Does Capitalism always Give us More from Less?

Recently I listened to a podcast interview with Andrew McAfee who has written a book called More from Less.  The message of this book is meant to be positive along the line of Steven Pinker’s more recent books.  Illustrating that things aren’t maybe as bad as they seem, or at the very least we have reason to hope.  While I am reticent to make critiques of a thesis without having actually read the book, what I want to say is more about the foundational premises he builds his book on, and I think the 90 minute interview gives me a good basis for discussion here.

For those of you who don’t want to listen, I will give a brief summary here.  I will say at the outset that he is very pro capitalism, but I’ll be honest, out of anybody in favor of capitalism that I’ve listened to, he makes the most compelling arguments.  I should also point out that he is not anti-regulation, nor is he libertarian and thinks that capitalism can solve every human concern.  Anyway, the basic thesis of his book is that we currently live in an age where human prosperity shows signs of decoupling from the nearly one to one correlation we had since the industrial revolution of natural resource use.  With quite a lot of data he shows since the 1970s we’ve been continue to grow economically, while using resources at a continually slower rate.  The reason he attributes to this transition is because of our improved technology along with the fundamental ways in which capitalism works.  I’ll go into details in a moment.  I want to preface the discussion also by saying that he is not anti-climate change or anti-EPA.  He admits the dark past of capitalism, but feels that the coupling with technological advances has helped capitalism be a more positive force.  Like many of us I guess, he sees the good parts, and doesn’t want to throw the baby out in the bathwater.  I always resonate with this mentality, and for those who know me, know I am not completely anti-capitalism.  I do also see some good parts, but there are also parts that are deeply troubling to me and so a mixed economy seems the most reasonable to me.

Image result for turing computerThe technological save for mankind her argues is the computer.  This is not a new idea, and in fact I wrote about this a little before on my blog when I talked about Douglas Adams’ ages of sand.  After the lens for the telescope and the microscope opened up the macro and micro universe, the silicon chip came along and revealed to us the process.  We could do enormous amounts of calculations so quickly that this allowed people to solve problems in a tiny fraction of the time it would have taken them before.   McAfee gives several examples of how computers helped businesses and corporations reduce waste.  Their motivation to reduce waste is of course motivated by profit, but as a result less resources were used.  One example was the aluminum can.  If you are my age or older you know how thick cans of soda used to be compared to now.  Cans today still function perfectly but use less material.  Being able to model pressurized liquids in cans and tweak thicknesses and model the impact of that thickness allowed for vast savings in resources used by beer and soda companies.  Since companies need profit for growth they have no incentive to be wasteful when it comes to materials.  Now I’m sure class action law suits also convinced companies to stop raping the Earth, but I take his point and I don’t deny that it’s true.

His pro-capitalism stance is largely based on the fact that so many private companies and innovative production methods and the advent of fossil fuels raised a large amount of people out of poverty.  Life expectancy when up dramatically as infant mortality dropped significantly due to indoor plumbing and parts could be made more quickly and in massively higher amounts to give a large population of people access.  Being able to unleash the energy stored in fossil fuels powered companies of all kinds to bring lifesaving and life altering technologies to more and more people.  Populations exploded as a result of the increase in prosperity.

Image result for world population by year

For McAfee the future, if we are going to have a better one, he argues that we must have more of the same.  We must have continue to have capitalism working to develop technologies that will use less and less resources for creating growth, and this can be guided by smart government policy.  He is in favor for instance of a revenue neutral carbon tax that gives money to people at the bottom end, and encourages corporations and businesses to work to cut fossil fuel usage.  What he doesn’t advocate is that we are all going to return to some idyllic pre-industrial state and he argues, I think quite convincingly that we weren’t this idyllic sustainable group of people prior to the industrial revolution, and that now with the world population as it is, we need energy and only the development of better energy sources is going to help us deal with something like pollution and climate change.

So fundamentally I think my disagreements come from the fact that first even if we are using less resources, those resources are still finite, and if we aren’t concerned about the continuing growth of people we will simply run out of important resources we need.  Is there always a technological solution out there waiting for us?  Maybe, but we don’t know that for sure.

The second thing I question is whether or not it is good that the population exploded as it did in the last 100 or so years.  Is this prosperity?  Is this a good way to measure prosperity?  The fact that we might have the ability to effectively support human beings, doesn’t mean that we necessarily should.  It seems to me that the technological advances of the industrial revolution were so powerful that human population grew unrestrained, requiring the continuing need to use and extract more resources.   Is it true that we might not have invented the computer if we grew human populations at a rate that lead to a more sustainable society?  Are these technological advances only an answer to some threshold in the amount of suffering on the planet?  Was the computer something that could not just as easily been invented with half the world population at the time or was there a drive to invent something that could solve innumerable problems that were occurring because the world population was as high as it was?  It’s not obvious to me that this is the case.  It’s not obvious to me that prosperity for a creature with such a high level of consciousness should simply be defined by our growth in population.  If we continue to grow in population this just seems to put us in an endless cycle of trying to have to develop new technologies to alleviate the suffering of the increased population.  And even if we are getting more out of less, eventually something will run out, and technology simply won’t save us.

