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

Generational Wealth: Hesiod versus Aristotle


Originally posted here.

It is a great irony that prosperity affords posterity the luxury of forgetting its origins. Though not a hard-and-fast rule of societal evolution, generations who grow up wealthy often lack respect for or understanding of the values and ideas that generated the very wealth from which they benefit.

There is an honesty, realism, and practical virtue often accompanying generations that have to endure difficult labor that is sometimes lost on later generations that inherit a comfortable material life. This is not a new phenomenon but is present throughout history. Compare, for example, the life and work of the ancient Greek poet Hesiod with that of the great philosopher Aristotle some 300 years later.

Hesiod lived sometime around 700 B.C. in the region of Boeotia, which he described in his Works and Days as a “cursed place, cruel in winter, hard in summer, never pleasant.” Though little is known about his life, he was apparently a shepherd who claimed to have been given the gift of song by the Muses one day while tending his flock. Regardless of the source, Hesiod’s poetry is full of colorful mythology, practical wisdom, and sound ethics. The ancient poet wrote at a time near the end of the Greek Dark Ages and at the beginning of the Archaic period. Greece was a highly decentralized region made up of mostly small, self-governing societies, and the merchant class was just beginning to emerge.

It is in this context that Hesiod gives advice to his wayward brother Perses in his Works and Days. The poem is a very practical treatise on the value of hard work, the need to cultivate strong personal character and to focus on one’s own welfare rather than the affairs of others. There is a strong individualism throughout Works, and even a foreshadowing of Bernard de Mandeville’sGrumbling Hive and Adam Smith’s invisible hand, as Hesiod describes the value of self-interest and the ability of envy and strife to motivate hard work and wealth creation.

Hesiod makes no apologies for the pursuit of wealth. Indeed, he sees the hard work required to obtain it as a way of becoming virtuous:

But the immortals decreed that man must sweat to attain virtue.

And

If you work, you will be dearer to immortals and mortals; they both loathe the indolent.

No shame in work but plenty of it in sloth.

If your work brings you wealth, you will be envied by the slothful,

because glory and excellence follow riches.

Whatever your lot, nothing will be as good as work.

Ancient Greeks must have heeded Hesiod’s advice. Three centuries later, Greece had grown in power and wealth, and from it began to flower some of the greatest contributions to classical and modern art, science, law, and philosophy. It was into this culture that Aristotle was born.

Aristotle was the son of a royal physician and a member of the aristocracy. He enjoyed an excellent education at Plato’s academy, which allowed him to direct all of his energy to philosophic and scientific inquiry. There is no doubt that the product of his genius was tremendously important to the advancement of the sciences and to the advancement of liberty. However, several passages in his Politics stand in sharp contrast to the views of his Greek predecessor, Hesiod, regarding the value of work, wealth, and individualism.

Compare the passage above on work as a means of obtaining virtue and wealth as a precursor to “glory and excellence” to Aristotle’s description of those fit for citizenship in his perfect state:

Now, since we are here speaking of the best form of government, and that under which the state will be most happy (and happiness, as has been already said, cannot exist without virtue), it clearly follows that in the state which is best governed the citizens who are absolutely and not merely relatively just men must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble and inimical to virtue. Neither must they be husbandmen, since leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties.

Aristotle’s aristocratic upbringing leads to an arrogant view of not only who should be a citizen or leader but also how a state should be governed in general. Hesiod’s focus is on the individual and how he might improve his own lot and leave others alone, while Aristotle is more concerned with selecting the best men to plan and rule the rest. Like Plato before him, Aristotle thought those fit to rule were educated men like himself — men who had sufficient leisure and could stay out of “unnatural” businesses like retail trade and moneymaking.

There is no doubt that — probably thanks to the intellectual lifestyle afforded him — Aristotle provided one of the best defenses for private property, and his work in logic and metaphysics remains unrivaled today. However, Aristotle’s political and economic thought leaves something to be desired by those who value free-market capitalism, the role of the entrepreneur, and the positive power of self-interest and individuality.

