The Rationality of Seemingly Irrational Political Beliefs

When I was younger, I used to believe that the world was forever inching toward rationality. And to the extent that smart, rational people got involved in mainstream political systems, those systems would improve and become more rational.

That’s no longer something I believe.

In my old age, I now understand that irrationality is built into the system. I no longer am surprised by events that seem irrational or inexplicable in politics. Instead, when I see such an event, I try to look at those who may benefit from the irrationality and then observe what political alliances have caused that phenomenon to emerge. When you see a phenomenon that doesn’t seem to make sense, you know you’ve hit on something important.

Usually, seemingly irrational political phenomena emerge when a subgroup of the population sees its survival threatened by the development of a seemingly rational social order. And that subgroup creates a new political movement to subvert what many see as that rational political order. This isn’t about an isolated event or some sort of rare political phenomenon that is isolated to our times: rather, it lies at the very essence of politics.

Cronyism vs. Rationality

The ever-brilliant Kevin Simler recently wrote a blog post about crony beliefs – beliefs that aren’t about what’s true but rather what stands to benefit us personally. It’s brilliant (and long), but I recommend reading it in its entirety.

The part that struck me most was the following:

I worry that the social influences on our beliefs are sorely underappreciated. I, for one, typically explain my own misbeliefs (as well as those I see in others) as rationality errors, breakdowns of the meritocracy. But what I’m arguing here is that most of these misbeliefs are features, not bugs. What looks like a market failure is actually crony capitalism. What looks like irrationality is actually streamlined epistemic corruption.

In fact, I’ll go further. I contend that social incentives are the root of all our biggest thinking errors.

My summary of his piece goes like this: Cronyism and irrationality aren’t errors of the system that we might eliminate someday. They are features that are built into the fabric of the system itself. Or, perhaps more accurately, they are the system.

To give just one example, the United States recently elected a president who lost the popular vote in the general election, but won the office because of a construct that was created long ago called the Electoral College. This construct flipped the result of the election.

That’s not very rational. Why would we have such a system? The reason is that it’s an artifact of the cronyism of the founding fathers. The reason we have the Electoral College isn’t because it’s in the most rational way to choose a government official – it’s because it was the only way the founders of the country could convince the less populous states to join the union. Stated another way, it was a bribe made 230 years ago from larger population states to smaller population states to convince them to be a part of the union – and it still has massive political reverberations to this day.

Whenever I read an article about the stupidity of the Electoral College, it makes me chuckle.

Of course the Electoral College is irrational! Of course it makes no sense! But that doesn’t mean that it’s ever going to go away. The states that benefit from this quarter-millennium-old bribe understand its importance. And there’s no way they’re going to give it up.

The system is cronyism. Cronyism is the system.

The Fireman Problem

Here’s a fun game to play at a dinner party: Tell all of your friends that one of the biggest problems your local government faces is how much firefighters get paid. You might as well rip off a giant fart at the dinner table. Watch people squirm!

But here’s the thing: It’s true.

Fire rates and fire death rates in North America and around the developed world have plummeted over the last century. In the last 20 years alone, annual fires have decreased by 50% while the number of career firefighters has increased by 50%. If you talk to any firefighter about what they do on a daily basis, it has very little do with fire. Most firefighters spend the majority of their time as highly paid EMTs or coroners, attending to business that has nothing to do with fires. Almost all of their work has little or nothing to do with their preparation or training.

It would seem that our political treatment of firefighters is, on its face, irrational. We should reduce budgets toward firefighters and reallocate those budgets to different emergency personnel.

But, after 9/11, where 343 firefighters died in the worst terrorist attack in our nation’s history, what American politician is going to a run on a platform of reducing money to firefighters?

The answer is no one.

To do so would be political suicide. And so the negotiating leverage of a small subgroup of the population trumps the rational needs of society as a whole. No matter how noble any one firefighter or any group of firefighters are, it’s irrational to keep pouring money into fire departments. But it wouldn’t matter if we invented a fire-proof building material that forever prevented the possibility of fire – we’d still keep increasing budgets to firefighters year after year, because that’s what politicians need to do to get elected.

