How to Build Social Capital

Not enough saving, way too much spending.  Willingness to go deep into debt, a demand for instant gratification, and the inability to defer consumption.  I think these problems are real, and far too common.  But I’m not talking about money.  I’m talking about social capital.

A lot of young people, eager to carve out a career and life path, burst onto the social/professional scene looking for favors.  Every new person they meet might be able to help them get a gig, a contract, an interview, or a check.  I don’t think most realize that approaching people with a, “What can you do for me and my career?” mindset is the fastest way to burn through social currency and end up broke.

Every time we interact cordially with another person we generate some good will.  It’s like putting a deposit into a social bank account with their name on it.  A simple smile and a handshake is worth a little.  A interesting conversation is worth more.  Connecting them to an idea or person of value to their goals, offering insightful feedback, or helping them achieve something can be worth quite a bit.  Being reliable, and doing these things consistently over time can build up a massive balance.  When you consider all the people you know and meet, it’s easy to see how a diverse portfolio of social capital can accumulate.  In the long-term, this social capital is more valuable than money, education, or credentials.

I’ve observed a lot of ambitious types meet a new person, and two minutes after shaking their hand, try to withdraw the tiny amount of capital they accumulated.  Indeed, many try to take out a massive loan without even a down-payment.  Every time you ask something of someone, you’re withdrawing some currency.  If all you’ve done is say hi and tell them where you work, you’ve deposited the minimum balance to establish an account.  When you follow this by immediately asking them to introduce you to someone, or read your manuscript, it’s like setting up a free checking account, dropping five bucks in, then hitting up the ATM for ten grand.  When nothing comes out, you shouldn’t be surprised.  The next move should not be to see a loan officer and beg for credit.

Don’t misunderstand; allowing others to help you can also be a way to accumulate social capital.  If someone really wants to help you, or if part of their job is to help you, or if they want to offer advice on something they are more experienced in than you, let them.  People love to be helpful, and especially love to give their opinion.  If you think of creating social capital only as you helping others, it may come off as condescending.  Often the best way is to ask people about their own life, work, and success.  Tell them your dreams and ask them what advice they’d offer, then really listen and try to take something from it.  Being an eager and grateful recipient of things that others enjoy giving is one of the best ways to achieve a positive balance in their account.

If you spend social capital before you’ve earned it, you probably will get ahead faster than your peers.  If you push and pester every new contact and drop business cards faster than Bernanke prints bank-notes, you will eventually get some interviews and make a little headway.  You’ll have the debt-fueled illusion of prosperity.  But you’ll owe so much to so many.  Your reputation, like a credit score, will scare away the prudent, who are those you’ll most need in the long run.  If you tap your Rolodex for social capital for every new pursuit, you’ll have nowhere to go when the really good idea comes along.  You’ll be a short term prodigy and a mid-long term failure.

Create a relational reserve.  See every person as another place to deposit some social cash, let it earn interest and be accessible when something really worthwhile pops up.  Ask yourself what you can do for people.  Don’t over-strategize how much help to offer based on how much you might value their help later.  It comes off as sketchy, and you’re probably not smart enough to figure out ahead of time who will generate the best return.  Keep a diverse portfolio, but deposit more where returns are consistent and solid over time.  Think about people that you would be eager to do a favor for, ask yourself what it is about them that earned your willingness, and emulate it.

If you spend your professional life building up social capital by being generally helpful, resourceful, reliable, and likable, you’ll soon have tremendous net social worth.  That pool of social capital can provide more knowledge, skill, counsel, connection, and even cash than any amount of paper money you could save.  There will come a time to withdraw and spend social capital.  There may even be a time to borrow some on credit, but you’ll need a good credit score and a down-payment in the very least.

Make it your goal to help people, listen to people, generate goodwill, and deposit a little more each day in your social bank accounts.  Someday soon, you’ll be glad you did.

Check out the Praxis blog for why social capital is more important than mentorship.


Originally published June 14, 2013.

6 Tips When Deciding Whether to Finish College

From the Praxis Blog

A lot of bright young people are unhappy in college.  They hate wasting money.  They hate wasting time.  They hate the fact that what they’re getting in return is of so little value in preparing them for career and life.

Many of these young people are resigned to push themselves through that one final semester, or year, or two years.  Sure, it sucks.  But they’ve come so far, it seems the sensible thing is to soldier through the drudgery and finish before pursuing things they are really passionate about.  At least then they’ll walk away with something, right?

Not so fast.

Here are six things to consider if you don’t love college but think you need to finish anyway.

1. Don’t fall for the sunk cost fallacy.  It’s gone.  It can never be recovered.  You will never get back the money or time you’ve put in.

This fallacy plagues everyone from investors to gamblers to your friend who makes you wait in an hour long line to see a mediocre movie because, “We’ve already waited half an hour and I don’t want that to be for nothing!”

