Tagged: philosophy

How to Play Basketball Well

The same way you do everything else well.  Practice, then reflect, then practice some more.

The common, conveyor-belt education system has a pretty bizarre approach to learning.  It doesn’t mirror any learning pattern that high performers in any field use.  It looks something like this:

Theory–>Theory–>Theory–>Theory–>Theory–>Practice (end)

In other words, you sit in classrooms studying things and memorizing knowledge from “experts” for nearly two decades.  Then you’re supposed to take all that theory and successfully practice it in the real world and live happily ever after.  Education is done, now you just go live well.  You’re supposed to succeed in the marketplace and life after only ever thinking about it.  Unless the theory is the practice – unless you’re learning to be an academic – this is a very bad way to learn.

I’ve written before about how absurd it would be if we taught bike riding the way we teach careers.  But I’ve been thinking a lot lately about an even better comparison, and one I know more about than biking.  Basketball.

How do you learn to play basketball?

First, you practice.  Maybe on a mini hoop, maybe on a full-sized hoop.  But you just start shooting and dribbling.  After you have the basic motions and movements and muscle memory down, you start playing with other people in actual games.  You play a lot of pick-up basketball.  Maybe you play in an organized team setting.  The coach might have you focus on specific aspects of the game or skills as you drill and condition.  You’ll scrimmage, run plays, and plot your approach to offense and defense.  You play, then a new concept is introduced, and you immediately play some more and try it out.  Then you stop to reflect and get feedback, tweak your approach, and play again.

At the highest level, this pattern is even more pronounced.  Good players practice a lot.  There is no world in which merely theorizing about basketball teaches you to succeed on the court.  Practice is always the first step and vastly more important if you have to choose one.  But when you go from good to great players, something else happens.  Theory comes into play.  The learning pattern for playing most successfully looks something like this:

Practice–>Practice–>Theory–>Practice–>Practice–>Theory…(ad infinitum)

Great players spend more hours in the gym than anyone.  But after they play the also reflect on their performance.  They review film from previous games.  They study what the offense did.  They observe what happened and theorize about why they were stopped in the paint by this or that defense.  They plan for the next game.  They review film of the next opponent and plot an approach to match.  They constantly reflect on the feedback they get from the real world of practice and play.  They seek out other achievers who have struggled with mental toughness, or strength building, or recovery from injury.  They employ motivational tactics and specialized training.

Notice the pattern because it’s very important.  Hours of film study and offensive scheming are of no value to the novice.  If you’ve never hoisted a ball in the air, learning the perfect placement of your index finger or the optimal use of trash-talk to gain a mental edge isn’t going to help you.  Theory is hugely important.  But it becomes important only when it has past practice upon which to reflect and future practice for which to prepare.

Notice also that, unlike the conveyor-belt education system, the basketball model is never done.  There is no end point.  It’s an ongoing process.  There is no graduation.  Michael Jordan, at the peak of his game and dominating the greatest ballers on the planet, famously came back from every offseason with something new.  He practiced.  He reflected and theorized.  He tested it with more practice.

In this model the role of teacher fades almost entirely.  Specialists with knowledge of the history of the game or the mechanics of the human elbow can be employed in specific situations when needed, but they are in no way the key ingredient to learning the game nor are they valuably employed until a whole lot of playing has occurred.  Instead, coaches and trainers emerge.  People who don’t tell you which facts about basketball are correct and must be memorized, but people who challenge you to get off your butt when you don’t feel like practicing.  People who help you in the process of reflecting on your unique game and keep you accountable to your unique practice process.  They are observers who watch you in the actual act of playing the game and provide real-time feedback from their vantage point.  They aren’t your authority – you can’t find a new coach anytime – but there for motivation and insight.  Some of the greatest players are famous for ignoring their coaches as often as listening to them even though they deeply respect them, which strikes me as a pretty normal and healthy way to see the relationship.

Another important thing about learning basketball is the value of mimicry.  How did the hook shot join the common arsenal of post players?  Because someone did it well and everyone who played against them realized how effective it could be and began to copy it.  How do you learn to crossover or headfake?  By being crossedover or headfaked at the playground and determining to do the same.

Learning happens more from being around people and environments than it does from consciously thinking about them.  You have to be immersed in the actual play of the game.

My friend and colleague at PraxisTK Coleman, our Education Director – loves the game of basketball probably even more than I do.  We don’t view this analogy as just a cute comparison.  I think success in any career is far more like success in basketball than it is like success in a classroom.  The principles of learning the game are the principles of learning to perform in just about every other arena.  This is why we are so focused on apprenticing at startups and small businesses – practice – and reflecting on the experience and how new skills and mindsets can make it better – theory – and trying them out – practice – and discussing…etc.  This is why our advisers have coaching sessions with participants, rather than giving them lectures.  Philosophy is hugely important to success in any field.  But only if you’re already in the field trying things out.

Kids aren’t practicing for life or career by sitting in the classroom taking tests.  They’re theorizing about it.  They’re not observing those who are successful (except, best case, at teaching) and mimicking them.  They’re reading what other people said about the successful.  They’re being introduced to a few fragments of the history of the game or uniform design or what one conditioning coach thinks about one approach to calf muscles.  They’re not being transformed into great players, they’re simply checking the memorization of lifeless, contextless knowledge off a list of assignments.