The main difference between these two men was their wealth and status. Hesiod, perhaps due to necessity, was a practical thinker. Extolling the virtues of hard work was not mere speculation; I doubt Hesiod could afford to look down his nose at labor. Aristotle, on the other hand, could afford to disparage trade and labor. The wealth of Greece provided opportunity for full-time teachers and thinkers to ponder anything they chose. Indeed, the power of wealth to fund such speculative philosophy is one of its greatest advantages, and as one who spends hours studying, I would not wish to return to a poor agrarian society. Still, such generational wealth carries with it a certain danger.

Anticapitalist theories share in common an inability to take human nature as it is. Rather than analyzing man as a complex creature who will always act to achieve what he perceives as good, anticapitalist theories tend to focus on what the theorist wishes man to be and often overlook the necessity of market exchange for human improvement. From the vantage of a moneyed aristocracy, it is easy to be “above” the hustle and bustle of the marketplace, and to pursue higher ideals than material prosperity — forgetting that such prosperity is what supports the hours of speculation.

I do not believe one must be poor to understand and appreciate capitalism, nor am I opposed to generational wealth or inheritances. It does seem, however, that there is a certain danger in living a life completely detached from market processes and the pursuit of wealth through production and trade. Far worse than a physically lazy trust-fund baby is a generation that has become intellectually lazy. With wealth comes the temptation to rebel against existing institutions and ideas — after all, you can afford to. While iconoclasm and courage to question the status quo are cherished virtues and much needed in defense of liberty, they are not ends in themselves. There is no heroism in revolting against the existing order if the existing order is better than the ideals for which the revolutionaries stand.

In our age of plenty where “higher learning” is ubiquitous, it is imperative that we remain realistic in our assessment of human nature and not forget that the basic principles that produced our prosperity still govern human action. Teaching future generations the theories of individual liberty and capitalist production is important; perhaps letting them experience the theories in practice is as well.

The Neutrality of Everything


A hammer is neither good nor bad.  It is a tool.  It is useful.  It can be useful in achieving good things, and equally useful in achieving bad things.  It is valuable because it is useful, but the fact that it has value does not make it good or bad.

The same is true of an iPhone.  The same is true of money.  These are all morally neutral, inanimate objects (Siri notwithstanding) that become extensions of human will and volition, and act as a catalyst for whatever good or bad ends we intend.  They deserve neither vilification nor praise, except in regards to their usefulness.

Tools have their own qualities and characteristics; they have their own nature.  They will react in certain ways to certain conditions.  If you slam an iPhone down on a hard surface, it will crack.  It's silly to get angry at the characteristics of the iPhone.  Part of growing up is learning to understand and work with the natures of the objects around us, rather than being surprised or angered by them.

So much for tools.  What about people?  Immanuel Kant, along with just about every decent person I've met, would bristle at the thought of people as morally neutral tools; useful if properly employed, but neither praise nor blameworthy in and of themselves.  For good reason.  People as objects is probably a terrible and incorrect notion.  People have wills and can choose right or wrong.  People don't just react, they can act to thwart one another.  They have qualities that take them beyond the level of tools.  That may be their place in the cosmos, but what about in our day-to-day perceptions?

It can be incredibly enlightening and freeing to treat people with the same neutrality we treat our iPhones.  Not because they are the same, but because seeing them that way can help shed bitterness and accomplish more.  If, just like you would with an inanimate object, we try to learn the natures of those around us and get an idea of how they will react to conditions around them, we will be better equipped to cooperate for mutual benefit.

Sure, they have motives, but ascribing motives and assuming intentions are often hindrances to productive relationships.  Whether or not it's for good reason, if you know a person gets angry every time you say X, rather than begrudge them this habit, adapt.  Learn to navigate the world of human relationships with the same judgement-free attitude you do the non-human world.  People have natures.  They'll act in accordance with them.  Don't hold it against them, learn it, know it, expect it, and work with it.

