who then decided to work very hard at their craft, go to school to become experts, and moved into the world to perform with other musicians and continue to work. Some have done so in the presence of the right people at the right time and have made a career of it now performing with musicians whose music they were playing in high school cover bands. Others are no less competent, but have not found that lightning in a bottle. The point is that there are songs and books sitting on hard drives all over the world that many people will never hear or read. These are pieces that may be just as good or better than the stuff that gets great commercial success. For these ideas to live on in the collective memory of society and have a powerful and lasting impact, the right people at the right time must confer some degree of approval, or those ideas will be lost.

There are two points to all of this. The first is that I am far more comfortable with numbers my body generates that I can manipulate in order to achive competence in running. Working on this with absolutely no requirement for public opinion or approval is an utter joy to me. But this is also why I am something of a coward. I abhor the thought of the public scutinizing my writing with the prospect that I do indeed stink at it after all. I don’t quite have the fortitude to work that out just now. But with that said, it is a fear that I can resolve now that I have named it. It now has an objective reality that I can investigate and change much like I will change my efforts to improve my running numbers when I hit the pavement this weekend.

The second point is that given the social nature of ideas, it is important not only to tell people when they have thought of something good, we must put them into contact with the people who can spread those ideas and enlarge them. This is not only a moral good to build the competence of the creator, but it gives all good ideas a fighting change to take on that material reality and change something in our societies and cultures for the better. The great intangible effect of a solid university education is the network of people you join who can help move your ideas to places where they will flourish. People matter to ideas and the power they can wield. Good ideas deserve to live on in our social conscience rather than gather dust on shelves and in hard drives no one will ever see.

Getting Unstuck

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“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

When I was 12, I learned how to sail at a YMCA camp on the Chesapeake Bay. We learned in these little boats called Sunfish designed for 1 or 2 people. After a week or so, I took a boat out for the first time without a counselor. It didn’t go that well.

It was a windy day and the water was a bit choppy. About 10 minutes into the short trip, I stopped moving. What happened was that the boat was caught “in irons.” This means the boat was headed into the wind, the sail was not catching any air, and the water stopped flowing over the rudder making steering impossible. Two options are available in this situation: wait for the wind to change direction, or push the sail and the rudder perpendicular to the wind.

The previous week I watched someone get popped in the head by a sail swinging across the boat. This is called tacking or coming about. So I did what any emotionally compromised kid with lack of confidence might do: nothing. Then I started to complain about being stuck as if the boat and the wind would apologize for hurting my feelings. I expected my experience to change just because I desired change. But I was unwilling to try something to change it. Eventually an instructor in a motorboat pulled up and hopped in my boat. He pushed the sail and the rudder, caught that magnificent breeze, and we flew across the water.

What I needed to learn that day, but wouldn’t apply it until decades later, was that nothing in my experience of life will change unless I do something different. I can’t feel or think my way into a different life in any way that is something more authentic than a really lucid delusion. I need to act differently in order to have a different life. The alternative is to be stuck, waiting for things to change all the while building a resentment that they are staying the same.

If we want things in life, we need to solve problems and do things in order to get them. Some methods work better than others. If we could each do one thing differently than the day before in order to change one aspect of our lives we want to improve, change is absolutely inevitable. If it doesn’t work, do something else. The one way to be stuck and stay stuck is to do nothing. A belief that the wind will catch your sail won’t get you moving. But moving the sail yourself will.

Sickness and the School

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I set out to write a post every day this year. Then I got a nasty flu bug. For a couple of weeks I have been foggy, tired, and unwilling to probe my mind for an idea worth writing about. That’s because whatever resources I might normally use to think and write have been sucked up by resting and exhaustion. As a result, I’ve missed a few weeks already.

If there is one theme on my mind these days it is what it looks like if I understand the primary function of my body and brain as survival. How I learn, love, and relate to others is rooted in my primary instinct to survive in this world. If sickness does anything, it sends one’s focus inward. I become less observant and less aware of the things around me. This is partially out of a conscious choice. I need to do things like rest to get my body well. But I also think it is more of an automatic defense mechanism that sets in motion. When I’m sick, I’m less aware of the world outside of my body.

The self as an idea our brains create as part of the most complex set of mechanisms that work for the survival of an animal species becomes most clear when the human system is in danger. Whether it’s a flu, a home invader, losing a job, or breaking up with a lover, the shift of focus inward is both automatic and sudden. Maslow understood this in his famous hierarchy of needs.

If we are considering learning, until we meet the basic survival needs of a student, we cannot expect much in the way of mastery of much of anything. The same goes for the general health and progress of a society. We cannot expect hungry and insecure people to make much progress because all of their resources are being used to see that they will simply stay alive. If we are to make progress as a society, we must feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick. To expect more out of people such as these is to demand that they go against their nature which is an affordance the privileged never have to imagine in their lives.