Image result for does the end justify the means

Finally, I am left with the old moral philosophy question:  Does the end justify the means?  Let’s say capitalism was best equipped to increase human prosperity and not destroy the Earth at the same time.  If we are using less and less resources because some CEO is trying to make more money does it matter that we are doing the right thing for the wrong reasons?  Capitalism is not a moral philosophy it is just an economic system.  And while I enjoy listening to this well-educated author, his optimism, and his well laid out arguments, he is in the minority it seems when it comes to those who celebrate capitalism.  For many the mindset of growth trumps other human concerns, even if that mindset sometimes producing good ends, it often leads to many downstream problems.  There has to be room for human rights, happiness, respect, empathy, etc.  If it is possible to practice a brand of ethical capitalism it must look different than what we have had in the past and even what we have now.  I see very few capitalists adopting McAfee’s views, and I find myself very concerned about a society that puts profit in front of all other values.  If capitalism does have any intrinsic value in it, then it needs a better marketer than Wall Street, and banks, and mega-rich billionaire CEOs.

McAfee does admit that income inequality is an important issue, although in the interview offered very little solutions to that.  I suspect he feels like there policy solutions that don’t involve a high redistribution of wealth, but he didn’t go into a lot of details.  There are a myriad of other issues he didn’t address in the interview such as education, and health care which I think don’t lend themselves well to the capitalist economic model yet are important in a society.

He did also address the problem of growing economies in other parts of the world.  He doesn’t worry as much that they will do things as “dirty” and irresponsible as we did, simply because new technologies are available to them at a cheaper price than what the U.S. had when our economy started growing rapidly.  It’s a fair point.  But even if we can use less of resource A to produce a 1 KW of energy, or 1 mile of fiber optic cable, with a lot more people wanting those resources it still seems like an issue.  And if we are expecting technology to get us out of our biggest problems while also devaluing education, as seems to be the case in this country, I don’t see things as getting better quickly enough before we hit the wall.

Overall it was a thought provoking interview.  I don’t know if I feel more optimistic, but I at least can acknowledge that the conversation about what we can do is broader than the conversation we are having now.  On the topic of climate change I feel this is largely because our conservative, pro-capitalist party can’t even admit that we have a problem and this leads to a very narrow range of solutions.

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To Dhyan: Year 5

Dear Dhyan,

As I write this post, it should be clear that I am now the father of two as it is the evening of Dec. 26th and this is getting done at the last minute.  Usually I’ve started writing these a couple weeks ahead of time as I always want to put some good thought into it and also because I’m just excited to talk about how amazing you are and how you make me feel.

Before your brother was born I was thinking to myself how I would be writing two of these, but wondering how they would be different?  Should I do a combined letter? Is there really something that I want you to know about me that I didn’t want your brother to know?  Now that your brother is here it seems so obvious the different ways both of you excite me.  I also started thinking at what point would I no longer feel the need to write these letters?  After all, if the goal is for you to know who I am at this point in your life, at what age have you figured me out?  And at what point should I just be telling you everything I’m thinking to your face instead of writing it in a letter you might read years later?  I imagine that time is not now, but I am at awe at how perceptive you are. You have a great ability to see things for what they are, but still enjoy it, love it, have a passion for it.   I love that at about you.  There are few things about me that are important enough to me that I would want you to have it, but that is one of them.  The ability to find wonder in the world we live in.  So who knows how many more letters there might be, but probably less than I think.

             You pretending to be a fern.

That being said, the truth is I really don’t understand why you are the way that you are.  I always thought that parenting would be like this constant verbal reinforcement of good values, and how to practice empathy, and that it would be a struggle that you would see come to fruition only years down the road.  And maybe it’s that too, but right now it just feels like you are just suddenly amazing and I don’t know why.  I can’t link it to something I’ve done or told you.  This year you’ve already taken the first step towards understanding charity and I couldn’t be more proud.  Understanding that there’s a way to help people and animals who are in peril is important.  But more than that you are beginning to see your own good fortune and that’s the first step in having gratitude for advantages in your own life.  But I don’t need to tell you these things it seems, somehow you will just figure it out.  I do worry about making sure you have good values, but you keep surprising me by seeming to have them without much effort.  My greatest wish for you and your brother is that you’ll be kind people.  Yeah, you may face challenges greater than I had to face, and people might argue that toughness is more important.  But I don’t feel toughness has to be sacrificed for kindness.  Both are possible, and in general I think people have the wrong idea about what toughness really is.  Kind or unkind there are tough people in this world, but also a lot of people pretending to be a lot tougher than they are.  I feel the reason they pretend is because there is just not enough kindness. So I feel I’m justified in making that my most important goal for you.  And you already are kid. You even make me reflect and look inward and how I can be a better person in this world.  I hope I can be a good guide, but I have no doubt that this will be a journey where we will both grow as humans…together.  I’m so excited for the journey you are going to take me on.