I hate to break it to your friend, but it was for nothing.  Past expenditures that can’t be recovered shouldn’t factor in to decisions about the present and future.  It doesn’t matter that you sunk three and a half years and 50 grand into college.  What matters is whether the next six months and ten grand is better spent on college than all other alternatives.  Remove yourself from your prior experience.  If you had never spent any time or money on college and someone offered to put you through lectures for a year if you paid upwards of five figures, would that be your ideal way to spend those resources?  If not, don’t.

Quitting doesn’t make it all for nothing, it makes it all for whatever it is you’ve gained up to this point. If that wasn’t worth it, why would the next semester or year be?  Looking only ahead and not behind, what gets you closer to the kind of experiences and life you will enjoy?

2. Don’t see college as a single, unified product.  College comes as a bundle of goods; knowledge, a social experience, parties, football games, a signal that you’re a normal person, a degree, etc.  Unbundle it.

What parts do you really value?  If it’s knowledge gained from good lectures and discussions, ask yourself if that component can be had better or cheaper elsewhere.  If it’s the social experience, ask them same.  Do you really need four years and six figures to have a good time and meet new friends?  Can football games only be enjoyed if you have student loans?  Is a degree really the most effective and direct route to a career you love?

Consider the individual units of time, money, and energy you put in and get out.  Perhaps it was valuable for the first few semesters before you really knew yourself.  Rather than assuming you have to either take the whole bundle or leave it, take those valuable units, be thankful for them, and when the value ceases, move on to the next best use of the next unit of time, money, and passion.  Economists call this thinking at the margin.  I call it good sense.

3. Don’t let your past control your future. So you once thought your dream was to be a doctor, argue before the Supreme Court, or walk down the aisle in a cap and gown with an MBA.  Now that you’re in the thick of it, it doesn’t move you.  It bores you.  It tires you.  You don’t see the point in all the monotony.  But you’ve always been known as the gal who’s heart was set on that path.  To change course would make everyone think something was terribly wrong. So what.

It’s hard to be really honest with yourself about what makes you come alive.  It’s painful too, as what you wish you were and what you used to be pass away.  The only thing worse is living your present the way your past self wanted, rather than the way your present self needs.  It sucks to be a slave to anything.  Being a slave to your past personality is one of the worst forms.  Break the chains and do what gets you going today.

4. Don’t assume staying the course is a virtue. If you’re being punked by Ashton Kutcher, it’s best to figure it out and quit whatever embarrassing thing you’re doing.  Persistence is a great virtue; unless you’re persisting to drive in the wrong direction, take the wrong medicine, or cut the wrong sequence of wires while defusing a bomb.

Recognizing a fools errand takes insight.  Dropping out for something better takes courage.  If it ain’t right, don’t keep at it.

5. Don’t be a slave to your resume. It’s not that important anyway.

Sure, a college degree it still carries some psychological weight, but not much in a stack of resumes.  Titles, degrees, letters after your name and other accolades seem very important when you’re young and inexperienced in the professional world.  It’s because you have no other metric for success.  The education you’ve experienced for most of your life is all about gold stars and letter grades and honor rolls and GPA.  The market is nothing like that.  It cares about value.  Do you have it?  Can you prove it?

Resumes matter on occasion, but really only after you’ve got a foot in the door through your network, experience, and reputation as a hard worker.  Is college equipping you with those things?

What your resume lacks in degrees it can more than make up for in content.  It’s really impressive when someone is self-aware enough to know college wasn’t working, and bold enough to head for greener pastures.  It stands out from the crowd and opens the way for you to tell your story.  Plus, you can say, “I took the Mark Zuckerberg/Steve Jobs/Bill Gates/Larry Ellison route.”

An employer who writes off your great reputation, smarts, communication skills, and stellar work ethic, just because you don’t have a degree, is probably not someone you want to work with anyway.

6. Don’t forget opportunity cost.  You need to weigh the costs of finishing college.  You’ve got it.  Ignore sunk costs, think at the margin, and all that other stuff I’ve been saying.  Yeah, yeah.  You get out your calculator to add up the dollars, or if you’re more sophisticated, days and dollars.  But you’re ignoring the biggest cost: you.

You are scarce.  You can only be in one place, doing one thing, at one time.  That means for every choice you make there are countless other things you are unable to choose.  The cost of one decision is more than the money paid; it’s the value of the next best alternative.  Once again to the economists, who call this your opportunity cost.

If you’re considering that final fifteen grand for your senior year, you need to add to that the value of your next best option.  Maybe you could work and earn $20,000.  In that case, the cost of the final year is really $35,000.  Make a difference?  You bet.

It’s not just money prices.  Value is subjective.  Maybe you value experience and mentorship, or travel and new cultures, more than the $20,000 job.  You have to give it up to finish school.  Is it worth the price?

When you consider sacrificing four or more prime years of your youth, and being bound to one geographical location for most of that time, college starts to cost a lot more than tuition.  For half the cost and in half the time, you might be able to visit ten countries, start a business, earn some money, and learn computer programming.  That’s just scratching the surface.

Bottom line: Don’t stay in college just because you’re close to the end.  Look ahead rather than behind, figure out what fans your flame, weigh the costs and benefits of every alternative, and do what’s best for you.  Try Praxis for starters.