You can’t expect to win by studying.  You’ve got to play the game.

Fear of Success is a Thing Too

The stoic approach has a lot going for it.

Contrary to “name it and claim it”, Law of Attraction kind of practices, stoicism admonishes not to fill your head with visions of utopia.  It takes the opposite tack.

Mentally explore the worst case scenario and familiarize yourself with it.  This prepares you emotionally to handle whatever comes.  By preparing for the worst you’ll be unshakeable when anything less occurs.

It’s a valuable life philosophy for dealing with fear of failure.  When you’ve already experienced failure mentally and realized it’s not all the bad, you gain a kind of invincibility not devoid of reason and realism.  You become what my friend TK Coleman might call a “Tough-minded optimist.”

But failure is not the only fear that holds us back.  Fear of success is a thing too.

What if you launch your blog or produce your movie or sell your new product and it actually takes off?  What if you go viral?  What if you have more demand than you can keep up with?  What if people start writing news stories about you?  What if your success presents you with the decision of whether to quit your day job and redefine yourself?  What if you threaten the status quo?  What if people start suing you?  What if people write articles about how much you suck?  What if all your acquaintances start asking you for jobs and money and favors?  What if big investors want to fund you but only if you move to a new city?  What if your quiet evenings at home with your loved ones and Netflix become impossible to maintain along with your new endeavor?

If you really succeed some of these things will happen.  They are at least as scary as failure and the stoic approach might cause you to avoid imagining them ahead of time.  It’s arrogant to close your eyes and feel the experience of wild success, right?  It’s delusional and might keep you from being able to handle failure, right?

Maybe if that’s all you ever imagine.  On the flipside, if you’re only every braced for failure you might be blindsided by success and crumble, or worse yet never go hard after it due to latent fear of its unknown rewards and challenges.

One of those cheesy evangelical phrases I grew up around is pretty accurate here.  “Another level another devil”.  Maybe now your problems and fears loom large.  If you don’t get the job you won’t know how to pay rent.  Yet if you succeed in a big way your problems and fears become more, not less serious.  If you don’t land the deal you’ll have to fire thirteen good employees and they won’t know how to pay rent.  Success can be scary stuff.

If the stoic experience of mentally living through the worst-case is the antidote to fear of failure then I suggest the opposite is the antidote to fear of success.

Envision your best-case.  Envision having millions of fans or dollars.  Envision wild success and its attendant obligations and challenges.  Really, seriously explore what you would do right now if you had it.  It presents more challenges than most are willing to acknowledge.

I don’t know about the effectiveness of envisioning your goals as a way to achieve them, but I still think it’s important to envision success as a way to overcome your fear of it.

Who Are the Philosophers?

When I think about some of the famous philosophers throughout history I notice something about most of the early ones.  They were always by the side of powerful, successful, wealthy people who sought counsel on how to handle success and how to grow.

Some of the great works of philosophy come out of what we might call today personal coaching or consulting sessions.  Philosophy has its origins firmly rooted in efforts to help those who are serious about it to achieve their best life.

This is not to condemn any form of disinterested speculation or claim that philosophy must always be clearly connected to living a better life today.  But the observation does highlight the fact that those who are called philosophers today, almost exclusively college professors who specialize in quite obscure topics, might actually be less like the ancient philosophers than people today who are considered “cheesy”.

Tony Robbins, for example, spends most of his life being paid by highly successful people who want to find the good life.  As non-philosophical as his language and marketing may seem to a college professor, what he does is primarily provide new mental models and conceptual tools that help his clients progress to their next goal.

This isn’t a matter of better or worse.  I don’t think a professor obsessed with solutions to hypothetical ethical problems found only in academic journals is better or worse than a consultant or life coach obsessed with getting clients to achieve “exponential growth” or whatever the phrase of the day is.

The realization is more interesting to me as a way to put the old revered thinkers in perspective.  Most of them were not crafting their ideas in the abstract, but were doing it with specific goals and often for specific clients.  It’s a reminder that truly profound and enduring insights are not only to be found in disinterested analysis, but can also be found in practical attempts to solve present problems.

I’ve met a number of entrepreneurs who I think have truly original philosophical insights.  Most of them would never dream of writing them down or sharing them in the abstract, outside of specific applications to their work.  They have been trained to believe that philosophers do that, and they aren’t philosophers.  There are some brilliant, potentially breakthrough ideas trapped in the minds of practical people.  There is a lot of deep wisdom to be found if you’re patient and willing to look.

This doesn’t mean it’s everywhere.  It doesn’t mean doing philosophy well is easy.  I don’t think it is.  I think most stuff – academic or not – isn’t very good.  But it does mean it can be found in more than one place.  After all, Machiavelli was writing a paper for a client.

Related: Steve Patterson and I discussed what it means to do philosophy outside of official academic circles in this podcast episode.  Check it out!