This year you became a brother.  I really didn’t have any doubts you would be a good one.  You are so sweet and loving to your brother.  The only thing I worried about is you getting impatient for your brother to be a playmate.  But you’ve been so patient and understanding both towards him, and towards us as we often have to take care of the baby over playing with you.  When Allie was new, when he’d cry you’d always cover your ears. You hated to hear him in distress.  You still do of course and you even get very flustered at times when you can’t make your brother feel better.  It’s hard for adults too honestly, we just have more psychological tools to fall back on.  But it actually makes me feel more at ease that Allie already has a brother who is so worried about him and loves him so much.  I know, within your ability, you will also do your best for Allie and that means a lot to both your mother and I.  Your brother already responds to you so much.  He’s going to look up to his brother, and I have no doubts you will take that responsibility seriously.

This is the part of the letter where I talk about the year, by the numbers.  Literally. You have shown a great interest in numbers this year.  As a person who loves math, I couldn’t be more excited.  And while your actual math has improved, I’ve more enjoyed your questions which aren’t really aimed at necessarily solving math, but just about numbers in general.  Like how big they are, how they are sequenced, or how they are written.  You sometimes just sit there and ask me to add numbers together.  You’ll be like “what’s 100 plus 17?”  and I’ll say “117”, and then you’ll say, “But then what is 1 million plus 17?”, “Then I’ll say one million and 17”.  You won’t even respond, it’s like you are just processing it all, looking for patterns.  The time I was the most impressed was after telling you very little about multiplication, you suddenly announced that 6 time 2 was 12.  I was stunned.  And for some reason you had decided to count two nobs sticking out of a light fixture 6 times, and just realized how multiplication works.  I have no idea how smart you are compared to other children, but I do feel confident in saying you are a smart boy.  The kind of smart that will serve you well whatever situation you find yourself in life.

It seems I have talked mostly about how amazing you are.  Honestly you are more amazing than I can let on.  I suppose that’s always going to be the case, since I don’t want to give you too big of a head, especially since I might just be heavily biased.  🙂  But I guess I should say a few words about where I’m at right now, since that was the point of these letters.  The truth is, if talking about you so much is any indication, I’d say that I am probably certifiably a dad right now, because talking and thinking about someone constantly is just what you do when you’re in love.  And I’m in love with my boys. 🙂  There are worries in life right now.  The politics in this country are still a shambles.  My job situation isn’t great right now, and I’m a bit worried about that.  Life might have some big changes in it at some point nearer in the future than I thought, but it’s still not that near.  Nevertheless there is sort of a different mindset you get in when things are less secure.  You and your brother are a big part of what keeps my strength up.  I also don’t want to lose precious moments with you, even when there are legitimate things to be stressed about.  Maybe even more so because there are legitimate things to stress about.  Love should always be a light in the darkness.

Before I go, I just wanted to say that it was awesome that we had our first road trip together.  It wasn’t planned that way, but Allie got sick and mommy had to stay home.  It was a great time and I’m going to enjoy having trips with my sons in the future. 🙂

Also, so you know, you are still a clown and can make me laugh like no other.  I will not be shocked in the least if you become a comedian.

All parents say how quickly the time flies with your children, and it would be easy to say that 5 years have flown by.  But truthfully I’m try not to bemoan the loss of the littler version of yourself because I’m just always so excited to see who you are becoming.  I accept the fact that you must grow and no force in the universe can change that.  Why waste time on wondering where the time went, when the present is to be enjoyed?  I plan on just enjoying the journey of being your dad. 🙂

To Dhyan: Year 4

Dear Son,

Since I decided to start doing the letter to you, it’s funny how I start thinking about all year as I note things I want to say.  But you go through so many changes that some new always inspires me to say more about it, that by the time I get to writing, I find it hard to focus on any one thing.   Ultimately this year’s letter is getting a partial eclipse from a new brother on the way.  But don’t get upset that your brother is already sharing the spotlight before even arriving, I’ll discuss more about this later.

There is no question that as each year passes I simply love you more.  As your personality evolves, as you start to develop your own identity, you simply are no longer someone I just love because you are my son, but because of the qualities you possess as an individual.  Love is a beautiful duality now.  My love for you both defies reason and is because of reasons.  It’s a wonderful place to be.  You continue to be sweet, silly, kind, and inquisitive.  I love the questions you ask now.  You often use the phrase “in this world”.  I am not sure you really understand how big it is, but I like the fact that you have started to think about that bigger picture.  It is also amazing how happy it makes me to see you be able to do things yourself.  A month ago, you went into a public restroom all by yourself and didn’t want me in there.  The other day you warmed up a waffle in the microwave all by yourself.  Your firsts have always made me happy, but as you grow and these things become more complex it brings not only joy, but even a sense of peace that you are a little closer to surviving on your own.  I suppose there will come a day that I will miss you being more dependent on us, but in the end parenting is to teach you to become more and more self-sufficient. I guess it just makes me feel satisfied as a parent to see these accomplishments even if they are trivial in the big picture.  It’s honestly why I am loving fatherhood so much, because of how much joy you bring to things that I previously thought of as trivial, if I thought of them at all!