The fireman problem is one of many ways in which rational systems are subverted to urgent political realities. This happens in small ways that have marginal consequences (such as the firefighter example) and big ways that have the potential to destroy the system as a whole (the Weimar republic could be cited as an example). I could have cited prison reform, the national debt or pension deferral, but the reality is that irrational cronyism in politics isn’t the exception. It’s the rule.

(Remember this the next time you watch the Daily Show or John Oliver.)

The Below-Average American Problem

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the following is true:

Living conditions for near-average and below average-IQ North Americans and Europeans have been getting worse over the last 30 years. Also, living conditions for above-average non-North Americans and Non-Europeans have been improving for the past 30 years.

Imagine you’re an American living in Amarillo, Texas with an IQ of 80. Imagine you’re from the Philippines and you have an IQ of 120. If both were born in 1945, the person from Amarillo would have almost certainly had a much better quality of life than the person from the Philippines, despite falling at opposite ends of the talent-distribution curve. The sheer good fortune of geographic birth of the American would have been enough to overcome any talent differential. Now, if the same two people were born in 1990, with the internet, globalization, outsourcing, and overall improved technology, the person from the Philippines might have an advantage over the person from Amarillo.

[This isn’t to say that all supporters of the current president are below-average intelligence. There are some exceedingly intelligent fans of the current president. But it’s safe to say most his supporters are anti-free trade and anti-open borders — policies that most rational economists support.]

This example is a caricature of those that might be helped and those that might be hurt by globalism. It may or may not be true that life is better for the above-average Filipino compared to the below-average Texan. But what is certainly true is that a significant percentage of Americans do not perceive globalization or increasing world assimilation and cooperation as in their best interests. Whether or not globalization, open borders, and free trade are better for the country and the world as a whole, it is entirely rational for those that perceive it not to be in their interests to form a political alliance or political alliances to put an end to it.

This specific brand of cronyism may therefore be totally rational for some, even if it is not rational for our country as a whole.

Rational Systems Are Only Helpful If They Are Both Actionable and Beneficial to One’s Own Personal Survival

Now, imagine that someone were to invent a technology that 1) benefits society as a whole but 2) forever eliminated your chosen profession and permanently impacted your ability to earn a living going forward.

Under that scenario, it would be perfectly rational for you to join whatever political constituency made that technology illegal. Even if that political alliance had dubious connections to things you had previously found objectionable.

What’s more, our brains are trained to construct systematic belief systems that will help us survive, because survival is more important to our genes than the truth. We will incorporate into our thinking and promote whatever information and news will help keep us alive, whether that information is true or not. The distinction between real news and fake news, between opinion and advocacy, between rational and irrational, matters little when it comes to our lives and our status in society.

This isn’t a “left vs. right” phenomenon. It’s an “us vs. them” phenomenon. As long as there are advantages to be gained from acquiring power and influence, subgroups will ally with each other to promote ideas that are in their own interest, but not in the national interest. And in the process they will acquire whatever irrational beliefs they need to form an alliance that will help them obtain that power.

That’s how it has always been; that’s how it always will be.

Goals vs. Streaks

There’s a popular story about some advice Seinfeld once gave to a young comedian who asked him tips on how to become a better comedian.

According to Seinfeld, the way to become a better comic is to write a lot of jokes. And the way to do that is to write every day. So Seinfeld told him to buy a calendar.

He said for each day that I do my task of writing I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain. Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.”

Great advice.

Most people around the New Year like to make resolutions, which are another way of writing down goals. But in my experience goals rarely translate into change. Change comes from consistent action in the same direction: habits.

A few days ago I compared habits to holes. Digging a hole isn’t about planning or writing down a schematic for how to dig a hole. It isn’t about goal setting. It’s about digging consistently in the same direction. And the best way to take action in the same direction is to create a streak.

Streaks are better than resolutions or goals, because they turn into habits, which unlike goals actually have the power to transform our lives.

