Having spent the better part of my life obsessing overwhatmakesagoodlife, I’m afraid that the high-level summary of what I have learned is: I don’t know. Sure, there is some data on the types of choices that are likely to make us more or less happy, but in general, when we think something will make us happy, we are wrong.
What’s more, there’s evidence that the very act of trying to make decisions about what will make us happy makes us even more unhappy. As Barry Schwartz argues in his book The Paradox of Choice, “[T]here is a cost to having an overload of choice. As a culture, we are enamored of freedom, self-determination, and variety, and we are reluctant to give up any of our options. But clinging tenaciously to all the choices available to us contributes to bad decisions, to anxiety, stress, and dissatisfaction—even to clinical depression.”
(Spoiler alert: when he gets to the taco place, they’re out of tacos)
We know we aren’t usually good at knowing what makes us happy, and we know that the very act of making decisions might make us unhappy.
It would seem, then, that our lives might actually be improved by eliminating many of the decision-making processes from our lives. By liberating ourselves from the responsibility to make decision after decision, we may be able to make ourselves happier. With that in mind, I’ve been performing a little experiment on myself lately.
I call it the “Random Life Experience Generator.” It’s basically just a process for introducing a certain degree of randomness into my life—and eliminating the need for making decisions in areas where my decision-making is unlikely to improve my life.
I have an app on my phone called “Pretty Random,” which is just a random number generator. Often, when I’m faced with a trivial decision, I assign each of the options a number, and then I let the app decide.
Et Voila! I’m making a lot fewer life decisions.
Sometimes it’s easy to apply the Random Life Experience Generator (RLEG), and sometimes it’s a bit more work. The RLEG works particularly well at some Mexican restaurants, where each of the plates has a specific number. It takes a bit more effort for something such as selecting the trails where I might run on any given day, as it’s required me to generate a list of all the trails I run and assign them a number. I’ve also done this with clothes, games, and meals.
From where to eat to what to order to how long to meditate to how long to run to where to run, the things I do every day, within certain parameters, are decided by a random number generator. This has had a bigger impact on me than what I would have expected. In a very good way.
Here’s a quick list of the benefits I’ve found:
Relinquishing control and letting go feels fantastic.
[T]o concentrate your mind on something is not the true purpose of Zen. The true purpose is to see things as they are, to observe things as they are, and to let everything go as it goes. This is to put everything under control in its widest sense.
We should find perfect existence through imperfect existence. We should find perfection in imperfection. For us, complete perfection is not different from imperfection.
Shunryu Suzuki and David Chadwick, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
When you see a menu with 50 items, there’s an inherent anxiety about trying to pick the best thing. But does it really matter if you pick what is objectively the best item on the menu? Not a bit. It’s just food. Your consumption choices don’t define you. As a handsome, wise man once told me…
Life isn’t about finding the world’s greatest taco. Whether you’re talking about your consumer choices or your random personal choices, happiness is much more about our reactions to life’s vicissitudes than constantly trying to control life’s vicissitudes. You can fret over every food choice and try to over-optimize for every second of your life, or you can let life happen, and just appreciate the experience as it occurs. I vote for the latter.
It forces you to be nimble.
Even when you do try to control things, life doesn’t always play along. Going into the day with the mindset that unexpected stuff is going to happen, and that you’re going to be ok with it, is just a good way to approach life. Because that’s how it is even if you do try to maintain the illusion of control.
You have life experiences you would not have had otherwise.
I had tentatively planned to go on a trip this fall to Zions and Bryce Canyon National Parks. But when I really thought about the trip, it didn’t seem that exciting to me. Perhaps because it was very similar to a number of other trips we had done recently (to Moab and the Grand Canyon). The scenery isn’t all that different from where we live now, an area with lots of majestic canyons. I’m sure it’d be a great trip, but the reason we picked it was because it was consistent with all the other things we had used to make all of our other routine life choices.
And this is just the issue. When you formalize your opinions, your preferences converge and start to result in redundancy in decision-making. The very act of randomizing your decision-making forces you into a wider variety of rich life experiences. The RLEG gets you out of your comfort zone and bubble. And I think that’s a good thing.
It gets you out of your ruts.
I spent the better part of my 20s buying, collecting, and learning to play a bunch of musical instruments. Banjo, mandolin, harmonica, bass, even the baglama saz. But over the years, I stopped playing most of them. I just got out of the habit.
But I got all the instruments for a reason. It’s fun to pick up a banjo or ukulele and be able to play. It’s a wonderful mental contrast to working as a lawyer, and I enjoy it. And in the last few weeks, I’ve started playing them all again. I’ve assigned each of my instruments a number, and then each day I have the RLEG decide what I’m going to play, and for how long (within certain pre-selected parameters).
I go into each day not having any clue what it will look like. I can’t know. It hasn’t been decided yet.
It frees you from the obsessive TripAdvisor, Yelp, Peak Taco mindset.
When I was studying abroad in college many years ago, one weekend I took my Eurorail pass and hopped on a train from Barcelona to Genoa, Italy. I had my handy Let’s Go guide, and I used it to pick a restaurant.
They had a list of options they recommended, but the one that stuck out to me was this restaurant that was tucked away in some remote, isolated corner of the city. The guide described the place as a local favorite, a tiny mom-and-pop shop unknown to the outside world.
And of course, when I got there, it was filled with tourists with Let’s Go guides just like me.
The tools and guides we use to shape our choices homogenize our lives and actually change the experiences we seek. It’s like a quantum physics observational effect that actually changes the result of the experiment itself.
The only way to get out of that trap is to stop using the exact same decision-making processes everyone else uses.
It’s just easier.
Setting your parameters, plugging in the numbers, and letting randomness decide what you’re going to do takes precious little effort.
Life is hard enough. Some choices matter very much and some don’t. By letting a randomizer handle some of the less significant life choices, I now have less mental load in my days. I just don’t waste any energy planning things most of the small things in my life any more. And I think that’s usually a good thing.
Humans weren’t meant to have perfectly designed lives.