There are certainly times when some kind of confrontation or intervention is required.  There are times when working around a person's modus operandi may be worse than trying to help them see the need to change it.  I think these times are rare, and only really worth it when a kind of standing invitation to do so exists in the relationship.

See how it works to view people as morally neutral, rational agents, rather than out to help or harm you.  It can turn even unpleasant interactions into a kind of interesting puzzle.  It may be untrue, but it is useful and in some ways makes it easier to appreciate people and treat them well.

(An alternative approach, much more bizarre and playful, is to treat everything like we treat people.  Ascribe will, motive and personality to your car, your iPhone and your coffee mug.  Perhaps I'll discuss this another day...)

The Art of Science


A fascinating article in the Wall Street Journal this week claimed that great scientists needn't be good at math.  E.O. Wilson argued that big ideas, not number crunching, are the source of major breakthroughs.  In other words, it's the art of science, not the science, that inspires the game-changers.

I think there's something here that applies beyond the physical sciences.  The social sciences, in particular economics, have been in a race of sorts to see who could mathematize fastest.  While complex modelling and statistical analysis can illuminate, they cannot generate.  Data is meaningless without a theoretical lens through which to interpret it.  Path-breaking work comes not from those with the best "hard" skills, but from those with the best paradigmatic innovations.  The best work seems to come from seeing the world differently, constructing theories from the new lens, then running some numbers to see how they look from the new vantage point.

This bit about seeing the world anew has never been more profoundly communicated to me than in a book by the novelist Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation.  Koestler sets out to reveal general rules of creation that apply across media - from the creation of a joke, to a work of art, to a technological invention.  It is a stunningly informative and ponderous work.

Koestler describes worldviews as matrices of thought; well-worn knowledge and assumptions that we carry along with us and use as shortcuts for understanding our world.  The eureka moment - the burst of laughter in a joke, the flow in the making of a sculpture, the sudden insight that unlocks the innovation - comes when two separate matrices intersect.  Koestler calls this intersection "bisociation", and sees it as a kind of relieving of tension as two paradigms moving in what appears to be unrelated directions suddenly converge.

A poignant example in the book is Archimedes' discovery of how to measure the purity of gold in a crown.  Archimedes knew the weight per volume of gold vs. other metals, but he could not melt the crown down to figure out its volume.  The thought matrix relating to weights, volumes and metals was completely unrelated to Archimedes afternoon bathing.  Yet as he slipped into the tub and noticed the water level rise, matrices collided and the bath solved the measurement problem of the crown.  It was not new, fancy calculations that resulted in this breakthrough on determining purity in oddly shaped gold items.  Instead, it was a bisociation of existing knowledge on water displacement with that on metallic weight.

Not only is creation about seeing familiar facts in new ways, it's about allowing oneself the time and mental play to do so.  Some of the greatest eureka moments have come upon waking from a dream, going on a long walk while the mind wanders, or taking an explicit break from the problem at hand.  It is true, the great innovators have been versed in the science of their craft.  But what separates creators from specialists is not better technical expertise, but new eyes that generate new ideas.

Think big.  Explore.  Don't let a lack of mastery keep you from probing the mysteries that fascinate you.

Five Myths About NASA


Most people agree that government programs are wasteful, and many are unnecessary.  But even small government advocates have a soft spot for NASA.  It's pointed to as an example of a worthwhile government program because, after all, not only does it have a really cool mission, but it's also resulted in microwaves and memory foam!  These are valuable contributions that justify it's value, even if space exploration itself hasn't proven enough.

Not so fast.  Let's put on our economist lenses and look a little closer to expose five common myths about the value of NASA:

Myth #1: It's worth it.  This is a claim without a test.  Without a profit and loss model, how can anyone know the value of NASA inventions and spin-offs products compared to the cost of the program?  Why not let a voluntarily funded outfit do space exploration work and pay for it by selling usable discoveries they make in the process?  That would reveal the value of such inventions to consumers over and above the cost of research.