Demanding Too Much of Unconventional Wisdom

We place very high demands on wisdom, ideas, or advice that bucks convention.  There is certainly some logic behind this, in that ideas widely held might be more likely to be useful, otherwise they wouldn’t be so popular.  Yet usefulness, longevity, and popularity certainly do not equal validity or truth.  An idea may be widely adopted because it is useful in making one less of a pariah, even if it is in fact false, or even evil.  The belief that bloodletting was the best cure for many illnesses was common.  So were beliefs in the necessity of slavery.

In other words, I think the logic that common ideas are more likely to be correct is only one small part of our reason for being less demanding of them compared to uncommon ideas.  Our desire to imitate others and be perceived as “normal” (even, sometimes, normal in misery) also drives us to demand far more of unconventional ideas than conventional ones.

One of the more popular demands made of unconventional ideas is that the believer in them must be rich, happy, and super successful.  If some unconventional idea about how to succeed in life is true, it goes, those who espouse it had better be rich and famous or else their lives are living testimony to the falsehood of their ideas.  Let’s just take an absurd example.  If you heard someone claim that planting all your dollar bills in the ground would cause them to grow into money trees you’d immediately look to see if this person was rich.  If not, you’d be ready to mock and dismiss the idea.

The unconventional idea of burying dollars in the ground is stupid for a lot of good reasons that are easy to discover.  But to argue against it because the person espousing it is not himself rich is not a very good reason or a sound approach.  Why not?  Let’s look at what would happen if we used the same standard to analyze conventional ideas.

It is widely accepted that eating healthy foods leads to a better life.  It’s common wisdom.  Again, whatever other good and bad arguments can be made to demonstrate the truth of this knowledge, one poor approach would be to demand that everyone making the claim themselves be fit and healthy.  If an overweight person claims that a healthy diet low in sugar is a key to health, most of us (wisely) do not dismiss it simply because the person does not exemplify the outcome they claim is likely.

There are several good reasons to not demand that the bearers of truth themselves exemplify it in order for us to believe.  Knowing and doing are two different things.  I may know full well that shooting 100 free throws a day will make me a good free throw shooter.  But I may not value free-throw percentages enough to make the necessary sacrifices to implement this bit of wisdom, even if I espouse it.  In addition to not having an intense enough desire to implement the idea given the costs involved, I may also have an upward limit on my own improvement.  No matter how many free-throws I shoot, I’m probably not going to be as good a shooter as Stephan Curry.  If I had lost both my arms in an accident, my free-throw shooting ability might be zero, yet that makes the piece of knowledge I hold about practice making one better no less true.

We overlook potentially powerful and valuable ideas when we dismiss (or accept) them based entirely on the lives lived by those who espouse them.  This is a poor standard of proof that would destroy all conventional wisdom if we applied it equally.  The life of the preacher doesn’t necessarily prove or disprove the validity of the sermon.  We’ve got to do more work and examine ideas for their logical validity, experimental validity in a wide variety of situations, and most of all their applicability and usefulness to our own lives.

What Liberal Arts Education Misses

I’m a big fan of liberal arts education.  Not in the classical sense of churning out dutiful citizen soldiers, but in the modern sense of a broad exploration into the humanities rather than a narrow vocational specialization.

The dichotomy between learning for “work” and learning “for its own sake” is ridiculous.  All meaningful learning has an end desired by the learner, whether to have fun or gain knowledge that helps earn money or both.  Liberal arts education is incredibly valuable as a tool to sharpen thinking and broaden the mind.  Despite all the names given to the disciplines therein, it all really boils down to the master discipline of philosophy.  Philosophy is valuable if for no other reason than that we all have a philosophy whether we want to or not.  It’s either examined or unexamined, and we are better at achieving our goals and ends if we examine our philosophy.

Still liberal arts education has a huge, gaping hole.  It’s not that it doesn’t teach enough hard skills or vocational specialization.  One could argue those are something that could be learned on top of a liberal arts foundation for those who want to master a particular skill.  Yet it is true that liberal arts education often makes it hard for individuals to bridge this gap between general critical thinking and particular ways they might apply it to create a meaningful life and career.  The missing piece is something a little more concrete than liberal arts but a little more abstract than vocational skill.  It’s an understanding of value creation.

Value creation is the only thing that matters when it comes to involvement in commercial life.  This is where philosophy meets action.  This is where theory meets practice.  An entirely pragmatic practitioner who only performs tasks may find herself flustered with limited career options just as easily as an abstract theorist who doesn’t know how to concretely practice his ideas.  The pragmatist misses the fact that it’s not just getting your hands dirty that brings career success, but creating value for others, which may or may not correlate to how many hours you work or how much you master a particular skill.  The theorist misses the fact that all the clear thinking in the world about the nature of people and the universe won’t put bread on the table unless they can translate it into something of value to others and exchange with them.

A truly powerful liberal arts education would include learning value creation.  What it is, and more importantly, how to do it.  The thing about value creation that differs from other things learned studying liberal arts is that it cannot be learned by intellectual examination alone.  You have to do it.  You have to enter the messy marketplace and bump into other humans with unique goals and desires and find a way to bring something of value to exchange.  If philosophy begins with ‘know thyself’ then working for pay is one of the most philosophical activities possible.  Getting others to voluntarily part with their resources because you can create something they value more will reveal more than you can imagine about yourself, your desires, habits, and unknown abilities you never would have guessed are valued by others.