Hunter-gatherers did not evolve in a world of 200 types of gelato, 25-row grocery stores, and 70-aisle superstores. Throughout most of human history, we ate what we could find. We did what we could do to survive on a daily basis. Which means most days we didn’t know what our lives were going to look like at the beginning of the day. We didn’t have an alarm clock and calendar guiding us on rigorous, inflexible routines.
Over-optimizing our lives is an inherently unnatural process. We’re meant to experience randomness, variation, excess, and scarcity. The RLEG replicates a tiny bit of that natural, inherent uncertainty.
It’s not about “peak” experience. It’s about diverse and richer experiences.
Some might say that this is just another way to make banal bougie consumption choices. But it doesn’t have to be about consumption at all. It can be about going to a different park with your kid. Or driving (or walking or biking) a different way home from work. Or about socializing with people you never would interact with otherwise. Going places that aren’t on your bucket list.
In general, it’s about living a life that isn’t already on what seems to be your currently pre-ordained path.
Of course, I don’t think it makes sense to try to introduce randomness into all aspects of life. There are some circumstances where it would be a very bad idea (hemlock for breakfast?!?). As an attorney, for example, I wouldn’t last long trying to practice law that way (random number generator gave me a 7, looks like we’re going to have to litigate!). And even when we do introduce randomness, best to do so within reasonable parameters (today I’m going to eat 13,000 calories). But I think that our culture is so biased toward personal choice and consumption and its deep connection to personal identity, that introducing some degree of randomness, however trivial, is healthy.
I’ve heard about some people who take this practice to extremes. The exact degree it might be helpful to you probably depends on the specifics of your personality and circumstances. But I’d encourage anyone who has made it thus far to give it a shot, even if it’s just in a few small things. I think most of us could use a little more randomness in our lives.
The Society for Uncertainty and Intellectual Modesty
I try to avoid dogma. But if there’s one thing I believe dogmatically, it’s that the amount of stuff we don’t know is much greater than the amount of stuff we do know.
The origins of the universe. The nature of consciousness. How to combine quantum theory and relativity. These are big and important questions that are fundamental to the basic nature of our existence. And even the smartest among us struggle to provide anything resembling a coherent theory. I’ve been studying philosophy since I was 15, but I’m not sure I’m much better at understanding these fundamental questions now than I was when I started. I have added some facts and vocabulary around these ideas, but it’s mostly just me reciting what others have told me.
It’s Sunday today, and so when I drove through Salida this morning, as would have been the case in just about any other small town in this country, I came across lots of people going to church. Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians.
I’m a non-believer, and so I don’t go to church. But ever since leaving the church as a young teenager, I have lamented the fact that non-religious groups rarely provide the community and camaraderie that religious groups provide. While I don’t miss going to church, at all, I certainly envy the fact that the religious have the communities that they do.
It’s hard to organize and motivate people to create a community around the concept of non-belief.
And so while I definitely don’t believe in any of the creation myths and anthropomorphic religious stories that have been explained to me, I would love to be able to create a community around the absence of stories. I’d love to be surrounded by a community of people who are comfortable accepting the fact that there is so much we don’t know, and that have the intellectual modesty to accept that there aren’t any easy answers. I’ve attended groups organized by non-believers before, but even those groups tend to be a bit certain and overconfident to me.
So maybe someday I will try to create a community centered around those who are willing to accept uncertainty. We can call it the Society for Uncertainty and Intellectual Modesty.
Something tells me that attendance might also be fairly modest.
If you read the DHH article, he details the work habits of eminently successful people, from Darwin to Dickens, who maintained a modest work schedule. People whose accomplishments were among the best in their fields, but who still had lives outside of work. Rabois basically said it is false that you can work smarter than other smart people. To beat the best of the best, you have to outhustle them.
I would argue that it’s facile to say that working more or working less is always a recipe for success. The right answer is more nuanced than that. It depends on the endeavor. It depends on the person. Neurodiversity is a thing and talent differences are real.
I’m a runner, and so I’m inclined to make runner analogies.
Runners often debate, “how many miles should I run a week?”
The correct answer is almost certainly, “the most miles you can run in a week without getting injured or sick, while maintaining high-quality workouts.”
Probably 95% of elite distance athletes run between 80-140 miles a week. To get really great at running, you basically have to run the better part of a marathon, every day, 48 weeks a year. If you don’t run this amount, there is no chance that you will be competitive with those who do. The odds of a Division I cross-country team showing up on the scene running 40 miles a week and then competing with all the other teams that run 80-140 a week are zero. It’s just not going to happen.
There are lots of talented, hard-working people. It’s false to think you can beat the most talented, hard-working people by working less than them.
I think this is Rabois’ point.
This isn’t the problem for most people, though. Most runners’ failure in developing their potential isn’t a debate over whether to run 80 or 140 or 200 miles a week.
Still, pushing the other end of the range is not a recipe for success, either.
For most human beings, running more than a marathon every day will lead to immediate physical breakdown, either in the short term, for most (citation needed), or in the long term, for others. For the few that it doesn’t have this effect on, most cannot adapt and recover from their hard workouts. This means that running this much volume, for nearly everyone, starts to become counterproductive. Running this much makes you slower, not faster. I have a number of friends who have run across the United States, basically running 50-mile days for 60 days in a row. But for all of this extra running, universally, they were slower after the effort, even after they had fully recovered.
The runners winning Olympic gold are running 80-140 miles a week, not 200 or 300 miles a week.
I think this is essentially DHH’s point.
Within the range of what elite athletes do is where all the science and nuance can be found. It’s not enough to say that more is better. Volume is correlated with performance, but there is a point at which that correlation breaks down. It’s not enough to say that less is more. The best athletes do workouts that would destroy most mortal athletes. And the best coaches are constantly tweaking to maximize performance of their best athletes. And if you want to know more, go read every book and paper about performance of elite distance athletes. And then you still can’t be certain. That’s the hard thing about trying to be the best in the world at something.