It's impossible to judge the value of big expenditures absent a market.  Imagine a company that picked an ambitious effort, like digging the worlds largest, deepest pit, and continued to fund it to the tune of billions a year.  I'm sure some interesting and useful stuff would be found down there, and some new technologies would result from all the efforts to dig deeper.  But it's hard to imagine these side benefits being sufficient to draw an entrepreneur into such a venture.

It's not enough to simply point to cool gizmos as proof of the value of a program.

Myth #2: We'd never have a bunch of cool tech without NASA.  This is of course impossible to know.  But what we do know is that the existence of NASA attracts many great technological and scientific minds.  These are not minds that would otherwise be sitting idle.  They would likely be doing much the same thing - inventing, solving problems, and creating stuff.  Many of the spin-off technologies from NASA would certainly have come from other organizations.  Maybe even better things would have resulted.

It is also worth remembering that none of the NASA technologies were created in a vacuum.  Invention is an incremental and messy process, full of simultaneous discovery, back and forth modification, and adaptation.  Because NASA gets the credit for something doesn't mean it emerged from the secret NASA chambers untouched by any other researchers in the world.  This was stuff that was being tinkered with the world over.  If it has commercial value, there's a good chance it will be discovered and put to use.  Who has more incentive to do so; an organization that doesn't need to make widespread use of its technologies to survive, or a business that does?

We can't know what would and would not have been invented without NASA, but it seems pretty odd to grant the assumption that a government agency is more likely than a market institution to innovate.

Myth #3: It's doesn't cost that much.  Maybe $18 billion a year is not that much compared to all the other stuff taxpayers are being forced to pay for.  But the costs of NASA are not just monetary; there's opportunity cost.  In high-tech areas with highly skilled workers, the opportunity cost is very high.  What else might those people be doing to create value for the world if they weren't there?  What projects are not happening because NASA is?  Opportunity cost is a big deal.

Not only is NASA an attractive option for a lot of really smart people because it sounds cool, but the fact that every other industry has become so heavily regulated and restricted makes other options artificially less attractive.  We all lose as a result.

Myth #4: They can spend our money better than we can.  Economic value is subjective.  As such, it's impossible to know whether someone is happier with how you spent their money for them than they would be if they spent it themselves.  The best proxy is behavior.  What people freely choose to do with their money reveals what they value most at the time of choosing.  The mere fact that government programs can't get by asking for voluntary contributions reveals that people value the uses to which they would put their money more highly than what government does with it.

When people spend their own money not only do they put it to their highest valued use, but their actions affect prices, which in turn send signals to producers and entrepreneurs indicating what kind of stuff people want more of.  More effort goes into producing more and better of that stuff, which creates even more value.  As preferences shift, so do production patterns.  This is an important process with complex feedback mechanisms that help to continually create real value for individuals in society.

You can't create progress for all by taking money from everyone and giving it to a small group with no requirement that they respond to the demands of the many.  If you try, not only do you rob people of short term value by taking away their first-best spending option, you mess with the signals and incentives in the system ensuring that less of what people value will be produced in the long run.

Myth #5: Those smart scientists will innovate rather than waste money.  This may come as a revelation, but scientists are people too.  People respond to incentives.  When your lifeblood is determined by the political process, you will cater to the demands of that process.  Public Choice reminds us that the political process results in irrational, uninformed, biased and downright silly decisions.  It rewards all the wrong things, and punishes all the right things.  NASA faces the same calculation, knowledge, moral hazard, and incentive problems every other bureaucracy faces.  Explore the boundaries of the laws of physics though they may, they cannot break the laws of economics.

