What You Build, not What You Believe

Originally posted here.

“By their fruits you will recognize them.”
– Jesus

Not what you say, or who you like, or how you vote, or what Facebook groups you belong to.  Your fruit.  The tangible outcomes your life creates.  What you build.

It’s easy to place the locus of control with external forces.  It’s easy to feel like the government is in control, hampering you, reducing the prosperity and progress of society.  It’s easy to enter reaction/response mode and spend time complaining about or trying to reform these flawed institutions.  I think there’s a better way.

We can be co-creators.  We can build alternatives.

There are two ways to do things in society: Peacefully or by force. Crime and government operate by force and threat.  Businesses, churches, social groups, and all other institutions operate by peace (unless corrupted or coopted).

Those of us who realize this can quickly and easily describe what’s wrong with the use of force. We can decry it and protest it.  But even criticism of the status quo is a backward looking act.  It is playing within the rules of the game. What if instead we directed that energy outward, creatively, not to tearing down what we dislike but building what we do?

The tools of violence are immoral and inefficient.  They are less desirable and less effective. Instead of trying to convince more people of this, why not show them?  Why not create a better alternative and let it win out?

It took me a while, but I decided to do just that.  For me it was education.

Though not as completely coopted as other areas, higher education is by no means a free-market.  It’s a yucky web of subsidies, grants, regulations, and laws that make degrees artificially valuable.  The system cajoles young people into four years and six figures of a process many dislike and don’t gain value from, walking away with debt, a sweatshirt, and no clue what to do next.  I saw it bringing more and more young people down.  I took a leap and decided not to merely criticize but to create.

I launched my company Praxis two years ago to provide an alternative path for entrepreneurial young people who want more than college.  We’re still new, we’re still small, but we’re growing and the lives that have changed through the program already are enough to tell me this was the right move – the best move I could have made.

I don’t want to fight with people about my views on higher ed, government, or society.  I want to offer people something that is attractive to them, something valuable.  That’s what markets do best – reward endeavors that create value and let die out those that don’t.  I wanted to show, not tell, the world about a better way to approach education, career, and life.

When freedom expands it tends to do so in the realm of lived experience prior to conscious argument.  Once people have tasted freedom in a tangible way – the fruit – they embrace it and reject the status quo.

Rather than looking for political solutions or arguments, can you build and demonstrate a better way?  Can you show the fruit of your ideas?

It’s a challenging and powerful question.  Let’s ask it more often.

The Power of the Subconscious

I’ve written before about one of my favorite books, Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creationand what it says about the subconscious mind being the key to scientific discovery, artistic expression, and other eureka moments.  Koestler describes a common process where those trying to solve a problem or create something new consciously wrestle with the ideas so much that they seep into the subconscious.  After some time away (sleeping, a vacation, a walk, other pursuits) the solution emerges from the subconscious into the conscious mind when least expected.

A friend was telling me recently about a similar observation Napoleon Hill made about those who write down and read or recite their goals regularly.  The goals, after being absorbed and repeated over and again, seep into the subconscious.  That’s when the real stuff happens.  The subconscious takes over, works on the goals, heightens your awareness to ideas and opportunities that move you towards them, and sends out a kind of invisible signal to the world that attracts people and things that assist you in the achievement of the goals.

This need not be interpreted as a mystical phenomenon.  How many times, after learning a new word, do you begin to notice that word everywhere?  How many times, after naming a child something unique, do you begin to hear that name regularly?  Once your subconscious has material to work with, it alters your perception and enables you to tune in to the things that best resonate with whatever is bouncing around in there.

This means that, whether or not you’re deliberately putting it to work, your subconscious mind is working.  What is it doing?  What problems is it solving?  What opportunities is it making you attuned to?  In what ways could you put it to work for you more effectively?

Why It’s So Hard to Create

Yesterday in a blog post I wrote “LCD” when I meant LSD.  A commenter on Facebook was kind enough to point out the error.  It was a little funny and a little embarrassing, and an illustration of one of the reasons it’s so hard to create stuff.

Typos and errors here and there are no big deal.  But if you’re regularly churning out copy, they start to accumulate.  Not only will people tell you when they dislike your content, they’ll (helpfully) point out mistakes.  Nobody emails you to say, “Hey, there were no typo’s in this paragraph”, or, “Great work getting the commas right.”  It’d be weird if they did.  Still, when you’re on the production side you can begin to feel like all you produce is error.  Why take the risk at all?  If you don’t create anything no one can tell you what’s wrong with your creation.  There is no opportunity to be embarrassed by factual or grammatical error.  There is no chance you’ll offend or be misunderstood, or what is sometimes worse, ignored.

The fact that it’s not perfect exudes a relentless pressure toward not completing or releasing your creations to the world.  Even if you think it’s pretty good, sometimes it has no effect.  Sometimes it gets no traction, doesn’t persuade or enlighten.  Sometimes it has an effect opposite intention.

I’ve responded to this pressure by not creating at times.  The world goes on and nobody seems put out.  Except me.  Humans are creative beings.  We’re not fulfilled if we’re only repeating and consuming.  Production and exchange of goods, services, and ideas are necessary for a full life.

I have to regularly remind myself why I create.  I do it for me.  With or without perfection, with or without an audience, the process and result are necessary for my own well-being.

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.

I Write Because it Changes Me

In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis (played by Anthony Hopkins) is told by a friend that, despite the mockery of his atheist colleagues, his prayers for his sick wife are having an effect.  Lewis, however, is not concerned with whether or not prayer “works” in altering the universe:

“I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”

This is a powerful bit of self-honesty.  Lewis felt no need to respond to philosophical or theological objections to his actions.  He wasn’t praying to convince God, he was praying because he knew the value to him of this activity, regardless of the outcome.

I have made a point recently to remind myself of why I write; not to change my audience, but to change me.

There will never be a shortage of people who offer objections to ideas I put to paper, or critique the way I choose to communicate those ideas.  If my goal were to win over as many people as possible to my point of view, this would be incredibly stressful.  Every objection would require a response or a change in my future behavior. It’s not a particularly fun or productive way to live.

Feedback is wonderful.  It creates a connection between creator and consumer that results in better content.  But feedback is only helpful if it doesn’t make us bitter and we don’t worship it.  If it hurts us to hear and we begin to create things motivated entirely by the need to stick it to the “haters”, we’ll produce lower quality content and be less happy doing so.  If we overvalue feedback and rethink every word to predict every possible way in which it might be misinterpreted, we’ll produce boring content and have less fun in the process.  Both of these responses put the feedback of others in the drivers seat and you, the creator, in the passenger seat.  Don’t let that happen.

Take in feedback, enjoy it, laugh at it, use it, but don’t pay it too much attention.  Remind yourself that the reason you write (or read, or speak, or paint, or sing, or…) is because it changes you.