Kiteboarders or Cops?

Last summer I had a conversation with a kiteboarder about his sport and the clan-like nature of his fellow athletes.  He told me that the local government body has entertained the idea of putting more rules and restrictions on kiteboarding but that, thus far, they’ve been stymied.  Every time they try, the community of boarders rallies information and support and kills the case for more regulation.

As usual, calls for government intervention follow highly visible events.  Political operatives rarely push legislation because they spent hours studying how to make life better; instead they respond to opportunities to gain public support by appearing as the savior after bad things happen.  In this case, there was a kiteboarder who cruised too close to swimmers and had a collision.  No major injuries resulted, but it got a local reporter to write about this “growing problem”.  Ordinances were proposed.  Kiteboarders were able to stop them, mostly because the public was pretty indifferent and the few people that did care heard their stories.

The boarders explained two things: that no one could police bad actors better than they already were, and that no one should forget the immense value of kiteboarders, which outweighs the slightly increased risk to swimmers.

To illustrate the first point, the guy I was talking to described how all the boarders know each other, and new kites quickly attract the old guard.  They get to know the new boarders and make sure they realize they are not only representing themselves, but are part of a community with all the benefits (helping each other in rough weather, etc.) and accountability.  He said when an “idiot boarder” showboats, is in over their level of experience, or gets too close to swimmers, others in the community are quick to respond.  Sometimes they even threaten to “take action” if the behavior doesn’t stop.  He told me this works remarkably well.  He laughed at the idea that shore-based beach police could respond to rogue boarders in any meaningful time-frame.  He said by the time they arrived, the bad actor would have been thoroughly dealt with by other boarders.

The second point was even more powerful.  Do kiteboarders increase the risks of beachgoing?  Sure, a little bit.  It’s one more thing going on and collision is a possibility, self-patrolling notwithstanding.  But what about the benefits?  Not just the economic benefits to beachside businesses from the popular sport, or the benefits to boarders themselves, but what about a reduction in risk to the beachgoing public?  This boarder told me that in the last two summers alone no fewer than three people, two of them children, were saved from drowning by his fellow athletes.  The kites allow boarders to zip across the water at lightening speed to the aid of struggling swimmers long before anyone from shore could.  I’d take a slightly increased risk of a collision with a rogue boarder along with an reduced risk of drowning any day.

Every perceived new danger brings calls for regulation and intervention.  But who is better at producing order and reducing risk; communities like the kiteboarders, or professional bureaucrats and enforcement agents?  For a pleasant and safe beach experience, I’d take kiteboarders over cops any day.

(Also posted at LFB.org)

New Tides and Old Time

New tides pull the mind
Leaving old ideas behind
In the pools of time unkind

Glasses full of red wine,
Still we’re powerless to climb
The stormy seas of yours & mine

So pull the thread of this rhyme
Unfold the bundles we bind
As mud on the eyes of the blind

What’s yours is mine
& loving you I find
Is a piece of the divine

The Law is Written on Our Hearts

(Originally posted here.  I’ve been thinking more on this topic and I felt the urge to re-post.)

A great many people believe that changing the law is the solution to social problems. This is a fiction.

If written law were some kind of unbreakable magic spell, the United States would not look as it now does. Nearly all of what the government does today is not by any stretch of the imagination “constitutional.” Written laws and documents do not hold the power to control individual behavior or government behavior.

It is true that when people believe the law to be important, they will obey it. But when they believe it to be unimportant they will just as easily disregard it. In the end it is people’s beliefs, not the law that determines behavior.

Perhaps we are seduced into the “Myth of the Rule of Law” because it is so hard to see what’s really regulating behavior and generating social order. The “Invisible Hand” that Adam Smith described as channeling self-interest in the marketplace to serve the diverse needs and wants of its participants is also at work in the marketplace of ideas, social norms and morality. The core beliefs we hold and the norms that emerge from centuries of social interaction are what restrain or fail to restrain behavior.

This is not merely academic. It is dangerous to persist in the belief that the law is the ultimate check on human behavior for two distinct reasons: First, law does not ultimately change the behavior of its intended targets; second, because it does change the behavior of others.