Streaks are better than goals for a host of reasons. To give one example, streaks are entirely within our control, whereas achieving a goal is often not within our control. You can’t predict the future and you can’t control the world around you. If you set a goal of running a 2:45 marathon and you do months of preparation to commit to the task, you still might not get there. It might be windy that day. Or maybe you get injured in training. Or maybe you’re just not physically able to run a 2:45 marathon (that is pretty damned fast). Goals are a combination of a plan for personal resolution and wishful thinking. Get the wishful thinking wrong and you’re liable to question your personal resolve, often unfairly.

Which brings me to my second point: Goals imply that we’re not yet good enough. I’ll only be worthy of self-respect when I run a 2:45 marathon or make $10 million dollars or own a vacation home in Costa Rica. That’s bullshit. A vacation home in Costa Rica doesn’t make you a good person. Being kind and considerate to people around you makes you a good person. Have you ever heard someone say, “he’s a really great person, he owns a second home in Costa Rica”? No. You can be a terrible person and have a second home in Costa Rica and you can be a terrible person and run a 2:45 marathon. In fact, many people are – exactly because they give arbitrary or materialistic goals priority to how they treat people.

Further, and perhaps most critically, achieving a goal may only be incidental to being the person you want to be. Achievement is overrated. Goals give us arbitrary targets for where we’d like our lives to go. Whereas streaks are a daily manifestation of our values put into action. If you consciously think about what’s most important to you and do it every day, it shouldn’t matter whether it’s windy or whether everything happens according to your plan. You can’t control whether your son or daughter gets in to Princeton, but you can commit to eating dinner with your family every day without interruption or distraction. The former is out of your control and may be incidental to your qualities as a parent; the latter is entirely within your control and a reflection of your commitment and attention to them.

A few warnings about streaks: I think it’s important to take them seriously but not too seriously. I like to think of them like those Tibetan sand mandalas. It takes work, concentration, and discipline to create one. It feels good to make something go for a while. But streaks like all things must come to an end. When the time comes it’s ok to let it go and start over again. Maybe you write every day but then you go on vacation. Maybe you eat dinner with your family every day but you have the occasional business trip.

Also, streaks can turn into a negative force if you resolve to have too many of them. If you have 15 streaks, you’ll end up chasing streaks your whole life. Don’t let habit-obsessiveness gets in the way of appreciating life’s quiet moments.

Finally, for me, streaks aren’t about absolutism; they’re about creating patterns for healthy habits, however that makes sense for you. For example, I have a long streak of having no more than one alcoholic drink in a day. The streak isn’t about having no alcohol – it’s about not consuming to excess. It might be reasonable to pick a diet plan with a cheat day. A streak can be to do something four times a week, if that’s what’s best for you. Cultivate momentum and healthy habits, not obsessiveness.

Ultimately, streaks are about creating momentum for habits – unbullshitable, real habits where the values we claim to have shine forth in the actions we take every day. That’s far more important to me than any arbitrary milestone for achievement ever could be.

The Hardest Questions

I recently finished When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, one of the most popular and highly reviewed books of last year. It’s a first-person account of the author – a 37-year-old Stanford neurosurgical resident – and his premature death. It’s a book about death and dying, but with a twist.

For me the most interesting part of the book – and what I would argue was the real underlying theme of the book – was the tension between Kalanithi’s intense, gratification-delaying work ethic and his desire to live as well as he could in the last remaining moments of his life.

There were a few passages that stood out to me.

In the fourth year of medical school, I watched as, one by one, many of my classmates elected to specialize in less demanding areas (radiology or dermatology, for example) and applied for their residencies. Puzzled by this, I gathered data from several elite medical schools and saw that the trends were the same: by the end of medical school, most students tended to focus of “lifestyle” specialties – those with more humane hours, higher salaries, and lower pressures – the idealism of their medical school application essays tempered or lost. As graduation neared and we sat down, in a Yale tradition, to rewrite our commencement oath – a melding of words of Hippocrates, Maimonides, Osler, along with a few other great medical forefathers – several students argued the removal of language insisting that we place our patients’ interests above our own. (The rest of us didn’t allow this discussion to continue for long. The words stayed. This kind of egotism struck me as antithetical to medicine and, it should be noted, entirely reasonable. Indeed, this is how 99 percent of people select their jobs: pay, work environment, hours. But that’s the point. Putting lifestyle first is how you find a job – not a calling.)

(emphasis mine)

Not exactly your typical “gather ye rosebuds while ye may” book on death and dying.

Here’s another:

Now the time of the day means nothing, the day of the weeks scarcely more. Medical training is relentlessly future-oriented, all about delayed gratification; you’re always thinking about what you’ll be doing five years down the line. But now I don’t know what I’ll be doing five years down the line. I may be dead. I may not be. [KRM note: He died less than a year later]

One more:

Kalanithi’s Doctor: I can only say that you can get back to surgery if you want, but you have to figure out what’s important to you.

Kalanithi: If I had a sense of how much time I had left, it’d be easier. If I had two years, I’d write. If I had ten, I’d get back to surgery and science.

Kalanithi’s Doctor: You know I can’t give you a number.

The book – and that last discussion in particular – is an intense microcosm of one of the hardest questions many of us face when deciding how to allocate our time. To what extent should we plan, save, and prepare for the future and to what extent should we emphasize living well today?

My preference is to do as much of what matters now – not to plan too far ahead. Kalanitihi chose the opposite and his choices were reflected in the quality of his career, while it lasted. Still, the tone of the book has him embracing life as well as he could for as long as he could. He and his wife chose to have a child in the year he died. And so the forward-thinking mentality still seems to have won out in him – even as he was dying with terminal cancer.

I must say that I feel a tinge of envy when I read Kalanithi’s words. I don’t regret having chosen lifestyle over career. But I also know that my career arc is probably not what it would have been had I chosen to prioritize career over lifestyle. As I meditate on what makes a life worth living, I understand that the trade-offs are real. That every time I play in the mountains I’m not working on an academic paper. That every time I walk with my dogs or meditate or write for this blog with almost no audience I am not advancing my career. That there are those who are working harder than I am and will likely be rewarded with more interesting and stimulating intellectual challenges as a result.

I have come to accept these facts.

These truths were most obvious for me when I worked at the hardest and most competitive job I ever had. There, I quickly discovered that there was an inverse relationship between the quality of my work and the quality of my life. If I showed the most prestigious partners at the firm that I was willing to sacrifice weekends, vacations, and hobbies, I could outcompete other junior attorneys and be rewarded with the most prestigious projects. But I was rarely willing to do that: I consistently chose quality of life over quality of work. And I was often outcompeted and outperformed by more eager peers.

This tension is real. Life is competitive.

It’s easy to gloss over this when writing “gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” but the battle for subsistence is never-ending, and the race to achieve true excellence at the top end of what our species can do has never been more competitive. You can search for hacks and workarounds, but as a general rule, those who work the hardest earn the greatest rewards. But still, no matter what rewards you earn, the end result is always the same.

I don’t have a glib way to summarize or resolve this dilemma, except to say that finding a balance I suspect is a life-long process, and it varies from person to person.

So yes, gather ye rosebuds while ye may. Just know that it doesn’t pay. (But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it anyway.)

Me and My Pony

Most of us think that there is some thing out there – a new job, a second or third home, a new car, a million dollars, early retirement – some kind of “pony” that will bring us happiness. We’ll fixate on that thing and convince ourselves that it is the absence of that thing that is causing us to be unhappy. 

But, at the risk of ruining your Christmas early this year, let me tell you a secret: There is no pony.

When I say there is no pony, what I mean by that is that there is no thing or goal or accomplishment that can make us happy. There is no thing that will make our problems go away. There is no thing that will make all other things fall into line.

In other words, there is no pony. There is just life.

The pony is a red herring we use to distract ourselves and push off living to another day.

Don’t get me wrong. There are better and worse jobs. It’s great to have freedom to work or to not work. It’s nice to have good stuff. I’d love a billion dollars. But hedonic adaptation is a thing. If you ever get your pony, your level of happiness will soon return to where it was before you got your pony.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this “pony” theme lately. To the extent that I have had a “pony” in my life, I just got it. I just got the thing that I had always wanted. And when I got it initially the sensation was terribly unsettling.

For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to live in the mountains. I’ve wanted to be closer to nature, living in a house with windows that look out to nature, with trees and peaks and views that stretch out in every direction.

And now that’s my life. Earlier this month I moved to Salida, Colorado. I’m typing this blog post in front of a dozen windows that give me views in every direction. It’s great.

But when I first got here, I wasn’t able to enjoy it. At first, I was overwhelmed by a tremendous sense of dread.

What if this doesn’t work out? What if I screw it up and have to move back to a cramped apartment? What if I go broke because I can’t get clients here? What if? What if?

I had told myself I needed this pony to be happy and then when I got the pony I was nervous about losing the pony and that’s all I could think about.

And then this morning I finally got back to my daily routine. I woke up early. I meditated for 30 minutes. I ate breakfast. And then I started writing.

And for the first time since I moved to Salida I had a sense of peace.

It occurred to me that as much as I like living here, living in Salida is not what gives me peace. I don’t need my pony to make me happy. It’s not what we have that matters. It’s what we choose to do with each day that matters.

Meditation, writing, working, cooking, cleaning, running, getting outside, spending time with the people I love. All of those things are free. None of those things depend on where I live. I can do all those things whether I live in Salida or somewhere else. I can be happy with or without my pony.

I like my view. I love the mountains. I think living in Salida is going to be great. I’m glad I got my pony.

But I don’t need it. I don’t need a pony.

As Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Letting go gives us freedom, and freedom is the only condition for happiness. If, in our heart, we still cling to anything – anger, anxiety, or possessions – we cannot be free.”

As someone who recently acquired his pony, that sounds right to me. The only way to enjoy your pony is to always be willing to let it go.

Habits and Holes

Let me know if this sounds familiar:

In my younger days, I liked to make plans about habits that I wanted to break. The instinct to do this was particularly strong around new years. And sometimes in the moment of planning to break the habit, I would be doing the thing I wanted to stop. So I might sit down at my laptop creating a plan to moderate my drinking in between sips of a microbrew or a glass of red wine.

Perhaps not surprisingly, every one of those plans fell through.

Breaking a habit is like digging a hole. Planning isn’t all that helpful. The only way to dig a hole is to get busy digging.

And planning to break a habit while reinforcing the habit you’re trying to break is like shoveling a huge pile of dirt on the very spot you’re looking to dig. You’re going in the wrong direction.

And yet this is basically what we do when we make new years’ resolutions. We indulge in some habits while planning to develop the opposite habit. We build a hill on the spot we plan to dig a hole.

You can dig a massive hole if you remove one bucket full of dirt from the some place every day 1,000 days in a row. But if you shovel five buckets one day and put 8 buckets back every other day, then you’ll end up with a hill instead of a hole, even though you’re doing a lot more work than the first person. And if you dig for five days in a row and then abandon your hole for a month, nature will undo most of the work you’ve done.

If you want to change a habit, you don’t need a new plan or a new year. You just need incremental and consistent movement in the same direction.

Right Here Problems

Right here problems.

They’re right here. Right now. And most of the time, the solutions to those problems are here and now, too.

But if you’re like me, you like to go looking for other problems. For big problems – for glorious and existential problems. For world-scale problems.

If we only worried about our own problems in the here and now, our lives wouldn’t be all that complicated. Eat when I’m hungry. Drink when I’m thirsty. Take medicine when I’m sick. Help others with the same.

But our minds like to solve all problems, not just problems in the here and now. So we worry about political happenings thousands of miles away. We worry about mistakes we made 20 years ago. We worry about problems we might have 20 years from today.

That’s a lot of problems. We churn and gnash and agonize over problems that aren’t here and now. We worry that we’ll never be able to solve all those problems. And we’re right. So we don’t have peace of mind.

I need to be better about understanding that there are enough problems right here and now. I don’t need to go looking for other problems.

But I do anyway.

We might not be able to the fix the world’s worst political problems thousands of miles away. But every day, we choose how we treat people around us. We can control how we talk to our spouse and how patient we are with the cashier at the store and how we react to the people driving around us in traffic.