It shouldn’t stop with merely performing the action.  Reflection and dissection of what’s happening will take you to the next level.  All the best entrepreneurs are deeply philosophical people.  They don’t merely work and try stuff and suddenly get lucky when people value something they created.  The analyze why, how it might be made better, what fundamental causes brought about success, etc.  They get to know whether their key value was the big idea, the management and execution, the network of talent, the sales job, or some combination.  This allows them to replicate success by focusing on the areas with highest return.

Philosophy is known for thought experiments, but the market is where its field experiments take place.  The most powerful liberal arts education is one that includes the study and practice of value creation.  This could mean digging into ideas in the humanities while simultaneously working at a company and trying to make it and yourself more money, not just as a practical but a philosophical exercise.  I’ve never understood people who’ve studied for decades but never entered the marketplace to exchange.  Perhaps it’s a carry-over from the Greek’s high-minded condescension towards merchants, but an attitude that treats value creation as beneath contemplation is impractical and illogical.

This passion for theory and big ideas and liberal arts combined with the thrill of value creation in the marketplace is what animates Praxis and what gets me up and working every day.  I’ve gotten to the point where I do not have any way to distinguish work from study.  In the office I’m as likely to be reading Seneca as going over an expense report.  I see both as equally important for my long term success and happiness.

We don’t need Plato’s philosopher kings.  The worst thing is to confer the use of force upon smart people who leave the production to others.  We could use more philosopher merchants who constantly examine themselves and seek to understand the world while testing their ideas in the voluntary marketplace of goods and services; who imagine a better world and then go out and create it themselves.

Justice and Morality

It seems there’s a difference between justice and morality.  I’ve never quite come to a comfortable conclusion about the nature of the two concepts and their relationship, but it’s worth exploring.

Suppose you jump in someone else’s car parked in the valet entrance at a hotel and speed away to get your wife in for an emergency C-section.  You’ve saved the baby and possibly the mother.  It would be strange to call this immoral.  In fact, it might be very moral, even heroic.  But it also seems clear that the owner of the car has been wronged.  She was unable to make her meeting in time, some of her gas was used up, and maybe you even got a few dings in the door.  She has suffered an injustice.  So even though you acted morally, it’s possible you acted unjustly.

Let’s say you have a deep hatred for your neighbor.  One day an envious rage takes over so you pick up a rock and throw it at his new car, hoping to shatter the window.  You miss.  No one sees the action, and the rock rolls harmlessly into the weeds.  It seems likely you’ve acted immorally by trying to destroy his property.  But it would be odd to say any injustice was done.  Your neighbor hasn’t suffered a wit from your failed attempt at vandalism.

Justice is about living with other people, while morality is about living with yourself.  Justice is about right relation to others as measured against the mores of society, while morality is about right relation to right itself, as measured against your own beliefs.

Whether or not justice exists objectively or is entirely a social construct, it has an unmistakable universality.  The particulars, and the process of discovering and remedying injustice differ in each society, but the basic tenets are the same.  No society has ever praised or rewarded breaking a promise, stealing, or murder.  There are instances where such acts are called by other names or given a pass under special circumstances, but that’s just it; they always require justification.  The default human position is that coercion is bad, and social systems evolve to mitigate it.

What would justice demand from you in the car theft scenario?  The nice thing is, we don’t have to decide in the abstract.  Justice always takes place in a social context, and the process seems just as important as the outcome.  For productive cooperation, the systems that determine and deal with injustice are best when they are transparent, stable yet flexible, knowable in advance, and not applied preemptively.

Even though everyone may acknowledge that your theft of the car was unjust, if the process allows arbitrators to consider circumstances, they may let you off, or they may ask only that you pay the owner a small fee.  These contexts are rich, and the owner has a lot to consider as well.  Perhaps she hears your story and decides not to pursue any recompense.  Maybe she is really ticked and wants to, but realizes the social approbation she’ll get for doing so isn’t worth it, even though she would win her case.  Since justice exists only in a social context, and for the use and benefit of humans, even if it is violated, there needn’t be black and white, always-and-everywhere rules demanding uniform punishment.  Though a uniform and recognizable process is needed, uniform outcomes don’t seem to be.  This is why common law is so much more effective than legislation at maintaining peace.

Morality is trickier.  I might be using the term differently than most people in this post (I have often used it more loosely myself, many times on this blog…don’t hold it against me!), but I think morality is something that exists in all of our minds, whether or not it exists “out there” objectively.  We have a conscience.  We have beliefs about right and wrong that are distinct from our sense of justice.  That’s why nearly everyone would agree that you acted immorally in story number two, even though justice demands nothing of you.  Our sense of morality changes over time, and is very different from person to person.  Part of life’s journey is discovering it and constantly adapting to it.

I’ve known people who genuinely believed it was wrong to have a drop of alcohol.  Whether or not I agree, it was clear that if they did, they would feel a lot of guilt.  They would be violating what they know to be right.  Some of those same people’s views changed over time, to where years later they no longer thought it wrong to drink, and they could do it with a clear conscience.  Morality doesn’t seem to be about the acts themselves like justice does.  It seems to be about whether or not a person is violating their own sense of right.  Many spiritual traditions talk of being in unity with oneself, being of one mind, or having an undivided heart.