Don’t Go to College

Good friend and collaborator T.K. Coleman invited me on his show, “Conversations with FiFi & T.K.” to talk about Praxis and why traditional education doesn’t cut it any more.  We had a great conversation and I got to field some good questions about the Praxis idea.  Made me all the more excited for the start of our first class in February!  Hope you enjoy the interview.

You Were Born an Entrepreneur

Have you ever watched a baby with a goal?  They know what they want, but they don’t know how to get there.  They have limbs they can barely control and a variety of toys, tools, and furniture around them.  They collect information by watching others.  They test and explore, flailing their limbs until they invent their own kind of motion to get from point A to point B.  It’s remarkable when you think about it.  None of the adults around them are crawling, but babies find this solution on their own.  They will not be denied.

It takes years in a conformity-based education system to train that kind of initiative out of us.  In fact, conformity was one of the primary goals of the education system when it was established.  Experts believed that people needed to be molded into uniform widgets, then plugged into an assembly line like spare parts, ready to take orders.  It wasn’t a great model then, and it’s even worse for the world today.

Despite the slower economy, opportunity abounds.  Cloud-computing and other innovations have dramatically reduced the cost of creating, collaborating, and starting a business.  The best businesses are struggling to find people who can come in and add value, out-of-the-box thinking, and innovation.  The market is full of unmet needs, but there aren’t enough entrepreneurs to solve them.

Now is not the time to wait around for more jobs to open up.  Now is not the time to wander aimlessly through a status quo education, or sit in classrooms struggling to stay awake.  Now is the time to rediscover your inner entrepreneur.  Break free.  Pick goals, even if they’re notional, and think clearly about the best way to achieve them.  Test different approaches.  Is the well-worn path really the best option?

Compound Your Worth

Would you prefer to have one million dollars in one month, or have a penny, doubled every day for that same month?

It’s a popular question that illustrates the power of compounding.  The penny, doubled every day, equals more than five million dollars in a thirty day month, and nearly eleven million in a thirty-one day month.

Compounding is powerful even if you’re not doubling every day.  And it works with more than money.  If you assign a numeric value to something, even arbitrarily, it can illustrate the transformational ability of this effect.  Let’s say the value of you as a person – your abilities, output, and offerings to yourself and the world – is 100.  If you resolve to improve your self by one percent every day, in just a month, your value will be 135.  In a year, it will be more than 3,700.  However imperfect this quantification is, there is no denying that a small, daily improvement has immense power to enhance your worth.

How do you improve, even by just a little each day?  By doing.  What things matter to you?  What do you want to produce, or be skilled at?  Once you pick something, just do it.  Do a little every day.  Sure, you can read about cooking, counseling, playing the oboe, writing, tennis, or investing.  That’s fine, but it won’t be of much use unless you’re also doing those things.  It’s not that intimidating when you realize the power of compounding.

Improve yourself every day, even a tiny bit.

Expect Benevolence; Don’t Need It

Wake up every day expecting great things to happen to you.  Look forward to some unforeseen goodness to fall from the sky.  But make plans and take action as if you’ll never get a thing you don’t scrap for and earn with hard work.

People who live on the hope of unexpected good news end up sitting around waiting to win the lottery.  It’s a corrosive, stultifying mindset.  People who embrace the opposite, and assume nothing good ever happens and every inch must be taken through sacrifice and grit, are often cynical, overly skeptical, and can miss opportunity because they don’t think it ever knocks.

If you can expect the universe to shower goodness on you every day, yet work like the only rain is the rain you make, you’ll be hopeful and cheerful, yet motivated and persistent.  You won’t be bitter when good things don’t fall on your lap, and you won’t miss it when they do.

On Not Having a Goal

I’m a very goal oriented person.  Everything I do is towards this or that short or long term goal, and anything else seems like wasteful fluff.  I’m pretty efficient at only doing things that advance toward my goals.  I used to feel bad for people who didn’t seem to have many goals, and would kind of float by, just taking in the scenery, with no real purpose to many of their actions.  Now I see something valuable in it.

How many of my goals arose just because I had nothing to focus on, craved it, and picked the first thing that seemed right?  I’ve put tons of energy into things that were goals almost for their own sake, not because I took the time to find it really resonated with me.  Certainly some things were gained and learned, but often in a haphazard, accidental way.  Contrast that with people I know who are slow to adopt a goal.  Sure, they have some long periods of aimlessness, but they are often taking the time to discover what they want and what goals are truly worthwhile.  When they find one, they are not as burnt out, and they’re ready to dive in.

That will never be me on an instinctual level, but I have definitely learned from observing such people to resist the urge to pick goals just to have them, and even be comfortable for periods without really clear goals.  This has helped the truly important things come into clearer focus, and let me hone in on a smaller number of more valuable goals.

Ideas Must Be Earned

The worst ideas are those unearned.  If you believe something just because it’s common, comfortable, or inherited like a genetic trait, It’s a bad belief.  Not bad because it’s wrong – it very well may be right – but bad because there was no journey, no effort or will to discover it, and this is likely to cause you trouble.