You are also developing a strong will.  These last couple of months you’ve been getting a bit more angry when you don’t get your way and being more defiant.  Given how wonderful your disposition is in general, this is sometimes hard to take, but I sense this is just the beginning of a battle of wills.  But I just want you to know that we think, all the time, about the why you need to listen to us, not just that you listen to us, and so even though it breaks our hearts to make you upset at us, we know we are doing the right thing.  I know you have to test your boundaries, and I hope you keep doing that in life, because to go anywhere in life, you need to cross a few boundaries, if not many.

Your love of dinosaurs continues, and you don’t just love dinosaurs but know their names and things about them.  You’ve also show an interest in crystals, and plants.  You seem to have a very steady hand for using scissors and decorating cookies.  I don’t know what it all adds to but you have officially said you want to be a geologist because you want to dig up dinosaur bones and learn more about crystals.  As I look back on this year, all I can say is that I am excited to see you grow more as a person.  I don’t know how much you can project forward from the person somebody is when they are 3 or 4 into adulthood, but I feel like you are always somebody who is going to make me proud.

You’ve also become more fearful to the latter end of this year.  You say, “I’m not scared of anything, I’m just scared”.  You want us to go with you upstairs at night, stand guard of the bathroom door, hold your hand.  It’s natural I suppose.  It’s healthy to have a bit of fear, but it sometimes feels hard to know that you’ve become worried about harm coming to you, even though you’ve not experienced any real harm.    I guess it’s just part of your developing emotions, and also because the love you feel is stronger and deeper than before, loss must weigh on you greater than before.  I wish I could explain to you that fear is healthy, and that conquering your fears is a great feeling, but ultimately something nobody else can do for you.  In time you will sort out which things are worth fearing, but for now, I am happy to hold your hand.

There is an asymmetry of course to our relationship right now, in that I have the advantage of knowing almost everything about you, and having a decent chance of remembering much of it, but you do not.  Of course, I can tell that in this last year you are understanding more about what kind of person I am as well, the fact remains is that there is so much about my life that you do not yet know.  There is much about the world that you are not aware.  This year has been a tough year.  We live in one of the most powerful countries on the planet, and right now it is being run by a terrible human being.  The government at large is generally void of compassion, and everything I and your mother stand for. Times feel quite uncertain, and I’ve been more worried and down about the world than I’ve been in awhile.  I hope that things are much better by the time you are old enough to read this letter, but life may have bigger changes than I or your mother can imagine right now.   You will notice that as you get older and more aware of the world, that there are simply more bad things to know about.  You try to balance this out with the good, but it can be a struggle.  I know intellectually that all the goodness that humans have isn’t being talked about, and you just mostly are going to hear bad news, but sometimes knowledge can’t override your emotions.  Coupled with the fact that history teaches us countries do fall, and life gets significantly worse, there is a shadow on the future that I find hard to shake.  Suffice to say there have been times when I’ve let you watch a bit too much TV just so that I could sit next to you or cuddle with you on the sofa.  If a daddy’s arms make you feel safe, your touch makes me feel peaceful and lets me forget about the world for a while.

And so, in this next year, life is going to become very different for you as your brother comes into being.  Once again, the difference between what I know and what I feel clashes.  When we first thought about having another kid, it was our joy of being a parent to you that wanted us to multiply that joy by having another.  And yet as your mother’s due date approaches I find myself feeling a little sad in a way.  You have been my world for 4 years and now there will be another child to pay attention to as well, and I will no longer be able to give you completely undivided attention.  I don’t know how much other parents experience this, but all I can think about right now is what I’ll be losing, and not what will be gained.  It’s hard for me to imagine that there will be more than one child to love.  And while I know my love for you won’t diminish, the fact remains that there will just be less of me available to you.  At the same time, I know that your mom will have less time for you too with a new baby, and that we might possibly grow even closer now because you will not be able to rely on your mom quite as much, especially while your brother is very small.  And then part of me also feels bad that I don’t feel the same excitement for your brother as I felt for you, and that every first your brother does, will be something you’ve already done and wonder if it could feel as special as it is with you.  I’m probably overthinking it all.  There will be lots of love in this house and if my joy is doubled come April, I will truly be a fortunate man.  I also know for certain you will be a wonderful brother even if at times it will be frustrating to have to share attention.  I know your brother will come into the world a luckier baby than you, simply because he will have 3 people to love and care for him as he grows instead of just two.

Thank you for another wonderful year son.  You bring me more laughter and joy than I can describe. Happy Birthday!  I love you so much!

Of Babies and Bathwater

The recent stream of women standing up against sexual harassment and sexual criminal activity has once again brought to the fore the idea of heroes and perfection.  Something I said I was done talking about, but the subject I guess is just an intriguing one to me and thought I’d share a few more thoughts.  I’d like to extend this discussion beyond those accused of sexual harassment or other sex crimes in general, but to a discussion of flaws and the severity of those flaws.