It’s easy to conflate justice and morality, in part because we deliberately do so with children.  It’s more convenient to wrap everything up into right and wrong, and train kids to do and don’t do based entirely on these words.  I don’t think it’s helpful for kids in the long run, but it requires less work, so most adults do it.  Kids are told to say hi when someone says hi to them for the same reasons they’re told not to take Johnny’s toys; because it’s the right thing to do.  Yet the first is not unjust and probably not immoral, while the second is definitely unjust and probably immoral.  Children are also trained to obey the law because it’s right to do so.

They’re not often told that justice demands an abstention from coercion, even if the law doesn’t, or that the law may ask them to do something they feel is deeply immoral.  This oversimplification and lumping everything into basic right/wrong categories has the potential to result in atrocity.  Those who allow the law to be a shortcut for justice or morality, for example, can find themselves rounding the neighbors up and sending them off to prison, or worse.

There’s more to be explored on this topic, but I’ll save it for another day.

UPDATE: Check out this post with a handy-dandy 2×2 matrix to visualize these concepts.

The Timeless Way of Being

I am currently reading Christopher Alexander’s The Timeless Way of Building on the recommendation of a friend.  It is one of those books that is so full of insight that it cannot be absorbed all at once, especially with the analytical part of the brain.  It is as intuitive as it is logical.  It’s the kind of thing that forces you to think outside of your paradigms, but in a way that is oddly comfortable.

Yesterday a section of the book stood out to me in particular.  It was about the patterns in building that are good at resolving conflicting forces, and those that are not.  Alexander maintains that there is near universal agreement on what patterns of, say, a window or a garden resolve conflicting forces.  He asks people how they feel in a certain window area vs. another, and 95% or more feel good in the same one.  It may seem outlandish to claim that there is so little disagreement about what makes for a good pattern in building, but the key for Alexander is the word feeling.

He does not ask what they think of flat windows vs. Bay windows.  He does not ask their opinion on window material or position.  He does not ask what a builder should do.  He does not ask anything that evokes a belief or idea or a connection to some overarching plan or policy.  These ought expressions get in the way of the is  of the forces at work within us.  It turns out it is incredibly hard to be honest with ourselves about what feels good.  It takes a lot of discovery, and shedding all the baggage and ideology we carry around.

It someone asked me what I thought of using locally grown ingredients in food, my mind would immediately leap to the idiotic and regressive political movements that seek to force economies into localism, drive up prices, drive down quality, get everyone too involved in everyone else’s business while self-righteously proclaiming the superiority of an absurd proximity bias.  In other words, my thoughts on the matter would probably be negative.

Because of this, it is possible that I would overlook an opportunity to bite into a delicious and juicy local fruit at a farmers market, for fear of giving credence to the food busybodies.  These thoughts – my view that no one ought to get preachy about local ingredients – might prohibit me from finding alignment with the genuine feelings within me.  It’s harder than it first seems to constantly stay in touch with what feels right – with who we actually are – in the face of all the things we think we should be and believe.

This is one of the reasons democracy is such a poor way of resolving collective action problems.  It not only seeks and allows our mere opinions, it rewards our proclamations of what we wish we thought, or what we pretend to want, instead of what actually make us fuller, happier people.  It rewards and glorifies the boring lies and spin we weave into our narratives, and vilifies our honesty about what really harmonizes with us.

It’s much more fruitful to dig down to the bottom and discover what you really do feel, and work with those forces rather than pretending they don’t exist.  This is why capitalism is such a powerful and beautiful system of social coordination; because it takes humans as they are, imperfect knowledge and motives and abilities, and the scarcity and difficulty the natural world presents, works with it, and channels it all in a harmonious and life-giving way.  Capitalism is honest.

This is why the economic way of thinking – the rational choice model – is so enlightening and useful in explaining human behavior and institutions.  It does not condone or condemn, it just accepts ends as a given and seeks to understand what means will and will not achieve them.

Certainly some goals or desires or feelings are better than others.  Certainly some are worth trying to change.  But playing pretend and building patterns around forces we wish existed in us and in others, instead of what’s actually there, doesn’t help.  There is no better way to express this insight than to quote The Timeless Way at length:

“But a pattern which is real makes no judgments about the legitimacy of the forces in the situation.

By seeming to be unethical, by making no judgments about individual opinions, or goals, pr values, the pattern rises to another level of morality.

The result is to allow things to be alive – and this is a higher good than the victory of any one artificial system of values.  The attempt to have a victory for a one-sided view of the world cannot work anyway, even for the people who seem to win their point of view.  The forces which are ignored do not go away just because they are ignored.  They lurk, frustrated, underground.  Sooner or later they erupt in violence: and the system which seems to win is then exposed to far more catastrophic dangers.

The only way a pattern can actually help to make a situation genuinely more alive is by recognizing all the forces which actually exist, and then finding a world in which these forces can slide past each other.

Then it becomes a piece of nature.”

Mr. Alexander is an architect and is here talking about patterns in rooms, gardens, buildings and towns.  He refers to things like the human desire to go towards the light in the room, and the desire for comfortable seating.  The patterns he seeks are those that bring into harmony such forces.  But read the above again, slowly, and consider how much broader this insight might apply; to institutions, to social coordination problems, and to our own lives.