The first problem renders social reform efforts ineffective. The vast majority of attempts to restrain government, help the poor, make people healthier, more charitable, more equal, less intolerant, more responsible with natural resources, or better educated are really just attempts to change what’s written on pieces of government paper. A different combination of words in the Federal Register one day to the next cannot change human hearts one day to the next.

A powerful example is the brief experiment with alcohol prohibition in the United States. Many in the temperance movement genuinely wanted to prevent drunkenness, alcoholism and the irresponsible and even violent action that sometimes accompanies. They focused their attention mainly on what they incorrectly thought to be the source of power over human behavior—the law. They were successful in changing the law, but failed to sufficiently change hearts. A large number of people still wanted to consume alcohol because they did not believe it was immoral to do so. Because they believed in it, they did it despite the law. The main effect of making the activity illegal was to make the production and distribution of alcohol a violent business, where it had previously been much like any other beverage. There were not gang wars over the soda fountain.

Contrast the legal strategy with the strategy of an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous. AA aims for the heart. They work to change individual lives and behavior by developing a non-judgmental network of support and accountability. AA has been able to change countless lives and free people from the bondage of alcohol addiction. The law could never do that, and we should not ask it to.

I mentioned a second problem with believing the law to be the source of social order: It has a negative effect on unintended parties. This can also be illustrated by the prohibition example. Not only did the law fail to change the behavior of most drinkers, it succeeded in changing the behavior of criminals and government officials, leading to more corruption and violence. It also allowed those who wanted to lessen the damage done by alcohol addiction to feel like they’d “done something about it,” when in fact they’d not helped those that needed help at all.

The change in the average citizen’s moral sense is probably the gravest danger of belief in the power of law. It weakens our moral sense and lulls us into the belief that legality is a substitute for morality. We cease evaluating actions based on their merits as against the moral law and begin evaluating them against state-made law. We shirk responsibility to offer genuine aid because the law will do it, and at the same time we pronounce judgment on actions that are perfectly moral, just because they are illegal.

The issue of illegal immigration is illustrative. If we examine the idea without cloaking it in legal/illegal terms, we begin to see a different picture:

A friend of mine is desperately poor and wants to earn a better living for his family. He applies for a job with the local grocer. The grocer is impressed with his work ethic and is happy to offer him a job. This job means my friend can move his family out of their impoverished condition, afford a reasonable apartment and begin saving so his children and grandchildren can have a much better life. There is no trespass or harm committed in this story by any of the parties involved.

Would it be moral to hire armed men to stop my friend on the way to his first day on the job and physically remove his whole family and send them back to their old neighborhood and old life? Would you do this even if you knew it meant you were ensuring him a life of grinding poverty and very possibly death?

It is clearly immoral to interfere with another individual in this way, in particular when such interference condemns them to a much harsher life. But that is precisely what most Americans advocate when they cry for enforcement of immigration laws. The only thing that makes otherwise moral people advocate such immoral behavior is the word “illegal”—in other words a belief in the power of law.

People believe that breaking state-made law is in and of itself an immoral act that justifies the use of violence in retaliation. This absurd notion does not hold up under the slightest scrutiny, even for those who most strongly believe it. I have yet to find an American who says that those harboring Jews during the Holocaust were acting immorally and deserved punishment, or that the individuals who assisted escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad were deserving of incarceration for breaking the law.

Helping peaceful people who are destitute and persecuted is noble, and when done in defiance of the law can even be courageous. It is only a belief in the supremacy of manmade law over moral law that prevents most Americans from viewing as heroic those who assist immigrants hounded by armed border agents. I submit that looking out for the poor is better than locking them up when they have done nothing but seek a better life.

When we remove our awe for legislation we discover that genuine social change is hampered by a belief in the power of law. We also discover that good people will tolerate or even condone immoral acts when they believe that what is legal is more important than what is right. It is lazy to let the law be our agent of change and dangerous to let it be our moral compass.

Just Get **it Done

There are a lot of traits and skills that can make someone more valuable professionally.  All of them pale in comparison to one: finishing.  One can make up for a lot of deficiency in skill and experience with hard work, but not the other way around.

By ‘hard work’ I do not mean work that is painful or boring or time consuming.  Certainly hard work can be all of these things, but if you’re measuring work by how much it hurts or how long it takes, you’re spinning your wheels.  Hard work is work that produces something ‘hard’.  It creates a tangible result, and a good one.  What matters is output, getting things done fast and well.