I use my inability to change the worst behavior of others far away as an excuse for my own worst behavior right here and now. But my road rage is no different than bombings and killings in Aleppo; my temper at its worst is no different from those angry and vengeful spectators at a nativist political rally.

The only difference is what I can control.

It’s much easier to focus our attention on problems that are other people’s fault. They’re everywhere. It’s not hard to find them on tv or online. Other people’s problems are available on demand.

But the more we focus on far-away-people’s problems, the less attention and energy we dedicate to our own and those around us. And the less attention we give our immediate surroundings, the more we tend to neglect the needs of those around us. We self-righteously proclaim our anger at injustices in remote corners of the world without bothering to perform simple kindnesses for those we see every day.

What makes us think we can solve big problems far away if we cannot resolve simple problems right here?

Right here problems are enough. I have the rest of my life to spend working on them. And that’s exactly how much time I need.

Life at Zero Speed

I live near Washington Park in Denver, Colorado, known as Wash Park to locals. It’s a beautiful park, with a running trail that circles the perimeter. It’s probably the best place to run within Denver city limits. I’ve lived near Wash Park for nearly seven years, and I’ve averaged 30-50 miles a week throughout that time. The trail is only 2.5 miles around though so when you’re running more than 15-20 miles a week and the majority of your miles are in that park, you end up doing a lot of loops. I’ve literally run thousands of loops around that park.

So for me running in Wash Park can get a touch repetitive.

About five years ago I started listening to books on tape on my daily runs around Wash Park. I’ve been running for 27 years, and I’ve never really listened to music or headphones on my runs. Running was its own activity. Being alone with my thoughts was the whole point. But I figured with runs around Wash Park, I wasn’t experiencing much new. So I started listening to books on tape.

And then I started listening to books at an accelerated speed. Most narrators speak slowly, and since the point of reading a book is to process information from it, I figured the faster the speed, the more I’d learn. Most of the time I’d listen at 1.5x speed, but I even experimented with 1.75x and 2x. I figured I’d miss a few things at those speeds, but I’d listen to more books – so the aggregate information I’d process would be higher.

Most recently, I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Zen. The main crux of Zen philosophy is to not allow one’s mood to be affected by life’s ups and downs. But the process to go about accomplishing this is to live a simple, rigorous life where each action is the subject of complete focus and attention.

It didn’t take much reflection to realize that listening to books on tape at an accelerated speed on my runs was not consistent with a measured, concentrated, and fully focused life.

So I stopped listening to books on tape. And now when I run, I just run. One day, I’ll focus in on the sounds of the day. The sound of my shoes as they hit the trail. The geese raising a ruckus. The humming of cars around me. The clickety clack of construction in all directions.

The next day I’ll focus on the sights. The white and grey half-frozen lake. The thousands of leaves crumpled and decaying and shifting with the wind. The naked trees with ever-smaller twigs branching off into hundreds of directions.

It’s made me come to appreciate again the park I’ve run around so many times before.

Run run. Sit Sit. Stand Stand. Don’t wobble.

I’m trying to make this my new focus. If there’s one goal I have every day, it’s to do only one thing at a time. When I eat, just eat. Don’t scroll on the phone or iPad. When I sit down between activities, just sit down. Don’t pick up the phone and read some random article.

I’m not missing out on life because I’m not constantly connected to new information. The opposite is true. I’m missing out on life because I feel the urge to be constantly connected to remote and distant events. Life is immediate. Life is what is in front of me. That’s the only life.

If I’m watching TV and surfing the internet at the same time, there is a good chance that neither activity is worthy of my attention. Better to do neither. Or better yet, do nothing.

You can have all the information in the world, but if you cannot focus on the present moment, it won’t make your life better.

Life is better at zero speed.

Ambivalence to Achievement

Most books and articles on self-development follow a common theme. The theme is something along the lines of: “17 steps to happiness, wealth, and good looks.” There are some variations on the 17 steps and there are some variations on the ultimate rewards. But the theme of steps and rewards are pretty consistent.

“Do A, B, and C, and you’ll get X, Y, and Z.”