And, in that same vein, I suspect that the optimal amount of work for any given person is, “the most work you can do without burning out or losing interest in what you’re doing, while maintaining high productivity and efficiency.” But, of course, that’s also a totally unhelpful as a maxim for guiding anyone’s behavior.
The idea that you could prescribe the same work schedule for a person with ADHD as a person with OCD and Jeff Bezos and DHH is silly.
But, as with running, maximizing total potential isn’t the problem for most of us. As with runners and training, most of us never come anywhere close to reaching our potential with work. Most of us are running the professional equivalent of 25 miles a week. Checking Facebook at work, taking long breaks—just doing the minimum to get by or slightly above it. And, just as a weekend duffer running 25 miles a week will never outperform the best athletes in the world running 120 miles a week, in the same way, the odds of most people reaching the pinnacle of their profession is zero.
There is so much slack in most people’s schedules, that the question of what is the optimal amount of work isn’t really the relevant question. The average person over the age of 50 watches in the range of 50 hours a week of television. That’s pretty close to half of their waking hours. Younger people tend to gravitate more toward YouTube and internet-based entertainment, but total screen time numbers aren’t all that different from the old folks.
So yeah, so perhaps I am overstating it when I say that most people are doing the professional equivalent of 25-mile weeks. Most people are probably doing a fraction of a fraction of that.
A lot of younger, very accomplished knowledge professionals emphasize that extraordinary achievement is possible while working reasonable hours, as long you are militant in purging the distractions. Silicon Valley culture is heavy on instant messaging, co-working, and distraction-based work ambiance. I worked at one of the most prestigious law firms in the world, where people worked very long hours. I wouldn’t have said that the culture there was biased toward efficiency. But people certainly thought that they were working hard.
So on the one hand, you have DHH, Cal Newport, and Adam Grant that think extraordinary accomplishments can happen with a reasonable schedule. But these people are all notorious about their ruthlessness in eliminating distractions. And then on the other you have Jeff Bezos, Tyler Cowen, and Keith Rabois that have different expectations—that only by working the longest hours you can reach the pinnacle.
Who has the right answer?
I’m a genuine believer that most knowledge workers can earn enough money to live well simply by engaging in deep work and focus for three to four hours a day, consistently, over the course of their careers. There is evidence that after about four hours of deliberate practice a day, most people cannot maintain the focus necessary to perform at the highest level. But most knowledge workers fail to come even close to that number consistently.
And so, again, I think that 99% of the population is so far from working at peak levels, that the question of what is the optimal amount of work for top performance is easy: Most of us would perform much better if we did more deep, uninterrupted, efficient work.
And for those that are truly close to the pinnacle of their profession, I think the answer is more nuanced. The best running coaches don’t just make a schedule at the beginning of the season and stick to it unwaveringly for every athlete. They adjust to the person and to the circumstances. And so too the best and the brightest must leverage their unique talents and work habits in a way suited to their strengths.
There’s no simple formula for maximizing the potential of outliers among outliersacross all disciplines.
Of course, winning a gold medal in distance running at the Olympics is different from writing a best seller, which is different from starting a successful tech company, and which is different from being a happy and well-adjusted human being.
I would guess that the amount of total work volume required to start a billion-dollar business > to become a physics professor > to become a modestly successful entrepreneur > write a decent novel. But there are probably counter-examples for these and other fields.
What I think DHH is emphasizing is that sustainability of work ethic matters far more than short-term volume. A founder that kills himself for three years with a startup will not outperform someone who has the energy and focus to continue the momentum for a lifetime. And that you only live once.
Rabois’ point is that all things being equal, if two people with equal talent are competing in the same industry, the one who works harder will win.
I think that the debate over whether deep, concentrated work for less time can outperform long, hard work for more time can only be answered in a field and industry specific way. Deep work for modest total hour-figures might work for writing a novel but not for an aspiring billion-dollar startup. Reasonable amounts of deep work may enough to get you tenure, but will it get you a Nobel Prize or to IPO?
I suspect that it’s the total, efficient work hours over a lifetime that matter most. Life is an ultramarathon, not a sprint. And consistency over time matters. How you allocate those hours matters less than getting in the hours.
My emphasis, in terms of work ethic, is to try to eliminate waste. Also, to never retire. Get rid of the garbage time staring at your phone and surfing online. Get rid of the garbage time watching Game of Thrones reruns. Get rid of the garbage time being drunk or high for hours on end. If you get rid of the garbage, your life will be better off. Exactly how you allocate that extra time between working and resting I think matters less than getting rid of the pure, unadulterated waste.
 Keith Rabois, who initially rose to fame for yelling, “Faggot! Hope you die of AIDS!” outside a lecturer’s home as a first-year law student at Stanford, is a well-known venture capitalist for Khosla Ventures.
 DHH has invented a computer language; has built a hugely successful company; has written a New York Times bestseller, and has finished top ten at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, all before the age of 37. He’s also married with two kids. Alas, may I be so fortunate to be among such a Complacent Class.
 Also, 99.9% of athletes do not have the talent to compete with elite athletes, even if they do put in consistent 80-140 mile weeks. For a few good examples of this, read The Sports Gene, by David Epstein.
 To the extent that one’s body ever recovers from such an endeavor.
In Defense of Human Experience over Digital Information
And that man comes on the radio
And he’s tellin’ me more and more
About some useless information
Supposed to fire my imagination
I can’t get no, oh no no no
-“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – Rolling Stones
Reading about the latest presidential drama; checking the score from the game last night (or refreshing the score of the game right now); checking up on our fantasy sports team (or refreshing the score of our current fantasy sports competition); scrolling through our Facebook feeds, our Twitter feeds, and our Instragram feeds; visiting our favorite blog for the fourth time in the same day.
We crave information, in all its forms. Humans have always craved information. But what’s unique about our lives today is that there’s so goddamned much of it. So many ways to scroll, check, and refresh—all in search of different forms of digital information. Some of the information is from friends and family and loved ones. But most of it is from by people we either have never known, will never meet, or barely know.