It is true, there’s a trade-off between ‘fast’ and ‘well’.  While it is very important to do a job well, once it meets a certain level of quality you’ve got to complete it and move on.  A lot of people may disagree with me, but I’ve observed that probably eight times out of ten, timeliness is more important than additional degrees of perfection.  The key is to learn something each time about how you could have done it better, that way the quality improves with each project and the time to completion does not decrease.  If you simply get things done, on time, every time without a lot of drama, and learn as you go, you will develop and excellent reputation as a highly valuable individual to work with…and herein lies the danger.

Your reputation is more important to your value in the eyes of others than is your actual product.  It couldn’t be any other way, as no one you work with has time to follow every detail every day of what you do.  If you come through reliably, especially on some big tasks early on, you will begin to get a reputation as someone who gets things done.  The longer you live up to it, the stronger the reputation becomes.  At some point, you’ll see diminishing returns to hard work.  Your reputation will be strong enough to survive a missed project here or there.  When you are most secure in your professional role you are most vulnerable.  The comfort zone is the danger zone.

The danger is not that people will suddenly realize you’re no longer getting it done.  That may happen, but I’ve witnessed people who continue to get by on a legacy of past work for years.  It seems some people can spend the better part of their careers getting work because of a reputation formed decades before.  The real danger is that you’ll stop creating value.  This is a tragedy, not only for any persons or organizations who pay you to produce, but for your own well-being.  Do not underestimate the deep human need to forge and create and hone and toil and complete.

The more praise you get early on, the more you need to be alert to the temptation to slack.  You’ve never “arrived”.  You always need to work hard.  That is what separates the good from the truly great.  The good get a well-deserved reputation and then do what’s necessary to maintain it.  The great put their nose to the grind ’till the end, even if their reputation would be OK if they didn’t.  They continue to evolve what they produce so that it is more and more what they love, but they keep producing.

What can you do to better your career?  Young or old, experienced or inexperienced, just get **it done.

A Citizen by Choice

This excellent post by Jeff Tucker over at Laissez Faire Books got me thinking about citizenship.  Per Jeff’s suggestion, I visited Tweetping.net and sat mesmerized as I watched communities grow across the globe, irrespective of arbitrary government borders.

Odd isn’t it; we’re born into citizenship of counties, states, and countries, which are little more than organized crime gangs with layers of bureaucracy, and we are supposed to feel allegiance to these.  Yet everywhere you turn, people are constantly joining myriad associations to get the benefits, both practical and sentimental, that state citizenship is supposed to confer.  States are an anachronism, and more so every day.  Exist costs and lack of alternatives have long been the primary reasons states maintain as many citizens as they do.  Technology is smashing both barriers.

Now you can exit the state and become the citizen of a place that meets your needs and provides a voluntary community far superior.  Most people today have overlapping citizenship in dozens of digital commercial and social jurisdictions.  You can join a better community from right where you are.  Technology has not (yet) provided a way to completely opt out of states, at least without significant risk of being pursued by armed agents, but it offers alternatives to services supposedly only states can provide, including intangible things like a sense of community.  This is exciting.

When states lose the power of patriotism we can see them more clearly for what they are: violent, inefficient and corrupt monopolizers who force us to use services of inferior quality and make us pay even if we don’t.  When state operatives have a harder time winning affection by appealing to the “us vs. them” mindset in citizens because citizens are a part of so many “us’s” and with stronger bonds than they have with the state, the edifice begins to crumble.

Far from being atomistic, critics of the state desire a world of strong and genuine social bonds.  They know the truest of such bonds are forged by cooperation not force; by choice not dictate; by mutual interest not lines on a map.  The more ties formed voluntarily, the weaker the chains of the state.

Some bureau somewhere considers me a citizen of Mount Pleasant, and South Carolina, and the United States.  They take some of my money because of it.  Whatever they need to tell themselves to feel better.  I consider myself a citizen of Amazon Prime, Facebook, Visa, The Institute for Humane Studies, my church, Netflix, Google, Twitter, LFBC, The Hartford Insurance, home school associations, etc. etc. and on and on.  I joined each of these entities to meet specific needs.  Some offer valuable services.  Some offer education.  Some offer security and protection.  Some offer comradery.  Some offer many things at once, while some offer only one.  I have different levels of love and loyalty for each, but all of them render something that terrifies states because they can never offer it: choice.

