Why We Do Better

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

In his essay on the wisdom of lifting barbells, Nassim Taleb applies the principle of tail risk to strength training. Our bodies get stronger not from the monotonous humdrum of routine activities (rising from bed, sitting in a car, sitting in the middle row at team meetings, walking to our car, etc.), but from exposure to infrequent extremes: lifting weight off the ground at the very edge of our muscular and skeletal capacity.

He uses the analogy of weight-testing a bridge:

“You will never get an idea of the strength of a bridge by driving several hundred cars on it, making sure they are all of different colors and makes, which would correspond to representative traffic. No, an engineer would subject it instead to a few multi-ton vehicles. You may not thus map all the risks, as heavy trucks will not show material fatigue, but you can get a solid picture of the overall safety.”

Frequent, trivial insults chip away at a system (low back pain, carpel-tunnel, etc.). Rare, intense shocks may strengthen them.

For the past decade, Millennials have faced a glut of minor knocks but, outside of the 2008 U.S. recession, relatively few cultural hammers. Despite being the savviest participants in social media, the most connected and technologically capable, and having the broadest access to education and global impact, commentators describe the average Millennial as sheltered, anxious, and timid.

It makes sense that a generation insulated from failure and conflict would popularize the concept of microaggressions: frequent, trivial insults that chip away at self-esteem and dignity. And, like a overactive immune response, the battle against microaggressions has not strengthened Millennial political or social clout.

To the majority of voting Millennials, the election of Donald Trump was a tail event: an unthinkable catastrophe, an existential threat made concrete.

A macroaggression.

What if that was exactly what the generation needed? An extreme event that would organize, mobilize, and strengthen the entire system? What if the most connected, most educated generation was also the most politically engaged?

We learn the most from the events we are least prepared for. Assuming, of course, that we survive the initial collision.

Why We Do Better

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. In the meantime though, there is a lot of fuckery.

If you find yourself waking up with a tightness in your chest, the grim ache of a gutpunch, or the simple fear of progress undone, then do not slide into dread.

In the morning light: breathe, stretch, and shake.

Breathe: Find a quiet room that you can sit in for 15-30 minutes today. Download and listen to a guided meditation. This one from Tara Brach is one of my favorites. You can also download the Headspace app, which explains how and why meditation improves our health with brief, adorable animations, then guides you through a 10-minute meditation. The app also offers themed meditations for topics like stress, anxiety, and sleep. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath. Pay attention to the sensations in your body. Listen to the moment unfold.

Stretch: Write down three things for which you are grateful right now. Do this every day. For support, get the Five Minute Journal, which provides a short, daily gratitude practice. Dread narrows our vision, contracts our muscles. In time, persistent dread paralyzes, like micro-doses of poison dripped into a morning coffee. We must reach past nihilism, which doesn’t serve us, which has never served. Research suggests that gratitude journaling improves mood, focus, and progress toward personal goals. On some days, finding something you are grateful for will feel like a stretch. That is exactly what we want. Stretching makes us mobile.

Shake: Move. Get involved. Take a long walk. Ask questions. Find alternate perspectives. Listen more. Read more. Donate. Lend a hand. Misery loves inaction. If you feel sore, shake it out and get to work.

Breathe, stretch, shake. Each morning is an opportunity.

Why We Do Better

What happens when the narrative ends?

Since you were a kid, you told yourself stories: that your team was cursed, that you struggled with math, that you hated asparagus, that you needed to be polite, that you were the funny kid, that you were a romantic cynic.

And then, one day, the streak is broken. Your team wins. You ace the test. You try aspara bacon. You lose your cool. You stop telling jokes. You have hope – if only for a moment.

What happens then? It’s easiest to continue telling the same story as always. Yesterday was an aberration, an anomaly, the exception that proves the rule.

It’s harder to begin telling a new story: you aren’t the underdog, and from now on math and vegetables and cheesy love are all important to you.

What’s most difficult is to drop the narrative altogether. To stop character-building, to stop using the past to foreshadow the future, to listen to the moment rather than talk over it.

Why We Fuck Up

If it feels like we’ve collectively stood on the precipice of some such cataclysm for all your living memory, consider this observation by Machiavelli:

“The physicians say it happens [with] hectic fever, that in the beginning of the malady it is easy to cure but difficult to detect, but in the course of time, not having been detected or treated in the beginning, it becomes easy to detect but difficult to cure.”

– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

If you’re the first to see it, then they call you fringe, dangerous, deranged. And if most everyone agrees with you, you’re already doomed.

Crazy or doomed. We’re always on the precipice.

Why We Fuck Up

The distinction is not between hard subjects and soft subjects (which implies a degree of difficulty) or between technical and non-technical (which implies the necessity of technique), but between non-narrative and narrative disciplines.

Non-narrative disciplines operate deterministically, in the present moment. Mathematics, most physics (that we are aware of), programming, surgery, carpentry, casino games, and cooking, to name a few. Interpretation is irrelevant in these disciplines: what works, works, and what doesn’t, doesn’t. Properties can be mapped empirically. In fact, that’s the only way they can be mapped.

Narrative disciplines examine or manipulate the past, the future, or imagined worlds. They do not operate deterministically, no matter how badly we’d like them to – or how emphatically “experts” insist. They are not “subject to” interpretation; they are interpretation. Artists, historians, economists, chefs, social scientists, UX designers, and soldiers share this terrain.

The danger is when non-narrative practitioners mistake their field for narrative, and vice versa.

In the former case, we narrate – tell stories about – why a given outcome has occurred. We declare we have beginners’ luck because we won the first round. We invent deities to explain the drought. Or, we dismiss evidence when we cannot easily produce an explanation: chiropractic treatment must be quackery because we don’t see a link between spinal manipulation and chronic knee pain. Besides, chiropractors don’t even have an M.D. (certification being another type of narration)!

In the latter case, we apply rules and statistics to systems that operate under randomness. We invent categories of people, predict the behavior of “rational” actors, forecast the next war based on the previous one.  We are comforted when a man in dark rimmed glasses tells us we have nothing to worry about. His model has taken into account the past, and runs on very expensive computers.

In any case, we’re sure that this time we’ve finally figured it out. And then we get a rude surprise.

Why We Fuck Up

We find that the people most thoughtful about a given topic are also the people who profess to know the least about it it.

This heuristic is beautifully captured by Maria Popova in her conversation with Krista Tippett.

“As a culture we seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. And of course, knowing is the cessation of thinking. There is this epidemic of listicles – why think about what constitutes a great work of art when you can skim the twenty most expensive paintings in history?”

Just as we stop exploring once we reach our destination, when we decide that we know something completely we cease thinking about it. Our intellectual world shrinks and calcifies. Certainty is the border we draw between our curiosity and the teeming, tangled, ever-shifting jungle of reality. It is beyond these borders that Black Swans prowl.

Catalogue the list of things you know, and resolve to un-know them.