Why are given beliefs bad for you?  Because they’re not examined, rooted, or truly respected by the believer.  When challenge comes, you’ll feel embarrassed and defensive.  You may build up a wall of falsehood or dismissiveness towards others to protect your unearned belief – a wall that will blind you from valuable truths.  Or you may see the weakness in your idea, become bitter at those who passed it on to you, and join a crusade against it, missing any elements of truth it had.

Many people who rail against this or that idea or belief system do so because it’s what they used to believe, and now they view themselves as having grown out of it.  It is possible for a person to change from one genuinely earned belief to another, but when you see them mocking their old beliefs constantly, or changing very quickly, it’s usually because they never really earned their former ideas.  When someone attacking an idea appeals to their own authority as a former believer, it’s almost always a sign that their former belief wasn’t earned.

This is more true the more radical the idea.  Radical ideas, especially, must be earned.  It’s tough to hold radical views.  All the cool and respectable people might mock you, or pressure you, or dismiss you.  If your radical beliefs came to you unearned or too fast, you’ll make them look crazy with weak defenses, or you’ll quickly abandon them and join in the chorus of mockers.  You do yourself and the world no favors this way.  The idea may or may not be true, but it deserves a genuine and serious examination before you become a firm believer or detractor.

If you haven’t really earned a belief, take a few steps back and don’t try to be a crusader for or against it.  To paraphrase Murray Rothbard, It’s no crime to have unearned ideas; but it’s totally irresponsible to be a loud advocate for those ideas.

Radically Practical

There’s an assumption that practical and radical are on opposite ends of the spectrum.  Sometimes, the reverse is true.  The most practical things can be the most radical.

Radical means outside the status quo; something not often done or considered; something beyond the social mores and institutions of the day.  Practical means something that’s efficient at achieving your tangible, real-world goals.

Think about how many social norms and activities are horribly inefficient: K-12 education, college, formal attire, working in a giant office building instead of from a remote office, buying instead of renting, working for someone else instead of contracting out or starting your own firm, waiting to retire before you live where you want to, and on and on ad nauseum.  None of these are bad in themselves, but considering the stated goals of those who engage in them, they’re almost always an unnecessarily costly and painful approach.

If you zoom out, get in touch with your real desires and goals, and consider the best way to achieve them, so many of the standard approaches turn out to be wholly impractical.  Don’t worry about what’s considered radical by society; ask yourself what works best at getting what you want, and do it.  It’s prudent and practical, even if others consider it radical.

If doing what works best for you is radical, wear it as a badge of honor.

The Renewing of the Mind

The transition from one deeply held belief to another is not a matter of intellectual argument.  It’s not a matter of adapting a new set of ideas on an issue, it’s a matter of becoming a new person.  The more deeply held the belief, the truer this is and the more laborious the transition.

It does take logical arguments.  But walking through the reasons a belief you have is false, and why an alternative is true, will not be sufficient to change your point of view for good, even if you accept the argument.  You’ve got to go out into the world and experience things, at which point your old beliefs will creep back in, since they are comfortable and second nature.  Even if you know they’re wrong, you won’t be able to recall exactly why.  A single convincing is not enough to overcome years of justifications and deeply etched neural pathways.  You’ve got to return to the logic, time and again and from every angle, until the conclusions no longer require work, but flow from you.  You don’t accept a new idea, you become a new person, one who holds that idea.

You have to be baptized over and over until all the residue of the former belief washes off.  You have to remove the scales from your eyes, layer by layer, until you see the world anew.  And you truly do see a whole new world.  It’s stunning how the acceptance of a different set of logical conclusions is not merely a swapping of bits of data in the brain, but a fundamental shift in the lenses through which the entire world is taken in.  All looks different from the vantage point of the new belief.

One of the surprising things is how incapable you are after your transformation of acting like your old self.  It becomes impossible to even remember how and why you used to believe what you did.  You may lose patience with others who believe what you once did.  It would seem, coming as you did from the same place, that you’d have a keen understanding of their position.  Instead, you find as time passes and your new self becomes more familiar, you look at the same picture and see things so different that dialogue becomes difficult.  You have to remind yourself that they are on a journey, and a single conversation will not suffice to transform their mindset.  You can’t get them to see what you see with one dose of data.  They’ve got to be curious enough to examine and reexamine the issue, each time removing another layer of the lens, just like you did.

You can become many different people over the course of one lifetime.  I recall some of the biases and beliefs of my former selves, and I can only smile in wonderment.  How did I persist in believing those things for so long?  How much happier am I now with new eyes!  I imagine I’ll eventually think the same about some of my current beliefs.

Some new beliefs still aren’t second nature.  I find myself in situations where I no longer believe my default response, but I haven’t transformed enough to know what my new ideas mean in practice.  I’ve got to return to the arguments, again and again, until my mind makes a shift.

