Four Visions of the World: Constrained, Unconstrained, Stasist, Dynamist

About half a dozen years ago, I read two books in succession that I did not expect to have much to do with each other.  They both proposed intriguing dichotomies.  These dichotomies cut up the world differently, but I began to see interesting ways they could be layered on top of each other.

The books were The Future and Its Enemies, by Virginia Postrel, and A Conflict of Visions, by Thomas Sowell.

Both books are phenomenal and I highly recommend them.  Let me briefly describe the central dichotomy presented in each.

Stasists vs. Dynamists

Postrel defines two outlooks on human life and society, static and dynamic.

The stasist fears and resists change.  They wish to preserve things as they are, or possibly even return to an imagined glorious past.  Every change, whether social, technological, or environmental, is bemoaned as the harbinger of all manner of moral and civil decay.

It’s an obvious mindset to spot in many conservatives, exemplified in William F. Buckley’s mission statement for National Review, to “[S]tand athwart history, yelling Stop”, but it doesn’t just describe conservatives.  A great many modern liberals fall into this category as well.  Environmentalists who fear invasive species or believe any changes to any ecosystems are always bad, unionists who want to set work arrangements and productions methods in stone, or social justice advocates who wish to maintain certain ratios in material wealth between people.

The dynamist embraces change and does not fear it.  This includes fans of free markets, free speech, and economic growth, techno optimists and pioneers.  Dynamists are, by nature, less organized but also more prone to have a big impact on the world individually.  Again, it cuts through simplistic left/right political paradigms and includes some liberals who want mores to evolve and some conservatives who want industry to do the same.

Constrained vs. Unconstrained

Sowell has a different dichotomy.  It’s a bit more subtle, but like Postrel’s, it does not fit into left/right political rhetoric neatly.  He defines two visions of the world and humanity, constrained and unconstrained.

Those with a constrained vision see certain physical, moral, or spiritual realities as unchangeable.  Scarcity, self-interest, human fallibility, and evil.  This doesn’t make the constrained vision a pessimistic one, but simply, to quote the great economist Peter Boettke, “Puts parameters on utopias.”  You can improve the world only by first understanding the fundamental laws of both material and human nature.  You can’t achieve flight by wishing away gravity or achieve human harmony by wishing away greed.  The constrained visionary realizes these parameters and innovates in ways consistent with them.  Smith’s Invisible Hand and Hayek’s Spontaneous Order are fundamentally constrained concepts, as they accept human avarice and limits to knowledge and describe social orders that turn all that imperfection into progress.

Those with an unconstrained vision see everything as perfectible.  We can eliminate scarcity (this is very different than simply “have an abundance of stuff”, as it assumes time and choice can also be eliminated), we can remake man into a perfect version, we can stop playing by old stuffy rules and simply rebuild a society without greed.  If humans are flawed we can remake humans, instead of forming social orders that work around the flaws.  We don’t need institutions that channel bad desires to good outcomes, we simply need to remove bad desires.

Both conservatives and liberals alike throughout history have had both visions.  Individualists and collectivists are not neatly plotted into one or the other.  Jefferson had a more unconstrained vision, along with the French Revolutionaries and many early anarchist and socialist revolutionaries.  Modern anarcho-capitalists and Burkean conservatives alike share a constrained vision.

Let’s add them together and see what we get…

Yay, time for a 2×2 matrix!  Don’t take this too seriously.  It’s been a while since I read these books and I’m playing around with this ideas rather loosely and humbly, so don’t get caught up on specific verbiage.  Instead, see if you can gain anything from the intersection of these two dichotomies.

In each quadrant I include a single phrase that I think defines the dominant desire, then list a few ideologies, groups, and types of action and orientation that I think fit it.

Why now?

I got to thinking a lot about this recently when reading the phenomenal series, Breaking Smart, by Venkatesh Rao. (If you read nothing else this year, read this!)

Rao describes the implications of the fact that ‘software is eating the world’.  Part of the analysis involves the inevitable backlash against software-enabled progress and disruption.  Rao calls the resistors Pastoralists, and provides a very compelling look at the two apparently opposite ways pastoralism manifests.

One is a resistance to all change.  The other is driven by agents of change themselves who adopt a single vision of change and wish to force it on the rest.  You can see how the first might fit into Postrel’s stasist category, but the second doesn’t quite.  That’s where combining Postrel and Sowell becomes so powerful.

I think the three great threats to human freedom and flourishing today are constrained stasists (resist all change), unconstrained stasists (remake the world in the image of the imagined past), and unconstrained dynamists (force the right kind of progress on all these hapless idiots).

I think all the promise and joy comes from the outlook of constrained dynamism.  One that understands failings in human knowledge and virtue and the physical reality of scarcity and wishes to allow change to emerge and evolve organically within unplanned orders to address them in ways no one can imagine ahead of time.

See if you can map yourself or others on the matrix!

You can also check out other fun 2×2 matrices I’ve played around with on various topics:

Obedience-Entitlement Matrix

Rules-Intelligence Matrix

Work-Happiness Matrix

Praxis and the PDP

One of the core building blocks of the Praxis educational experience is the Personal Development Project, or “PDP“.  A PDP is simple: a self-chosen 30-day challenge with tangible benchmarks and outcomes, documented and demonstrated.

Project based learning – tackling a challenge that the learner has individual, intrinsic motivation to tackle – is the most valuable method for transforming your mind and habits and building your personal capital.  It bypasses dichotomies between theory and practice by focusing instead on desired outcomes.  It’s about who you want to become, and what in your unique situation is most likely to help you get there.  This is the way most people approach physical health and fitness, but it’s surprisingly rare when it comes to mental and emotional intelligence, character, and skills.  It shouldn’t be.  It works.

So how do our participants get started with a PDP?  My favorite method is to let your obstacles take the lead.  Obstacles often hide or disguise themselves, so first you have to find them.

Jot down some bigger picture outcomes or goals or descriptions of the kind of person you want to be.  Maybe, “I want to be a published writer”, or, “I want to travel 6 months out of the year”, or, “I want to earn a living as a freelance designer”, or, “I want to be a go-to expert on nanotechnology that people interview”.  Think in terms of who you want to be and what kind of experiences and outcomes you want to have, not in terms of titles or labels.

Now that you have a handful of these big picture goals listed, pick one and ask yourself what is keeping you from doing or being that right now.  Maybe you’re writing isn’t sharp enough, or you are too insecure to submit to a publication.  Maybe you can’t afford the travel, or your design skills aren’t hireable, or you know nothing about nanotech.  Try to get specific in terms of what’s keeping from these goals.  “I’m not organized enough to handle multiple clients”, or, “I procrastinate too much” are good examples.

Now you have your obstacles.

Your obstacles are invaluable because they inform you as to what kind of activities are going to be valuable to you.  If procrastination is one of your major obstacles you could build a very basic yet incredibly powerful PDP where you, for example, read one chapter from “The War of Art” and write and publish a blog post every day for 30-days.  The mental tools in the book combined with the no-escape activity of daily blogging will absolutely and dramatically improve you ability to create even when the mood isn’t right.  You will become a better person in that 30 days and you will chip away at one of those obstacles – maybe even obliterate it altogther.

This is just one example.  Maybe you commit to reading five books on a topic in a month.  If you read five books on any topic you will immediately be in the top 5% of people with knowledge on the topic.  It’s surprisingly easy to make huge gains.

Whatever goals, obstacles, and activities you identify, the most important thing is doing it.  You must make progress on it every single day.  The beauty is, anyone can do something for 30 days.  It’s hard, but not so hard that you have any excuses.  You must make the activities measurable and demonstrable.  You must setup an accountability method.  At Praxis we do this by asking participants to build a personal website and publicly share their PDP activities and then document them as they complete it.  Thier advisors are there to coach and challenge them as they craft and complete the PDP’s.

In the end they have tangible evidence of how they increased their value that month – based on their own goals, not anyone else’s.  More importantly, they become more of who they want to be.  The principle of compound interest is powerful and it applies to more than money.  Improve yourself by 1% every day and soon nothing will be out of reach.

Whether a hard skill, soft skill, body of knowledge, a network, a mindset, or a habit: if you want growth and transformation – what real education is – I cannot recommend a PDP enough.

Try building your own.  If you have a hard time getting started, try one that we created at Praxis as an excellent entry point.  See if you can stick to it, making progress every day.  It’s a lot harder than you think, and far more rewarding than you can imagine.

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2015: A Personal Year in Review

Four great reads!

 

Alright, my good friend and Praxis colleague TK Coleman convinced me to share this personal recap in a blog post after I shared it with him in an email.  It feels a little weird or narcissistic, but I guess a little reflection is permitted this time of year.  Besides, I had nothing to write today and I’m not going to miss my daily post!

Praxis is the main driver of my activities and goals, and our continued growth, amazing network of business partners, totally awesome alumni and participants, and expanded offerings (about to be announced!) make me proud of what we’ve done in 2015 and excited about 2016.  Beyond the business, I also have a few personal goals, all still very much related to my mission of freedom and progress.

What was my 2015 like?  Mostly laying groundwork and exploring new ways to create.  Here’s some of the stuff I accomplished that I’m most proud of:

  • Blogged every day.
  • Launched a podcast and released 64 episodes with 40 different guests.
  • Started writing on Medium and gained over 250,000 article views and more than 5,900 followers.
  • Did more than 30 (can’t remember exact number) of interviews on podcasts, news outlets, etc.
  • Gave more than 20 presentations in 15 cities.
  • Published two more books, bringing the total to four.
  • Recorded a song for the first time ever!
  • Read about 30 books.
  • Travelled with the family to Florida and Pittsburgh, and spent a week in Jamaica with my wife.
  • Published in more than 20 different outlets.
  • Launched a monthly newsletter.
  • Gained more than 2,000 new social media followers.
  • Ran a successful KickStarter campaign raising $5,379 for a $4,850 goal.
  • Booked a six-week trip to Ecuador for the family.
  • Ruthlessly removed even more stuff from my life leaving me less stressed and less crunched for time than I’ve ever been.
  • Had a total reach of 491,652 though the podcast, blog, and articles I have data for. (This one gets me.  My goal for the year was 500,000.)*

I certainly had some shortcomings in 2015.  I missed my goal to do one form of exercise a day probably 5% of the time (which is embarrassing when you realize I consider even a few pushups sufficient.)  Though I hit my daily blogging goal, too many days I churned out something less than what I think I could have in terms of quality.  I didn’t read as many books as I wanted to, and almost no fiction, which I planned to read a lot of.

Most of all, I feel like my efforts at being a good, peaceful, calm unschooling dad fell short in everything but theory.  I now know clearly what kind of parent I want to be and why (both huge improvements over the last few years trying to figure it out), but I still struggle every single day to translate that head knowledge into daily habits and behaviors.  Hopefully my kids are as resilient as I suspect they are.

Again in 2016 Praxis is the focus.  Outside of my family, it’s what I live and breathe and I’ll be focusing even more tightly on our goals for the business and everything we stand for.  I do have a few personal goals I’m thinking about for the year ahead as well.  Possibly another book, growing the podcast, perhaps changing up my writing routine to do longer pieces weekly instead of shorter posts daily (still trying to decide on this one), etc.

Regardless, thanks to every single one of you who has read, clicked, liked, shared, listened, commented, loved, critiqued, and even openly hated what I’ve been creating.  I’ve always said I do this for me, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it feels great to connect with people over the ideas I love!

(In case you’re wondering, by far the most popular piece in 2015 was this article on why playing LEGO is better than learning algebra.  The most popular podcast episode was this interview with my son on being unschooled.)

*UPDATE: 12/31/15 – For unknown reasons, a few old posts of mine got picked up again and generated a ton of views right after I wrote this.  Just after noon on December 31, I broke the 500,000 mark.  Here’s to a goal being met!

Does Future Orientation Mean Anything?

It’s not easy to stay out of the future.

I live a lot of my life there.  I don’t know that it’s bad, but there is this universal approval of ideas like, “be in the present moment”, and, “don’t put off living for some future date”.  Those platitudes sound right and put the tiniest weight of guilt on my forward tilt.  I’ve learned guilt is rarely a good road map unless backed by clear reason.  Still, it does seem weird to be always pushing, thinking, dreaming, and building today for some imagined land called tomorrow.

It’s hard to rest.  All rest seems like a stop with a purpose – to recharge and regroup for another forward march.  I sometimes wonder what it would be like to have a few purposeless moments, outside of time.  The arrow of time runs always on, left to right, and drives most of my excitement and lust for life.  Stillness, unless deliberately practiced as a way to make me a better forward moving vehicle, feels like stagnation.

Does the relentless, Crusoe-like desire to add on to one’s present options set with ceaseless improvements indicate something about the nature of reality?  Does the magnetic sojourn into the not-yet place we build in our imaginations mean we are hard-wired for something eternal?

I suppose it doesn’t have to.  It sure feels like it does.  It’s hard to imagine all this forward-facing energy coming to an abrupt end in tandem with my bones and sinews.  Where is the arrow trying to fly?

This of course brings up the equally baffling question of from where the arrow came and what gave it thrust.  Is it accelerating, decelerating, or remaining constant like a geosynchronous satellite?

Even when I am in the moment, the thing that gives it that intoxicating flow is the fact that the moment is movement.  It is the process of overcoming a struggle towards some happily anticipated future probability.

It’s hard for me to imagine that I’ll ever be done.  The thought of ever unfolding creation gives me comfort and, paradoxically, energy when I’m tired.

Things got a little mystical there didn’t they?  Must be this yoga music.

Back to my bowl of cereal…and whatever comes next.

The Possibilities of Private Drones

I recently contributed to a Kickstarter campaign for a small quadcopter style drone.  I’m set to receive it sometime this fall and I can’t wait!  At this point, most of these drones only carry a camera, but as the payload capability increases, our lives could change in a lot of small but powerful ways.

  • You go for a long run or walk, but you go too far and won’t be able to turn around and make it back in time.  You pull out your phone and direct your drone to fly your bike to you.
  • You’ve got a small sedan but want to go paddleboarding, so you drive to the beach and meet your paddleboard there, dropped by your drone.
  • You arrive at the airport, park, and begin walking towards the terminal with just enough time to make it through security and board.  You forgot your bag.  No time to drive home and get it.  You call your spouse and ask them to send it to you ASAP on the drone.
  • Driving up for a weekend in a lake house in Canada, you realize at the border you forgot your passport.  You call a friend, ask for a favor, then find a Tim Horton’s, grab a cup of coffee, and track your drone on your phone as it brings you the document.

These are fun, rather mundane scenarios to imagine.  How many other search and rescue situations, or commercial transportation settings could drones change?

It seems the biggest impediment is likely to be old dinosaur-like regulatory bodies, but I suspect technological progress will eventually outpace them and make them irrelevant.  There are more efficient ways to ensure safe flight paths and coordination of airspace than a bureaucratic monopoly.  Pull out your flight-path app and schedule a safe, free time and place, or if you’re really in a hurry, pay property owners a fee for the ability to fly it directly over theirs.  The point is, our lack of imagination about how such conflicts might be solved ought not to lead us to lean on stodgy, coercive, ham-fisted government solutions.

It’s Not About GDP

I’ve been thinking lately about GDP, and common ideas of economic progress more generally.

I just attended an event about the causes of and cures for poverty in the poorest countries.  So much of the discussion utilized comparisons between countries based on measures of GDP, GDP growth, and the like.  The more I thought about it, the less sense this made.  Not that GDP doesn’t decently correlate to overall wealth, opportunity, and progress – it does – but that it does less and less as technology and markets change.  GDP charts would fail to show, for example, the tremendous progress made in many poor countries by the fact that nearly everyone now has access to cell phones.  In fact, GDP does a bad job at measuring the progress of information/communication/data in general.

Consider MOOC’s and the abundance of free online learning.  Since the education industry is a chunk of GDP, putting it all out there for free can actually bring GDP numbers down, even as human well-being and human capital increase.

Think about other areas of misleading measures.  What you can do with a computer or smart phone in terms of sending data across the globe means fewer freight ships, the things easily measured in GDP calculations, but not less progress and opportunity.

Automation, information technology, decentralized networks, open-source…these make the world better and increase human flourishing, though they don’t do much for old-school metrics like employment and GDP.  Being listed as on the payroll of a company doesn’t always equal being better off (depending upon what else you might be doing of course), and having a larger number of physical objects to count doesn’t either.

For this reason, I don’t take much stock in those who lament slowed economic growth and fear it will bring an end to the complex market systems in countries like the US.  We used to consider farming the only thing that really mattered for economic well-being.  Then manufacturing.  As machines can do more of both of these, we humans can be redeployed in myriad ways previously unimagined.  Think about all the micro entrepreneurship going on today.  Think of crowdfunding for one-off projects.  I know authors who probably aren’t technically “employed” most of the time, if at all, and don’t produce GDP enhancing widgets, but they live wonderful lives by pitching book ideas on kickstarter, raising the money, travelling the world, doing the writing, and selling ebooks.  They may make aggregate data appear we’re economically worse off, but they’d rather not trade their life for one hoeing rows or assembling buggies.