Conclusion: Relax, I don't hate space exploration and neither must you to oppose taxpayer funding for it.  You may counter these myths by saying, forget spin-offs, space exploration is so important it trumps any other consideration.  You may say, sure, non-government space exploration is happening now, but without NASA we wouldn't have had it for the past 60 years.  If we didn't put a guy on the moon back then, would that be such a loss?  Maybe all those resources could have produced better things in that time.  Maybe the demand for space exploration wasn't high enough, or the costs not low enough, until recently.  Maybe NASA was crowding out other space exploration alternatives.  Who knows.  What we do know is that free people have proven, throughout all of history, to be far better at generating progress for humanity than government schemes and programs.

Life Inside the Bubble


I used to work in the state legislature.  There was an insider political newspaper that all the lawmakers, lobbyists, journalists, and staff read every day.  Among other tidbits, it included a "quote of the day" from the goings on the day before.  Every morning, the first thing every member of the political class did was look to see who got quote of the day - or more accurately, if they got quote of the day.  It was a big deal.  Except that it was not a big deal at all to anyone outside the political bubble.

Tons of other gossip and updates filled the newsletter, and every bit was important to the weirdly sheltered state political circuit.  All the buzz in this world was about this world.  "Can you believe the committee chair held all the members there until midnight?".  "Do you think she'll have a primary challenger after those comments about teachers unions?"  The fate of the state hinged on every detail according to the people involved.

Of course nothing of the sort was true.  The petty bickering, posturing, and drama had almost no bearing on the world outside the bubble.  It was like a reality TV show, where every little alliance is a big deal in the context of the show, but meaningless to the world outside the artificial construct of the set.  Occasionally, politicos would get crude reminders of this fact.  They would proudly set up meet and greet hours in their districts so the people could come before them and present their troubles.  They assumed this kind of access was demanded by their constituents, and would be greatly appreciated.  But no one came, save for a few rather senile members of society with too much time on their hands.  Part of the reason was that no one knew who their state representative was - most didn't even know they had one.

The shock of reality was severe for lawmakers who had been in the bubble for many a week and emerged to find that no one knew their name or what bills they introduced.  No one even knew that they had made quote of the day last week!  In the bubble, they were important.  Every lobbyist, journalist and staffer knew their name and their favorite drink.  They were called "Honorable".  But outside the bubble, they were just some guy wearing a bad suit and talking about boring things.

One particularly poignant reminder of the contrast between life in and out of the bubble took place at a basketball game.  I was in a luxury box with my boss who was a then well-connected lawmaker.  Food and drinks were free, and the lobbyists who'd provided the tickets were cheerfully chatting us up and flattering us.  I looked across the court to the other side of the stadium.  There in the cheap seats, all by himself, was a rather dejected looking fellow.  It was the former governor.  My boss noticed him too, and seemed a little troubled.  He leaned over and said, "That's good for me to see.  I sometimes forget that, when I'm term-limited out next year, that will be me, not this."  A rare moment of foresight for someone in the bubble.

It's easy (and quite fun!) to point out the absurdities and perversions of the artifice of politics.  But there's a broader lesson as well.  We all have bubbles.  We have them for good reason and they serve a purpose.  We find people and places we identify with and invest ourselves there.  In these bubbles, we are interesting to our friends, and our shared goals are the most important thing in the world.  In these bubbles, we belong.  That's a good thing.  It's good to have a social circle that cares about you and shares your worldview.  It can also create problems if you never step out.

It's good to move beyond the bubble from time to time.  You gain perspective.  You stay humble.  You realize that all the debates you had in the bubble about various interpretations of that world-changing idea don't matter to the outside world.  They don't even know the idea exists in the first place.  You can be famous in your bubble, but it doesn't mean you're famous anywhere else.  You need to be reminded of this.

Find your niches, make your friends, dive in, get connected.  You need it.  But step out of your circles as well, into the great unknown where you are just another person.  You need it.  It's useful to maintain a firm belief and a tacit understanding of two facts at the same time: you are a really big deal, and you are nothing.

Interview with an Eight Year Old


As part of my further exploration into the interview format, I decided to test it on my eight year old son.  It is pretty much uncut, except one long soliloquy I removed.  I thought it was enjoyable to do, and hopefully it's fun to read.

IMM: Tell me about yourself.

NSM: Seriously?

IMM: Yeah, describe your life.

NSM: What about my life?

IMM: What are you all about?

NSM: Give me time!  [Long pause]  I don’t mean to brag, but I’m creative.  I kind of like machines.  I have a temper, that’s for sure.  I like Legos.  I suppose I find interest in liberty.

IMM: What is your passion in life?

NSM: Just being creative.

IMM: Do you look forward to growing older, or do you wish you could stay a kid?

NSM: I wish I could stay a kid for a long time.

IMM: What’s great about it?

NSM: One, you’re not a person who just has to do work, work, work, sitting in an office all day.

IMM: You think you’re the type who wouldn’t enjoy sitting in an office all day?

NSM: Yes.

IMM: What kind of thing would you enjoy?

NSM: Watching TV and eating snacks.

IMM: So you don’t want to sit in front of a screen at work all day, you want to sit in front of a screen on the couch all day?

NSM: [Laughs] Yes.

IMM: What’s the difference?

NSM: You’re not having to press buttons and do all the work and write articles and stuff.  All you have to do is sit there, relax, and watch the moving cartoon figures.

IMM: If you could work in a coal mine all day, or you could work in front of a computer writing and thinking, which would you rather do?

NSM: [Pause] A coal mine, if I get to use TNT.

IMM: What’s one thing people think about kids that’s not true?

NSM: That they’re so irresponsible.

IMM: Do you think you’re pretty responsible?

NSM: Who knows?  I can’t really tell, can I?

IMM: You think kids are more responsible than adults, or less?

NSM: More.

IMM: In what way?

NSM: In a way.

IMM: What’s your greatest triumph in life so far?

NSM: Hmmm...defeating Rocky Rhino on Zombie Farm.

IMM: That’s your greatest triumph in life so far?

NSM: Yes! I defeated Rocky Rhino!

IMM: What do you think your life will be like in 20 years when you’re my age?

NSM: Boring.

IMM: Why do you think it will be boring?

NSM: Changing diapers, doing workouts, writing articles for about fifteen hours…

IMM: Hold on, hold on.  That sounds like my life.  Do you think your life will be just like that?

NSM: Grownups all do the same thing.  That’s what makes it even boringer.

IMM: Grownups do lots of different things.

NSM: No, it’s all just a simple life.  Walk over, push button, write article for fifteen hours, go downstairs, do awful killer workout, lie down, forget something, go do it, keep forgetting things, never get a rest, and change poopy diapers.

IMM: OK, so what would you like your life to be like in 20 years, if you could do anything?

NSM: Maybe do some sports.  I’m getting interested in tennis.  Go down, swim at the pool.  Maybe call a few people.

IMM: You like to talk?

NSM: I don’t really know.  Just chill out, that’s what I want to do.

IMM: If you could take a trip to anywhere, where would you go?

NSM: New York city.

IMM: Why New York City?

NSM: Because it’s big, and there are hotdogs.  And there’s ice cream.  And there’s lots of different treats, and lots of fancy hotels.

IMM: Hot dogs and ice cream are everywhere, aren’t they?

NSM: Well, they come around a lot more in New York.  There’s a hot dog or ice cream cart strolling around just about everywhere.

IMM: Would you like to live in a city like New York?

NSM: Well, if I go on a trip there, I’d check it out first.

IMM: What would make you decide if it was worth moving there?

NSM: I just mentioned it.

IMM: If they had tons of hot dogs?

NSM: Yes.

IMM: What makes a place exciting?  It can’t just be the hot dogs.

NSM: Well, being around lots of cities and buildings, and fancy hotels, and restaurants and things.

IMM: Tell me something about yourself most people don’t know.

NSM: I can dance pretty good.

IMM: Why don’t most people know that?

NSM: I’m too shy to show them.

IMm: What makes you shy about dancing?

NSM: Geez, do we have to go there?

IMM: No.  What do you think is a good question to ask someone in an interview?