I’ve been listening and reading discussions about where do we draw the line and forgive someone’s acts?  I’ve wrote a piece about Bill Cosby some time ago, and I think most people agree that given he is a serial rapist it’s hard to ever watch him again.  But some feel differently about Louis CK or Al Franken.  Now some might say this is because politics are playing a role, like in the case of Franken, or because you are just such a big fan of their comedy in the case Louis CK.  It’s hard to say that’s not the case, but I do think it’s more than that.

As I try to learn about human behavior there are two things that seem clear to me.  We are all morally inconsistent to varying degrees, and we all draw lines that cannot be crossed and those lines are different for different people.  As I’ve written before, I think we have this ability to elevate celebrities, leaders, and historical figures to unrealistic expectations of perfection.  With historical figures of course we might be applying today’s moral standards to those people and unfairly judge them, but I don’t always think that doesn’t have value.  We don’t have to judge, but I think there is value in looking at the flaws and inconsistencies in their thinking so that we can avoid those same pitfalls of character today.  Gandhi was someone I idolized, and still do to a certain extent, but more reading into his character has revealed his racism against black people, and his misogyny. Should I throw away Gandhi as someone who is a waste of my time to even try to appreciate now that I know?  I don’t think so, but I certainly see how he could have been more than he was, and can take those good parts, acknowledge (without judgment) the bad parts and move forward.

But what of those people who we find to be less than perfect today?  People who we deem should know better.  It’s a tricky business.  There might be an average moral perspective, and that perspective might even be backed by empirical data that shows it is a more moral behavior, but culture varies widely, and even when we see the overwhelming benefits of something like gender equality it seems very hard to get everybody on board.  If we investigate the most common set of moral values of people in a white evangelical community in the South, we’d find many differences between them and a community in Boulder, Colorado.  And the difference may even deviate greater as we go beyond the borders of our country.  What seems to be the prevailing moral view of our times is heavily biased by the culture we are currently in.  It could be we are in the minority.  And even if we are right about what is a more moral actions, and we are right to push those views on to society, it may be difficult for others to agree with our perspective.  Of course it’s also true that any one moral perspective is not all that we care about in this world.  We all have sets of moral values, and while it would be nice to think that anybody who is a feminist must automatically be also pro-environment, pro marriage equality, or against racism, the dots don’t always connect, nor do I think we should expect them to.  If we can have a head of the human genome project also be an evangelical Christian, I think that we should expect that any human is able to hold as true, two widely disparate views on how the universe works.

But where does that leave the rest of us.  It seems that it’s human nature to be constantly looking for people that we can look up to, that we can celebrate and that we can strive to be like.  It maybe isn’t surprising that we should do this.  Seeing something we value, embodied by another human being makes us feel like it’s possible for us to be that way to.  Such people can also make us care about things we didn’t before, or care about things in a deep way we never thought possible.  And when we find out their flaws there is a feeling of betrayal that feels personal even if we didn’t know them personally.  But I think that on a deeper level what we really worry about is what it says about us.  “This person I admired is not who I thought, so am I not who I thought as well?”  I certainly had these thoughts growing up with an alcoholic father.  My dad went from superhero to an extremely flawed individual, and I wondered how I might be flawed and how I would even recognize it?  And to be honest I still do sometimes.

I’ve tried to incorporate the best of my dad into who I am, because there is no changing the past.  I was born with dad I had, and there is no getting around that.  I can be a better dad myself going forward and that’s all I can do.  I’m not for burning people to the ground because of their flaws.  Even with Bill Cosby I can acknowledge the skill in which he told jokes and stories, and his passion for education and I can say that these are good things and are meaningful.  Maybe I can’t watch him anymore, but there was at least some goodness in him.  I feel similarly for Scott Orson Card who wrote an incredibly beautiful science fiction story and won a well-deserved Hugo award.  He is now a strong anti-gay activist in the Mormon community.  But the ideas and themes in his story are worth preserving and even celebrating.  I don’t want to turn those ideas to dust just because there is now a side of him I fundamentally disagree with.  When I think of heroes in my personal life right now, there are 3 ladies that are supervisors for the program I do volunteer work for helping neglected and abused children.  They work long hours, train volunteers, do fundraisers, and deeply care about the welfare of the most vulnerable members of our society.  What if I found out that one of them donated money to a pro-life organization, or was racist?  Does this invalidate all that they are?  Have they still not made the lives better for 100s if not 1000s of children?  At what point does the line get crossed?  Perhaps if I found out they have abuse their own children.  I in no way imagine that’s possible, but maybe given that we are walking paradoxes I should accept that such things are possible.