First, you get the idea intellectually.  Enough work, and you get it on a gut level.  Finally, when the transition is complete, you understand it well enough to explain it to others.  Arguing for an idea you haven’t yet become is difficult and counter-productive, unless you’re doing it as a lighthearted intellectual exercise.  Become a new person, and your very life will be an argument for your beliefs.

Roll without Models

If information about someone you’ve never met would devastate you, you might be idolizing them.  Role models are not helpful.  They usually start off in a positive, inspiring way, but result in disappointment, confusion, or naivety.  The reason is that, while ideas, traits and tendencies can be a North Star, no human can.  We’re too fallible.

There’s nothing wrong with being fallible, and a person can still be great despite shortcomings.  But when you make another person, rather than their better qualities, your object of emulation, it becomes hard to deal with reality.  The tendency, upon discovering unsavory behaviors, is to excuse or justify them away until you become a silly cult member, or embittered, and dismiss all the good with the bad.  Neither help you make progress in your own journey.

We need ideal types to really inspire, not just decent people.  This is why myths and legends and fables have such cultural staying power.  They isolate the best traits and turn them into superheros and gods.  Even these heroic characters have flaws, but because we know they aren’t real, we aren’t offended by them.  We knowingly enter a world of idealism, and as such we can be inspired without feeling the need to explain shortcomings away.

If you have role models, consider how you would feel if it turned out they had some horrible skeletons in the closet.  If the thought worries you, you need to step back and think about what it is you value in those people.  Focus on the traits and ideas, make those your role models, and disembody them from the person.  The people are probably fine individuals – maybe you’d enjoy being friends with them, maybe you wouldn’t – but it’s dangerous to turn them into gods or look to them for inspiration.

This approach might seem a little disappointing.  It feels less exciting, perhaps, to remove great individuals from pedestals just because they have some flaws.  I find the opposite to be true.  When you separate ideals from people, you can put the actions of flawed people on a pedestal just because they have some greatness.

When to Take the Plunge

Every idea is not worth pursuing.  Even good ideas may not be worth pursuing.  And sometimes, even mediocre ideas are worth pursuing.

If you’re thinking in terms of odds of success, you might be going about it the wrong way.  It’s very difficult to realistically assess the odds of success.  If you are in love with an idea, every data point will scream, “this is going to work!”.  On the other hand, if you are only surveying the landscape for a sure thing, no matter what it is, you might end up pursuing something with good data behind it, but for which you have no particular passion or special skill.  Neither are great recipes for success.

So if the odds of success, the level of love you have for the project, or the “goodness” of the idea are not sufficient metrics for deciding whether or not to act, what is?  Tolerance for failure.

Only go after an idea that you are willing to fail at it.  There is always a chance of failure.  If you can imagine pursuing something and failing, and it doesn’t feel that bad, do it.  If you know you’d be happier to have “loved and lost” on your idea than never to have attempted, do it.  If, on the other hand, you think failing at something sounds worse than never trying it, it’s a good sign that it’s not a project worth your effort.  If your main worry is over the chance of failure, rather than the discomfort of not attempting, it’s not a good fit.

Interview with a Renaissance Man: Jeff Tucker

Jeffrey Tucker is a pioneer in the emerging world of digitally driven freedom.  He’s been ahead of the curve in online publishing, building virtual intellectual communities, and exploring the myriad ways technology lets us live outside the state.  He’s a challenger of the status quo, and one who welcomes risk, uncertainty, and new ideas.

This radical, open-minded approach has greatly benefited me personally.  Some of the very first articles I ever wrote were published by Jeff.  I had no idea if my thoughts were any good.  I was a little embarrassed to share them, but I wanted to try.  I knew some other outlets that would never consider publishing articles by some kid with no credentials or reputation.  I emailed an article to this Jeff Tucker guy, knowing nothing about him.  He responded in minutes with a simple, “This is great.  I’ll post it tomorrow.”  That changed my life more than I could have realized at the time.

You’d think this forward-thinking convention-buster would be on the fringes of every social convention, yet Jeff sports a bow-tie, cuff-links, and a panache for gilded-age foppishness.  He’s an advocate of timeless ideas and traditions, and a fan of ancient religious music.  It’s not about newness or oldness with Jeff; it’s about what’s good, true, beautiful, and what allows humans to reach their potential and find fulfillment.

IMM: Would you say you have a mission in life?  What is it?

JT: Probably that is true. I’m constantly dazzled by the capacity of society to manage itself and constantly annoyed by the impulse to control it, an impulse that results in denying people access to life-improving material goods and services. I suppose I’ve made it something of a personal mission to draw attention to the great battle between society, on the one hand, and the forces of power on the other. This is also the theme of great literature, music, poetry, film, and this is the great lesson of economic science too. There are seemingly infinite ways to apply it, and I’ll never find them all so long as I live and write. But I’m going to keep trying.

IMM: Are you the same Jeff Tucker, in terms of core beliefs, as you’ve always been, or have you changed over time?  In other words, has your journey been a process of learning and realizing what new ideas are more in harmony with who you are, or has it been a process of changing who you are?

