2021-10-04

Public, Central Parks Are A Product Of The State

It’s common for non-libertarians to try to point out holes in or problems with libertarian theory. It can also be really annoying.

 

Less common, and less annoying, is when libertarians attempt to point out possible problems with libertarian theory, and then attempt to fix those problems or reconcile reality with the problems created. As a libertarian, I would like to believe that adopting a laissez-faire approach will always yield the best possible result. As a man committed to logic and evidence, however, I must submit my beliefs to the crucible, and follow the facts wherever they might lead. With some hard work, doing so ought to advance the theory, rather than merely hoping that the world continues to evolve in ways that substantiate classical liberalism.

 

I recently had the opportunity to visit Bosque de Chapultepec in Ciudad de Mexico. It is simply a gorgeous, breathtaking park that defies description. One must be in Chapultepec to understand its scope and beauty. However, to put it very dumbly, Chapultepec is an enormous city park – the largest in the Western hemisphere – full of trees and greenery, fountains, monuments, sculptures, museums, bicycle and running paths, and so on. On the one hand, Chapultepec is “just like one of those big city parks” of which there are many examples: Central Park, Stanley Park, etc. On the other hand, Chapultepec is something altogether different and remarkable, considering its literal eons of history as a place of respite for the inhabitants of the area around what is now Mexico City.

 

In any case, parks like these require something very important and specific. They require that city planners, a hundred or more years ago, make a conscious decision to prevent any kind of commercial or residential development on a specific, contiguous plot of high-value land. And this must be done despite tremendous pressure to develop that high-value land and reap the resulting property taxes, population expansion, and economic growth.

 

Rare as it is for government to exercise any level of restraint, especially in the face of handsome monetary rewards for the governors, it is equally rare for the dynamic free market to simply leave a beautiful patch of land unutilized and dedicated to free public use. There is, of course, the classic Tragedy of the Commons problem with this, but the predicted outcome of such a thing is that private owners will take better care of this space than will the commons. That is true, provided that some private sector buyer or buyers agree to purchase the land and care for it. Yet, with high-value land located right in the middle of a commercial hub, as parks like Chapultepec tend to be, it is unlikely to the point of irrelevant that any such buyer or buyers would ever set aside such land to remain undeveloped.

 

The final piece of this problem involves the acknowledgement of a plain fact: Big green spaces in cities make people happy. They are genuinely good for human life. They increase property values. They provide a central gathering place for people who want to exercise. They provide a space for buskers, artisans, and street merchants. They provide clean air and oxygen to the surrounding environment, and a hiding place for local wildlife. It’s healthy to have such places available to city-dwellers, objectively so, and on many different levels.

 

The question is, how can such spaces be preserved and maintained under a libertarian regime? We cannot simply assume that some eccentric millionaire will buy up the land and keep it nice, maintained by a trust, for all of time. It would be nice to feel confident, as a libertarian, that such beautiful parks might still be possible if the state were not there to mandate their preservation. But how?

 

In a future post, I will attempt to tackle this question. For now, it suffices to simply articulate what the problem is.

 

 

 




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2021-09-22

On The Ability To Change Gradually

In The Huffington Post, Pauline Millard writes,

 

There is something about being a 28-year-old woman, especially in an urban area, that makes them flip the switch from party girl to marriage material that often has nothing to do with a ticking biological clock. Some might call it a cab light turning on. The most obvious reason is that it’s cultural, subtly ingrained into our psyches over years of pop culture.

 

Millard has correctly identified some kind of phenomenon. It’s true that many young women suddenly become serious about dating and marriage, about settling down and about motherhood, when they reach the age of 28. In my observation, the age the change occurs is actually closer to 27, then it takes a year for the women themselves to figure out what’s going on with them. 28 is when they realize that what they’ve been craving over the course of the past year is marriage, family, and children.

 

Calling the reason “cultural” is also a correct diagnosis, in my opinion, although it isn’t very specific. Sure, it’s culture, but why doesn’t culture make the change happen earlier or later? Millard’s casual conjecture is that the movies tell us that 28 is the age that women shape up. I don’t think a “cab light turns on” in a woman’s mind merely because they see a lot of movies featuring women who get married at 28.

 

To help think through this, consider every other big change you’ve made in your life. Granted, there are a few life events that are sudden and cataclysmic, such as when we move out of our parents’ house. For the overwhelming majority of major personal changes, though, things happen gradually. Your music tastes develop slowly over time. Your taste in books gradually goes from being what you used to enjoy as a teenager to whatever you enjoy now, as an adult. The person you are in your romantic relationships usually evolves over the course of those relationships; so, over a period of months and years. There is no “cab light.” You don’t suddenly wake up one day and discover that you are a completely different person.

 

No one goes to bed a “party girl” on her last day of 27 and wakes up “marriage material” the following morning. Drastic changes occur slowly, over time.

 

I mentioned exceptions, though. High school graduation occurs pretty suddenly, actually. Two weeks before graduation, you’re the same high school student you always were; then you graduate, and suddenly you think you have to be a fully functioning adult. Or, as I mentioned, moving out of your parents’ house and suddenly becoming responsible for all your shopping and chores. It’s not quite an overnight change, but it is definitely sink-or-swim. Within a few months, you will have become who you are as the master of your own house.

 

The defining feature of these more sudden changes is that culture has no means of making them happen gradually. It isn’t possible to graduate high school slowly, over the course of months. Once you meet the requirements, you’re finished. Moving out of your parents’ home is binary: either you’re here or you’re there. You can’t be here-and-there. You can’t kind of be there. Our personalities change suddenly during these times because the times themselves are sudden. We don’t have any other choice about it.

 

Similarly, when I became a type 1 diabetic, it essentially happened overnight. The moment I received my diagnosis, I also received my first shot of insulin. I’ve been diabetic ever since. My body did go through a transition, but that was happening unbeknownst to my mind. My psyche changed because it had to change, because there was no other option.

 

This is how personal changes occur. In most cases, they happen gradually, over time, unless something major and sweeping happens suddenly.

 

The question, then, is what happens to women at age 28 that is sudden, major, and sweeping, that doesn’t happen at age 27? Nothing, of course. For most women, age 28 is exactly the same as age 27, at least in terms of cultural drivers of personal growth. So becoming “marriage material” is not at all like becoming a diabetic. It’s not something that happens overnight and outside of a woman’s control.