The sheer volume of information we have today is so great that it is crowding out our actual experience of life. We spend so much time and attention on this information, that we experience life less. This post explains why it is so important for people today to constantly work to choose life over an endless stream of digital information.
As social creatures, we are wholly dependent on culturally inherited information to survive. This is as true for us today as it was for our ancestors. From the moment we are born, we are told what to eat, what to do, and how to live. Some of this information is literally a matter of life and death. This fruit is delicious and this fruit can kill you. This plant smells wonderful and this plant stings and will make you suffer for a long time. This snake is innocuous and this snake can kill you. And so on.
Information isn’t good and it isn’t bad. Information is just distilled human experience, shared and disseminated from one person to another.
If you have more and better information about where to find food and resources, you may live a longer and healthier life. There is no question that the right kind of information can lead you to prosper. And so it is logical that we should be programmed to seek out more and better information.
But just as our craving for sweet and salty foods are adaptive for hunter gatherers, but have been manipulated by modern food-makers to make us fat, so too has our adaptive desire for better information been manipulated by attention merchants to make us intellectual zombies. It’s just another form of hyperstimulus that we all poorly suited to resist.
And so for many of us, the sheer volume of information we consume is replacing our actual experience of life. Scroll, check, refresh, repeat.
But all of this digital information, it’s all just distilled and alienated human experience. All of this information is the copy of life. Your actual experience is the original.
Information is not life. Eating, drinking, swimming, playing, running, jumping, fucking, singing, smiling, breathing, laughing—that’s the stuff of life. Scrolling, posting, tweeting, browsing, watching, refreshing—that’s just a copy.
I say choose the original, not the copy.
Information is crucial to survival. But it is critical to remember that always and should everywhere, information should be subservient to the primary object of life—the cultivation, development, and appreciation of real-life human experience.
Last week I wrote about confabulations. This phenomenon is understood well and has been well documented in individual behavior. But perhaps it’s not emphasized enough in our collective behavior.
Every society has its own creation myth, for example. This phenomenon, on its surface, would seem to be a collective confabulation. This is a collective decision to explain something that happened in the past that didn’t actually happen. And such myths are a cultural universal.
This happens all the time. And It’s not just about religion. It happens in secular institutions as well. Some of you may be familiar with Robin Hanson’s essay about how, “Politics isn’t about policy.” Hanson’s writing is heavily focused on explaining “why we believe what we do, and why we pretend otherwise.”
Food isn’t about Nutrition
Clothes aren’t about Comfort
Bedrooms aren’t about Sleep
Marriage isn’t about Romance
Talk isn’t about Info
Laughter isn’t about Jokes
Charity isn’t about Helping
Church isn’t about God
Art isn’t about Insight
Medicine isn’t about Health
Consulting isn’t about Advice
School isn’t about Learning
Research isn’t about Progress
Politics isn’t about Policy
School is about learning social order, learning how to play by the rules, and it is the most common form of childcare. But it is also the place where most children do most of their actual learning. Much of charity is about the donor looking good and signaling virtue to their neighbors and community. But it is also the way that we tend to the needs of many of the least fortunate among us.
All of our collective myths include an element of reality from our actual experience to make them more credible. That’s what makes them all the more powerful.
Why It’s Best To Think of Explanations As Partial Fictions
If you asked someone why she bought a particular car, or went to particular college, or worked in a specific job, without hesitation, she’d give you a reason why:
“I’m a lawyer, because I like to read and write. I believe in the legal system and I know I can make a difference helping people defend their rights.”
But that explanation is probably wrong. Or, at a minimum, at least partially wrong. Not because the person who gave the explanation is a liar. But because we have no idea why we do what we do.
(Likely better explanation: it’s the most prestigious, high-paying job that I could get with good test scores, a philosophy degree, and no science background.)
As humans, we are at the same time terrible at understanding why it is that we do what we do and very confident in the quality of our explanations for why we do what we do. In short, people are very good at confabulations, but not so good at explanations. Fiery Cushman, psychology professor at Harvard, wrote an excellent synopsis for Edge about the ubiquity of confabulations. He wrote:
We are shockingly ignorant of the causes of our own behavior. The explanations that we provide are sometimes wholly fabricated, and certainly never complete. Yet, that is not how it feels. Instead it feels like we know exactly what we’re doing and why. This is confabulation: Guessing at plausible explanations for our behavior, and then regarding those guesses as introspective certainties. Every year psychologists use dramatic examples to entertain their undergraduate audiences. Confabulation is funny, but there is a serious side, too. Understanding it can help us act better and think better in everyday life.
Some of the most famous examples of confabulation come “split-brain” patients, whose left and right brain hemispheres have been surgically disconnected for medical treatment. Neuroscientists have devised clever experiments in which information is provided to the right hemisphere (for instance, pictures of naked people), causing a change in behavior (embarrassed giggling). Split-brain individuals are then asked to explain their behavior verbally, which relies on the left hemisphere. Realizing that their body is laughing, but unaware of the nude images, the left hemisphere will confabulate an excuse for the body’s behavior (“I keep laughing because you ask such funny questions, Doc!”).
Cushman goes on to explain that most of our confabulations aren’t quite so extreme as the ones we see in split-brain patients. If it were so obvious that all of us were going around telling each other lies that were on their face absurd, no one would believe anything anyone told them and our communication wouldn’t be very effective. We’d know we were living in a complete world of fiction.
Instead, rather than viewing all of our explanations as bald-faced lies, it’s better to look at all of our explanations for why we do what we do as partial fictions. There’s an element of truth to our conscious understanding of why we live our lives the way we do, and there’s an element that we either understand poorly or don’t understand at all. Consciousness touches on some of our real motivations, but swimming beneath the surface there is always more going on.
Our brains have evolved over 3.5 billion years. The most rudimentary forms of consciousness have only been around for less than 10% of that time. Conscious self-reflection – the type of awareness that makes us think of ourselves as humans – has only really been around for less than .1% of that time. Most of what makes our brain what it is comes from the older bits. The newer bits were layered on top at the end. So it’s natural that the conscious parts of our brain only really explain part of the broader story.