JT: I suppose we all have moments when we think back to what we were like as a teenager or a young college student. Sometimes we recognize that person and other times we think: “how could I have been so stupid?” There are certain traits I’ve always had. I love music. Even my elementary school teachers called me “chipmunk” because I never stopped making little musical sounds. Another theme is that I’ve never fit in well with regimented systems of social management. For example, I was in the marching band and hated its strictures. One day I just walked off the field in the middle of rehearsal, knowing for sure that I would never go back. That was a liberating moment for me because I realized, maybe for the first time, that it was possible to shape my own world through my own choices. I realized that the network effects in my own life didn’t have to be determinative.

Discovering economics was a big moment for me at the age of 18. And there are times when I look back at some of my old writings and wince because it is really clear that I was trying to sound like someone else, trying to affect a way that was not really mine. Not that there is anything wrong with imitation but it can be tricky to sort out what is valuable and needs repurposing from outright appropriation of attitudes and styles. I think this comes with maturity really. As with any skill, the key to thinking and writing is to gain as much broad exposure as possible, and then finally just forget all that and do the thing. This can be hard, though, because it means have trust and confidence in the product of your own mind. Also, I think this is why most people don’t write well: they are always looking over their shoulder, worried about revealing their ignorance. You have to get over that.

IMM: There’s a lot of talk these days about managing our personal brand.  You’re branded as a libertarian thinker and communicator.  Do you ever feel hemmed in by that brand?  Do you work to broaden it?

JT: I never really sought out this brand. I think I would struggle with any brand for fear that you sort of end up sustaining something others pin on your rather than enjoying the opportunity to change and adapt over time. Actually, when I started using social media, I did have something a problem that I dealt with. On the one hand, many people knew me as an anarchist radical and defender of free-market economic theory. On the other hand, there was also this huge sector out there that only knew me as an apologist for Gregorian chant in Roman Rite liturgy. I didn’t know which identity to choose. Finally, I just decided that I wouldn’t worry about it, and now I just post on both topics or any topics. This can lead to some curious engagement between diverse communities on threads!

IMM: Does being “out there” in the public eye ever bother you?  Do you segment your life between your public persona and your family and other hobbies, or do see it as a unified whole?

JT: Yes, I’m bugged by the public personality thing, because I’m most happy working alone in a tiny space and I’m happy to go days on end without contact with others. The truth is that I’m rather shy and internal. But eventually I came to realize that being a public person is something that just happens and you finally just embrace it. At the same time, I do try to maintain a private sphere, and I do actually work to maintain this. If I screw up or become the source of some calamitous public controversy, that is something I want to bear myself without dragging others in. Also, separating public and private allows me to have normal conversations with people without constantly being asked: what is the anarchist point of view on this subject?

IMM: You’re a relentless optimist.  What’s one recent development that’s most challenged your positive, progressive prognosis?

JT: Here again, I don’t really think of myself as exclusively occupying the optimist sector. It’s striking to me that people say this because vast amounts of my writing have consisted of kvetching about the terrible effects of government — material which can be very dreary actually! At the same time, I’m profoundly aware that in the great struggle between liberty and power, liberty enjoys the upper hand so long as we see any evidence of progress around us. Every advance that we see in civilization I treat as a sign that freedom is not dead but instead still thrives, and this thrills me. I love to see data about the decline of violence, malnutrition, infant mortality, and disease because these are all signs that liberty is on the march.

It’s interesting that you ask about recent developments that challenge optimism. This weekend I was seriously vexed by two recent developments. First, libertarian broadcaster Adam Kokesh was arrested and jailed for, so far as I can tell, just speaking at a rally. Adam and I are very different people but I respect his intelligence and his courage. I went online to see what people were saying about this. I bumped into a conservative forum in which the posters were cheering the police. Then I bumped into a white nationalist forum in which these proto-Nazis were saying that the arrest was great because Adam is Jewish. I nearly became sick reading those comments.

The second thing that bugged me this weekend was seeing how an emergent establishment within the sector of digital currencies is calling and lobbying for government regulation as a means of achieving some measure of legitimacy. I kept thinking: we wonder how it is that great things get destroyed. This is how. We are watching this in real time. Fortuntely Bitcoin can survive this.

IMM: What do you see as some of the common pitfalls those who want to make the world a freer place should avoid?

JT: Many people are tempted by the belief the answer rests with political activism, that is, by getting the right people in public office. This proposed solution can end up with a vast waste of resources. Nothing comes of it. Also, this approach fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the state itself. It does not really consist of elected officials. They are mostly the veneer, and their focus is their specialization: getting in office and staying there. They are the state’s iconography in effect. They are there for us to look at and communicate with, and they are happy to play that appointed role as a career builder. But the real machine consists of the permanent bureaucracy in charge of enforcing a century-old legacy of bad laws, regulations, and legislation. This machinery prides itself in ignoring elections and political controversies.

I’m actually far more hopeful about the capacity of commerce and technology to change the world than for political forces to do good for the world.