NSM: Wait…we’re recording this?  An interview about an interview?  [Pause]  Well, maybe ask someone if they believe in something that’s like a myth or something.  Take aliens for example, or maybe King Kong, or Godzilla.  Just made up things.  Just pick one.  Any one!

IMM: Do you believe in the Greek myths?

NSM: I believe possibly it could have happened.  Maybe it did.  We don’t know everything, and it’s not like we can just warp back into time and see for ourselves.

IMM: Would you like it if they were true, or would you prefer that they just be myths?

NSM: I’d like it if they were true, except for some things.  The gods were kind of gruesome…yeah.  The Minotaur ate human flesh. [Long story about Greek myths]

IMM: What about aliens?  Do you think they exist?

NSM: I think Martians exist.

IMM: You think there are people on Mars?

NSM: Not necessarily people.  Now, there are types of bacteria, but I mean, like, human-like life.  Maybe there’s some secret.  We don’t know.  It’s not like we’ve gone deep into Mars’ volcanoes or all the way to the center of Mars or anything.  We don’t know everything about the planet.

IMM: How likely do you think it is that there is intelligent life on Mars?

NSM: Ahh...pretty likely.

IMM: Even though scientist think it would be really hard to live on Mars because of the cold and lack of water?

NSM: What if there are creatures that can survive the cold?  What if they need it to survive?  What if they use ice caps?  Everybody says, “Martians don’t exist! Martians don’t exist!”  It kind of makes me feel bad.  I don’t always listen.  I still think about Martian theory, even though no one believes it.

IMM: Is there any evidence that would make you not believe your theory?

NSM: Not really.

IMM: Not even if you could go explore it yourself, underground and all?

NSM: Maybe.  But maybe if they weren’t there, it just meant they got too hot or too cold or got some kind of plague and abandoned Mars for some other outer planet or something.

IMM: You’re pretty connected to these Martians, aren’t you?

NSM: I want to meet a Martian someday.

IMM: What about aliens from other planets or galaxies?

NSM: I don’t believe they exist.

IMM: Really?  Why?

NSM: Because Mars is the most similar to earth.

IMM: What is your idea of a good weekend?

NSM: TV, not doing anything, TV, potato chips, hot dogs, staying up late, more TV.

IMM: Do you like to read books?

NSM: Some books.

IMM: What makes a book good?

NSM: Underwear.

IMM: So only books about underwear?

NSM: There are lots of books with underwear; Captain Underpants, Dinosaurs Love Underpants, and others.  But I like other books too.  Like Hoot.  It’s pretty interesting.  Never judge a book by its cover.  At first I thought it was some awful baby book.

IMM: Anything else you’d like to add?

NSM: [Long pause]…..uhhhh…mmmmm….no.

IMM: Thank you.

Isaac Morehouse


Isaac Morehouse is the CEO of Crash, the career launch platform, and the founder of Praxis, a startup apprenticeship program. Isaac is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of freedom. He’s written some books, done some podcasting, and is always experimenting with self-directed living and learning.

Featured on -

Looking for something?


Blog Archives

Archives

The Ever Moving Goalposts of Arguments for College


 

You have to go to college to get a good job and make money

Actually, college grads have an average of $35,000 in debt and 60% of them have no job or jobs that don't require degrees.  Those silly earnings statistics have the causation backwards.

 

But you still need to learn skills for the real world!

Actually, employers report that college grads are completely unprepared for what's needed in the real world.  You can learn all the skills you need better, faster, and cheaper through an apprenticeship.  College tends to foster all the worst skills; the type that make humans dull rule followers, easily replaceable by machines.

 

You can't be so one-dimensional and materialistic.  The liberal arts are important to becoming well rounded person.

Precisely why you shouldn't go to college.  Student knowledge of liberal arts is the same when they exit as when they enter school, and none of them like going to class anyway.  Anyone who is interested can read books and articles or take classes for free or incredibly cheap and get a far better liberal arts education.

 

It's not about the knowledge, it's about the network!

