Too Smart for Your Own Good

Beliefs (or lack thereof)

fairy-stareWhat is religion? It’s community, history, cultural identity; it’s a way to make sense of the world. Some of us use religion as our primary source of answers; others use mysticism; others: science; and still others use a combination of methods. This is not an argument for one way over the others, but rather a look at beliefs through several different lenses:

We all try to make sense of the world. Our methods may differ, but we are all seeking to understand the same universe:

People find themselves in a mysterious and mysteriously ordered universe. They find themselves equipped with sort of intense moral instincts.  They have religious experiences, and they develop systems that explain those.

—Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religionspeaking on Real Time with Bill Maher (2012)

Religion plays a comforting role for some people:

[P]eople who lose personal control take comfort in religion, because it suggests to them that the world is under God’s control and, therefore, predictable and nonrandom.

—Zuckerman et al., “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity” (2013)

But the comfort of belief is not confined to religious doctrine:

Human beings are believing animals, period. […] Even secular liberals have their [beliefs…] What is the idea of universal human rights if not a metaphysical principle? Can you find universal human rights under a microscope? Is it in the laws of physics?”

—Ross Douthat, author of Bad Religion, speaking on Real Time with Bill Maher (2012)

It is becoming more difficult to understand a world defined by modern technology:

The modern technologies of the day are a bit of a black box for the average person. […] the average person I meet on the street doesn’t feel any kind of connection to the technologies that are defining their world and shaping the fabric of society.

—Steve Jurveston, billionaire tech investor, “Acclerating Rich-Poor Gap,” Solve for X (2013)

But humans are resilient creatures: Make the world incomprehensible, and they will find a way to comprehend it:

The explosion in communication technologies over the past decades has re-oriented society and put more psychological strain on us all to find our identities and meaning. For some people, the way to ease this strain is to actually reject complexity  and ambiguity for absolutist beliefs and traditional ideals.

—Mark Manson, author, “The Rise of Fundamentalist Belief” (2013)

While we are getting better at adapting to the ever-changing world…:

“The rate at which we can adapt is increasing,” said Teller. “A thousand years ago, it probably would have taken two or three generations to adapt to something new.” By 1900, the time it took to adapt got down to one generation. “We might be so adaptable now,” said Teller, “that it only takes ten to fifteen years to get used to something new.”

—Thomas Friedman quoting Astro Teller, CEO of Google’s X Research & Development Laboratory

…the world is changing at an ever-increasing rate:

An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).

—Ray Kurzwell, computer scientist,“The Law of Accelerating Returns” (2001)

Technology may soon make everyone feel as if they’ve lost control:

“If the technology platform for society can now turn over in five to seven years, but it takes ten to fifteen years to adapt to it,” Teller explained, “we will all feel out of control, because we can’t adapt to the world as fast as its changing.
—Astro Teller, CEO of Google X, quoted in Thank You for Being Late (2016)
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And while some people think the world is still divided into those who “understand” and those who don’t…:

[Disconnection from technology is] a different kind of estrangement. It’s almost like a cognitive separation—those who know and those who don’t know about the world they live in.

—Steve Jurveston, billionaire tech investor, “Acclerating Rich-Poor Gap,” Solve for X (2013)

…technological advancement will eventually humble even our brightest minds:

“None of us have the capacity to deeply comprehend more than one of these fields [genomic cloning, medical robotics, artificial intelligence]—the sum of human knowledge has far outstripped any individual’s capacity to learn—and even experts in these fields can’t predict what will happen in the next decade or century.”

—Astro Teller, CEO of Google X, quoted in Thank You for Being Late (2016)

For, at the end of the day, we are all humans (no matter how intelligent). And that is the thesis of this entire “Too Smart for Your Own Good” series:

You are never too smart to be humble.

Intelligence does not make a person immune to faulty logicinsensitivity, poor timing, or technological change. There are biological limitations to being human. However we choose to make sense of the world—whatever strategies for life we employ—we are making a personal choice. So remember: “Judge not, lest ye be judged.”


