Monthly Archives: April 2015

Unattractive Truths

Read the following statements, and try to keep track of your initial thoughts as you read them:

  • There are many unemployed people that don’t want to work
  • The science behind human caused climate change is shakier than some people believe
  • Gay men are less likely to end up as parents than straight couples
  • A teenager in a store is more likely to be a shoplifter than is an older person
  • Not all people are capable of achieving the same outcomes in life

Most people will feel outraged by these statements, and claim that they’re wrong, and must not be repeated.

A smaller number of people will claim that they are totally true, and it is crucial that they be shouted, to battle the forces of political correctness.

I’ve got friends in both these camps, and I understand and even respect where they are coming from.  But I try to avoid either approach.

These are all statements that I’m pretty sure are technically and factually true, but have a strong tendency to lead to some unhelpful and undesirable conclusions.  In the case of climate change, belief that the science is shaky can lead to not taking important and appropriate action.  In some of the other cases, belief in the statement is self-perpetuating, or hurtful and unfair on many individuals.

Logically, when a fact appears to imply a bad outcome, it doesn’t suddenly become untrue.  I am a lot more receptive to the argument that when stating a fact leads to a bad outcome, it shouldn’t be stated.  But, there is generally another option – we can work to clarify the logic, working to prevent the bad outcome.

By reminding people of the value in respecting the vast number of teenagers that don’t shoplift, or the many great gay parents (and their families) that are hurt by stereotypes.  By working to fight attitudes that limit people’s potential.  By showing how being more open-minded than limited facts might suggest, we will create a better world.

I realise that many of these sorts of unhelpful statements don’t need to be made, so I don’t tend to make them.  And I make a point of not engaging with internet trolls.  But faced with someone I respect that makes them these kinds of remarks, I will try not to shame them into silence (a sense of persecution never helps).  Instead, I try to engage with them respectfully, listening to what they have to say, but helping them see the other side of the story, and the harm that their statement can unintentionally cause.

Tracking Habits and Behaviour

Over the years, I’ve read a few blog posts and books that recommend monitoring your behaviour as a way of promoting mindfulness and good habit formation, but I’ve never actually tried it.  Yes, it is some effort, but I think the main reason I hadn’t was my fear of seeing just how bad I was at sticking to anything.

Then, at the end of last year and the start of this year, two of my friends told me they had each been carrying out this kind of exercise, picking a handful of activities that they wanted to incorporate into their lives, and keeping track of how often they did them.  I decided to try it out, partly in solidarity with them and partly to just see if I could.

I’ve now been doing this for almost 3 months, and I’m glad I’ve done it, so thought I’d write a post on what I’ve learned from the process, in case it helps or inspires someone else.

You can do this as a public or private exercise.  I know some people who need to be held externally accountable, but for me, I was fearful of being one of those people who tells their entire facebook feed every time I go for a run, so chose to monitor it privately.

Next, you have to choose appropriate activities to monitor.  I chose 8 things that I want to do, that I don’t dislike doing, but that I don’t end up doing as often as I’d like.  Walking to work.  Going to the gym.  Flossing my teeth.  Not eating chocolate. Working on a blog post.  That sort of thing.

I found it important to have a realistic view of what I was aiming for.  I purposefully chose items that were digital – I had either done them or not.  I didn’t want to be in a situation of cheating – for example, doing something badly just to tick it off (working on a blog post is an exception).  But, I wasn’t going to get hung up about a couple of choc-chips in a cookie.  I also I didn’t need to achieve every item every day – just more than I would have otherwise done.  But for setting your goals, there isn’t a right or wrong answer – the main thing is that you’re happy with the goals you set, and you’re happy if you achieve them.

In terms of how I monitor it, I used a google spreadsheet, with the dates going down and the 8 items in columns.  This makes it really easy to update, and gives me a great view of my progress (which I found very helpful).

One of the main things I’ve gained from this exercise is an ability to be cope with the many times I don’t do something.  I’m able to keep them in proportion  – I can be honest about it, and can’t / don’t need to lie to myself about it, make false excuses, or feel guilty about it.  As a result, I’ve been able to look rationally at the times that I do and don’t achieve the goals, and understand any influencing factors.  For example, I’ve learned that if I come home late, if I don’t floss my teeth straight away, it probably isn’t going to happen.

And I have definitely done more of the good things than I would have otherwise done.  This is pleasing, obviously because the items are worthwhile in themselves, but also because it has also helped me develop self-efficacy – a general sense that I can do things I put my mind to – which is valuable throughout life.

Optimistic thoughts on inequality

A friend of mine forwarded me a blog post ( he had read on the future of work, knowing that I’d be interested. I highly recommend reading it – it clearly explains a lot of the facts on how the jobs market is changing, making some sensible suggestions, and offering some not unreasonable predictions.

The gist of the argument is one I’ve heard before – that most people will end up out of work as technology advances, and all the wealth will end up in the hands of a smaller and smaller group of creatives and capital owners.

That is certainly a possible outcome, and not a good one. But it isn’t inevitable, and I’m optimistic that we can avoid it.

I agree that technology will replace much of what is currently done by human labour. I can see that the earning power will become less equal. Those that harness technology better, and invest in it optimally, will be at a massive advantage. But for that to imply that wealth and opportunity will become limited to too small a segment of society assumes a zero-sum logic: that the only (or best) way that the rich have to improve their situation is to take from everyone else.

But I don’t think it is in the interests of anyone, especially the richest in society, to let wealth and opportunity be limited to too small a segment of society. Being a rich minority, surrounded by huge majority that is disengaged and disempowered, is not a good position to be in.

Starting positively, I am convinced that human resourcefulness will still be capable of creating things of great value to the rich. Technology will change what we’re capable of, but I see no intrinsic reason why humans wouldn’t be capable of working with and alongside the technology to create things that make other people happy. We are still going to want humans in our lives, inspiring us, listening to us and responding to us in a way that I don’t believe a computer will ever be able to do. Yes, people could become demotivated or stripped of the ability to add this value, but the rich have got a large self-interest in preventing this.

Next, the rich benefit from being in a diverse society. They enjoy relationship with a wide range of people of different backgrounds and experiences. I don’t think many people, if given a choice, would actually choose to only interact in some super-elite – it would feel like endless string of Downton Abbey dinner parties (just without the drama or witty lines dreamt up by creative script writers).

Thirdly, as some are more strongly influenced by fears than hopes, as the rich end up with a larger share of wealth and opportunity, the costs of maintaining that position become prohibitive. The incentives for other people to steal from you, perhaps even kill you, will rise. Expecting other people to support the rule of law, when it is of less and less benefit to them, is unrealistic. You’ll have to resort to more and more extreme actions to protect yourself, at a huge cost to your own wellbeing.

Just because something is in people’s interests, doesn’t guarantee that they will do it. I’m not suggesting that everyone else should just sit back and wait for the rich to decide to contribute to maximising overall potential – there is a lot that the government can do to reduce inequality that I support. But I do think that there is value in helping those in a position of power to see that maximising wellbeing isn’t achieved by maximising their share.

Postscript – since starting this post, I’ve read two other articles on the subject that I recommend: