The Job of a Parent: Create Free Space

Neighbors, ideologies, governments, social norms and other institutions and beliefs work to create a sense of duty and loyalty in individuals from the day they are born.  Even if some of these institutions and ideas turn out to be good, early fealty to them is often based on guilt for who a person is, shame at what they do, fear of retribution, or ignorance of alternatives.  One of the jobs of a parent is to act as a barrier between these pressures and their kids.

When people call a child “sheltered”, it’s usually meant derogatorily.  But a good shelter is what all kids need.  Not walls that keep them in, but walls that keep some of the strongest forces that seek to mold them at bay.  A seedling needs a protected area in which to gain strength and deep roots before it can weather the strongest winds and weeds.

It’s crucial that this safe space we create for our kids be full of windows and doors – opportunities to explore the very forces that we want to provide a buffer for.  Kids are curious, and the more they have access to information and ideas in a context without coercion, fear, ignorance, guilt or shame, the better conclusions they will draw about them, and the more equipped they will be for the world.

It’s harder than it may seem to create this space.  I think of the times when, far from protecting, I act as an amplifier of the forces of the world.  When your child loudly asks a question considered embarrassing by the mores of the day, it’s very easy to shut them down or project your own embarrassment on them.  It’s not easy to take all the social heat yourself, shield it from your kid, and respond generously.  When kids naively explore the world, we should let them, rather than cajole them into the conventional conclusions and behaviors.

Kids will run into the norms of the world, no doubt about it, but at least parents can ensure they don’t get smacked with it in the sanctuary of their own homes.  Don’t let the walls of your house be those coming in on them, before they have strength to resist.  Let your kids be expansive and boundless!  That’s how they’ll gain strength and identity and an ability to respond to the world around them with ease and freedom.

Process vs. Content

I spent the weekend at a conference discussing education, and what kind of program or curriculum is ideal for young students.  It struck me how easy it is to overestimate the role of the content of an educational program and underestimate the role of process.

One professor said he’s noticed that teachers who teach courses on comic books are no less likely to get students thinking about important concepts than those who teach philosophy.  The key is the quality of the teaching.  A good teacher can help students discover truths using a wide variety of curricular materials, where a poor teacher can’t wring enlightenment out of the best.

The process also matters in other ways.  Who owns the education of the individual?  If it’s the individuals own responsibility, and they primarily bear the costs and benefits, you get something much different than when students are a third party to a transaction between others.  Some self-selection, a level of interest on the part of the student, the freedom to direct their own inquiry – these are process related and are probably more important than the content of the education.

Process also maters to the method of how the individual educational processes are determined.  Do a small number of students or educators or bureaucrats determine what kind of system everyone will go through, or are myriad competing methods allowed to emerge?

It’s easy as a parent to worry too much about what books my kids are reading, what lessons their learning, and other content concerns.  I need to be reminded from time to time that kids are curious and eager to learn just abut anything if the process is conducive.

The Remnant

Sometimes what you do has no immediate impact. Sometimes it has no visible impact at all. But, if its something you love, and doing it brings you fulfillment and peace, there’s value in it. Not only value for you in the act of creating or doing, but if you genuinely feel in ‘flow’, it’s a sign your working in and around truth, and that cannot help but impact other truth seekers.

You may never have the pleasure of seeing others appreciate it. You may never have evidence that what you do has changed the world. But if it’s true, it has. Albert Jay Nock reminds of the story of Isaiah, who’s job was not to reach the people all around him. It was to speak to the Remnant.

The Birth of an Idea

Just because something is inevitable doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I used to think having an idea I believed in was the hard part, and once I had it, acting on it would be easy.  When you get an idea that you know you must act on – a thought you must put into words, an expression you must create – and you know there is no choice but to bring it into being, the real challenge starts.  It’s a process not dissimilar to pregnancy.