In the end maybe we all at least share some of the blame for the expectations we place on people, who can never be perfect.  Perhaps the reason I think about “heroes” so much is because with an alcoholic father these are questions I’ve been asking all my life.  What I’ve tried to do is to understand human behavior and accept the imperfections we all have.  I’ve also tried to place value on growth.  Knowing we all do things or have done things that are bad, what’s most important is that we accept responsibility, have true remorse and try to do better.  I think the exposure of these imperfections is helpful to all of us in this respect, and even when it is sometimes hard to hear (or read) I am thankful to see the cracks in perfection.  I actually prefer such a world, because it simply feels truer.  It feels like there is somewhere to go.  And it is a reminder to be humble, for we all have our cracks and flaws.  It’s easy to push the famous people and the historical figures away, because they really aren’t part of our everyday life, but that line we draw can become real hard to draw when it’s someone who is actually close to us.  So I think it’s always important to recognize that complexity, the dynamic nature, and the shades of gray in humans.  Maybe it’s significant that the devil was only made by being cast down to the very depths of hell.  Maybe we can make our stands and still find ways to love.

The Understudy

He always liked to make people smile,
It was the way his daddy looked,
When he wasn’t smiling he was stressed,
Worried and wasn’t all there
And when he’d make his daddy laugh,
It all went away,
And so he tried to be funny all his days,
It became a craft and an art,
Something to fail at from time to time.

He always knew real beauty,
He liked to be around it,
Like wanting to be close to the fire,
On a chilly winter’s dark
The occasional dive,
As the smoke curls around the room,
But the romance was in his mind,
And love was in his eyes,
But never figured out how to make it work,
Not being mechanically inclined

He always had a gift for language,
He liked the way it moved and folded,
Slipping off the tongue,
Only to wonder if he should have held back,
And that was a way to move people,
But he never quite had the passion,
It wasn’t easy to express excitement,
When you’re too busy being amazed
If you can get him to be quiet,
He’d love to hear your voice

Scuttling along the sand,
He looks a bit odd
But I assure you he’s quite harmless,
It’s just an occasional tickle

True Grit

I was listening to an interesting podcast about grit, based on the research by Angela Duckworth.  If you prefer to read a shorter article about her work you can do that here, or listen to a short TED talk she gave about it you can do that here.  I’ve talked before about the value of perseverance and why it is beneficial in my series about what I think makes a good human.  In that series I tried to also perhaps point out where these strengths could have negative results.  How we can perhaps go too far, or how their might be darker side to it.  The podcast brought this idea into the forefront of my thoughts again because they talked about how grit might actually be drawback if we continue to try at something that we are not likely to achieve we waste our energy.  We can become obsessive, and not know when to give up.  This is more commonly known as stubbornness.  What was really interesting to me was what they said in the final few seconds of the podcast which was that grit and stubbornness are really just the same thing, given different names based on the outcome achieved.  If one is successful they had grit, if one was not, they were stubborn.

Sadly,  failure is often dependent on effort too!

This then gave rise to a couple of additional thoughts.  One was to wonder what other qualities fall under a similar category, where they are one in the same just depending on the outcome? The second thought I had was a bit of sadness about how easily our strengths can become our weaknesses.  But then I thought, perhaps this idea we have about strengths vs. weaknesses is really an incorrect way to look at ourselves.  Because we can certainly say that a world in which no person had any grit would be a much different one and one that I believe would be much sadder and without flavor.  So we absolutely need these qualities and the consequence of such virtues is simply that we will not always succeed.  And so we find ourselves, once again, on the topic of risk.

This one is pretty true. However someone with a natural extra helping of strength, skill, intelligence often has more potential. Damn you Neil Degrasse Tyson!

When we see that star athlete, or master carpenter at work, or a genius who has invented some technological marvel, it can be easy to be an awe, and focus on a talent that must lie within giving them an almost divine like quality in their ability.  We see the end result and we don’t think about the years of practice. We often see the person who made it to the Olympics or the professional league, but not all the ones who failed to make it.  We don’t see the less than impressive or faulty works the carpenter built before he mastered his techniques.  We don’t see all the failed ideas and failed attempts associated with the process of creation and invention. History remembers the genius of Newton’s discovery in regards to gravitation, calculus, and his laws of motion.  Few except those who really study his life know how obsessed he was in the field of alchemy, which was of course a big waste of time.  Few know how much time he wasted searching for hidden patterns in scripture.  Also, as the podcast points out that many people don’t enjoy the periods of grim determination and practice it takes to perfect their craft, whatever it may be, at least not in the typical definition of fun.  It’s clear that idea that we may master something or have success can drive us forward through the less than savory hours and hours of effort it takes to achieve one’s goals, but in the end we don’t know whether our goals will be achieved.  So grit also means that we are taking a risk, because we could spend all that time and energy, and still fail in the end.

Unless quitting gives you more time to pursue something else that you are far better at and thus a higher chance of success!

Of course the easy answer is to say, focus on the journey, nobody is perfect.  I’d like to believe I am that type of person as I often tout the value of perseverance when I think about the effort it took to get a PhD which seemed less about my intelligence and more about grit.  At the same time, had I failed in the end, how much would I still be touting all that grit and determination?  It seems harder to celebrate the process that got you there without getting positive results.  I do feel that is what we must always try to do, because if did always focus on the end result we’re likely to be in a constant state of depression!  And perhaps the only real weakness is an inability to learn from our mistakes.  In the end that’s all we can really do, because there is value in the process, and most things that we think are our weaknesses might actually be our strengths with the wrong shade of intensity and it is only in reflecting on our behaviors and the outcomes can we gain the knowledge about how to use those strengths more wisely in the future.  Even then we will still be taking risks, but perhaps with a higher probability of success.  The final problem being that we are also terrible at assessing probabilities.  Of course if we always did things based on the odds, we also might never try anything, and yet it can be easily argued that much of our progress as a species is the story of overcoming low probabilities of success through grit and determination.