Interview with an Optimist: T.K. Coleman

It’s not hard for any moderately observant person to see the oppressiveness of the state all around us. We are taxed, regulated, coerced, controlled, patted down, pulled over, censored, cited, and sued anytime we step outside of the ever-changing boundaries prescribed by the political and bureaucratic classes. Many take umbrage at these violations of our innate human freedom and dignity. We engage in all kinds of activities to push back against the state.

It doesn’t always work, and certainly not immediately. It’s all well and good to try to change the world, but how can we live fulfilling lives in the meantime? The world as it is is unfree. Today, I’m going to talk to someone whose focus is not on how to make the world freer, but on how to live free in the world as it is.

My good friend TK Coleman, creator of the blog Tough-Minded Optimism, has the audacity to claim that we can be free here and now, no matter what the world brings — and he practices what he preaches. TK has an amazing mind, is a lifelong learner, and somehow manages to maintain a mindset of freedom and optimism in some of the most oppressive circumstances. I have learned so much from him and look forward to my daily TMO emails. He’s going to share his philosophy and how he finds a state of freedom while surrounded by a state of oppression.

IMM: First, tell us just a little bit about yourself.

TKC: I currently live in Los Angeles, where I’m actively pursuing my dreams in writing, entrepreneurship, and media production. I’m originally from Chicago, where I grew up in the era of the Michael Jordan’s Bulls dynasty. I’m the son of a preacher man. My father is a pastor, and the majority of my childhood involved being immersed in church services and other related activities.

While I wouldn’t describe myself as religious, I’m one of the lucky few pastor’s kids who grew up in an environment of organized religion without being emotionally scarred or turned off by many of its negative aspects. My academic studies and professional experiences range from philosophy and theater to financial analysis and public speaking. My true love is philosophy. I have a real passion for learning and contemplation. I enjoy pretending that things are more complex than they really are.

IMM: You recently had a horrible run-in with the police. Can you walk me through that experience?

TKC: Sure. Basically, my wife and I were heading out to a Hermosa Beach comedy club for a date night. It was around 7 p.m. on a Friday. We were pulled over by a police car about two miles from where we live. Two cops got out of the car and one of them approached my window, while the other approached my wife, who was sitting on the passenger side. When I let my window down, he asked me if I had legit identification. I answered, “Yes, sir,” and in an unexpected turn of events, he asked me to step out of the car.

Because I know that police officers are very sensitive to how they’re spoken to, I always speak to them with the utmost respect and cooperation. I’m not interested in giving them any reasons to interpret my behavior as threatening. So I politely said, “Yes, sir,” and stepped out of the car as instructed. The officer then put me against my vehicle and started to search me. He grabbed my wallet out of my pocket and sat it on top of my car. He asked me if I had a record. I said no. He asked me if I had any drugs or weapons on me. I said no.

Then he said, “This is how we do it in Los Angeles.” At that point, he walked me over to his car and began searching me more thoroughly. After that, he threw me in the back seat of their car, and both officers started to question my wife. One of the officers went inside our car and started searching around. I had no idea what was going on. They never told me why they pulled us over. They never asked to see my license. They never asked to see registration. After questioning my wife for about 10 minutes, they came back to their car and did a background check on me.

After my record showed up as clean, they let us go. I won’t sugarcoat the experience and say they were kind and respectful. They were rude and vulgar. They were physically aggressive with me, and they harassed my wife. They acted like bullies. At the end of the experience, they gave us no tickets, no warnings, no apologies, and no explanations. Just another day at the office for those guys, I guess.

IMM: Aren’t you angry at the police? How do you live free when something like that happens, or can happen at any time? Did that incident challenge your worldview?

TKC: While I certainly don’t condone the manner in which those police officers treated my wife and me, I wouldn’t describe myself as being angry with them. My absence of anger, however, has nothing to do with the cops. I am not angry, because being angry at them simply doesn’t serve me in a constructive way. Everything that I want, can, and need to do about that situation is more effectively executed when I’m acting from a state of composure and self-control. Since being bitter at those cops offers me no incentives of the kind I would be interested in, I choose to focus my attention in a life-giving way. It not only feels better, but it’s also a more creative and practical approach for me.

This might be a good segue into discussing a critical component of my philosophy. It’s captured in the phrase “Never let anyone steal your fire.” The basic idea is that we are autonomous beings who hold the unconditional power to dictate our inner disposition. While external forces may have the ability to impose unwanted conditions on us, we ultimately get to decide how we perceive and process the data of our experience.

Some people, for reasons as small as a bad night’s sleep to factors as grand as being a victim of abuse, are out there carrying around all kinds of potentially harmful thoughts. When we interact with these people, it’s extremely easy to let them determine our mood and, hence, our quality of life. Refusing to let anyone steal your fire means you don’t become a sponge for other people’s energy. It means you don’t allow your inner spark, your enthusiasm, your passion for life to be snuffed out by someone who’s taking their unhappiness out on you. If you let them steal your fire, they win.