 

I would argue that becoming “marriage material” is more like graduating high school. Graduating high school is a major, sudden change because there’s no other way to do it. Becoming “marriage material,” too, is a major, sudden change because there’s no other way to do it. Society doesn’t have a script for women to follow that takes them from being teenage kids to being semi-adult college students, to being young women on their own who are looking to slowly transition into a marriage.

 

Instead, society’s script is to “enjoy your youth.” And for so many women, “enjoy your youth” means “be a party girl.” The script we hand our young women involves a lot of career work, a lot of partying and dancing, a lot of casual sex. The fact that this can’t go on forever is patently obvious. No one should ever question the fact that it can’t go on forever. It can’t. It won’t. It ends. But there’s no script for winding it down. There’s no socially acceptable way to transition out of dancing and drugs and casual sex and into being the kind of responsible person that is capable of motherhood.

 

Because there is no script for this kind of change, many women find themselves in a position of having to just stop doing one thing and start doing another. They simply reach a point, around age 28, where the dead-end nature of their current lifestyle becomes obvious to them, and they force themselves to acquire a new lifestyle, one with some staying power. That’s motherhood, wifehood, partnership. So they change.

 

But notice that, prior to the change, they are essentially living a glorified adolescence. Notice, too, that this glorified adolescence is what people have been criticizing in young men for decades. They’ve been called playboys, and man-children, and “failures to launch,” and all the rest of it. They’ve been mocked and ridiculed and denigrated. This phenomenon is old news for men, though. Men have been drawing out their adolescence for as long as they could, because they knew that as soon as they became “marriage material,” it would be time to put the drumsets away and raise children. And that is precisely the path we men have been walking for decades.

 

Women, then, have finally discovered a parallel situation in their own lives. Now that we all recognize the problem, perhaps it’s time to start crafting a cultural narrative through which we glorify adolescence, partying, drugs, and casual sex a little less; and glorify the eventual transition to adulthood and parenthood a little more.




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2021-08-11

This Unhappy Life

Part One: The Reality Of Existence

The reality of life is absolutely brutal. 

We humans mature quickly; in just two decades or so, we reach a physical pinnacle, often accompanied by a peak in our greatest skills. The best athletes, for example, usually peak in their early twenties, and hold on to a career for about another decade. Artists and businesspeople make themselves in their twenties and then spend the rest of their lives slowly fading away. There is something magical about the early twenties. It's a culmination of life's ambition and physical prowess and opportunity.

When those years are over, what we have to look forward to is the ugly fade. Age is humiliating. Our noses get bigger and knobbier, and that's about as emblematic of age in general as anything. Even if we wanted to age gracefully, our noses have other ideas. If we're men, our eyebrows turn into shrubberies and our ears and nostrils sprout. If we're women, all of our curves sag and fill up with fat tissue. We can recover a bit of our former grace with physical exercise and intelligent grooming habits, but we're on borrowed time. Nothing can out-pace the growth of our noses; nothing can out-run the human nose. 

It's not merely that it happens, but that it happens four times longer than it took to grow into an attractive and capable body. The rise is fast, but the fall takes up the majority of our lives. What cruelty is this that nature has foisted upon us? How unkind that we must spend the overwhelming majority of our lives becoming ugly, sickly invalids. Youth isn't merely wasted on the young; it's wasted on everyone. It fades so quickly that it's almost as if it never existed in the first place.

Each of us knows what's coming, because we see it dozens of times over, among all the great people we ever knew, who happen to be older than we are. We watch our heroes and our friends transition from being bright, sharp-witted, attractive people to being doddering old curmugeons with particularities and strange demands, who drive slow and can't seem to find the right words anymore. They don't just fade, they decay. This is the fate that awaits us, too. We won't necessarily realize it as it happens, we'll just reach that point silently as the world spins on and the younger people stop caring that we ever had any ideas worth sharing. And then it will be their turn.

Some people think they can transcend this fate by embracing it. They let their hair turn grey and they endeavor to become the "cool" old lady or man. They're fooling themselves. No one cares, and no one remembers. Even the best people I ever knew were forgotten within a couple of decades of their passing. I still think about my grandfather daily, but my children never met him and will never spend any time thinking about him. Once my generation is gone, so, too, will his memory be. Embracing your old age might buy you some mental peace, but it won't stop the growth of your nose, and it won't change the fact that one day, on your death bed, you'll be grasping for a few final words that no one will ever repeat.

Honestly, I've never heard anyone repeat another person's last words. At the moment when we most wish to be remembered and to leave the world with something important to say, we say whatever is most deeply held within our hearts... and no one ever mentions it again.

It's really quite sad to think about the fleetingness and finality of life. No empire that you build or friendship that you make will ever outlast your memory. And your memory itself will expire a couple of decades after you do. Someone might write a book about you, but all the great books were written sixty years ago or more.

You can't change the world. You can't age gracefully. You can't recapture the magnificence of youth. Ultimately, your life is a short rise and a long fall, and that's all there is to it. The end.

 Part Two: How To Live

So, given all of that, how does one make the most out of life?

What most people will suggest is to construct something; either something physical, like an empire, or something meaningful, like an everlasting friendship. Some will tell you that the purpose of life is to reach for the stars, while others will tell you that devoting yourself to the service of others is the highest moral undertaking. As I've already noted, however, you won't be remembered for either of those things, not really. You'll be gone, and so will everyone who ever knew you, and at that point, nothing you will have built will matter to anyone ever again.

Strange as it may seem to think about it, life is not really a source of happiness. Life, broadly construed, can only ever end badly. If you imagine that the end will represent the final chapter in a grand epic, I'm afraid you'll be greatly disappointed. You might look back on a life well-lived, but that will only be a fleeting moment of introspection in a tiny, insignificant story that no one else will ever tell; or remember.

Life, broadly construed, cannot be the source of your happiness. You must find that happiness in life more narrowly construed.

Yesterday, my wife was complaining to me about the lineup of cars she was stuck in as she was driving our daughter to school. When she complained to me, I told her in that in two decades she would give anything to go back to those days. She didn't believe me.

But then, the next day, stuck in a similar lineup, she felt her mind relax. Instead of becoming frustrated by the traffic, she allowed herself to enjoy the one-on-one time she had with our daughter. They talked, they laughed, they enjoyed each other's company, and neither of them wasted any time thinking about being stuck in traffic.

It was a small, insignificant moment in a small and insignificant life. Even so, it was far more satisfying than anything else she could have been doing at that moment. Sure, she could have told herself that she was sacrificing herself for the sake of her child's education and eventual entrance into a better life. But that would have been nonsense. The truth is that a better life was always just staring them both in the face. All my wife had to do was stop complaining and start enjoying her daughter's company.