Gravity and Death

Gravity is one of the most mysterious phenomena in the universe, and yet we know so much about it. Things are held to the surface of the earth not because of a force, but because the earth is much bigger than the stuff on it. Objects warp the space they are in and objects travel along the curves of that space towards the center of the bigger object. It’s like putting a marble in a funnel or what happens if a much larger person sits next to you on a mattress. The point is that our very presence as physical objects warps the space around us.

We all bend space and time physically and psychically in very tangible and literal ways. Our interactions with others warp their lives in both positive and negative ways. Love, anger, joy – these experiences with each other change our approach to the world and some people like David Bowie, Mother Theresa, or even Donald Trump seem to take up more space and maintain a stronger pull of this gravity around them. So when they die, the space left behind seems to be bigger.

When we die, we create a hole in space and time. Those ripples we have created in the experience of others and in the artifacts of our lives still exist. But the object people expect at the source of all of that stuff is no longer there. What’s left is the outline of a presence, a ghost, and that’s frightening. Often the strength of the relationship we have with that missing person determines the size of the hole in our lives.

I hold the idea that we do not exist in any form other than these ripples, artifacts, and memories after we die. I used to hold on to the idea of an eternal soul, but noy any more. There is no soul that meets God who will judge its fitness for a heavenly realm. We won’t meet past relatives, rock stars, and pets. After we die, we aren’t asleep, we won’t dream, and will never wake up.

Instead, we persist only as these waves dancing through space and time in the memories of others. I used to find this idea terrifying, empty, and horribly depressing. If I am not fundamentally a soul seeking its source in God, what purpose is there for living? But I failed to ask the question, Why do I need an ultimate purpose to be happy?

This isn’t to say I don’t have purposes. I have important functions in the world to my kids, my partner, parents, siblings, job, service, and even my dog. These are all relationships and roles I keep because they make me happy and I think I can help them be happier too. After all, for Epicurus, happiness was rooted in the pursuit of virtue and love through friendship.

Over the past year I have learned to live without a soul or an ultimate purpose. In the process I’ve realized just how important living is. What I do here and now determines the kind of ripples through space and time I will leave behind after I die. Will I contribute to the happiness of those I encounter, or will I participate in their suffering. Every choice I make is pregnant with the binary of happiness or suffering. Life has distilled into this one algorithm. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. It has given me the clearest way to determine my own happiness, and it works.

Lower Your Expectations, Increase Your Serenity

the moment you expect something its business not love

Lowering your expectations sounds like giving up. Expecting to achieve a certain level of competence in something or expecting someone to accomplish goals or responsibilities seems reasonable enough. The problem is when we have expectations of achievements or of others and we don’t communicate what the goals are, create a plan for how to reach them, or don’t have the consent of the parties involved. This problem intensifies when our own sense of usefulness or self-worth is fused with what we expect others to accomplish or be.

Collaborative expectations are the expression of goals to which more than one person has consented. Effective leaders who value worker satisfaction around a strong team-based environment are most suited to this approach. Feedback from all parties involved is continuous and cyclical in order that objectives and processes are clearly communicated and understood.

Peremptory expectations are essentially commands that pressure behaviors to accomplish objectives often combined with punishment and reward. Hierarchies that require a strict chain of command will operate most effectively here. Feedback that people know how to perform objectives in order to meet their expected goals is essential lest they misunderstand what they should be doing and fail to achieve goals because of lapses in communication.

Passive expectations are achievements or states desired of others where they are unaware of what’s going on. These are relationship killers. Without clear communication of desires and of outcomes, the image of how people should ideally behave around us will never resolve with how things actually are in the present moment. People will always fail us and we will resent everyone because we haven’t given people the opportunity to succeed.

The first step to managing our relationships with others is an honest evaluation of from where our expectations are coming and if what we expect from others is a good fit for the kind of relationship we have or want with them. If we are not on the same page with others and there is a mismatch of the kind of expectations we have for each other, problems will emerge.

The next step is the truth about all expectations we have of others: we cannot control people no matter how much we want to. I may have the idea that I ought to be able to control my kids, but the reality is that I cannot. With kids there is a time for peremptory expectations and the consequences and rewards that come with them. I might need to take a phone away if I catch them in a lie or might throw in a set of Pokemon cards for a job well done during a grade marking period. Most of the time I want them to make their own decisions and work with me on shared goals and expectations that they can own. I would rather us be more collaborative. What I try to avoid is a set of expectations based on an ideal picture I have of them that I fail to communicate. That sets them up for failure and I want to set them up for success. Moreover, if I base my self-worth or usefulness in their achievements, I now only set myself up for failure, I will stymie their growth in the process. My self-worth is my responsibility, their self-worth is theirs. Confusing this muddies the waters and creates problems where there should not be any.