My approach these days is a little different. My approach is, “Stop thinking you need X, Y, and Z, and you’ll be ok.” Maybe you won’t be handsomer or richer, but maybe you’ll realize that kind of stuff doesn’t matter. If you’re reading this blog, then you probably already have way too much stuff. And you don’t need more stuff to be happy. You just need to realize – and keep top of mind – that more stuff is not where happiness lies.

So, too, with accomplishments and achievement. Accomplishments and achievements are like trophies for the ego. They are our internal way of telling ourselves that we are creatures of worth that matter in the universe. If we accomplish more than our neighbors, then maybe our lives are more important. We want to matter – and by focusing our energy and attention on achievements, we work to establish ourselves as objects of primary importance in the universe. But perhaps the need to think we are better than others is the very source of our unhappiness. Dump the need to feel like we’re better than others, and the anxiety of feeling unimportant will go away.

I used to think that my intellectual achievements were what mattered most. And that I should outsource everything else I could afford to outsource. That I should focus my time and energy on writing and AI and law and not waste my time washing dishes or cleaning my house. But now I’m not so sure. I think that a full day spent cleaning can be as meaningful as a full day spent writing, if it’s done with full attention and purpose. That cleaning my house is as important as winning an award. Or perhaps there’s no difference.

I’m trying to move from a philosophy of aspiring to achieve more to one of aspiring to achieve less. Or – better yet, a philosophy of ambivalence to achievement.

Metarules for Games

[Note: If you don’t like strategy games, this might seem a little esoteric. I personally feel that this post also has broader life-strategy implications. But that might be wishful thinking on my part.]

I play a lot of games. I believe that we are in a golden age of games, and that these games – in contrast to watching TV, surfing the internet, or other forms of passive entertainment – provide a rich opportunity for engaged and healthy social interaction.

Learning a new game follows a pattern not unlike the pattern of a person’s life. You start out clueless and helpless, without any idea of what to do or what to expect. You don’t know the language or rules of the game. You pick up things bit by bit. You learn the rules, and then you start to learn the strategy. If you play against someone who has played before, you will probably lose. But then you build your own unique mental model of how to survive and thrive in the game. And then it becomes fun. Sooner or later, you win. And then you lose again. Rinse. Repeat.

I’ve followed this process enough times where I’ve started to think about whether any of the lessons I’ve learned from some of the games are applicable to all or most of the games. And I think the answer is a qualified yes.

The following list is my attempt to summarize such a set of metarules for all, or at least most, games. Here goes:

  1. There is no such thing as a universal strategy

The first metarule in gaming is that there is no such thing as a universal rule of gaming.

This may seem a little Zen-koan-like, but I believe it to be true. No game that’s worth playing allows one strategy to dominate all the time. In any game that is better constructed than checkers, Connect 4, or Monopoly, there will be no universal strategy. If there were a universal strategy, there would be no point in playing.

There are simple strategies in chess that allow you to win a match in as few as four moves. But if your opponent has even a basic awareness of how to play, that strategy won’t work. There are more sophisticated starting moves that can put pressure on any weak opponent, but those strategies aren’t capable of ensuring victory in competitive tournaments for 6 year olds. To get good at chess, you need to develop a rich set of mid-to-late game strategies. And all are subject to variations, mistakes, and exploitation at the hands of strong opponents.

There is no universal strategy, which creates an inherent uncertainty and variability in all well-constructed games. It is a necessary component of the game-playing process.

  1. If your opponent knows your strategy and is prepared for it, you’ll increase your chances of success by adopting a new strategy

This ties in to the first point. As soon as your opponent knows a strategy, they’ll be prepared, and they’ll likely adopt one of two approaches to react to your strategy. Either they’ll copy your strategy, or they’ll counter your strategy. If they copy your strategy, then your strategy no longer provides a strategic advantage. The winner will be determined by the whimsies and circumstances of the game – turn order, card order, or some other game feature.

If your opponent knows a good counterstrategy, then your initial strategy not only fails to provide a strategic advantage, it becomes a strategic disadvantage. Which is why, when you realize that your opponent knows and is prepared for your strategy, that you should consider a new strategy.