Another common error was identified very well by Leonard Read, and that is the tendency to think of ourselves as teachers and everyone else as our obedient students. Our job is to pass on our great knowledge and their job is to listen and be enlightened. This can create a condescending environment that is no longer plausible or compelling in a digital age in which ideas come from everywhere and are constantly remixed and repurposed. A better approach, Read said, is to think of yourself as a co-learner who contributes special insight due to a familiarity with the liberal tradition. Inviting others to explore and understand that tradition — because it is underrepresented in official institutions — is a more successful approach. Of course this always requires some humility. You know how old people always say that the more you know, the more you realize how little you know? It sounds like a cliche doesn’t it? Well, it’s true.

In terms of writing and research, I would like to see fewer attempts to re-write Human Action and more applied histories and analysis of contemporary events, and I would like to see more attempts to solve the practical problems that come with living under leviathan.. Sometimes as libertarians we make it too easy on ourselves by presuming that our only audience is other libertarians. We should imagine that we are competing with all existing ideas around out there, and make sure that everything we write stands on its own terms without ideological preconditions. We all need to be harder and more critical of ourselves and our work in that sense. It’s long past time for liberty-minded writers to come out of hiding and expose our stuff to the hardest criticism we can find. Every critic is a benefactor. We can stand the scrutiny.

IMM: How has your approach to advancing liberty changed over the years and why?

JT: I’ve always been driven by the desire to get as much information out there as possible through whatever way I can. This is one reason I like to write about presumably petty topics like gas cans, showerheads, and silly putty. These are topics that interest people, and if we can engage people on them, we can get our ideas out there. In fact, I don’t regard any aspect of life as beyond liberty-minded analytics. Nor do I think anyone is beyond persuasion. The longing for liberty is universal. It is just a matter of finding that aspect of each human personality that long to be free and working from there.

Has my approach changed over time? Maybe I’m less puffed up than I once was. I do look at some of my past writing and wonder why I wrote what I did. There are some book reviews extant in which I picked mercilessly on an author for one slipup, for one deviation. There is nothing wrong and everything right about challenging people’s ideas. But it is also possible to cross the line and do it with a desire to harm. As critics, we need to be careful to not create strawmen or attempt to whip up people in frenzies of hate against someone because of a disagreement. This strikes me as essentially uncivilized and unproductive. I now try my best to crawl into the thinking of my interlocutors and try to make points that they would find challenging and compelling. In other words, it is not enough just to presume the right point of view and attack those who deviate. You have to actually make the case in a way in which your opponent would understand — and this is a point I owe to Sheldon Richman. He inadvertently trained me to see this.

Liberal intellectuals should be the model here. And this is for a specific reason: we’ve all be treated very unfairly in the past. I read a book review recently of an excellent defense of markets and it was clear to me that the critic had either not read the book or had no interest in taking the author on directly. Instead, the critic just caricatured and smeared. We should not be part of such a game. The ideas of liberty are robust enough to stand on their own without having to resort to such tactics. In fact, it is a measure of how confident you are in your position that you can state your points calmly, clearly, and coherently — and apply them to anything and everything — without resorting to name calling, sarcasm, or accusations of malice.

Mises offers some words at the end of Liberalism that have haunted me since I first read them. He says that liberty will win the day through reasoned argument, not through parades, songs, uniforms, and personality cults. Was he naive? I don’t think so.

IMM: I’ve heard that major intellectual celebrities are a thing of the past because we’re in an age where fame is less centralized.  Instead of one Milton Friedman, you have dozens or hundreds of podcasters, bloggers, and other public intellectuals with smaller individual market share, but a more robust presence overall.  What’s your take on the way the marketplace for ideas has developed?

JT: I agree with this. The struggle to disseminate information and the struggle to shine the light of liberty are the same struggle. In the past, there were fewer opportunities to do this and fewer transmission sources for information. The progress toward where we are today goes back some one thousand years, which only the elites could reach others with ideas. Now they are everywhere. It’s like a sandstorm that never stops.

Ideas are not like physical goods. They are infinitely reproducible in that there is no need for a contest over the right to consume them.. They are malleable in that they never leave our minds in the same shape they enter. They are immortal in that they long outlast our physical lives. We are just today discovering the potential here in this digital age. None of this means that we won’t continue to have heroes and that is a great thing. But it does mean that we need not rally around  one person’s ideas as the only basis for belief or as the sole litmus test. The body of ideas called liberalism is naturally destined to have as many permutations as the free society itself.

IMM: You are a big advocate of information sharing.  Tell me a bit about your views on intellectual property and how you came to them.

JT: When I first heard the idea that intellectual property should be abolished, I thought it was crazy. I didn’t think it was really untrue in some strict doctrinal sense but I seriously doubted the merit of talking about it. I thought this was a bit like one of those weird libertarian puzzles like “what happens if you fall out of a window and grab someone else’s flag pole on the way down?” I just didn’t think it mattered, and I found the whole subject a bit embarrassing.

But once the US government made IP a centerpiece of its attack on the Internet and even its trade and foreign policy, I knew that I had overlooked something important. I read Stephan Kinsella and some applied work and I eventually came around completely. I think the process took me six years in total. It is a hard subject, one that reaches the the root of subject we all think we understand but probably we really do not.