Finally, no matter what, I cannot be so set on an ideal picture I have of others that no matter what I do to establish an expectation, they will fail. People cannot meet an ideal standard for the simple reason that they are not literally inside of our minds. The best they can do is come close to that picture. But if they do not meet that picture, the worst thing that any of us can do is resent them for it. It’s important to lower or change our expectations of others in order to give them the freedom to flourish on their own and to value the path they choose. Learning to adapt and change the image we have of others helps us to stay in the present, avoid resentment, and nourish the relationships we have.

Why “No Self” Makes Sense

Angel gets a soul.

With a soul, Angel is good. Without a soul, he is evil.

Descartes is most famous for rooting modern thought in doubt.* He knew on an intuitive level that the default position of thinking is belief. We tend to believe what we experience is true before we have any good reasons for those beliefs. As Michael Shermer argues, much of this happens in the inner workings of the brain and is in service to the brain’s primary function: keeping us alive. For example, if I see bushes rustling around and I fear a bear might jump out kill me so I take shelter, there’s no harm in that even if there’s no bear at all. I might hurt my pride and feel a little foolish, but I can move on with my day unharmed. But that same fear might save my life if there truly is a bear looking for some easy lunch.

Belief by default also applies to who or what we believe we are. I can perceive my body. I can see myself in a reflection, I can see other bodies and objects outside of my own, and my senses tell me that there are things in the world that are outside of whatever it is that is doing the thinking. But what I can’t see is the inner workings of my brain that is doing all of the thinking and interpreting of what comes through my senses. It only feels like there is something inside of my body that is separate from my body. That separate thing I believe I feel is what I call my “self.”

Here’s the kicker. Even though I feel something inside of me that I call a “self” it is nothing more than the neurons firing inside of my brain. There is nothing inside of me that is not part of my biology and there is nothing in science or anything we’ve observed in the history of humankind to support the claim that there is an immaterial substance controlling my thinking and my body. What we call the “self” is actually just a tool to help us survive. It’s a way I describe how all the parts of my body are integrated into one experience. But at base that’s all there is, contrary to the intuitive beliefs we grow up accepting usually without question.

Buddhists solved the self problem by advancing the idea of anatta or anatman or “not self.” It was an idea that flew in the face of the religious constructs around the Buddha at the time which can be found in the varied halls of Hinduism today. Much like the big Abrahamic religions, the religions of Hinduism find the self located in the atman which is the eternal substance that persists after the body dies and is then reincarnated if one is not fortunate enough to have experienced liberation from these earthly moorings. Buddhists got rid of that idea, which incidentally struck a blow to the oppressive caste system, and needed to replace it with a different schema.  After all, there still feels like there is some thing that working inside of this thing I call “me.” What we called “self” is functionally replaced with the series of causes and effects that happen in the body and its interaction with the world which includes the brain. These are called the five aggregates or skandhas. What I call the “self” is really an integrated process of understanding how all the things that work in my body interact with all the things that I experience in the world. But that is all there is. There is no soul commanding my body or brain.

The idea of there not being a soul or permanent self might seem inherently wrong to us because it does not feel right and gives us a lot of anxiety. After all, even in humor and popular culture, we throw around the idea that having no soul makes us inherently evil. The vampires on Buffy the Vampire Slayer find their seat of morality in a soul. Who would you rather be, the champion, soul-bearing Angel who becomes a great hero and gets the girl, or the soulless Angelus who kills not because he needs to suck your blood but just because it’s fun. If Dr. Jekyll has a soul, Mr. Hyde most definitely does not.  It is better to believe in a soul and not be evil, isn’t it? That just feels right. What I’ve learned in the past few years is it what I feel isn’t necessarily true. Another way of saying this is my feelings aren’t facts.

At one point the idea of there being no soul, or that I am not fundamentally some spiritually grounded entity desiring union with God, seemed counter-intuitive and simply wrong at best, or heretical and deserving of hell at worst. Then I decided to suspend my belief that any of those ideas are true. Once I bracketed the emotional attachment to the notion that I am some sort of special “soul” God loves and let the facts direct my intuition, those beliefs began to erode. Here’s the unexpected part – I started to become more satisfied with the world, with who “I” am, and less desiring of being “special.” There is no soul or “self.” This idea seems very reasonable to me now and is where my beliefs are now grounded. All that stuff that I call “me” is just the chemistry and energy in my body working to survive.

So what happens if instead of taking our beliefs as facts we table all those beliefs and then discover the truth based on the actual evidence that we have of our experience? This is a task that requires bravery. There is a risk to suspending beliefs that is rooted in the most basic survival mechanisms of the brain. If you are one who believes in a soul and is reading this, you probably feel the tension already. There is a ton of negative and counter-productive emotional and social baggage you can drop once you suspend that belief. I won’t get into that here, but if you stay tuned I will come back to it.

What if we all started the task of understanding the truth from Descartes’ place of doubt? What if we stopped believing in the things of our experience that don’t really have any foundations in evidence? What if we took a long pause from assuming our beliefs are true because of what feels right? Would you be willing to give up your beliefs in order to get closer to the truth?

*From another angle it can be said that it was actually Augustine who planted this idea long before Descartes.