I'm always surprised when I hear about married people who stop having sex. When you're married, you can have as much sex with your spouse as you both can stand. There is absolutely no rule against it. If you both have some free time and a little privacy, then you both have the ability to do something that a) brings you emotionally closer together, b) improves the quality of your relationship, c) is a lot of fun, d) feels really good, e) instantly improves your mental state... and so on. 

The fact that married people aren't having sex constantly is testament to human beings' tendency to avoid happiness for absolutely no good reason at all. 

It's not just sex, and it's not just traffic. Our whole lives are filled with moments that could either be extremely happy and satisfying, or they could be frustrating and miserable. Why choose miserable? Why not have sex with your spouse? Why not have a good time talking with your daughter when you're stuck in traffic?

Why not turn on your favorite song? Your stereo is right there, for god's sake. Why not read a good book or watch a good movie? Why not have a laugh? Why not play a game or start a nice conversation? 

Why in the hell, when happiness is all around us, do we invest so much time in being miserable? Life is a long, slow funeral dirge. Why on Earth wouldn't we fill every spare moment with a reason to be happy, no matter how small and insignificant that reason might be? Share a kiss, pick a flower, tell a joke, look up at the clouds and appreciate their beauty. Whatever it is that steals you a moment of peace or satisfaction, take it. There is absolutely no reason to spend a moment feeling frustrated or unhappy when you can instantly improve your quality of life simply by taking a look at what's around you and using it to make yourself slightly happier. 

No matter how you choose to live, you will only live this one life, and you will soon be forgotten. Wouldn't it be better to have enjoyed the time you spent here? Wouldn't it be better that you made yourself happy rather than sad?

Isn't that what life is all about?

2021-07-29

Removing The Frame And Dropping The Context

In The Real Frank Zappa Book, Zappa wrote:

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively-- because, without this humble appliance, you can't know where The Art stops and The Real World begins.

I was thinking about this quote in the context of "political correctness," "cancel culture," and other forms of rigtheous indignation. 

Let's take an old example. There are numerous instances of the n-word's being used throughout the books To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. For this reason, both of these books have at times been subjected to bans. The n-word is considered too triggering and hurtful to be included in many libraries and school assignments in today's world. 

And yet, both of these books are not only about racism, they can indeed be considered treaties against racism. In fact, they are quite explicitly about racism against blacks, and in both books, the n-word is used to accurately depict racism while telling a story about how we all ought to overcome racism and treat blacks equally. Part of the message of both of these books is not to use the n-word. The books use the n-word in order to show how ghastly and racist it is to do so. Use of the n-word is presented as an example of people behaving badly, so that the authors can go on to show how people ought to be behaving instead.

It is only by removing The Frame from these books that we could ever consider their use of the n-word to be hurtful. We remove The Frame by interpreting the dialogue in the books as though it has been spoken today, right now, right in the same room as the reader, possibly directed at the reader. It is only by taking the books in this light that we could ever be offended by their use of the n-word. 

By maintaining The Frame, however, we maintain that these are fictional stories, we observe the behavior within those stories, we reach the end of the book, and we come away with an important moral message: to eschew racism, treat other people as equals, and not use the n-word.

In short, it's The Frame around "the picture" that enables us to do this. Without The Frame, it's just some old white people using the n-word at us. But with The Frame, they're good stories with important anti-racist messages.

There are plenty of other, more modern examples out there. Certain jokes told by comedians could be considered hurtful and "problematic," but only if we consciously remove The Frame; only if we deliberately refuse to allow the comedian to tell his or her joke as a work of art or an act of performance. If we instead allow the comedian to play his or her role and put on an act, then our sensibilities can remain intact. Jokes might be made at the expense of us and "our kind," but it's all in good fun. It's all an act. There is A Frame around the picture. It's only hurtful or problematic if we deliberately remove The Frame.

This is exactly what happens during heckling. When a comedian encounters a heckler, the heckler has decided to remove The Frame from the comedian's act. Every time the comedian tries to tell another joke, the heckler steps in with a comment that removes The Frame and forces the comedian to be a normal person again (rather than an actor). The comment might be something simple, like, "You're not funny!" Or, it might be a case of someone's taking offense at what the comedian has said, and arguing against it. It's then the comedian's task to attempt to best the heckler, reclaim the audience and The Frame, and continue his or her act.

Here's a really good example of this. Comedian Norm MacDonald tells a joke about teachers, and a teacher in the audience becomes offended. She tries to remove The Frame from MacDonald's act, but he deftly reclaims it:


What makes this so great is the fact that Norm MacDonald is an expert at using hecklers' own tactic against them. When hecklers try to be funny, or try to make a point, Norm MacDonald either refuses to acknowledge the joke or takes their statements very literally. In doing so, he removes the hecklers' own Frame, and takes back control of the situation.

In every-day interaction, human beings use humor to reach out to one another and let each other know that, despite any difficulties or miscommunications, "we're still friends." When it's properly received, that humor can mend almost any fence. But when the interlocutor refuses to acknowledge the humor - or, as the psychologists call it, the "repair attempt" - the interaction goes sour. The other person has to want to get along with you. If he or she refuses, there isn't much you can do. If they remove your Frame, you can't paint a picture. It's a power-play. They do it to gain the upper hand in the interaction. You can either give it to them, or walk away. 

Another person who wrote about this concept was Ayn Rand. She called it "context-dropping." If you "drop the context" in To Kill A Mockingbird, and instead just focus on the words printed on the page, then the n-word is the n-word, and that's despicable. If you maintain the context, then you see it as a story in which awful people said awful things, and the reader then learns an important message.

If you maintain the context of a comedy act, then you can hear all kinds of funny jokes. I've had stand-up comedians single me out in the audience before, and tell a few jokes at my expense. I could get really mad and feel insulted, and that would be dropping the context. It would be removing The Frame. Instead, I could appreciate the humor of the situation, laugh at myself a little bit, and have a good time. The choice is mine, but whatever I choose, the situation depends on The Frame, and whether it is allowed to separate the picture from the real world.

2021-07-16

The Purple Bicycle

When I was in elementary school, the sport of mountain biking was just starting to gain mainstream traction, and given that I lived in Utah, you can only imagine what that would have been like for my peers and me. It was exciting.

I remember one store in my local shopping mall, called "Pedersen's Ski & Sports." (I Googled it just now, and it appears that the store still exists, although it has relocated from Provo to Layton, Utah.) Throughout the winter, the store was full of skis and ski boots, but during the warmer months, it was stocked bottom to top with bicycles. Bicycles of every color, shape, size, and price-point! It was not a fun "sporting goods store" to go into when I was into basketball, tennis, and soccer; but when I gained an interest in riding a new bicycle, Pedersen's was a dream world.

I had outgrown my old BMX bike and I wanted something really cool - a nice mountain bike with eighteen gears (more gears is better, right?) shock absorbers (new-fangled devices that I was amazed to find on a bicycle), hand-brakes, and everything else that a little kid might get excited about. One day, my family was at the mall, and I wandered into Pedersen's to look at the bicycles. My eyes gravitated to one that was a metallic grey in color that sort of color-faded into a deep, dark purple. I have no recollection of how good the actual bicycle was, but the color was mesmerizing. I was completely captivated by it.

For weeks and months, I would go with my parents to the mall on any conceivable pretense, just so that I could get another look at this bike. I would dream about it. I would ride around on my Walmart BMX, pretending that I was riding on this fantastic purple bike instead. I would sit and daydream about it. 

I was totally obsessed. It was a good obsession, though. It gave me something to dream about. It gave me something to hope for: maybe when my birthday or Christmas came, I would discover that my parents gave me an amazing purple bicycle. 

In hindsight, it doesn't matter to me at all that my parents ended up buying me a different bicycle. I was a little disappointed at the time, but what I ended up with was still a really fun, white bicycle that I faithfully rode for years and really loved. I got what I needed; the story has a happy ending.

However, this morning I was thinking about that purple bicycle in the context of dreaming about it. My white bicycle ended up being my next, beloved bicycle, but that purple bicycle was my dream. Every child deserves to dream about something. And what I realized was that I never would have had that dream in the first place, had I not grown up at a time and in a place where shopping malls existed and products could be displayed and demoed to random children window shopping as their parents ran errands.

Today, I shop almost entirely online. I don't step into a store if I can help it, because going into a store is an annoying waste of time for me. Besides, I can usually find a better price online, anyway. So, my life is much better now that I can avoid malls and stick to online retailers. 

I wonder how my kids feel about it, though. They don't have a frame of reference for going to malls and checking out what new toys exist, so they don't really know what they're missing out on. But I know that they're not getting as much exposure to the array of available toys and bicycles and items of interest as I did when I was their age. 

An ascetic might argue that they are able to content themselves with the simpler things they can easily access: drawing pads, educational lessons, Amazon Echo games, and so forth. But how much more fun might they be having if they had access to a dream? Again, the fondness I have for the memory of that purple bicycle wasn't that I actually got to own it and ride it every day. No, the fondness I have for that memory is that it was a really beautiful, simple dream for a young boy. I wanted a cool bike, and that was the coolest bike I had ever seen. And I allowed myself to dream about it every day.

What do my kids dream about if they don't pass by bicycle stores with purple bikes on display? That's for me to find out. And to nurture.

2021-07-05

On Trusting Experts

In 2019, I had a lot of friends who encouraged people to "trust the experts." A common criticism they made was to denigrate people who had "done their research," which was usually maligned to be something like watching three hours of ideologically motivated YouTube videos. The basic idea was that "Karen" and her having "done her research" was no match for an expert's years of study and advanced degree.

2020, of course, put an end to that sort of argument, at least as far as I've observed. No need to rehash the details here. The so-called "experts" gave befuddling and contradictory advice on managing the COVID-19 crisis, and then shut down the country for a year or more while the global economy ground to a halt. It was a disaster. Importantly, many of these same friends I had stopped criticizing people for "doing their research" and instead started criticizing people for "trusting the experts." 

These friends of mine were always on the side of what I would consider to be "the truth." That is, when the experts were largely correct, so were my friends; when the experts were largely incorrect, my friends were great sources of better information. But on the moral issue of advising people to trust experts, they flip-flopped.

As for me, I never criticized people for "doing their own research," because that's precisely what I believe everyone should do. No one should ever take for granted the idea that the experts probably know what they're doing. One should always verify information; and the more controversial or the more widespread the impact of that information, the more important it is to verify it. This kind of attitude comes easy to a type 1 diabetic, because we diabetics often know more about our condition than most of the doctors in our communities. We certainly know more about our own bodies than the "experts." We are used to "doing our own research" and arriving at life-saving conclusions to better manage our lives and our blood sugar.

Today, many people (say, about half the country) still insist on "trusting the experts" or "following the science" or whatever the canard happens to be. This morning, I thought about a hypothetical scenario that might help them understand the value and importance of skepticism.

Imagine you're a woman who has recently gone to her doctor to get a prescription for birth control, for the first time. You fill the prescription and start taking the pill. Very soon, you notice that your body feels very different. In fact, it feels awful. You're really uncomfortable all the time and you're struggling to just be normal. So, you go back to your doctor. He tells you that this is a common set of symptoms and that many women take time to adjust to the birth control pill. He advises you to stick with it. So, you do.

But months go by, and your discomfort doesn't let up even a little bit. Every time you think about going back to the doctor, you remember what he said. Some days you figure that you probably just need a little more time to adjust. Other days, you shrug and figure that even if there is some kind of underlying problem here, going back to the doctor is pointless, since he'll probably just tell you the same thing again, anyway.

One day, you come across a website or an internet forum of some kind, where many women describe symptoms a lot like yours, and many of them insist that the problem went away when they switched to a different kind of birth control pill. You know it's not real medical advice, but the women all seem very emphatic, so you figure, what will it hurt to try a different pill?

You make an appointment with a new doctor, you tell her that you want to try a new birth control pill. She shrugs and says sure, you can try it. She writes you a new prescription, which you fill. You make the switch and, sure enough, your symptoms let up a bit, and then a lot, and then after a few weeks, you feel completely normal again. You're back to your old self.

If you've ever been through something like this - or know someone who has - then chances are, you already understand the value of being skeptical of "the experts." You have gained some familiarity with internet research and you have an informed opinion of which other patients to listen to, and which to take with a grain of salt. You have developed a more nuanced understanding of which kinds of risks are worth taking, and which are not.

In doing so, you have equipped yourself with the tools required to verify the information that the nation's "experts" are giving you, and you have come to a point where you feel confident in the kind of research you are willing and able to do on your own time. There should be more people like you in the world, and fewer people out there who blindly trust "experts" just because they're "experts."