Running a race. Angling for a promotion. Thumbing through pictures of possible mates on Tinder. A game of bar trivia with friends. A political election. Two people talking over each other at a dinner party. Posting a blog on the internet. The search for the best pre-school for our children. Learning to play the guitar. Who eats how much and in what order. Cheering on our home nation at the Olympics. Cheering on our alma mater at the NCAA tournament. The clothes we wear. The cars we drive. The places we sit in meetings. The way we try to find the best home for our family.
What do all these seemingly different activities have in common? They are all different ways in which we seek out and claim status.
As social beings, status dynamics are the pervasive undercurrent of almost everything we do. Our lives are structured around a series of elaborately-constructed games that determine who has status in any given situation and who does not.
The rules that determine who gets status are complex and ever-evolving. Some status games matter very much (who has rights and who does not? how much does society value an hour of your labor?) and some status games matter very little (how fast did you do run the 10k this weekend?).
From an argument at a bar to a violent political rally, when you see a social conflict, think to yourself, who here is trying to claim status and from whom? There’s a good chance that the answers to those questions are easy to find. And there’s a good chance that when you find the answer, it will explain the conflict.
We rarely think of it in exactly these terms, but how we perform in status games, the strategies over which games we play and how, will be strongly correlated with many life outcomes, including wealth (citation needed), health, and even how long we live.
If you Google “status games,” the first few pages that come up are about improv comedy. It’s a well-established principle in improv that when you’re doing a sketch, everything works better if one person plays high status and everyone else plays low status. What this means is that one person leads the conversation and then everyone else goes along with what that person says. If everyone follows the leader and simply goes along with what she says, the trip down to the rabbit hole tends to be fun. But when another performer interrupts or changes the scene or competes for status, the conversation gets awkward.  Especially if the initial leader fails to cede high status.
And so it goes for other conversations. It’s easy to not notice this, but in almost every conversation, there is always someone who takes the lead and others who follow. If not, people talk over each other, and the conversation gets awkward and difficult.
Taking the lead in a conversation is a claim for status. If multiple people in a conversation are not at least temporarily willing to cede status, then the conversation turns into a battle of egos. In a healthy conversation among friends, peers take turns taking the lead in the conversation, sharing personal stories or experiences, and then listening while their friends do the same. Those that insist on telling their own stories without then ceding and listening to others’ stories tend to be more dominant – or at least think they are. In a conversation among status equals, taking on a dominant role is not socially acceptable behavior.
To demonstrate this point, researchers observed a series of Larry King’s interviews with famous celebrities. The researchers observed:
When Larry was interviewing someone perceived to be highly prestigious, Larry shifted his vocal frequencies to match his guest’s patterns. However, when he was interviewing those perceived to be of lower status than Larry himself, it was the guests who automatically and unconsciously shifted to match Larry’s frequency. Larry most strongly accommodated George Bush, a sitting American president, as well as to Liz Taylor, Ross Perot, and Mike Wallace, and a presidential candidate, Bill Clinton. Meanwhile, Dan Quayle, Robert Strauss, and Spike Lee accommodated to Larry. Sometimes neither person shifted to match the other, such as when Larry interviewed a young Al Gore. These conversations were perceived as difficult, perhaps because both individuals saw themselves as being higher status than their partner, so neither would defer.
Joseph Heinrich, The Secret of Our Success, How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (emphasis mine).
Like it or not, every human interaction is a status game. Most people defer to their bosses, parents, and prestigious members of their community. The opposite is true for subordinates, children, the elderly, and service professionals. Family dynamics are usually less structured and clear-cut, which is why you are much more likely to get into an intense screaming match with your brother or spouse than with another social peer. If you get into a screaming match with your teenage son, it’s probably because he’s trying to establish his place and you are trying to defend yours. Do the same with your boss and you’ll probably lose your job. Do the same with a cop or a judge and you’ll end up in jail or worse.
(If you aren’t interested in philosophy, skip to section III)
“All Models Are Wrong, But Some Models Are Useful”
Ludwig Wittgenstein was among the most important philosophers of the 20th century. For those of you unfamiliar with him, he has a heck of a life story.
But he’s most relevant to this discussion because, in the second half of his career, he mostly stopped trying to solve problems in philosophy. Instead, he adopted an approach that simply observed and commented upon what most people have considered to be philosophical problems.
The main tool he used to do this was the concept of what he referred to as language games.
I’ll defer to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to summarize how Wittgenstein used this tool:
Throughout the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein returns, again and again, to the concept of language-games to make clear his lines of thought concerning language…. ‘Regular’ language-games, such as the astonishing list provided in PI 23 (which includes, e.g., reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play-acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, thanking, and so on), bring out the openness of our possibilities in using language and in describing it.
Language-games are, first, a part of a broader context termed by Wittgenstein a form of life (see below). Secondly, the concept of language-games points at the rule-governed character of language. This does not entail strict and definite systems of rules for each and every language-game, but points to the conventional nature of this sort of human activity. Still, just as we cannot give a final, essential definition of ‘game’, so we cannot find “what is common to all these activities and what makes them into language or parts of language” (PI 65).
It is here that Wittgenstein’s rejection of general explanations, and definitions based on sufficient and necessary conditions, is best pronounced. Instead of these symptoms of the philosopher’s “craving for generality”, he points to ‘family resemblance’ as the more suitable analogy for the means of connecting particular uses of the same word. There is no reason to look, as we have done traditionally—and dogmatically—for one, essential core in which the meaning of a word is located and which is, therefore, common to all uses of that word. We should, instead, travel with the word’s uses through “a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing” (PI 66).
Rather than attempting to use this language-games model as a means of resolving all philosophical problems, Wittgenstein viewed this approach as creating a “means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.” (PI 133) By letting go of the illusion that we can resolve certain philosophical problems, because of the inherent vagueness of language and the amorphous structure of language games, according to Wittgenstein, we should simply try to let the problems go.