In the end, it seems to be a truth (perhaps even one with a capital T) that we are always bound to make mistakes and have failures.  The good news is that if making mistakes happens to everyone then there really is nothing wrong with us as long as we continue to strive to be more than we are, and strive to make this a world where everybody has that same opportunity.

What Makes A Good Human?: Solitude

From http:///www.markg.com.au

The last in this series, comes late for several reasons. For one, I am Poland, and have been enjoying my vacation. But largely it is because this last quality has needed many if not all of the things I am going to talk about under this heading. The time change has left me less than well rested and it has taken about a week to really feel like myself again. It has taken also some time for me to find enough time to myself, in which I haven’t needed to take care of my son, and haven’t been surrounded by family. My in-laws live in a small apartment and it has felt uncomfortable for me to spend a lot of time writing around others. Finally it has taken a lot of thought, deep thinking, introspection and perhaps a little creativity to nail down what I wanted for this last quality. It also took some humility as I had to bounce this creation off my wife because I was rather unsure if I had a cogent post here or whether I might need to make a 9th quality. What I thought was going to be my 8th quality changed as I realized there were other things that I wanted to write about that I felt were linked together but unsure how. And there may be some debate as to whether or not I was successful here putting all of these under the same umbrella.  In the end I’ve decided the number of qualities isn’t as important as saying what I wanted to say. My wife also told me that I was quite clever in my solution to the final quality being solitude. She almost never tells me I’m clever even when I think I’m being clever so that has me feeling really positive about this post. 🙂 With that said, let’s delve into solitude.

I am going to break this down in a more organized way, but let’s talk about some general things first. You might first think that, “Hey aren’t we humans social animals? You’ve been going on a lot in this series about how we can all better get along and have empathy, so why should solitude be so important?” If you’ve raised a child you of course have seen the changes from a baby still thinking it’s in the womb and not knowing it is separate from the mother, to a slow buildup of a sense of self. From then on as parents we try to help the child along to develop a sense of independence. To sleep alone, to be able to do simple physical tasks and to enjoy playing on their own as they gain more and more self-sufficiently. And as a child I remember not only being proud as I could do more things on my own, but actually growing to appreciate and like having time to myself, free from responsibilities to anyone. It seems to me that everybody, no matter how social they might be, to be healthy, need some alone time. Healthy relationships often aren’t ones where both people spend every single moment together, but where each have some hobbies and things that they like to do on their own. Everybody needs their space. What we do in this solitude varies and I am going to talk about 3 different facets of solitude that I think are all important, and I do think have a common thread. So let’s begin:

Creation

It takes a little more humility to mention that I owe this important aspect of solitude to my wife. I am not an overly creative person, but when she mentioned the importance of solitude to the creative process I realized she was right. While artists and musicians certainly collaborate, the initiation of that creative process is usually done alone and then ideas are bounced back and forth with those that are collaborating. Walk into any museum and count how many pieces in that museum have more than one artist listed there. You won’t find many. How many of your favorite novels have multiple authors on the front cover? How many of your favorite poems are written by more than one person? We may be inspired by others when we create, but ultimately what we create is done I solitude. I also don’t want to arbitrarily separate the arts and sciences, it is just generally more easily seen in the arts. Collaboration and feedback is a very important part of the scientific process, but often the vision and inspiration that starts a new idea is formed through thinking in solitude. Scientific history is littered with important scientists whose vision and inspiration excited the scientific community and progressed their respective fields forward. My blog posts are often inspired by conversations, articles or books.  However it often takes some solitude to think about what I want to say and write. Even if during that process I talk it over with others as I have done with this blog post, in the end solitude has played an important part in the creative process.

Recharge

Regardless of the seemingly infinite things we can think of to do, we are sadly quite finite creatures. Our time and energy have limits and many of us are constantly trying to get the most amount out of our day and not getting enough down time. I’ve already discussed the importance of play, and certainly this is important in reducing stress and giving us more strength face to the challenges of life, but there is also the simple act of rest. Resting your muscles and resting your mind. One of the ways we do this of course is simply through sleep. I know few people who don’t love a good night’s rest, and more and more I hear many people wishing they could have more (including myself). According to the National Sleep Foundation, we aren’t getting enough, and this leads to all sorts of problems such as increased weight gain, loss of focus, anxiety, and overall being less efficient as we could be. Whether you are sleeping with someone or not, sleeping is an activity that is done in solitude. It is your time to be unconscious and recharging your “energy cells” and freshening the mind. Getting better sleep may give you less waking hours in the day, but chances are you will be more focused and efficient during those hours such that time will not be lost and may actually be gained.