If you have been trying to get pregnant for some time, it is a relief when you do.  But things don’t get easier just because the eventual child is all but inevitable.  You have the knowledge that birth is coming.  You also realize how much has to be done between here and there.  There are moments of panic when you consider you have no nursery, no diapers, no baby clothes, no stroller, no idea what challenges may come, no knowledge of all the things you might have to do to care for the child.  There are other times when you feel completely at ease, resting in the knowledge that what you have created will come to fruition in due course.  You have a vision of life with a child, and you know that vision will be fulfilled and somehow everything you need to get done will get done.  Of course, you still have to do it.

The seed of an idea that moves you, once planted, will – must – grow.  You know it must be created, expressed, brought into the light.  But how many things are there to do first!  How can you handle them all?  How can you fill that space between now and then with the things that must precede the birth of the idea?  How can you prepare to raise and nurture it once it emerges?  Yet you know you will, because the idea is going to happen, just as the child is going to come.  Nature must run its course.

The mental, emotional, and spiritual challenges of pregnancy reveal the unique process of moving from potency to act; from knowledge of a new life, through gestation, to birth and beyond.  The near inevitability of the outcome is joyous and overwhelming.  Being ‘pregnant’ with an idea has many similarities.  It’s right to experience the tension between complete relief that the new creation is coming, and uneasiness with the knowledge of all that must happen first.  Your job is to do two contradictory things at once: relax and let it happen, and actively ensure the process and preparations move forward.

The Choir’s the Only Audience Worth Preaching To

All learning is self-motivated.  No one has ever successfully crammed a belief down the throat of another.  Enough brow-beating can coerce someone into changing their actions, but it cannot change their heart.  Even absent heavy-handed tactics, telling someone they are wrong will never induce them to alter their worldview unless they are already seeking.

Engaging those without some level of curiosity in your ideas is a waste, unless you enjoy it for its own sake.  But that’s the really peculiar thing; no one does.  When people get frustrated by discussion, it’s not because their open-minded interlocutor is asking too many good questions and seeing too much merit in the other side.  It’s because the hidebound counterpart can’t even work from the same basic assumptions, and resorts to illogical arguments or ad hominem.  That’s not because the wrong words are being used, it’s because the wrong person is being talked to.

A lot of people claim to love debate as a format for discovering what is true.  It supposed to be more balanced and less dogmatic than a presentation on just one side of an issue.  It seems just the opposite in practice.  Never have I seen a debate where a debater says, “I’ve really learned a lot and changed my position!”  Of course, it’s the audience who are supposed to learn, but that too is a rarity.  People watch debates for the spectacle, and to cheer when their side scores a rhetorical point.  There is nothing wrong with this in itself, but if a person were genuinely uninformed and wanted to learn about an issue, a debate would be the a poor way to do so, as the emphasis is on posturing and outwitting, not enlightening.  When defenses are up, nothing gets in.

If your goal is to be understood, or to help others see how a change in mindset could better their life and the lives of others, the choir – those who have self-selected into the space where your ideas are discussed – are the best audience to preach to.  If you value your own happiness, abstaining from street corner sermons to uninterested or hostile passersby is a must.  There are many derogatory sayings about talking to people with similar ideas, but it should be the opposite.  All the grumpy, hateful, fruitless and frustrating conversations happen when people walk away from the “echo chamber” and shout into ears that don’t care to hear.

Don’t waste your breath on people who have not signaled somehow that they are interested in your ideas.  You’ll live a happier life, and reap the immense rewards or real, back and forth, give and take conversation that builds the mind of truth seekers on both sides.  You learn to dance where you can freely try, in a studio with other dancers, not at the Bomont chapel.

Do What You Love, or Have it Easy?

The hardest thing to do is what you love.