As with Wittgenstein’s model of language games, the first step to thinking through status games is to observe them. Simply gain awareness of when you are playing. Not every low status situation is so bad, and most institutions require more low-status contributors than high status contributors. Maybe you enjoy being an assistant coach, a non-lead member of a social group, or a junior employee at your firm and you don’t want additional responsibility. There’s nothing wrong with that. Most of us play low status much of the time, just to make things go smoothly. That’s what “please” and “thank you” is all about.
But perhaps there are situations where you have greater expertise than someone who is claiming high status. When do you claim high status? A few weeks ago I was at a dinner party, and a person at the party was saying all sorts of ludicrous and inaccurate things about the people of Barcelona. I lived there for three years, and so my instinct was to want to correct her. But this person was a bit of a know-it-all. Not the kind of person who cedes status in conversations easily. I’m fairly confident I could have made my point to the group and prevailed based on my superior knowledge and experience that I was right and that she was wrong. But given the context and the situation (it was, after all, a dinner party) that almost certainly would have reflected worse on me than on her. And so I said nothing.
But there are some moments in your life when it is critical to claim high status. When if you do not claim high status, you will become a doormat. While I might defer at a dinner party, there are certain professional situations, as an attorney, where I cannot defer and do my job properly. For example, on occasion, clients will disagree with my recommendations. There are some situations where I might lay out the options, make a recommendation, and leave it to the client to decide what to do. But there are other situations, where, if a client does not agree with my recommendation, I will terminate my relationship with the client. Because the risk of the situation going badly for them (and the firm) is sufficiently great that I am not willing to play low status.
One of the first concepts you learn in negotiating is the concept of BATNA. Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. What that means is that in all negotiations, you should always keep top of mind a firm point at which if the counterparty is not willing to give you what you want, you will walk away. If the counterparty won’t acknowledge what you perceive to be your true value and status, you will go seek that status elsewhere.
You have to carefully pick a few scenarios when you insist on playing high status – and accept that as a moment where you must be prepared for a confrontation.
Confrontation is what happens when two claim high status in the same situation. Either one cedes to the other, or the claim must be resolved in some other way.
I have a bird feeder outside my window. There, status competitions are in evidence every day. A little bird darts up to the feeder, peeks around, quickly grabs what it can, only to be chased away by a bigger bird, who is the then chased away by a flock of bigger birds, who then get chased away by our dogs. The titmice defer to the bluebirds, who defer to the juncos, who defer to the scrub jays, who defer to ravens and hawks. Rinse, repeat.
Chimpanzees and bonobos are very similar primate species – the two closest genetically to humans. They evolved on opposite sites of the Congo river, starting about a couple of million years ago when the river formed. The chimps’ social structure is governed by an alpha male that bullies rivals and competitors into following his lead, and the rest fall into line. The bonobo social structure is matriarchal, egalitarian, and highly affectionate and even sexual. If a single chimp from one troop wandered into another’s territory, it would almost certainly be gang-attacked and killed. The equivalent bonobo might be in for an orgy.
And so it is with different human societies.
We are not apes with a crystal-clear pecking order. Our status games are complex and ever evolving. What determines status is not universal across cultures or time periods or social groups.
Humans evolved through most of our history to keep high-status people in check. Throughout most if not all hunter-gatherer societies (which is to say, all of human existence until about 10,000 years ago), the hunter-gatherer band was fiercely egalitarian. Standing out as an alpha could lead to social shaming, peer rejection, banishment from the tribe (the result of which was likely death), and actual capital punishment. See, Christopher Boehm, Hierarchy in the Forest, The Evolution of Egalitarian Behavior.
So if bragging on social media (whether you are doing it or others are doing it), taking credit for a job well done, or acknowledging your own success makes you feel squeamish, it’s probably because we are hardwired to think that this is dangerous behavior. Because for most of human history, it was.
But there’s little question that most developed societies today reward active self-promotion. The same personality types that would have been banished from society or killed by the tribe a few millennia ago are the same ones living in mansions today. If you want to be survive and thrive today, you have to do the very things that we are genetically hardwired not to do.
So each of us must find the balance of which games to play when, and what status roles to choose. For many of us, to do anything other than playing low status all the time will make us feel awkward and uncomfortable.
There’s no single rule for how to resolve status conflict. Being aware of life’s conflicts and thinking of them as status games doesn’t solve problems with status. Nor does it make high status easier to achieve. Valuable status symbols, from an Olympic medal to a Tesla Model X, are by definition difficult to obtain.
But knowing about the pervasiveness of these undercurrents makes us better aware of our motivations for doing what we do. And knowing that our real motivations are more often related to status that we might initially admit. This awareness also helps us to think of life’s decisions strategically, which most people are terrible at doing. And for me, thinking of these life choices as games gives a certain lightheartedness and playful context to them.
I used to think that I didn’t care about any status games. That I chose jobs, clothes, colleges, cars, and friends not based on prestige or status, but based on substance. That I preferred quality of life over status. But the older I got, the more I realized that status games were happening all around me, whether I like them or not. That I had better participate in status games at least some of the time, or I would be completely ignored or rejected.
To ignore or reject all status games is to not participate in life.
There’s no getting around it, unfortunately. Perhaps you could argue that someone such as a Buddhist monk, someone who seeks to be invisible in service for others, has a life without status or hierarchy considerations. But even then, there is usually a monk in charge of the monastery. Someone had to buy or donate the land on which the monastery is located. There is status within the monastery based on experience or having attained satori. Thus, even for those who purportedly abandon status as a way of life, status games still arise.
The only real exception to status games is solitary confinement. Which has been shown to basically make just about any person go insane. We are designed to view our existence and understand our position in the world as it relates to others. While we often think of ourselves as independent persons who are capable of guiding our own path to self-actualization, so much of our self-conscious thoughts are guided by how we are perceived by and how we interact with others. (See, Others in Mind, Social Origins of Self-Consciousness, Phillipe Rochat). Our relative status with others guides nearly all of our thoughts.