When Impediments Become Implements

My wife and I took the kids out to eat last night to surprise them with a little fun, and to take a break from making dinner and doing dishes.  We got to the restaurant early and were nearly the only people in our section.  Within minutes, the kids were tearing apart napkins, biting crayons, dropping jelly packets on the floor and generally enjoying themselves.  I had settled in my chair with a cup of coffee and was delighted by the relative relaxation of a quiet restaurant and no cleanup after.

Then we heard it.  A deep, disturbing cough.  Every few minutes we’d hear it again.  I discreetly turned towards the sound and saw a rather haggard looking older gentleman sitting alone. The others in our section definitely noticed the cough and tried not to be visibly offended.  I made a comment to my wife that the noise might take all the enjoyment out of the experience.  She just smiled and said I was being a bit too dramatic.

We ordered, ate, and were loitering at our table for a bit.  The coughing happened intermittently throughout the meal, but the man left just before we were done eating.  The waitress came up and said, “You’re all set.”  We looked up a little confused.  She added, “The gentleman over there paid for your meal.”  My wife asked if she was referring to the older guy who had been coughing and she said yes.  She told us he comes in nearly every day, and, “Sometimes he just picks up somebodies check”.  I was incredibly humbled.

What I saw as an impediment to an enjoyable family dinner become an implement.  Not only did this stranger save us a little money, his act completely transformed the whole experience.  My wife was glowing, the kids thought it was the coolest thing ever, and I was reminded of how short-sighted I can be.  My position regarding this guest began as an adversarial one.  I heard his cough and immediately set myself up against him mentally.  I was fighting for an enjoyable experience, and he was trying to prevent it.  When the waitress delivered the news, it shattered my whole narrative and made me feel small.

If we look for roadblocks, we’ll find them.  If we suspend judgement and let things unfold, roadblocks may turn into opportunities.

Smith, Smith Everywhere

Everywhere I turn I see a theme: decentralized, unplanned order is superior to rigid top-down plans.

Popular economist Nassim Talib’s new book, Antifragile is about, “Things that gain from disorder”.  Historian James C. Scott’s latest book is called, Two Cheers for Anarchism.  A few years back I read a pop-business book called, The Starfish and the Spiderabout the “Unstoppable power of leaderless organizations.”   Then there’s this discussion of the 2004 book, Sync, on, “The emerging science of spontaneous order.”

What do these have in common?  None of the authors describe themselves as libertarians, and only some of them reference F.A. Hayek or other libertarian thinkers who are known for the idea of spontaneous order.  This is exciting.

At first I noticed this trend and thought it was interesting how Hayek’s ideas are so fundamental that they are being explored in all disciplines by all kinds of thinkers.  But really, it goes back to Adam Smith (who doubtless drew on ideas from many others before him).  One of Smith’s core insights was that individuals pursuing their own interests unwittingly produce a broader order that benefits all.  It seems simple.  Yet this observation is so deep and rich with explanatory power that we might easily overlook it’s staggering implications.  Hayek’s work, among others, extended this insight and asked more questions about why and how unplanned order is superior to top-down dictates.

Today we see not only an extension of this idea in theory, but widespread application. Websites like Wikipedia were founded on this insight.  User-generated content and the network based framework of the web are live experiments in decentralized order.  The self-policing of blogs and forums and the customers reviews on Amazon and Yelp put the idea to test for all to see.  It’s increasingly difficult to be unaware of the “invisible hand”; it’s becoming more visible every day.

Many who are tapping the power of this insight don’t necessarily extend it to society at large.  As I said, most of the works referenced above are not full-fledged calls for libertarianism.  Still, the power of decentralization, the clunkiness of monopolistic bureaucracy, and the beauty of the unknown and emergent are more understood than ever.  Understanding breeds acceptance.

Seeing is believing.  So is doing.  A generation that believes in the power of voluntary cooperation because they take part in it every day is no less valuable than one that reads libertarian theory.  The future is open, unknown, and bright.