2021-07-04

Why It's Important To Get The Diagnosis Correct

I have seen multiple people on social media and in the media attempting to make the She'carri Richardson marijuana issue into a racial matter. I think this is an incredibly bad idea, and will here attempt to explain why, being as brief as possible.

First let me state that, unlike many of the commentators on this issue, I have actually been involved in amateur athletics. I have known perhaps a dozen Olympic competitors and many dozens of NCAA athletes, including myself. That means that I have firsthand knowledge of the kinds of problems athletes face when it comes to the draconian rules foisted upon amateur athletes and the somewhat arbitrary enforcement of those rules.

Second, let me state in as emphatic terms as possible that many if not most of the rules governing amateur athletes are utterly preposterous and ought to be eliminated. This includes the rule against marijuana use. While my readers know that I am adamantly opposed to recreational drug use, I am also a fervent believer in both marijuana legalization and and end to the continued hounding of people who simply choose to live life differently than I do. But the laundry list of terrible rules that amateur athletes are subjected to is long and far more problematic than the rules surrounding marijuana. It is all of these rules that must be changed or eliminated, not merely this one rule about marijuana.

Finally, regarding the racial angle of this issue: By turning this matter into a question of racism, we allow the olympic committees and other amateur athletic governing bodies to continue to enforce these absurd rules while lazily promising to do something about racism. Racism, while terrible, is not the problem with amateur sports. The horrible list of preposterous rules athletes face is the real issue. We should not deflect from that issue with a sideshow about racism just because complaining about racism currently happens to be chic. If the olympic committees solved their race problems overnight, She'carri Richardson would still be in trouble for using marijuana. Is that what we want? No! We want - or should want - an end to the list of ridiculous rules we saddle innocent competitors with. 

So, please, I beg of you, stop making this a racial issue. The issue is not race or racism. The issue is that these oppressive athletic organizations and governing bodies heap unreasonable rules upon all athletes. The mere existence of these rules is bad enough, but allowing them to continue also allows the administrators to choose who they will punish, when, and how; which, in turn, allows them to subject athletes to the administrators' private biases as well.

We will never fix these problems if we continue to misdiagnose them. In this case, race is not the problem. Bad rules and bad governance are the problems.

2021-05-21

Why Social Media Is A Glorified Chatbot

Some of you may be aware of the fact that I do some work with AI chatbots professionally. For the last two weeks or so, in my own spare time and for personal edification, I've been playing with a consumer-grade chatbot AI called "Replika."

The way it works is:
  1. You type something to the bot. 
  2. The bot processes what you say via Natural Language Understanding, and figures out what you mean probabilistically. 
  3. The bot then selects from a pool of available responses based on its internal algorithms.
The bot's responses are composed based on training data, so you won't get the same answer every time (unless you repeatedly ask the same question), with the goal being a response that is a lot like something a "real person" would say. Maybe, in fact, a real person DID say that very thing in response to a similar statement made by some other real person in some chat log years ago. This is the nature of training an AI conversation-bot.

Now, consider social media. Social media works in a similar way:
  1. You type something into the "create post" box. 
  2. The social medium processes this information through its own algorithmic understanding of you (your profile info, your past posts, your friends and their profile info, etc.). 
  3. The medium then selects from an available pool of *respondents* based on its internal algorithms.
These respondents are guaranteed to respond to your post in a way that is just as predictable as what happens when you feed an AI chat log data. (Sorry, I don't mean *YOUR* response; *YOU* are of course a thoroughly unique unicorn. But OTHER people are more predictable than you...)

At a psychological level, a Facebook user will have the same experience as a user of "Replika AI." I type my feelings into a box, and an algorithm decides what kind of response I receive. In the Replika UI, you can even give "likes" and other reactions to responses you receive, so that the algorithm can update its understanding of what "drives engagement" and respond to you accordingly in the future. Remind you of anything?

I submit that the social media experience is no more "real" than my experience with an AI chatbot. Especially if you spend a lot of time discussing politics, or sports, or etc., you are feeding utterances into an algorithm, which then serves you algorithmically driven "content." It doesn't necessarily matter that Bob *REALLY SAID* that you were a dumb so-and-so; what matters is that the algorithm had a certain prediction that X number of "Bobs" would respond to your post in a certain way, and crafted your user experience accordingly.

In short, social media isn't really social. Maybe it was, once upon a time, but now it's not. If you want to have a meaningful social interaction with someone, you have to do it one-on-one. You can still use technology to do it, but if you're just posting things into the ether or following online discussions and interjecting where you see fit, then you are essentially having a one-way conversation with an AI.

Coming to this realization has completely reshaped my understanding of the internet. I hope it will reshape yours, too.

2021-05-19

When Does Something Become Racism?

I've been thinking a lot about so-called "Critical Race Theory" and its relationship to actual, run-of-the-mill racism. Truth be told, there's a lot to dislike about CRT, but it's been difficult for me to express exactly what is wrong about it. Meanwhile, I've read a lot of analyses from academics who are critical of CRT, and their explanations - while very valuable and compelling - seem to fall short of explaining why I think CRT is nothing more than a new form of racism.

Then, the other day, the issue clicked with me.

A Victim Narrative

Let us begin by considering plain, old racism. Let's take an example that everyone already agrees on: nazi-style white supremacy. We all agree that white supremacy is invidious racism, so this works as a viable starting point from which to build.

White supremacy has a fundamental contradiction, which is that it is not actually about the supremacy of the white race at all. Instead, white supremacy is a victim narrative. According to white supremacists, other races are to blame for all the problems that white people face. Other races, through immigration, interracial marriage, and cultural proliferation, are upending the traditional lifestyle of an "old-timey" white supremacist. That is, there was supposedly some set of halcyon days, way back when, and back then the white race was everything it was supposed to be. Then, the story goes, along came other races, which caused all sorts of problems. 

Obviously, a narrative like this does not describe a superior race, but an inferior one. A truly superior race would be able to easily counteract the influences of other races on national culture. A superior race would be so obviously superior that all other races would want to be more like it. But that's not what white supremacists think or claim. White supremacists claim to be victims of other races. 

Why Cultural Pride Is Not Racism

This inherent victim narrative also sheds light on why non-whites who have always been proud of their own unique cultures are not committing racism or cultural supremacy when they celebrate their own cultures. Namely, there is no victim narrative in celebrating one's own culture.