Last year, I wrote a post that asked the question, “why are there so few high status threshold workers?” The post was about why high-status people were obsessed with working so much. You might assume that when someone had obtained lots of money, that they would be inclined to work less. But that’s not usually the way it goes down. There’s plenty of evidence that the people who can most afford to stop working or work less or retire are the ones who work the most. Those who have the most money and can most afford to retire are the least likely to do it.
Tyler Cowen explains this by saying, “it turns out, people like to work.” I’m not so convinced by that as a complete explanation. My theory is that the people who are obsessed with relative status never stop thinking about their relative status.
Lawyers are great for stories about relative status-obsession. Because in my experience, no profession is more status obsessed.
To quote a prior story from that post:
I remember when I first went to law school, the salaries of first-year lawyers were $125,000 a year at all of the major law firms (it’s now $180,000). To someone who had been accustomed to living well on 1/10th of that as an English teacher in Barcelona, this seemed an impossibly large salary to me. One of my best friends in law school, though, was from New York and had many friends who had already been through law school, and who were already working those jobs. He told me that some of his friends struggled to live on that salary.
This was incomprehensible to me. How could a person make that much money struggle to live on that income? That’s insanity!
My friend gave me an explanation of why this happens, and why it’s so common, that has stuck with me to this day. He said, “You may think that $125,000 is a lot of money now, but everyone at the law firm makes at least that. Second-year lawyers make $135,000; third-year lawyers make $145,000. All the partners, of course, make millions a year. Right now, $125,000 is a lot of money to you. But when you get to the law firm, all it makes you is the poorest person in your new social circle.”
That same friend told me another story about a Yale law professor, one who provided a good example about how the games never end. Before coming to Yale, this professor had made partner at Cravath, Swain, and Moore, perhaps the most prestigious law firm in the world. There, he worked non-stop, 3000-or-more billable hours a year, got paid an enormous amount of money, and then was rewarded– with more work. Through all of this hard work, he was eventually rewarded by the firm as they made him a partner.
What happened then? More work and more money.
He described his experience of going for partner as akin to a 10-year pie-eating contest. And then, when he finally won the contest, the prize for winning the competition was more pie.
Status games, indeed.
People who have the highest status in society rarely, if ever, stop obsessing over ever-higher status.
I first started thinking about writing this post when I was following the online coverage of a long-distance race called the Barkley Marathons. For those unfamiliar, it is probably the hardest footrace in the world. In 25 years, only 14 people have ever finished. There’s a great documentary on Netflix that summarizes the history. It covers 100-plus miles, through dense forest, with over 60,000 feet of elevation gain. But those numbers don’t even begin to describe how hard it is.
This year had a particularly dramatic finish. A runner was on pace to finish just before the 60-hour cutoff, got lost just before the finish, and then staggered to the finish, in the wrong direction, six seconds after the cut-off. Hundreds if not thousands of hours of training, all for nothing, simply because of a small mistake, in a state of complete exhaustion, nearly 60 hours into a race.
To have any hope of finishing this race, you have to train hard. I mean, hard in a way that most people can’t even imagine. 20-30 hours a week of hard mountain running, on the toughest terrain, for weeks and months and years. Up and down mountains, pounding your quads into submission. You have to develop an immunity to exhaustion that combines a medical resident’s ability to overcome sleep deprivation and a war prisoner’s ability to withstand discomfort. And even then, you probably have little to no chance to finish in the allotted time. The whole point of the race is that the race director has created a course that is essentially impossible to complete. And then people try to finish it anyway.
On the surface, it’s just so much work for so little reward. 99% of the earth’s population doesn’t even know that this race exists. There is no prize money. There’s not even a cheap plastic medal for finishers. The only reward, if you do somehow manage to finish this grueling competition, is that you and a few of your ultra-runner friends know that you did it.
Stupid perhaps. But its popularity keeps growing every year.
Status games, when taken to extremes, can be funny things.
Is the pie-eating contest law partner making better life choices than the ultra-runner? Or should we look to the vast majority of people who don’t take their status competitions to such extremes as our models? Does any of this stuff really matter?
To the extent that I have an answer, it’s that we all need something to motivate us to get up in the morning. Our motivations are the status games we play. For ourselves. For others. It’s just what we decide to do with our days. And what we decide to do with our lives. And so I like to think of these status games in much the same way as I think of board games. Engage, think through the games strategically, but best not to take them too seriously. Sometimes you win; sometime you lose. Sometimes you win or lose because of strategies within your control. Sometimes you win or lose because of things outside of your control.
Globalization and liberalism primarily benefit educated elites in developed countries and those in developing countries, and they primarily hurt the middle and lower classes in developed countries.
This is an intractable problem. You can have global free markets, you can have national sovereignty, and you can have a healthy democracy. But when you try to have all three, it puts immense pressure on the internal political dynamics of nation-states. And so it makes national politics in developed countries easily exploitable by populists and nationalists who either want to kill global free markets or democracy or both.
For a much more in-depth discussion of this problem, read this or this.
Why Loose Enforcement of Laws Gives Law Enforcement More Power
Since I first started driving as a teenager, I have always followed the same formula for how fast I drive. If I’m driving on city streets, I drive no more than four miles over the speed limit. If I’m driving on the highway, I drive no more than nine miles over the speed limit.
But this isn’t just my maximum speed; it’s my habitual speed. If I’m driving more than a minute or two in the same direction, I always set cruise control at this speed and leave it there.
With this formula, driving in more than 30 states and over 200,000 miles, I’ve never received a speeding ticket. I’ve never even been pulled over. This is true even though I am almost always driving at a speed that is in technical violation of the law. I have probably driven by police officers over 500 times while violating the law, and the police officers that saw me have never sought to enforce the laws.
I’ve discovered a driving Schelling point where the legal norms differ consistently from the written laws.
This is a good illustration of the difference between laws and legal norms. The former refers to the literal language of the rules that govern our societies and the latter refers to the unwritten but generally understood rules that determine when those persons who are responsible for enforcing the legal rules actually seek to enforce them against violators.
Let’s call the legal speed limit n1, but the actual speed where police officers tend to enforce the speed limit n2. Since n2 is the speed where the law is actually enforced, why not set the speed limit at n2? Wouldn’t that be more transparent and fair?