Without Narrative, Vision, and Imagination, the People Perish

I had a friend who assured me sometime around 2000 that the internet wasn’t going anywhere.  He was a smart guy, and even worked in the tech world.  Still, he couldn’t foresee any way the internet could grow large and fast enough to accommodate demand, especially because there was no reliable revenue model.  He predicted it would skyrocket in cost and be used only by big players with a lot of cash.

Today free internet at speeds then unimaginable with content beyond the wildest dreams of that time is ubiquitous.  But he was not a fool.  He just lacked imagination.  It’s possible that the relatively high level of expertise he had with the technology actually made him less able to see beyond its current applications.

We can laugh at predictions like this, but how often do we have small imaginations about our own present and future?  We tend to overvalue the status quo because we cannot think of any other way.  The world is replete with examples if we open our eyes.

At the very time my friend was struggling to see a way companies could offer internet access for free broadcast television and radio were already doing it and had been for decades using advertising as a revenue source.  His focus on what was immediately before him prevented him seeing what was all around him.

We suffer not only from inadequately appreciating the present and the possibilities of the future, but blindness to the past as a clue to what is possible.  I listened to a recent discussion over whether a coercive government monopoly was needed to provide firefighting services.  For nearly twenty minutes there was back and forth as the discussants struggled to think up a viable business plan absent tax funding.  If left to decide roles for the state, this group may have concluded firefighting had to be one, as the free market just couldn’t do it.  The problem with this conclusion (like that of economists who claimed the same for lighthouses) is that for the majority of history firefighting was privately provided.

In order to make the world a freer, better place we need a combination of three things: narrative, vision, and imagination.

Narrative is our story about the past.  If we don’t have enough facts or we interpret them through an incorrect theoretical lens, our narrative about what was will be incorrect.  If, for example, we persists in the false assumption that firefighting and lighthouses have never been privately provided, or the American West was a violent and disorderly place before governments took hold, we will be incapable of accurately seeing present and future possibilities.

Vision is how we see the present.  Do we see harmony and assume that legislation is the only thing keeping mayhem at bay?  Or do we see the beautiful and complex workings of spontaneous order? Our vision will determine how comfortable we are with freedom.  Through state-colored lenses we will live in fear of the chaos around the corner and be reticent to allow our fellow man liberty to experiment, try, fail, succeed and progress.  If our vision expands and we begin to see the way individuals cooperate and coordinate for mutual benefit absent central direction we will welcome and embrace freedom.

Imagination is what we believe about the future.  It determines what we think possible.  If we zoom in too close to the problem at hand we get stuck and fail to allow for the unknown.  We don’t have to know what will be, or even what precisely is possible.  We just have to be humble enough and learn from the patterns of past and present that all our assumptions are going to be blown to smithereens by human creativity.  Don’t try to resist it.  Expect it.

Only when we have the right narrative about the past, the vision to see the beauty of the present, and imagination enough to allow for the wonders of the future will we have the freedom to create it.

Heaven & Hell

Between every other
Odd-numbered November

You tell us that we’re slaves
So you might as well be master

After all you gave your last slaves
Plenty of bread

Half put out our hands
And half just shake our heads

You call it greed when I give five
To a man I see is poor

You tell me I don’t care
You say it should be more

So you shake me down and take my cash
And give the guy just four

Everything you do with guns
You love me when you make your runs

But I ain’t dumb, I know
That after the show

You’ll tell me what to drive to where
And charge me just to get there

It’s for my good you know
Your conscience tells you so

You’re on your way to heaven
But the place you’ve made me live in

Is nothing short of hell
It’s nothing short of hell

There’s gotta be something
There’s gotta be something free

 

This place got kinda twisted
So much quicker than you’d think

You’d think we’d learn our lesson
After watching others sink

But inside the little Social Clubs
The kids are taught to trust and love

Anything but self
They put it on the shelf

They serf the wake they should be mourning
And mourn the greatest gift of all

Instead of taking warning
Instead of taking warning

There’s gotta be something
There’s gotta be something free

 

When I sleep I seem to find it
I find it ‘cause I dream

I guess it’s time to find a way
To dream instead of waking

To take what’s for the taking
To see with eyes wide open

What I used to see while sleeping
The things I once was weeping

Are blessings for the reaping
Blessings for the reaping

It ain’t wrong to take some joy
In my own free will

It ain’t wrong to take some joy
In my own free will

You dance your ‘righteous’ dance
I’ll gladly take a pass

And dream while I see
I really am still free

‘No’ Saves Resources

In most jobs, the goal is to ‘get to yes’. But all the focus on yes can cause us to under-appreciate the immense value of no. No saves resources. Those resources can be redeployed to productive ventures, like turning more maybe’s into yes’s.