College networks are incredibly limited and uniform.  Anyone can build a rich, diverse network through work, travel, social clubs, or any number of ways that don't cost six figures or take five years.

 

It's not about the specific job, skills, knowledge, or network, it's about the glories of the unique campus environment, the parties, the football, the four year escape to live and grow up!

Anyone can move to a college town and have all that and more without ever paying tuition or registering for classes.

 

Employers still need a degree as a signal of hireablility!

Actually, fewer and fewer require it and even those that do care far more about things that actually signal value creation.  A degree is one of the weakest signals on the market and the most expensive.  There are more ways than ever to get great jobs and stand out without wasted time or wasted dime.

 

Some jobs have mandated legal requirements for a degree!

Yes.  Yes they do.  And they shouldn't.  Of course, many of those jobs are "prestige" careers that students don't actually enjoy but feel like their parents need them to pursue like law or medicine.  Even there, opportunity to innovate and work in those industries as an entrepreneur without the costly credential exist and are growing rapidly.

 

But old people and parents might look down on you if you don't do it!

Yep.  They look down on just about everything young people enjoy, create, and do well.  They'll adjust.

Whether People are Good or Bad…


I posted a quote by C.S. Lewis to Facebook about decentralized power being valuable not because everyone is so good they should have some, but because humans are imperfect and no one should have a lot.

An interesting discussion ensued in the comments.  It's easy to misunderstand what I take to be the core insight of the quote; that freedom doesn't depend on the moral goodness of people.

Here's my own take:

Markets and freedom work and benefit all whether people are good or bad.

Government control, on the other hand, is unnecessary if people are good and deadly if people are not.

Whatever your views on the goodness or badness of human nature, government is an unnecessary evil.

I happen to think people are self-interested, which is neither good nor bad.  When you try to force them to be good, they become worse.  When you let them freely pursue their own self interest, they become better.

76 – FwTK: Politics Sucks, Flexible Schedules are Hard, Fringe Theories are Great


Today we discuss why you have to be free before you expect the world to, not the other way around.  We talk about why politics is disempowering, why it's so hard to not let your job get in the way of your work, and why fringe theories are great for society.

Recommended in the episode: But What if We're Wrong, Patterson in Pursuit, Meditations on First Philosophy by Rene Descartes.

This and all episodes are available on SoundCloud, iTunes, YouTube, and Stitcher.

It Took Me Ten Years to Launch…and I Don’t Regret It


My brother and I started a business when I was 19, but is was never the business or anything I was really passionately committed to.  After that failed, I worked for other people for the next decade before Praxis, which had been a rough idea I had since age 17, was actually launched.

This wasn't a bad thing for me, and there's no way I would have accumulated the knowledge, network, skills, confidence, and experience needed without it.

Today I share 3 reasons you should work at a company before you launch your own.  Check it out, and relax a little.  As long as you're not doing stuff you hate, you're probably moving closer to your dreams.

If You Hate This Post You Hate Truth


Just about every argument for school is actually an argument for the value of education that proves nothing about the value of school.

Just about every argument for law is actually an argument for the value of order that proves nothing about the value of law.

Just about every argument for welfare is actually an argument for the value of compassion that proves nothing about the value of welfare.

Just about every argument for the military is actually an argument for the value of security that proves nothing about the value of the military.

Just about every argument for regulation is actually an argument for the value of safety that proves nothing about the value of regulation.

Doublespeak is alive and well. Those who succeed in making the name of their pet policy linguistically interchangeable with a basic universal value always get to play offense.

Name it and claim it!

Isaac Morehouse


Isaac Morehouse is the founder and CEO of Praxis, a startup apprenticeship program making degrees irrelevant for careers. Isaac is dedicated to the relentless pursuit of freedom. He’s written some books, done some podcasting, and is always experimenting with self-directed living and learning.

Featured on -

Occasional Email Updates

[mc4wp_form id="3197"]

Looking for something?


Blog Archives

Archives