Meditation

Sleep, however, is not the only way in which we can rest and recharge. One of the other ways in which we can gain energy is through meditation. Now meditation can be defined in a number of different ways, but all of them have benefits and I will talk a little bit about them throughout this post, but for now when many people think of meditation they think of some bald headed person in a robe sitting down in a lotus position and saying ‘om’ a lot, and I admit I used to be from this camp too at one point. And that type of meditation is beneficial, as it clears the mind and rests the body. By focusing on sound, or your own breathing you can rest and recharge. Recent studies have shown meditation to actually change the brain in a positive way.  Daily meditations may also simply involve sitting on your patio drinking a cup of tea while you look at your garden, going on a walk as you take in the sights and sounds of the moment, and it can also involve repetitive activities such as exercise. Repetitive actions keep you focused on the task at hand keeping you in the moment. Exercise is one of the better ways to do this of course because you must focus on the movements and muscles needed to perform the task and this is actually restful to the mind as much of the clutter and stresses of our everyday life can fade away. The well-known “runner’s high” is a good example of this. Of course when you first start to exercise this may be difficult as your body adjust itself to the activity as you may actually experience a lot of pain and/or be uncomfortable and this can be distracting. But this is why meditative activities require regular practice. You aren’t going to be good at it right away and the health benefits take time to come to fruition. I feel that one of the hardest things for people who begin to exercise is they never push through the phase in which it is painful, and tiring as they find they have less energy. But it does get better, and I’ve seen it happen for myself and for others.

If you exercise at a busy gym, or listen to music while exercise this may actually diminish some of the meditative aspects of the exercise as you may start to focus on other things and become distracted. I’ve seen many people pause their treadmill just to text somebody and so I doubt they are getting much of the meditative benefits of exercise, but exercise is still good of course. Being physically healthy gives you more energy and helps you recharge more effectively. Being physically tired is also an aid in getting better sleep which is important as mentioned above. Silence is also a helpful part of the meditative process. Of course complete silence is difficult, but relative quiet may help you pay attention to sounds you don’t often notice like the sound of your own breathing, the babbling of a brook, or the twitter of birds. In previous posts I have talked a lot about the importance of being in the present and this is the one the great advantages of meditation. We can’t always be serene and peaceful, but taking time out of our day to quiet the noise of our everyday lives is important and is something we do in solitude.

introspection2The dictionary also defines meditation as continued or extended thought, reflection and contemplation. This is the sort of meditation I do a lot. For better or worse I suppose as I am frequently lost in thought unaware of what’s  going on, which is bad for activities like driving, or paying attention to your spouse when she is talking to you. This type of meditation is our natural scientist at work. Whether we are reflecting on our own actions, searching through the past for understanding, issues of the day, or just things that we’re learning, thinking deeply about things is a positive activity.  It is our way of helping us see how we can do things better in our lives (humility), what changes we like to make about ourselves (courage), what questions we still have and thus areas we need to understand better (curiosity), trying to understand the actions of others (love/empathy), or setting aside our worries and stresses about future events (faith). In the scientific method it is the final stage that allows us to make adjustments to our original hypothesis and form new ones. Thus our introspection, outrospection, and contemplation ensures that we continue to grow and change in an ever changing world. We may even may take time to plan activities that are both fun, and those that help us better have time to ourselves (play and solitude). And meditation like this and what I described above is something we should try to do every day (vigilance/perseverance).

These meditative activities are all performed in solitude. Even if we don’t get much alone time during the day, 15-30 minutes of meditation can be an important part of good health and if needed, keep the creative juices flowing. If you are constantly surrounded by people your only time for this might just be a nice long shower, or a satisfying crap on the toilet, but in all likelihood you appreciate that time to be alone with your thoughts. Mix that all in with a good night’s sleep and conquering the day may not be seem so daunting, even if it isn’t easy. The amount of solitude that everyone needs for a good sense of well-being I’m sure varies, but I think it’s important that we try to give ourselves that time if possible. In doing so we can gain increased feelings of serenity, understanding, and peace which will help us fight battles in the present instead of the impossible task of winning future ones. The dark side of solitude in the extreme is known, I’m sure, to all. We are a social species and whether you want just a few good friends, or be the life of a party we shine the most in the company of others. Few of us could live the life of a hermit.  We do best when we are cooperating, collaborating, and helping. Too much solitude can make us feel lonely, often worse is that feeling of solitude when surrounded by others. Like the other qualities the down side of solitude comes to fruition when we don’t practice the other 7 qualities in this series in some balanced way. And it is possible that what makes solitude good is some security in knowing that solitude isn’t our only option. That we have other treasured people in our life that we can depend on when we no longer wish to be alone.

This series has been long and if you’ve taken the time to read all of it, I do thank you, but I cannot sum it all up in just a sentence or two so I will have one more post in which I will try to take a more holistic view of them all, and take a critical look at how this intellectual exercise of mine doesn’t always mesh well with reality.