Unfortunately, it’s not fun to say no. People like to be liked and they like to be nice. When a question, invitation, request or commitment is hanging out there to which we’d like to say no, we often run away from it, ignore it and say nothing, hoping it will go away. We assume our neglect will send a message to the asker that will make them stop asking without putting us in the uncomfortable position of telling them no to their face.

The problem is, no answer doesn’t always mean no. It can mean yes, I forgot, maybe, not now, how about a slightly different version, or any number of things. It does not send a clear signal to the seeker that lets them know whether, to what extent, and in what way they should spend more time and resources pursuing an answer. This means the next most valuable items on their list have to wait.

I have come to love hearing no. Of course, I’d always rather hear yes, but apart from yes or variations of it (yes later, yes with modifications, etc.), no is the best response. No answer is the worst. It means all my effort gained me nothing. I have no idea whether or not to keep going or how much time to put in. I’m back at square one.

This is true in every industry and circumstance I can think of. It’s true in sales. It’s no less true in accounting, dating, or parenting. No creates value by freeing up resources to pursue other ends. Don’t be afraid to say no. You just might be helping the person on the other end of the question.

A Noble Library

We love to go to Barnes & Noble.  It’s one place everyone in the family enjoys.  There’s WiFi and coffee for me and my wife, there are books and toys for the kids, and it’s free!

It’s great to have a peaceful place full of books where you can go to read, think, browse and let the kids do the same.  Such places used to be called libraries.  Before we moved to South Carolina, there was a library closer to us than a large bookstore.  We would go from time to time for story hour or just to meander.  It was OK, but pales in comparison to B&N.

B&N charges no membership fee.  Nor to they do they take money coerced out of taxpayers.  They have Starbuck whereas the library doesn’t even want you to drink inside, besides the crusty drinking fountain.  There are toys for kids of all ages.  The architecture and lighting are fresher and newer, unlike the Societ-esque design of most public libraries.  You can browse books in both, but if you really like one at B&N, you can buy it too.  They have wonderful story times and special events for kids.  And it’s located close to other places we like to go, unlike suburban libraries which are often far from retail areas.

You can look at books for free or you can buy them, but you cannot borrow them.  This may be a major downside for some people, but I’ve never found it much of a problem.  For one thing, children’s books are usually so short that you can read it all to your kids in the store in one sitting.  As for myself, I try to read books that I think worth buying anyway, and I am increasingly moving to all eBooks.

Suburban libraries seem pretty silly now.  There are wonderful and spacious bookstores.  There are all kinds of non tax supported niche libraries at everything from local churches to the Polish American Club.  For people who use libraries to do serious research, there are a growing number of online solutions like JSTOR and others, and of course universities maintain their own, often much more extensive, libraries for such purposes.

All of this seems sufficient to at least propose an end to tax dollars flowing to libraries.  Some would certainly survive by charging higher membership fees, raising donations, or finding some other revenue model.  Some would disappear.  The adjustment doesn’t really seem that difficult given what’s available online and the kind of experience offered for free by large bookstores.

I am constantly reminded of just how amazing commerce is as a civilizing force.  Who could have imagined a business model where you let anyone off the street waltz in to your store and thumb through all of your merchandise as long as they like with no charge?  If I’d never seen it myself and you asked me whether a service like that could be provided on the market, I would have said no.  Entrepreneurs have shown time and again how things no one could imagine being done outside of a coercive monopoly can be done, and done better, through voluntary markets.

Keep an open mind and think about what else might be possible if legal barriers that prevent entrepreneurs from providing other services were removed.

When it’s Good to be a Failure

I’m a failure according to my own definition.

The current me doesn’t think I’m a failure – I’m pretty happy about where I’m at in life and feel I’m doing what I love at the moment. It’s one of the versions of me from the past that thinks I’m a failure.