Gradually, I came to realize something. Ideas are the most important commodity in the world. To control them is to control people. IP is nothing but a mercantilist leftover. But it is even more profound than that. Within the sector of ideas, we find something that evades the requirements of normal property. Ideas are non-scarce goods. They can be owned socialistically so to speak. You see the first notions of this possibility in the works of the Austrians but needed fleshing out more. In other words, this is a huge area with massive implications for economic theory and the future of liberty. The subject of IP opened up new vistas of thought. Actually, the subject changed my life and represented a fundamental expansion of the way the world looks through my eyes. We see in the world of ideas a beautiful anarchy and a vision of what can be for the whole world.

IMM: What gets you up in the morning?

JT: I wake because I can’t wait to be surprised by what the day will bring.

IMM: Thank you Jeff!

You’ll Never Become What You Look Down On

A good friend told me he has a theory that our subconscious protects us from things we view as bad.  This sounds great, and it probably is most of the time, except when we disdain the very things we want.

How many people want wealth, but talk and think about rich people as bad?  If you consider famous people vapid and shallow, your subconscious will protect you from becoming well-known.  If you think well-read people are pretentious, you’re acquisition of knowledge will be hampered.

Consider the power of your inner self to keep you away from the traits you don’t like.  It might help you overcome envious or spiteful feelings towards those who have what you really want and thus free you up to obtain it.

Education and Bike Riding

If the goal of education is to prepare young people for living, then an ideal program would look very different from most of what is now called education.

Earlier this week I wrote about the need for children to have a free space within which to grow in tastes, talents, will and ideas before they feel the full weight of a world that will try to mold them. This free space is there that they may grow strong and ready to handle the world, not to keep them from it for life. If education is meant to play a similar role – a partially simulated reality to prepare students for the “real world” – it seems a highly successful education would have two features we almost never see:

1 – It would be incredibly short

2 – It would be very hard to tell when it ended

If the goal is to prepare for life – i.e. to make education unnecessary – the faster the simulation can transition into the real, the better. And if living well is the aim, it would seem odd to spend a lot of time learning how in a simulated world and then abruptly be sent out into the real world without dabbling in it with increasing frequency until it began to replace education.

Imagine if we taught kids how to ride a bike the way we try to teach them how to have a career. We’d start by showing them pictures of a bike when they’re young. We’d teach them to say the word bike, then spell it, then write it neatly. We’d have them draw a picture of a bike. We’d have them measure the perimeter of a picture of a bike. We’d have them write stories about people riding bikes. We’d ask them to share what kind of bike they want when they grow up.

When they reached their teens, every once in a while someone would show them a real bike and describe what riding it is like. They wouldn’t be allowed to touch it, and certainly not to own or ride one. In fact, anyone who let them would be subject to serious legal trouble. Then, after seventeen or eighteen years of this (never more or less), we’d have a big ceremony congratulating them and ourselves at their successful completion of bike riding prep.

They’d be allowed to ride now, but it would be looked down upon. Instead, they’d be encouraged to hone their skills and really learn to ride by paying tens of thousands of dollars to spend the next four years getting drunk and hearing specialized bike-related knowledge. They’d hear the history of bikes, mostly from professors who hate bikes. They’d hear about the ecosystem where the rubber trees grow that go into bike tires, except any connection between that ecosystem and the actual building and riding of bikes would be deemed in poor taste. They’d learn a great many other things and come away with a certificate declaring their level of bike preparedness.

We’d celebrate and buy them something (but not a bike). Then they’d go out and try to obtain a bike in a highly competitive market. If they were able to purchase one, they’d have to learn, for the first time after two decades of studying but never trying, to ride.

If at any point in this decades-long process a child decided they’d learned all they needed, quit, and picked up a bike to start riding, it would be deemed a miserable failure. Even though the stated goal is to get them riding, it’s not their ability to ride that determines the success of the system, only the number of students who complete it. Figuring out how to ride and riding before the appointed time is a sign of trouble and rebellion, and would be discouraged at all costs.

This is obviously a stupid way to teach bike-riding, yet it’s how we train kids for life.

Imagine kids blending learning with working from the time they were ready and willing to work. Imagine kids moving from reading to doing the same way they go from training wheels to two wheels – quickly, and often without a lot of fanfare or even a clear-cut transition. Imagine allowing some skinned knees, some wobbly attempts, some bumping into the neighbors mailbox while trying to figure out how to navigate the world. Think of the sheer joy and freedom kids experience when they can fly through the neighborhood on two wheels, and imagine how much greater when they can create value, exchange, cooperate, buy and sell on their own ability and will.

Instead we force kids into a simulated world for decades, then celebrate their completion of our programs, regardless of whether they’ve actually gained what they need to succeed. Then we let them wander the world for the first time, trying to learn in months what we prohibited them from trying for years.

Why do the social norms about education persist when they are so blunt and detrimental to so many kids?