Additional Reading:

Urban, Tim. “Religion for the Nonreligious.” waitbutwhy.com (2014): (Source)

Sharov, Alexei A., and Richard Gordon. “Life before earth.” arXiv preprint arXiv:1304.3381 (2013). (Source) (Summary)

Zuckerman, Miron, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall. “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A meta-analysis and some proposed explanations.” Personality and Social Psychology Review 17.4 (2013): 325-354. (Source)

This is the fifth installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.

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Too Smart for Your Own Good

The Problem with Logic

tug-o-war2There is an art to getting things done. The problem with logic is that it’s only half of the equation (and “half” is being generous). Logic can lead to a false sense of understanding. “This is the logical explanation,” we may say. There’s a logical choice, a logical path, a “right way.” But logical thinking often neglects to consider the other half of the equation—the emotional half. And emotions are a much more powerful force.

A considerable amount of what occurs in the world occurs because of emotion alone (without even the slightest consideration for reason). Forgetting about the emotional side can handicap us in the real world of “getting things done.” An idea may be the most logical, but that does not mean it will always triumph. The real world is not a meritocracy; just ask an economist.

In recent years, economists have recommended that NFL teams spend less resources trying to draft superstar athletes. Instead, they recommend trading top draft picks for multiple lower picks (spreading their risk of picking a top round dud). Despite showing that such changes would translate into more wins per season (about 1.5 more), team owners and general managers have generally ignored the advice. Why? Because there is more to life than logic. Teams are illogically overconfident that their picks are better than the competitions’ and owners enjoy having big name players on the roster. It’s not logical; it’s emotional. Historical precedent, personal ideologies, social allegiances—these are what constitute the illogical side of life, the emotional side. Economists work in the world of logical suggestions, but the real power lies in the hands of others.

My favorite definition of “power” is “the ability to get things done.” It avoids the negative connotations we have. There is no mention to coercion or corruption, no distinction between strong and weak, no manipulation tactics or financial sanctions. Power can just as easily relate to a healthy marriage as it can to a government regime. We are required to “get things done” everyday, and our ability to do so benefits not only us, but our friends, family, and colleagues. Power, therefore, is something we should wish on everyone.

To “empower” a person is to bestow them with the ability to help himself. We live in a world where emotions reign supreme. Events often happen on emotion alone (without logical consideration), but rarely the other way around. Logic, then, is the empowering piece of the puzzle; it is the prerequisite for significant improvement. But unlike the power of emotional whims, we cannot achieve with logic alone.

Good leadership, parenting, governance—they all require emotional intelligence, as well as critical thinking. This is the cornerstone underlying television shows like Hugh Laurie’s House M.D. and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock—the lone genius struggling in a world of social interaction and emotions, knowing these inevitabilities are as much a solution as they are a problem, a strength and a weakness. Destruction is easy with emotions alone, but building something meaningful requires both heart and mind.

Last week we discussed the frustrations of the workplace—the unspoken, sometimes unknowable rules (the emotional side). But more frustrating than office politics is actual politics. It can be ugly at times, but politics is the ultimate “art” of getting things done, where the complexities of social interactions far outweigh logical idealism or truth. People who vote with their heads struggle with this concept. They cannot understand voting with the heart. And that’s the classic downfall of a logic-heavy worldview: It leads to the dismissal of the human condition and the social/emotional sides to us all.

There’s an old journalism maxim, “if it bleeds, it leads,” which sums up the emotion-heavy side of society. Emotional hyperbole is popular; it sells news. We like stories about people (human interest pieces), and if there happens to be a murder involved, all the better! Humans are drawn to other humans, often in ways that defy reason. A string of bad relationship choices, the flock of rioting fans after a win—none of it makes logical sense, but it happens nonetheless. We must attempt to see the forest for the trees.

Understanding how society works, with all its human behavioral quirks, can buffer the logic problem. There is a scene in the 2000 historical epic, Gladiator, where Oliver Reed’s character—a wise, embattled ex-gladiator—gives some advice to the young warrior, Russell Crowe. He says to Crowe, “I was not the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me.” Oliver Reed’s gladiator understood how the system actually worked, and that understanding (not his skill in the colosseum) is what set him apart. Logic is necessary to our success, but it must be balanced with the understanding, compassion, and social skills that human emotions provide. Such a balancing act is a real art form.