There was a time (I shudder to recall) when I thought being an elected politician was the way to live and spread freedom. I went to work in the legislature to see how to become a lawmaker. During that time I met a lot of people who didn’t know me before and haven’t kept up since. They knew the Isaac who defined success as being an elected official. Friends and relatives saw me working in politics and could foresee what a successful end in that realm looked like in their minds. For these people, my life won’t be a success until I achieve what I was then pursuing.

Along the way I learned more about myself. My goals didn’t change, just the way I visualized achieving them. I was pursuing a certain ideal and a bundle of sensations. I was pursuing freedom. I was incapable of imagining anything but a crude vision of political freedom, and my worldview was so simple I thought politicians created it. Therefore I wanted to be one. Freedom is still what I want, but with more experience and knowledge I have come to believe being involved in politics would be the worst possible way to achieve it. My definition of success morphed.

This happens all the time with humans. A child may say he wants to be a firefighter only because in his world, firefighter is one of the four or five options he can imagine. It’s the one that makes him feel the most excited and good about helping people.

As they grow, children learn about a huge range of activities in the world and realize that, to achieve the feeling they desire, firefighting is an inferior method to being a paramedic, a teacher, an entrepreneur, or an X-Games athlete. It’s not that we sell out on our dreams, it’s just that our dreams were crude representations of what we thought we wanted.  When we learn more, we make different decisions. C.S. Lewis talks about the, “[I]gnorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.”

Once we learn what’s possible, we laugh at what we previously thought of as the ultimate achievement. This growth is all well and good until we confront people from our past who have us locked in to our previous dreams.

Sometimes people ask me when I’m going to be president, and no matter what answer I give, it seems to them like a cop-out or excuse for my own failure. They refuse to believe me when I say I wouldn’t wish political office on my worst enemy, let alone myself. They think I’m being modest.

I have a friend who went to Hollywood wanting to be an actor and now realizes his creative energies are far broader. People back home always want to know when they’ll see him on the big screen. We sometimes joke that someday, when he has millions and is producing, directing, writing and doing whatever he wants in life, his friends back home will say, “Haven’t seen you on TV…you just haven’t caught that break yet, huh?”

It can be a little weird to describe how and why your dreams and definitions of success change over time. A lot of people don’t actually want to know. They just want to know if you’re Governor yet, or an Oscar winning actor. That’s alright. Don’t fret over it and don’t spend too much energy trying to convince them you’re really not a failure. If they insist on defining success they way you did before you knew better, just let them think you’re a failure and laugh at the absurdity.

If I’m a failure for not being the silly thing I once wanted to be, it’s good to be a failure.

Don’t Let Words Own You

I had a recent discussion with some passionate people who were frustrated by various public figures describing themselves as libertarian.  They felt it imperative to police the use of this word and go on the offensive, making sure to publicly demonstrate how wrong it was for people to use the word to describe themselves unless they believe certain things.  I’m not sure this is a productive response.

I understand the frustration.  When you use a word to describe yourself or your philosophy, you become increasingly attuned to how the word is used and perceived among the masses.  Christians and other religious groups have this problem, as do political ideologies.  It’s easy to feel like the labels you use abandon you as they become hijacked by people with views entirely different from your own.  The often cited example of the word “liberal” serves as a warning in the minds of many of what happens if you don’t fight to protect definitions.  It used to describe the ideas of people who favored more freedom from government power, now it means something far more nebulous and sometimes it is even used to describe the ideas of people who see more government power as the solution to nearly everything.

But who has “lost” in the transition?  It is true certain words sound nicer than others, but the word was always a shortcut to convey ideas.  The ideas are still here.  You are no less free to believe in less state power because the word “liberal” has changed meaning over the years.  You are no less free to use the word as you choose either.

To say that a word is hijacked is to assume it was first owned.  Can you really own a word?  Language is a constantly evolving spontaneous order.  You can use it, influence it, and benefit from it.  You can’t really own it.  If you spend your time feeling bitter and robbed when people use language in ways you don’t like, you will probably enjoy life less and you’ll be no more able to stand athwart language and yell, “stop!”