Those police officers took control of my body, but they can’t touch my mind. They had the guns and badges, but I have the dominant vibration because I won’t give them the permission to influence my attitude. I win. They may have issues going on inside themselves, but I don’t take ownership of their mess. They’ve probably ruined lots of people’s days with their behavior, but not mine. When it comes to how I feel, I hold all the badges and the guns.

IMM: What was your response? Did you register any protest with the police?

TKC: Because of the way the situation went down, I wasn’t focused on their badge numbers. I was watching my wife the whole time. My focus was on her safety. Once they let us go, we got out of there. So I didn’t have much information on them. But I did call my local police department and the sheriff’s department, and they responded very respectfully to my concerns.

IMM: There are a lot of people that seek legal or political action or try to educate others in order to fight back against state oppression. Do you think that’s the wrong approach?

TKC: I have no problem with people who aggressively fight against oppression through legal and political battles. Some people get really fired up by that approach, and they seem to be quite effective at it. I say go for it. No matter what your cause is, you have to adopt an approach that charges you up if you want to have an impact.

I don’t think there are “right” or “wrong” approaches in a legalistic sense. I think there are approaches that are more or less effective in relation to desired goals. So if you have a way of going about life or politics or whatever, then I really have no criticism to offer. It’s up to each person to do the cost-benefit analysis on their actions.

Those of us who consider ourselves advocates of freedom comprise a diverse community. Some of us like to get out on the front lines and fight as political activists, while others prefer a more indirect educational approach. I’m pretty nondogmatic about all of this. If you support freedom, I support you.

IMM: Isn’t your worldview just naive, fairy tale stuff? It can sound like feel-good mumbo jumbo to someone who’s got a boot on their neck. Are you too idealistic?

TKC: Well, I should begin by challenging the distinction between the guy who has the boot on his neck and the guy who doesn’t. Lots of self-help gurus let people get away with this, and I think the results are tragic because they allow people to frame messages of hope in a way that’s significantly disadvantaged. If by “boot on your neck” you mean the experience of pain and suffering, then we all have a boot on our neck in some capacity.

Who’s the guy that purports to teach you and me a lesson on what it REALLY means to suffer? One person has money problems, while another has health problems. One person can’t find true love, while another grieves the loss of their soul mate. One person has all the money they need, but can’t overcome the trauma of a lifetime of childhood abuse. Another person grows up with the perfect family, but is constantly harassed and teased because of the way they look. I could go on and on, but my point is this: It’s easy for one person to use their particular experience of difficulty as the definition of what it means to struggle, but no one has a monopoly on heartbreak and hardship.

My suffering is as real to me as yours is real to you.

Whether we share the same philosophy or not, we all share the human experience of being vulnerable to death and disappointment.

It’s unwarranted to assume that optimists are optimists because they don’t know what it feels like to have a boot on their neck. That basically assumes that we would all be pessimists if we were only smart enough to realize how bad the universe actually is. I think it’s the other way around. I’ve never seen a pessimistic belief that was capable of surviving a few well-thought-out questions. So I think pessimism is the fairy tale. I think pessimism is too idealistic.

I became an optimist not because I have a ton of evidence for how awesome life is, but because I lack sufficient evidence to make negative judgments. I arrived at an optimistic perspective through the back door of skepticism, rather than the front door of faith. The real enemy of pessimism, in my opinion, is not positive thinking, but critical thinking. For me, optimism isn’t about deluding yourself with positive BS. It’s about refusing to delude yourself with negative BS. It’s about subjecting the doom-and-gloom perspective to the same sort of scrutiny we apply to the Pollyanna perspective.

So no, this isn’t about feel-good mumbo jumbo. It’s about feel-good mental judo. It’s about using your intelligence in way that’s healthy, productive, and personally fulfilling. It’s not about throwing your brain out the door. It’s about throwing your BS out the door.

Here’s another point: Either an idea is useful to you or it’s not. If it’s useful, use it. If it’s not, throw it out. Forget the labels. Use what’s useful no matter what it’s called. This isn’t a religion. Nobody’s required to believe anything that doesn’t rub them the right way. I haven’t received any messages from beings who’ve come from outer space, so there’s no special reason why you ought to listen to me. Your experience is your authority. If something works, there you go. If not, don’t waste your time arguing with me. I’m just some random happy dude who found his own way. Go find yours.

IMM: Isn’t it kind of selfish to opt for this Zen-like retreatism for your own personal happiness while people suffer all around you? Shouldn’t you take action to help them be free in the physical sense?

TKC: I personally don’t advocate retreatism. I don’t think we should all just sit around drinking green tea 24 hours a day, but I also would hesitate to join the chorus of those who worship the gods of guilt-driven, duty-based, obligatory activism. I think Howard Thurman nailed it on the head when he said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and then go do that. Because the world needs people who have come alive.” I swear by that saying.

The real tragedy of charity in contemporary culture is not that too few people are helping out, but that too few people have an appreciation for the social and economic value of self-interest.

Now here’s another interesting point… I don’t think optimistic philosophy is causing the number of charity volunteers to decline. If anything, it’s the other way around. When you are afraid of the world, when you feel like a worthless drag, when you believe evil prevails over goodness, when you believe your life is harder than everybody else’s, what causes are you going to be signing up for? Who are you going to be a benefit to with that kind of mentality?