Take Black History Month, for example. Traditionally, "Black History Month" has been a celebration of black historical figures and the important contributions they've made. We learn about objectively great people like Harriet Tubman, who helped human beings escape from slavery; Duke Ellington, who elevated the intellectual rigor of jazz music to the same level as Western Classical music; and Alexandre Dumas, who became one of the most successful writers of his time, so successful in a white-dominated culture that many if not most people in that culture don't even realize that he's black at all.

What all of these stories have in common (aside from the obvious) is that they don't pander to a victim narrative. Tubman's story is about triumph over slavery, not about the plight of enslaved people. Ellington's story is about his magnificent creative mind, not about the biases that kept him from growing into the genius that he was. Dumas' story is simply about being a great author and a charismatic person. 

And so it is with any cultural heritage celebration. For the most part, people are celebrating the things that make their cultures unique: art, music, cuisine, history, a common story. They're not exalting in their status as oppressed people, they're just enjoying themselves. Without a victim narrative, there can be no objection. Loving one's own culture is no different than loving one's own family or appreciating the color of one's own hair.

But Then, Resentment Appears

Unfortunately, practitioners of Critical Race Theory, and those ordinary people who have become enamored of its teachings, do in fact promote a victim narrative. What began as a celebration of their own uniqueness veered into resentment. It is this resentment that I argue is racism.

During the Rwandan genocide, there existed a victim narrative similar to the white supremacist one. The Hutus blamed the Tutsis for their comparatively low station and exacted their revenge. It was this resentment that enabled a political dispute to fester into a genocide. We all have our differences with all kinds of people, but when we allow those disagreements to grow into pure resentment, and when we build that resentment into a victim narrative, then that's when we've become racists; and racism is never that far away from ethnic cleansing.

The defining feature of CRT, even beyond all the postmodernist academic mumbo-jumbo, is the resentment. CRT is primarily about advancing a victim narrative of "structural racism" that permeates all social interactions. As a self-contained system, it works. That is, it appears to me that CRT is at least internally consistent. I'll let the academics debate the truth value of CRT's fundamental claims, such as they are. 

But the real problem, the one thing that makes Critical Race Theory a kind of racism, is the fact that CRT's primary focus is resentment. Notice that this resentment is even fixated on a single group of people: whites, and primarily cisgendered white males. The entire world is the terrible place it is thanks mainly to cisgendered white males, so claims CRT. The problems that exist out there can ultimately traced back to them.

So we can see that Critical Race Theory is merely racism in a fancy hat. But I would even go one step further and suggest that CRT's fixation on a single, easily identifiable group of people as the villains of the whole story creates an incredibly dangerous situation.

2021-05-04

You All Keep Telling Me I'm Wrong, But...

Here it is, straight from the horse's mouth:

"I was responsible because I made the decision to do drugs," Alig said. "And when I made that decision I wasn't on drugs."

One of my more controversial blog posts put it this way:

Drug use is a conscious act of self-abnegation. As such, every time a person takes a drug - any drug - they are turning their backs on their own lives. This is not merely because drugs are deadly (and they are). This is because the original motivation to consume drugs in the first place is an act of self-abnegation. Oneself, one's own thoughts, one's own life becomes temporarily insufficient (on any level, even a trivial one), and the drug becomes the remedy. Long day? Don't work it out, forget about it - take drugs. Party not fun enough for you? Don't take it upon yourself to liven up your social situation, forget about it - take drugs. Bored? Don't develop an interesting hobby or creative pursuit, forget about it - take drugs. Not feeling adequate? Have some problems? Take the easy way out, take drugs...

Such is the motivation behind each and every instance of drug use, from a child sniffing glue to the death of a famous singer. In all instances, the solution to a personal problem is resolved not by thoughts, choices, and actions, but by a short-acting drug that delays the working out of a solution. The goal is always to stop thinking as a stand-alone being - to either become one with the drugs or to not think at all.

This is death.

2021-04-12

What's Your Agenda?

As time goes on, the better I appreciate the perspective of people like Thomas Sowell, who has mostly stayed out of the libertarian "scene" because he's not a joiner. For understandable reasons, he doesn't want to join a crowd of like-minded people. Instead, he prefers to use his mind to follow the facts and lead him to his own conclusions. 

Of course, everyone says that this is what they do. Everyone says that they just analyze the facts and the data and make up their minds accordingly. The truth is, however, that most people filter their information through ideology. They embrace or privilege any fact that fits their preconceived notions and reject or penalize any fact that stands in opposition to what they want to be true. And, true enough, nobody's perfect.

Still, imperfection is one thing; actively fostering confirmation bias is something else entirely. Anyone who knows what confirmation bias is ought to be actively engaged in avoiding it. Sadly, many people know what it is, and work actively to promote it anyway.

For example: I recently saw a web-comic that claimed that all those who oppose allowing transsexual girls to compete with cisgendered girls in girls' competitive sports are really just bigoted against transsexuals. The exact claim was that you don't have to scratch very far beneath the surface to uncover anti-trans bias. I responded to this web-comic with some biological facts about how testosterone impacts athletic performance, and concluded my comment by saying that I didn't think everyone who is reluctant to allow such competition is automatically biased against transsexuals. The reply? "I never said that they were." No, the person to whom I addressed my comment did not - but the comic that we were all discussing sure did! How did that context get dropped?

Second example: In a discussion about how more people die from suicide by hand guns than are murdered by long guns, a friend of mine quoted someone who was arguing in favor of greater restrictions on hand guns. I emphasized a point in that quote, highlighting the fact that hand guns aren't seen to be as "spooky" as, say, AR-15s, and thus they don't get as much attention in gun control debates. Many people responded, essentially asking me what my point was. But that was my point. All of it. I didn't have a further agenda.

What these two examples highlight is a practice I've taken on recently, which I do increasingly more often. Rather than make a broad and all-encompassing argument in favor of X or Y, I like to find a simple point that every reasonable person can agree with, and highlight it. It has to be a factual point, and it has to be mostly unobjectionable. What I find is that highlighting this point also tends to highlight my interlocutors' own cognitive biases. They think I'm trying to "get them" (actual verbatim quote of one such person, by the way), when they've merely "gotten themselves."

To correct their opinions, they'll either have to come up with different reasoning for the same conclusion, or refine their reasoning to account for an undisputed fact that favors the other side. That's my agenda. Sticking to and emphasizing the bald facts and forcing people to consider them when they articulate their own points. 

Their doing so will make us all better off.