This is the second installment of a series titled “Too Smart  for Your Own Good.”

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The Global Schoolhouse

Part 3 of 3: The Global Schoolhouse

[M]any critics of globalization make America the wicked villain in the tale. They portray the U.S. forcing Nike, McDonald’s and Baywatch down the throats of the unwilling world, shredding ancient cultures for the sake of empire and cash. But […] Multinational corporations are just that, multinational; they don’t represent American interests or American culture. Just as much as they changed the tastes and economies of other countries, they have tried to change the tastes and economy of the United States.

—Franklin Foer, How Soccer Explains the World

To begin Part 3, let’s review: The world is a schoolhouse; the global economy is its schoolyard; the game being played is economics/commerce; the schoolchildren who compete in this game are individual countries; their social cliques are based largely on history and finances; and multinational corporations? Well, they’re schoolchildren, too (but in a whole new way).

Multinational corporations are the younger siblings of our schoolhouse nations. They are smaller, have learned from the mistakes of their older siblings, and are more skilled at the schoolyard game of economics. Corporations share geographic, cultural, and historic parents with their older siblings (like Amazon with the United States), but that’s where the similarities end.

Just like younger students, multinationals have fewer obligations than their older counterparts—fewer classes to take, fewer school dances to attend, fewer extracurriculars. They have fewer distractions, in general. Instead, corporations mostly spend their time playing out on the schoolyard, focused on one thing—their game, how to efficiently make a profit.

This focus is what allows for a new paradigm, one of inclusion rather than exclusion. As we discussed in Part 2, nations have a tendency to favor their “in-group” clique. This leads to discrimination on the grounds of historical allegiances, rivalries, or economics.  Corporations, on the other hand, have different goals. They require outsiders (emerging markets), in order to continue growing. They want as many participants playing on the schoolyard as possible.

In the book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker cites “commerce” as one of five reasons why we cooperate with one another instead of act aggressively. Multinationals understand this; it’s why they exist, why they are multi-national. It is in our economic best interest to cooperate globally. But commerce does more than give developing countries a chance to participate.

In November, The Wall Street Journal ran an article titled, “Netflix, Amazon Take Divergent Paths to Reach Indian Audience.” It was a quick read but highlighted this shift from traditional exclusion to emerging inclusion. The brief piece described Netflix’s cost-effective strategy to keep content production “in-house” at their California studio. The idea being that if the shows they make have multinational appeal, then Indian audiences, as well as other countries, will watch (in turn, saving the studio money). Conversely, Amazon has set up shop in Mumbai creating content in India with Indian actors and an Indian audience in mind.

The story of Amazon’s strategy in India is a hopeful one. It’s hopeful because in an attempt to grow, they are seeking a competitive advantage—to truly learn and understand their audience’s perspective. As we discussed in Part 1, all people want respect, and for the first time, those countries previously shut out of the established economies clique are starting to receive some.

If respecting the diversity and richness of the world’s cultures creates a competitive advantage for businesses, then there is hope for the billions of people within the developing world. Binge watching television may be a waste of time, but the Netflix-Amazon example shows a broader trend. Regardless of the business, the point is this: Emerging markets are finally being included in the game (if only as consumers to start).

Before we get carried away with the salvation of commerce, it’s prudent to acknowledge the elephant in the room—unbridled capitalism. The subject is a heavily debated one. Even the Pope has weighed in.  But rather than taking a Marxist view of inherent failure or Wall Street’s belief that “The Market is always right,” let’s assume for a moment that capitalism, like most things, has an equilibrium point.

Commerce cannot answer the world’s woes alone. While the inclusive strategy of multinational corporations may lead the charge, countries still need to decide for themselves that cooperation trumps aggression. It may feel ironic that a game that creates overpaid mega-CEOs could equalize the global divide, but perhaps it could.  Perhaps commerce can help create more global balance. There is an equilibrium point between corporations and nations that could help both to be successful—to learn, mature, and graduate from the global schoolhouse.

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Uncategorized

America’s Best Obsession

Why do we always want the best? I had to get a toothbrush the other day. Before I left my house, I searched “best toothbrush.” It seemed like the sensible thing to do.

As I typed in the searchbox, the auto-fill completed the thought immediately. I wasn’t alone in my toothbrush purchase insecurity. A flurry of articles came up with conflicting opinions and, for a moment, I felt stupid.

Every toothbrush I bought on a hunch has been fine. I’ve never been disappointed in a toothbrush. Why waste my time trying to find the best? Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and asked, “What happened?”

And they replied, “Bought the wrong toothbrush. Should have done more research.”

—Aziz Ansari, Dangerously Delicious (2012)

 

America is obsessed with rankings. Every year high school students (and even more so their parents) pour over the U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges list. We cheer on our favorite sports teams and concern ourselves with the recent movement in the standings. And most ubiquitously of all, we compare ourselves with those around us. Every. Single. Day. After all, this is the nation to originate the phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses.”

Our love of rankings is fueled by what psychologist refer to as “extrinsic motivation”–our desire for external rewards like status, prestige, and validation. As a nation, America enjoys and celebrates (quite vocally) it’s status atop the global economic and military ladder. We share an unabashed feeling of national pride.

This is not necessarily negative. Although excessive arrogance has historically proven to be a poor strategy, external motivation can lift people beyond what they would have otherwise been able to accomplish. The bitter rivalry between Michelangelo and Da Vinci during the Renaissance elevated both artists to a level never before seen. It would be hard to achieve such greatness without the enhancing power of healthy competition. This competitive spirit is one of the primary “intangibles” that has led the recent boon of innovation and technologic progress in the United States. But what are the costs?

While researching for an upcoming book, I came across a 1999 study out of Murrary State University. Dr. Daniel Wann and his colleagues were attempting to uncover the motivations of athletes and sports fans. Their discussion on the difference between task oriented and ego oriented people proved the most illuminating.

A task oriented athlete is motivated to improve and master the sport—it’s the feeling of getting better that drives action. An ego oriented athlete, on the other hand,  is motivated by the desire to be better than others. “Better,” “Best,” “Worst”—these are words inherent in our ranking obsessed culture. We want to know how things stack up. What are the best movies of the year? The best restaurants? The best schools? Collectively, America is an ego oriented society. As stated before, there are benefits to this type of thinking, but we need to recognize the downsides.

Wann and company point out that both task oriented and ego oriented athletes can take a healthy approach to sports. Both groups can have high intrinsic motivation, feel competent, demonstrate high levels of enjoyment, and believe that their athletic success is the result of effort. That all sounds pretty good, right? But there’s one caveat (and this is important):

“These desirable behaviors and attributes are […] indicative of ego oriented persons, but only if they are confident in their ability […] If ego oriented persons doubt their ability, they are likely to choose easy or impossible tasks, have a low level of intrinsic motivation, feel incompetent at the task, have a lower level of enjoyment, and believe that athletic success is the result of ability.”

In other words, in a rank-obsessed society, confidence is key. Without confidence, individuals suffer from lack of self worth. They may see the game—be it sports, business, or life—as a challenge to be the “best,” but without enough confidence, their fixed mindset  locks them into a downward spiral.

This is the reality of American culture. On the one hand, it promotes healthy competition, innovation, and elevation of the output of its citizens. On the other, those who lack the confidence to rise to the challenge yet still ascribe to the “If you ain’t first, you’re last” Ricky Bobby philosophy, those citizens get left behind. They have less enjoyment in what they do, less motivation to do better, and all the while feel incompetent doing it. Perhaps we should all consider how important the “best” really is.

Wann, Daniel, Michael Schrader, and Anthony Wilsen. “Sport fan motivation: Questionnaire validation, comparisons by sport, and relationship to athletic motivation.” Journal of Sport Behavior 22.1 (1999): 114.

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