The people who are most likely to help others are the people with beliefs that reflect an inner sense of abundance. They see themselves as having something to offer (even if it isn’t money). They believe in their capacity to make a difference. They believe in the potential of those they help. Those are all the same ideals I advocate.

IMM: I’m a big fan of books and articles on economics, political philosophy, history and other areas that illuminate the problems of the state and reveal the power of markets. Do you think it’s unhealthy to spend so much time with these ideas? Would I be better off remaining uneducated about the problems of the state — in other words, is ignorance part of the “bliss” you’re trying to achieve?

TKC: I think it varies from person to person. If it gets you going in a constructive way to study those things, then study away. If it’s making you paranoid without adding benefits that offset the costs of your paranoia, then it might be time to find a healthier and more fulfilling hobby. A good analogy for this would be The Lord of the Rings. One character was able to carry the burden, while another was transformed into a demon by those same burdens. There’s nothing wrong, as a matter of principle, with putting your attention on so-called “bad news.” You just have to be your own judge and have a good feel for the burdens that you can handle.

If we’re going to say “Ignorance is bliss,” then we should be careful to define what kind of ignorance we’re talking about, because ignorance of one’s rights and possibilities, for instance, is certainly not blissful, in my opinion. I’m not actively pursuing ignorance as a spiritual path. For me, intelligence is bliss, understanding is bliss, and creativity is bliss, so those are the sorts of qualities around which I build my particular brand of optimism. Another way to put it would be this: Optimism is not the denial of truth, it’s the recognition that truth isn’t something we need to run from or be afraid of. When you take yourself seriously as a creative force, you can face the truth with confidence and composure.

IMM: So how do you balance being knowledgeable about the way the world works with not getting angry at its deficiencies?

TKC: For me, exposing my mind to the truth is not a discouraging exercise. If confronting the truth feels like you’re being whacked upside the head with a billy club, it may be because you’re beating yourself up unnecessarily, you’re communicating the truth to yourself in an unhealthy way, or you’re predominantly focusing on those parts of the truth that are most challenging to you.

People don’t feel beaten up and broken down because of the truths they discover. They feel beaten up and broken down because of the other truths they omit and overlook. If your encounters with truth are failing to increase your sense of personal freedom, the solution is not less truth, but more truth.

If you focus on the world’s deficiencies and stop there, then you’ll probably feel like crap. But why stop there? It’s intellectually dishonest to focus on what’s wrong with the world without acknowledging our rich history of overcoming incredible odds. It’s delusional to lie to yourself about all the crap that’s going on in the world, but it’s also delusional to lie to yourself about being unable to create positive changes. The truth is the truth, even when it’s not negative.

So for me, I find that balance by taking a holistic approach to my studies. I don’t limit myself to just one perspective. I study the problematic truths and the promising ones.

IMM: Any final thoughts?

TKC: My message to the world in a nutshell is quit trying so darn hard to be positive. Optimism isn’t about making positive assumptions, nor is it about forcing yourself to feel good. Optimism is simply the art of remaining open to possibility. In other words, what happens when we are no longer occupying the mind with our judgments, labels, and dogmatic opinions. When we are not trying to artificially make ourselves believe that life is great and when we are not busy assuming that it’s the end of the world, we are left with nothing but possibility.

That state of being open to possibility without judgment is the source of creative power, personal growth, inner peace, and pleasant emotion. Positive assumptions are needed only when you have negative assumptions that you’re trying to overcome. But when you drop your assumptions altogether, your soul stands naked in the open fields of possibility. And what you choose to create from that space is up to you.

A Few Quotes

On politics and government

“Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.” – C.S. Lewis

“I am really sorry to see my Countrymen trouble themselves about Politics. If Men were Wise the Most arbitrary Princes could not hurt them. If they are not Wise the Freest Government is compelled to be a Tyranny. Princes appear to me to be Fools. Houses of Commons & Houses of Lords appear to me to be fools, they seem to me to be something Else besides Human Life.” – William Blake

“Politics is a dirty business, a ruse, an ideological cul-de-sac, a vast looter of intellectual and financial resources, a lie that corrupts, a deceiver, a means of unleashing vast evil in the world of the most unexpected and undetected sort and the greatest diverter of human productivity ever concocted by those who do not believe in authentic social and economic progress.” – Jeffrey Tucker

“Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Juvenal

On tyranny

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.[…] those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.” – C. S. Lewis

“The struggle for freedom is ultimately not resistance to autocrats or oligarchs but resistance to the despotism of public opinion.” – Ludwig von Mises

“As long as the public identifies order with law, it will believe that an orderly society is impossible without the law the state provides. And as long as the public believes this, it will continue to support the state almost without regard to how oppressive it may become.” – John Hasnas

“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” – Thomas Jefferson

On freedom

“And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.” – Frederic Bastiat

“Every man must have freedom, must have the scope to form, test, and act upon his own choices, for any sort of development of his own personality to take place. He must, in short, be free in order that he may be fully human.” – Murray Rothbard

“I freed thousands of slaves. I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves” – Harriet Tubman

“The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion” – Albert Camus