It’s a long and difficult process to discover what you love; what truly makes you come alive.  It includes a series of epiphanies about your own errors of judgement and direction.  It demands brutal self-honesty.  It requires tedious and dangerous trial and error.  It cannot be found by mere reflection, but deep reflection has to occur alongside experimentation.  None of this is easy, and you’re never done.  You change, and what makes you come alive changes.  The journey toward it is endless and adaptation and adjustments of your goals are continuous.

That’s just to discover what you love.  Once you’ve begun to remove the chaff and hone in on a direction that makes you fulfilled, actually moving in it is even harder.  You have to muster the grit and determination to move toward it, even when the individual steps themselves are grueling.  You have to continue to remind yourself of what really awakens your love of life, and not let yourself off the hook pursuing anything less.

It’s much easier to find and do what you mildly enjoy, what you can tolerate, or even what you hate.  Anyone can stop the discovery process short and find what feels comfortable in the short term.  Anyone can choose not to chisel away the distractions; not to get to the core of what makes you fulfilled.  Anyone can treat what they love as an unattainable object that exists only to torment and tease.  Anyone can come up with mediocre, safe, reasonable, sound, and predictable goals and activities.

People say when you do what you love you never work a day.  It’s easy to hear that and envy those whose profession seems to be something they have a lot of fun with.  It is true that when you’re in the zone pursuing your passion, it doesn’t feel like work.  But discovering that zone, and making yourself enter in is more work than anything.

Some people think work is hard because they’re not doing what they love.  In reality, they haven’t been able to do what they love because they’re not willing to work hard enough.

Finding and re-finding what you love, and moving toward it every day, is the hardest thing in the world.  It is also the most worthwhile.

The Timeless Way of Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then it becomes a piece of nature.”

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

Interview with an Optimist: T.K. Coleman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMM: Any final thoughts?

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

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

A Few Quotes

On politics and government

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

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

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

“Sed quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Juvenal

On tyranny

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

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

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

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

On freedom

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

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

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

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

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.

Life Inside the Bubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steel Yourself

Take a breath, relax, enjoy the moment, and contemplate if you are ready for the next leap.

If you want more than incremental moves to add to the heap of accumulated stuff, it will cost you.  If you want to dive into something big, the outcome can’t be predicted.  You will put an end to boredom, listlessness and slough; but you will also put an end to the illusion of security, and the feeling that you are slowly scraping together more things to add to your pile of comforts.  That pile will no longer be yours.  It’s in the past.  All you’ll have is the unknown future and the knowledge that you’re going after something big, and something that is fully you.

If the cost is just too high, let it go.  Enjoy your present and the more bounded expectations of the future you will methodically build.  Let life move and come to you bit by bit, and be at peace.  Don’t regret your choice.

If the potential payout and the effort itself are powerful enough for you to accept the costs, then steel yourself.  The costs will come.  It will be the hardest, most uncertain and wild ride you’ve ever been on.  You can’t know how or in what way ahead of time, but you can know for certain it will be difficult, and many people will not understand.  They will feel you are throwing away all you’ve built, and all you could build if you continued stacking brick on brick.  You must be prepared for their offense and confusion.  Few will see that you want more than a pile of bricks or even a cathedral when all’s said and done; that you would rather have nothing and have tried something other than stacking.

Neither path is right or wrong, but whatever you choose, be of one mind about it.  To choose one and wish you’d chosen the other is to tear yourself in two, diffuse your energy, and diminish your quality of life and creativity.

Everything as a Joke

Sometimes things get too serious.  Subtle stresses build up, multiple to-do lists compound in the back of the mind, over-analysis creeps in, and the smallest misunderstandings or miscommunications cause deep consternation.

Most of us aren’t working our fingers to the bone in the field anymore. Most of us have thinking jobs.  Sounds easy.  In many ways it is; I wouldn’t trade it for a life of hard labor.  But it is taxing to think through every idea you encounter in a day, decide what’s worth while and what needs to be discarded or altered, reformat it, repackage it, and transmit it to the appropriate party in the right tone.