2021-03-26

"Long Covid"

The news of the day is that so-called "long covid," persistent cases of COVID-19 that never seem to go away even after months, is possibly not real. Much of the data documenting "long covid" consists of self-reported survey data collected by an organization lead by "spiritualists," and many of the symptoms associated with it are identical to the scientifically debunked "chronic Lyme disease."

What could be going on here?

When I read about this, I'm struck by my own personal experiences. Diabetics like myself often take a long time to fight even simple things like the flu and the common cold. Such is life with a weakened immune system. A cold that other people get over in two or three days can sometimes persist in my body for two or three weeks. This is a fact: I can't "fake" or imagine three weeks of a runny nose. 

Coughs and chest congestion are somewhat easier to fake and/or imagine. One can truly believe that there's something in one's chest without there actually being something there. Headaches, fevers (especially mild ones), body pains, lethargy, fatigue, and so on, are all symptoms that can be imagined just as well as they can be experienced in reality. Put slightly differently, these symptoms are as real when they are psychosomatic as they are when they are the result of a viral infection.

When I was a young boy, I caught some stomach bug. My family and I were all downstairs watching MacGuyver when a sudden wave of nausea swept over me, and I threw up all over the carpet. I felt physically awful, but I was also mortified by the fact that I had just puked in front of everyone, that I hadn't had enough time to run to the bathroom. I can still see it in my memories as clear as day. Rightly or wrongly, the experience got into my head and stuck with me a long time. I developed a bit of a "complex" over it. For months - years? - I had to sleep on my stomach with a pan beside the bed. Every little twitch and gurgle in my stomach seemed like evidence that I was going to vomit. I'd wake up in the middle of the night with an imaginary stomach ache and sit with my bed pan, trembling, waiting to throw up. I'd run into the bathroom and just wait.

You could say that I was suffering from "long stomach flu." I had a little mental thing that I eventually out-grew. But were my stomach pains and gurgles real? Absolutely. One of the things that cured me was the realization that I could make myself feel nauseous just by thinking about it, and that before I knew it, things were really gurgling in there. 

The root cause of my "long stomach flu" was fear. I had had a real stomach bug which, when combined with a situation that seemed traumatic for a little kid, because a genuine and perhaps justified fear in my mind. Then the fear took over and manifested itself in physical symptoms that lasted a truly long time. To this day, I'm a bit scared to vomit, and I try to avoid it if at all possible - even when it would probably help me feel better. 

But the stomach flu is small potatoes compared to COVID-19. Today, society is confronted with an illness that, when serious, results in hospitalization, intubation, scarring of the lung and heart tissue, terrible fevers, and slow suffocation to death. Even when it's not a serious case, patients are forced to wonder if they will eventually develop deadly symptoms, and the timeframe between minor covid and terminal covid appears to be days. That is genuinely terrifying. As for those of us who have not been infected, COVID-19 has held us captive indoors, forced us to wear masks in public, stolen hugs and handshakes from us, paralyzed our economy, and created a kind of mass hysteria that many believe to be completely justified. 

In short, COVID-19 is terrifying enough to make manifest any number of psychosomatic symptoms, even in people who have never been infected by it. Rather than dismiss their suffering, we should compassionately acknowledge it; but, we should acknowledge it for what it is.

Those patients who must recover from pulmonary and myocardial scarring will probably take a long time to return to noromal. This is to be expected, since wounds take time to heal. During that time, such people will probably feel weak and sometimes lightheaded from lack of oxygen and/or low blood pressure, and/or any other predictable symptoms that come from such a significant cardiovascular ordeal. COVID-19 is certainly not unique in its ability to cause this kind of lengthy recovery. Pneumonia of various causes will produce a similar long recovery in patients who experience severe cases.

As for those patients who have few remaining physical signs of a COVID-19 infection, and still report spooky-but-vague "long covid" symptoms like aches and head "fog" and fatigue, it seems more likely to me that they are struggling with fear and psychosomatic problems. That's okay! We've all been through quite an ordeal with COVID-19, even those who never contracted it. 

We should not, however, sink over a billion dollars of public funds into chasing a phantom. Treat people with compassion and listen to their stories. Hug them and give them emotional support. But encourage them to rise above their fears, or at least to be aware of them. The last thing anyone needs is a false excuse to be coddled.

I'll say one final thing in closing. Early in the pandemic, I noticed that the number of people claiming in casual conversation to be "high risk for covid" seemed to exceed expectations based on disease prevalence. That is, a lot of people seemed to be adopting an "out of my way, I'm high-risk!" attitude. This attitude was not without its rewards. Remember that early in the pandemic, grocery stores had reserved shopping hours for high-risk populations. High-risk people were first to be admitted to the hospital, first to receive medical treatment, first to receive the covid vaccine. They also received extra lenience from their employers, and extra patience from friends and family. There were, and are, many incentives for people to claim high-risk status with respect to COVID-19.

Thus, it is not out of the question that many people who make these claims, and who make claims about "long covid" are, in fact, manifesting some form of Munchausen Syndrome, feigning illness for attention, sympathy, or personal benefit.

2021-03-23

Boys Don't Cry

A friend of mine on social media posted a web comic yesterday about "toxic masculinity." The gist of the web comic was that "toxic masculinity" was essentially the insistence that boys not cry or show any emotion or hint of struggle. When boys encounter pain or difficult, we should be strong, keep a stiff upper lip, hold our emotions in. The argument is that this insistence that men suppress their emotions is the essence of "toxic masculinity."

A few things are worth noting here.

First, I don't think this is quite what women have in mind when they complain about "toxic masculinity." Sure, women would prefer it if men were better communicating about their emotions, but compared to things like rape and rape culture, men's emotional intelligence is really a secondary concern. 

Second, it's true that men and boys are often encouraged to suppress their negative emotions, and it's undeniable that this takes a toll on our mental health.

But most importantly, I'd like to point out that there is an explanation for this that doesn't involve "the patriarchy." We know that among children, girls' emotional regulation is superior to that of boys. We also know that mothers of girls show better emotional regulation than mothers of boys. Taken together, what this implies is that young boys will tend toward more emotional outbreaks than young girls, and that the children's mothers will respond better to the girls than to the boys. "Stop crying!" isn't some nascent, diabolical, patriarchical social conditioning ingrained into us; it might simply be that children with worse emotional regulation are more often told to stop crying.