The fact that no one quite knows how to calculate the value of the internet and other information age technologies probably causes us all to underestimate just how well-off we are today, and how bright the future is.  It’s the perfect time to seize the opportunity and do something new.  Carpe diem.

Oil and Assumptions

Not long ago there was a crash involving a train full of crude oil.  It exploded and caused a great deal of damage.  In fact, this has happened multiple times in the last few months.  Of course reporters and pundits call for more and “better” regulation – as if somehow politicians and bureaucrats have stronger incentives to prevent this horrific scene than the owners of the trains, tracks, cargo, and homes near train tracks.

Many of the same people who lament the train explosions are completely opposed to new oil pipelines.  This is a particularly extreme case of status quo bias.  If you described the two methods of transporting oil to any sane person and asked which seems better it’s hard to imagine anyone preferring trains to pipelines.  Yet those who oppose pipelines are apparently more comfortable with millions of gallons of crude being loaded onto giant contraptions that take a mile to stop and run through the middle neighborhoods and cities and busy intersections on decades old rails.  It’s been done as long as they’ve been alive, so it gets a lot less scrutiny than anything new.

Status quo bias is a major obstacle to progress.  We fall prey to it in every area of our lives. (I’ve written about my struggles with it in parenting and educating my kids).  I like to play a game to help me combat status quo bias.  I pretend I’m a visitor from another planet and have no knowledge of earth’s past and present.  I analyze a situation in this frame of mind and think of how to describe what’s going on and the different options at play.  Imagine, for example, an alien observer in a typical college classroom.  They would assume by the looks on the faces in front of them and body language that it was a penal program of some kind.  This might queue us in to how odd it is to spend so much money to put ourselves and our children through classes we are completely disengaged from and don’t enjoy.

It’s a lot of work but it’s also a lot of fun to try a neutral examination of all around us.  When you’re opposed to something new, ask yourself honestly, “compared to what?”  Size it up to the status quo, not your imagined nirvana, and you might find change is welcome.

A Book That Will Help You Understand Why Bitcoin is Amazing

My friend Steve Patterson – a brilliant and clear thinker, excellent writer, radical, tech enthusiast, and scholar – has written what I think is the best intro to bitcoin you can find.  It’s sufficiently basic, so even a tech noob like me can grasp it, but it doesn’t shy away from delving into the details of how the technology works.

downloadWhat’s the Big Deal About Bitcoin is the kind of book that, as you read it and immediately after, make you feel like you completely grasp the intricacies of bitcoin.  After a few days you can’t really explain or recall exactly what had you so excited.  That is a sign of a book that does a great job boiling down really complex ideas.  Big ideas take a while to understand, longer to be able to explain to others, and longest to become second-nature.  A book this small that can give you the complete intellectual understanding of the concept immediately is rare.  One encounter will convince you of the power of bitcoin.  Another will help you be able to explain it.  I’m reading it for a third time as I try to gain a level of understanding sufficient to convey it to others!

Prior to reading Steve’s book I was excited about bitcoin as currency from primarily a theoretical standpoint.  I know the dangers and limitations of government issued currency and the power and beauty of competitive, market-based currencies.  I was also very interested in bitcoin as method of payment as a practical solution to the archaic, costly, time-consuming methods currently available to individuals and businesses.  Transferring money is ridiculously cumbersome, and the fact that I’ve had to physically enter a bank branch twice in the last month – with several paper documents in hand – is absurd and annoying.  I knew bitcoin had potential as both a currency and method of payment, and I loved buying and transferring small amounts to play around with it.  What I did not understand was the real source of bitcoin’s value and power, the blockchain itself.

The blockchain is nothing more than a public ledger, but one that is completely decentralized and essentially eliminates fraud and most of the biggest problems that have long plagued both physical and digital financial transactions.  But the blockchain is more than just a financial innovation.  It’s a unique distributed software process that can be applied to anything where proof of ownership is incredibly valuable and forging such proof is low cost. (Copying paper money, or paper titles, for example).  It makes units of digital information, which by nature are infinitely copy-able, into unique, scarce pieces of data.  That single innovation has the power to transform the world, and the number of applications and technologies than can be built on top of it are endless.

Don’t get too bogged down trying to understand my explanation – I’m reading the book again to get better at explaining it, but I’m not there yet!  Pick up a copy and read it for yourself.  I’ll be surprised if you don’t walk away thinking bitcoin is the biggest innovation since the internet.

 

 

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