  1. To win games against savvy opponents, play everyone’s game as well as your own

First you learn the rules of a game. Then you figure out the strategy. But the only way to really get into the dance that makes a game rich and powerful is to keep in mind not just your own moves, but everyone else’s as well.

When one player is aware of not just his own moves but those of his opponents, it creates an enormous competitive advantage.

When all players learn this, it usually creates something akin to a competitive equilibrium (depending on the relative skills of the players and whatever randomness features make up the game).

  1. The player with the fewest wasted or inefficient moves wins

As players gain sophistication, games are more often decided not by error, but by which player has the most efficient strategy. What constitutes an efficient strategy varies from game to game, but in many games, you’ll find yourself in a position where you realize that the move you’ve just made was wasted, because a target objective was blocked off by an opponent and otherwise rendered not useful because of the conditions of the game.

In many games – such as Istanbul and Broom Service, two recent Kennerspiel des Jahres winners – it’s nearly impossible to avoid this fate. But in those games, and in many others, those who waste the least win the most.

  1. Find features that yield cumulative benefits early, reap rewards late

Albert Einstein is famous for saying, “Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. He who understands it, earns it … he who doesn’t … pays it.”

Many games have features that function like compound interest. Whether it’s a resource or option that you can acquire, it pays for itself many times over. In a game where the goal is to maximize potential based on constrained resources, if there is feature that functions like this, then that is probably the feature that will determine the winner. Almost without exception, the key to these features is acquiring them early. Examples of this include the resource cards in 7 Wonders and high-value plantations in Puerto Rico. Secure an advantage in the features of a game that have cumulative benefits early; prioritize that advantage over an early scoring lead every time.

  1. Sometimes the best move is no move

Most game players have an unshakeable bias for action on every turn. We’re only able to make decisions and take action during a limited percentage of the time we play in any given game, so when we have a chance to take action, that’s usually what we do. Yet many games allow for discretionary moves or allow for resource-building moves. And there are many games that offer rewards for those who exercise restraint and avoid mediocre moves in favor of fewer, stronger, targeted moves.

The popular Ticket to Ride is a great example of this. Weaker players aggressively lay track as soon as they are able. Stronger players often refrain from showing where they’re planning to go and gather resources until they are able to quickly construct a route, giving competitors little time to react.

  1. The only way to get better is to lose more than you win

When I was young, and when I first started playing strategy games as an adult, I was a terrible loser, prone to pouty behavior and tantrums. But as I played more, I grew more accustomed to losing. And the more you lose, the more losing is no big deal.

They are games, after all.

If there’s one rule to growth, it’s that regular and consistent losing is a necessary precursor to winning. Get used to being in over your head. Get used to feeling lost and confused. Get used to losing. Find everyone around who is good enough to beat you. Learn from the experience. And then when you find yourself winning more than you lose, find a new game. Find a new challenge.

When the process of learning and stimulating yourself means more than winning or losing, then you’ll enjoy playing, regardless of the outcome.

Today, I Will Make Myself a Cup of Tea

Today, I will make myself a cup of tea. And then I will drink that cup of tea.

I will spend twice as much time meditating as I usually do.

I will have to work. I have plenty of little things to do. Nothing major. That’s probably for the best.

I will go for a short run around the park at noon. I ran hard yesterday, so I will run easy today. My body needs rest.

I won’t spend time surfing online or reading about politics today. I won’t watch TV. I’m pretty sure those things won’t make me happy.

I have a client meeting this afternoon. I helped a man start a business last year. Now I’m going to go visit his business now that it is open.

I will walk my dogs before dinner. I will smile and greet everyone I see. I will try to be polite and kind to everyone around me. I think there are a lot of people that need to feel warmth right now. I will do my best.

After dinner, I’ll play guitar in my basement. And then I’ll read a book.

I’ve been reading Crooked Cucumber, a book about the life of Shunryu Suzuki, the man who popularized Zen Buddhism in the United States. It’s excellent.

I can control whether I make a good cup of tea or a bad cup of tea. And then I can focus on appreciating that cup of tea while I drink it. If I can focus on those two things completely, then maybe it bodes well that I can have a good day today.