Some might think that if we raised the speed limit to n2, that this would encourage drivers to go faster, to a newer, more dangerous speed, n3.
But that’s not true. If police rigorously enforced the new speed limit, n2, drivers would adjust their behavior. There’s no reason speed limits couldn’t be like the playing boundaries in a game of football or basketball. Toe touches the line, and it’s out of bounds. No margin for error.
The reason for the discrepancy is that law enforcement wants to have wiggle room to enforce the rules. It is a well-established principle that laws that are too vague may be deemed unconstitutional, because they invite arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement. But there is nothing unconstitutional about failing to enforce a clear law sometimes and enforcing the law other times. Law enforcement enforces the rules this way because they want a certain amount of wiggle room to enforce what they perceive to be suspicious behavior.
By setting up a system where most norm-abiding citizens are in frequent violation of existing laws, law enforcement has greater discretion to enforce laws as they see fit. If a police officer pulls you over because you were driving two miles over the speed limit and later discovers you were driving while drunk, you can’t argue that it was illegal for her to pull you over for that reason. It was just unusual.
This Zone of Law Enforcement Wiggle Room – the zone between n1 and n2 – is where so much of the controversial and disputed tensions in our society can be found. Beyond speed limits, examples include drug enforcement, political dishonesty, international dispute resolution, and immigration policies.
By creating a Zone of Law Enforcement Wiggle Room, those responsible for enforcing laws have more power. Strict enforcement of laws would eliminate law enforcement discretion and make it more obvious when law enforcement was acting inconsistently. The very act of inconsistency would be a violation of the law. As such, a consistent regime of loose enforcement is the best mechanism for ensuring that law enforcement maintains its discretion.
Further reading: David Friedman, A Positive Account of Property Rights. Social Philosophy & Policy, volume 11, number 2 (Summer 1994).
 A couple of years ago I was driving around Spain, and I followed the driving rules that have served me so well driving in the United States. But when I got home to Colorado, I got three tickets in the mail for driving slightly over the speed limit. I’m not sure if it was because I was a foreigner, or because I was driving a rental car, or because that’s the way the law is enforced there, but because in Spain there was no gap between the written law and the enforced norm, I’m about 500 euro poorer than I would have been otherwise.
 Unless it can be proven that law enforcement consistently enforced the law with discriminatory intent or that enforcement had a discriminatory impact. But this is very hard to prove (and the reason why segregation lasted for as long as it did).
 I don’t think that law enforcement does this for cynical or malevolent reasons. I think it’s a system that has evolved over time because it works for them.
[Note: I suspect this will not be my most popular post.]
Imagine a hypothetical scenario where a billionaire decided to play a cruel trick on you. He knew that you were partial to one particular candidate for president and he knew that you would get very upset if the other candidate for president had won. Even though the polls seemed to indicate that your preferred candidate was going to win, this billionaire decided to test what would happen if he could trick you into thinking that the other candidate had won.
So he made a bet with his best friend Mortimer that if he could create a stream of media and social media stories that made it look like the bad guy had won, that he could send you into a tizzy. He’d pay your friends and family to go along with the story – and with their help he knew you would fall for it. That you would fret day and night about the consequences of the horrible things this bad guy was going to do the world. That you’d let this ruse impact your daily mood.
But here’s the thing: he wouldn’t have to change anything in the daily substance of your world to convince you the bad guy had won. Other than the stories you were told, nothing in your quotidian world would change. The food you ate, the prices you paid for stuff, where you could go, what you could say; it would all be the exact same. Your life would be identical. The alternate universe wouldn’t be much of an alternate universe at all. It would just be an alternate universe of news, information, and stories.
But that would be enough to change how you viewed the world every day.
The experiment wouldn’t even be all that expensive. After all, there are so many underpaid journalists, that he could easily pay a few to write inflammatory articles on the side that would get your goat up. The tricky part would be hacking all of your electronic devices to secretly redirect to this fictional media and social-media universe. But with the help of a few adroit hackers and the access provided by your well-compensated family, it would be easy enough.
How long would it take you to figure out that you were wrong? That you were living in an alternate universe of news and social media? Before the difference between one president’s actual policies and the other president’s policies affected your daily life in a way that forced you to stand up and notice? For a very small minority of people, such as Iranian immigrants traveling abroad trying to re-enter the country, the different policies would be immediately apparent. But for the vast majority of us, the answer is that other than the stories we hear in the news and on social media, we’d probably never notice a difference. That presidential policy only affects our daily lives at the margins, if at all. That the billionaire could play a trick on us – or could have already played a trick on us to convince us during any president’s tenure that someone else had won – and we’d never be the wiser.
None of this is meant to justify a president’s bad policies. It’s just to call into question how much we let news and social media chatter impact our daily moods.
Perhaps you think we have an obligation to always fight injustice – to stand at attention to injustice at all times. Maybe.
There are an average of 400,000 murders on this planet every year. That’s a lot of injustice. And – as unfortunate and tragic as all of these crimes are – they are probably all outside of your control. Just as presidential politics are largely out of your control. And as bad as this president’s policies might be (assuming this experiment hasn’t already been played on me), certainly they are not as bad as those of Isaias Afewerki, Kim Jong-Un, or Robert Mugabe – all horrible leaders who have been in power for years. But it’s unlikely you let Kim Jong-Un’s cruel treatment of his people affect your mood much.
So why let this president’s shenanigans affect you?
There’s a lot of injustice on this planet. Define your moral code and stick to it. Live according to your carefully considered principles – even if they are counter to public policy. Be active in fighting injustice to the extent that you believe yourself able to effect change.
But an overwrought sense of righteous indignation at a constant stream of news stories is unlikely to do anything other than ruin your own mood. And if that’s where you choose to focus your attention at all times, so be it. But we do have a choice whether to let someone else affect our moods. I take comfort and put great emphasis on that power – as it may be the only form of power I have over more powerful people – whether they are presidents or billionaires (or both).