There are two potentially productive responses.  You can simply ignore the misuse.  Stop using the word if you must.  Or keep using it if it makes sense.  Or use it sometimes and not others.  Ask people to clarify what they mean by a word if you’re not sure, but don’t demand they stop using it.  Try going label-less.  Be indescribable.  It can be a little inconvenient, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Maybe labels are too important to you to drop and you want to influence the way they are used.  Instead of getting mad, see it as a kind of game or challenge.  What can you do to alter the way people perceive a word?  If you want people to associate good things with labels you use, live a life that impresses and attracts them.  Your ideas and your example are likely to do more to shape the meaning of the word than direct attempts to define it.  When you hear the word “Buddhist” or “Atheist” do you think only of the dictionary definition, or do you think about the way people using that label speak and behave?   Living your ideas will certainly do more for them than brow-beating word abusers.

Live your philosophy and don’t worry about trying to own the words that describe it.  Either live without labels, or live in such a way that it improves the public image of your labels.  Appointing yourself language police and waging war over words is likely to make you look small and grumpy.

If you live in perpetual fear that whatever label you belong to might move in a direction you don’t approve of, then you’re being owned by that label.  Language is an awesome and beautiful tool, but it won’t be made a slave and it’s a poor master.  It can be used, but it can’t be owned.  When you try, it tends to own you.

Don’t Let Your Success Define You

My good friend and blogger over at Tough Minded Optimism, T.K. Coleman, just wrote the blog post I intended to write today. This should not come as a surprise, as we have talked at length on this topic and most of my ideas on it come from him. I’ll quote him at length, because he nails it:

“Every time I attempt to create, I am confronted by two aspects of my self: T.K. the brand and T.K. the creator.

T.K. the brand is the part of me that feels a need to protect my reputation from the fatal possibilities of being seen as incompetent, uncreative, inconsistent, and unintelligent.

This is the P.R. department of my psyche and it never approves of me experimenting with new techniques out in the open.

It always reminds me, with the very best of intentions, of course, that the subtlest miscalculation could result in permanent damage to my image as a writer, a thinker, or an innovator.

T.K. the creator is the part of me that wants to exploit every experience as an opportunity to discover something new.

The creator is not concerned with saving face, protecting the brand, or subjecting creative impulses to quality approval tests.

This conflict is more acute the more successful you are at your “branded” activity. If you get a paycheck, or acceptance in your social circles for being the X guy, it’s a lot harder to be the Y guy. Even if you’re not the best at X, the mere fact that you’ve been doing it for some time and are known for it makes it more secure than Y. While it makes sense to specialize and go where returns are greatest, it’s also wise to make sure we include our own fulfillment in how we define returns.

I love music making, songwriting, poetry, short stories, and other creative forms of expression. I happen to think I’m not very good at them, but I get a lot of joy out of trying. It’s hard to let that part of myself show, because I’ve engaged in so much more public commentary and analysis. Whether or not I’m good at the latter, I’m comfortable with it and many people I know got to know me as a person who engages in that. To introduce a new aspect of myself is scary and a little embarrassing. But it feels even worse to repress it.

There was a special on an NFL game earlier this year about 49ers tight end Veron Davis and his love of art. Davis opened an art gallery in San Francisco where he displays and sells art, much of it his own. I was impressed. Not with the art as much as with the courage of a top tier athlete to put another side of himself out there for public scrutiny. Whether or not his art is good, it will tend to be seen as art produced by a non-artist, or the opening of his gallery as a self-indulgent act by a guy too rich for anyone to tell him he’s not an artist. I happened to think his art was pretty good, but that’s not the point. The point is he was willing to recreate himself, or enlarge his brand beyond what had worked before. I respect that. He was not letting the public perception define the private reality.

T.K. ends with some advice from his experience,

“I’ve been somewhat of a rebel towards the first voice [of risk aversion] for over a year and I’ve gotten more creative work done during that time than in my entire life combined.

I’ve discovered that it’s not enough to merely FIND work that’s worth doing. One must also FIGHT for the permission to keep doing the kind of work that turns them on, to avoid the trap of being boxed-in by the demands of the brand.

We each have to find our own ways of negotiating the concerns of our brand while making sure our creative evolution is not stunted in the process.

I leave the details of the process up to you.

My point is philosophical:

A brand is a great asset, but a very poor master.

At all costs, avoid becoming its slave.”

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