If you work in a field all day, you know that you need to give your body sufficient rest between shifts.  You also need to give your body other forms of activity like sports or recreations.  It’s not so different when your work is mental.  Your mind needs rest.  Your mind also needs other forms of recreation.  It needs to be engaged with the world in a way that is entirely different than what your daily work demands.

Humor is the best medicine for a worn-down mind that needs more than rest.  It allows you to fully engage your mind, but from a completely different angle.  It’s like changing the view, or putting on a new pair of lenses that reveal an entirely different world in front of you.  It’s a shock of fresh, cool water for a dehydrated brain.

Take a chunk of time to deliberately see everything as a joke.  Go scan your Facebook feed, the headlines, your RSS reader, your inbox, or your neighborhood.  Think of it all as hilarious.  You’ll be surprised how often it actually is hilarious, but you failed to notice in serious mode.  Make fun of everything, laugh at everything, take nothing seriously.  It’s a very powerful catharsis, and you might make some healthy discoveries in the process.

Reset Expectations

Think of a person you care about who perpetually frustrates you.  Now imagine you are just meeting them for the first time, right now, just as they are and just as you are.  Given what you learn about them – their strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities – and what you know about your own proclivities, what would your expectations be for the relationship?  I suspect it would differ greatly from the expectations to which you currently hold it.

We have different expectations for each relationship.  Oddly, those we care most about and those we’ve known the longest tend to be those who fail to meet our relational expectations most frequently.  We drag in a lot of our previous desires, their previous tendencies, and preferences and feelings we’ve grown beyond, but cling to because that’s how we used to relate to those people.  It’s helpful sometimes to release ourselves from this baggage.

Whatever efforts we’ve expended getting people to do what we want and be who we wish they were; whatever past disappointments we’ve met can be shed.  They are sunk costs.  They are irretrievable.  Don’t color your present expectations with what’s past.  Take a realistic look at those close to you and asses what they are capable of and what you are capable of in the relationship going forward.  Make that the expectation.

It’s easy to get pulled in to the sunk cost fallacy in gambling and economic decisions.  Relationships aren’t so different.

The Paradox of Survival

People who live the fullest lives have a loose grip on everything. They don’t cling too tightly to relationships, possessions, health or life itself. They are free from mood-controlling fear and worry. They take the prospect of terminal illness or the loss of a job with ease, because they don’t find their solace in their present material position relative to others, but in something deeper and more unshakable.

The ability to let go of things is useful in every arena of life. Let go of your kids rather than lamenting their choice of hobbies, or the fact that they grow and change. Let go of your fear of losing and put yourself into your sport with abandon. Let go of the desperation to be loved or else you are likely scare others away; to be less lovable. Let go of fear of death, and what life you have is richer.

All this freedom found in letting go, yet humans are programmed to seek their own survival above all else and against all odds. Are we to fight our own hard-wiring? And why are humans so universally inspired by stories of fighting cancer, fighting the odds, resisting the inertia of world, not giving up, not letting go? There is something noble and heroic about refusing to roll with the punches.

How can we square these competing approaches? If suffering from a serious sickness, is it best to let go of our fear of pain and death and find our zen, or should we fight the degradation of our bodies with every fiber?

Both.

There is a way to reconcile a loose grip on life with a refusal to let go of our dreams. I haven’t mastered it. Few have. The space between freedom from worry over the vicissitudes of life, and intense focus on how to overcome them, is the place where greatness emerges. I’ve seen it in sports. Think about Michael Jordan playfully taunting his opponent at the free throw line. He was so free from the worry of missing the shot, or of embarrassment that he closed his eyes while shooting – a loose grip on the game. At the same time, he was so focused on dominating the game, being the best, and making the shot. Greatness.

The key is to hold on to what we have and keep climbing the obstacles that impede us to obtain what we want. The key is also to let go of what we have and be free from the fear of not obtaining what we want. Now all you have to do is both at the same time.

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