Once parents have practiced telling their boys to stop crying and suck it up long enough, it turns into a habit. Through that habituation, it becomes a mantra, and boys end up with more emotional repression than women do. 

Granted, some boys probably are told to stop crying for social reasons. In my family, we were all (boys and girls) socialized to be emotionally repressed, and that's caused a lot of problems for us. My point here is not that there is one, single, non-patriarchical cause for all male emotional repression. My point is merely that this phenomenon can happen even when it has nothing to do with the patriarchy

And, in general, we should resist and be skeptical of any intellectual framework that seeks to tie all social problems to a single, underlying cause. 

2021-03-16

Mindset

 After having gone through a year's worth of unexplained symptoms and puzzled doctors, in October of 2009, I finally received a frantic call from my primary care physician, telling me to go to the hospital as soon as I possibly could. I arrived at about two o'clock in the afternoon, and was rushed through a series of interviews I can barely remember now. There seem to have been a couple of triage points, several conversations with a nurse practitioner, a lot of waiting around, and then finally a rather anti-climactic visit from an endocrine specialist.

In her Irish accent, she told me, "I don't quite know how to tell you this, but you're diabetic, and..." She trailed off briefly, probably considering whether there was anything emotionally helpful she could provide for me in that moment. Then, apparently deciding that there wasn't, she continued, "We're going to give you an insulin shot today, and--and you're going to be on insulin for the rest of your life."

"What?!"

"Yeah..." she told me. Then she said something that I don't remember, which somewhat conveyed empathy, but which also conveyed the urgency with which she needed to inject insulin into me.

From there, I was led into another room, where another nurse introduced me to my first insulin pen. I hadn't had time to process what was happening to me. This had all happened within about 30 minutes, and the part where I found out that I was henceforth an insulin-dependent diabetic had only happened a couple of minutes ago. These people wouldn't let me catch my breath. I was being rushed from one end of the ward to the next, from room to room, person to person, each one hurrying through a set of instructions that I don't remember; that I never had any chance of ever remembering in the first place. 

The nurse who showed me the insulin pen quickly went through instructions on how to give myself an injection. The tutorial was over in less than a minute, at which point she sort of gestured toward all the paraphernalia in between us and said, "Do you want me to help you with your first shot?"

That was it.

The confusion in my mind suddenly melted away. Everything sort of melted away, everything except a sense of purpose. I said, "Well, I might as well get used to it now. I'll be doing it for the rest of my life." I took the needle and the insulin pen, pulled off the seal, screwed the needle onto the pen, dialed in my dose, jabbed it into my stomach, and pressed the button.

I've been a diabetic ever since.

*        *        *

While I didn't know everything there was to know about managing my diet as a type 1 diabetic, a similar shift happened to me when I got home that evening. One day, I was eating ice cream cake and jalapeno poppers, the next day I was meticulously counting my carbohydrates and denying myself anything that required an injection. 

I don't know how it works for other people, but that's how it worked for me. There was no use crying about every meal I was going to eat from then on. There was no use complaining about it. There was no use comparing my new diet to the freedom and decadence I had enjoyed as a normal, healthy twenty-something only a few hours before. Once my mind had absorbed the fact that I was a type 1 diabetic, my behavior followed. 

Adjusting to a new chronic condition isn't easy, especially if you really enjoyed the life you had lead up to that point. But my thinking was, what other choice do I have? It wasn't as if I could go back to living in a world in which I wasn't diabetic. The task at that point was to figure out how to thrive under my current set of conditions, not despair over what those conditions were. It did take me a long time to fully emotionally accept my condition, but that was a grieving process, not a struggle against reality.

Grief itself is a natural part of human existence. We all grieve. For most people, grief - however emotionally significant it is - does not put a halt to the other aspects of our lives. Grief makes us sad, and causes us to think carefully about the present state of our lives. It isn't a denial of reality, but rather an acknowledgement of it: the person we loved is now gone, the life we led is now impossible, the precious thing we had is now lost. Whatever the cause, grief is a transition from one set of circumstances to another. If someone fails to make the transition, that failure isn't caused by the grief, but by our own refusal to evolve.

*        *        *

Granted, some transitions are easier than others. When a man becomes a diabetic, he transitions from a general identity, like "I am a man," to a new identity that involves the condition: "I am a diabetic man." Seeking out that new identity and discovering what it means on a personal level is a large part of the journey itself. Strange as it may sound to some, I consider this to be an easier transition than when we lose a loved one. I can become a diabetic man, but a man who loses a father cannot become a man without a father. Once you have a father, you are always a person with a father, even after you lose him. 

So, I do understand that some transitions are harder than others, that some grief is more uniquely difficult to overcome, and that one person's struggles don't always map with parity to another person's struggles.

Even so, grief is a transition. No matter how difficult, and no matter how long it takes to fully process, grief is a doorway into another room, a next chapter of life. (Luckily for us, not every new chapter of life requires that we grieve to make the transition!) What some struggle with is acknowledging that the previous chapter has already ended; that room no longer exists. Either we step through our grief, into the new room, or we try to exist in a nothing-space, an emotional nether-region.

What we can't do is go backwards.

*        *        *

A friend of mine recently committed to making a positive change toward better health and fitness. He made his commitment public in a bid to keep himself accountable. I congratulated him and made myself available to him; after all, I do happen to know a few things about health and fitness. He confessed that he felt a little intimidated by me, and said, "Anyone who has run 30+ miles has a different set of mental skills than me."

This is a good friend, but clearly he doesn't read my blog, ha ha...

I wanted to tell him about the power of mindset. I wanted to tell him about my firm belief, confirmed again and again in a variety of different experiences, that everyone has all the same stuff. After all, we are all human beings. While our genetics all differ slightly, none of us is so different that he has a completely different mental skill set. 

I also wanted to explain to him that this very notion, the idea that something immutable between us has caused me to pursue a lifetime of fitness while causing him to pursue something else entirely, is the belief that limits his progress. The worst thing we can ever tell ourselves as we pursue a goal is that we are fundamentally incapable of being the kind of person who excels at such goals. 

No, the first step toward achieving any goal is acknowledging the reality that such a goal is achievable by people like us. Why pursue something if, by definition, you're not the kind of person who can attain it? Instead, we must reach for our aspirations under the belief that, truly, we can do it. That doesn't mean for certain that we will, but isn't it nice to know that it's possible? Indeed, isn't it necessary to know that it's possible? Has anyone ever achieved the impossible?

I don't recall ever hearing an Olympian explain in an interview, "I knew all along that everyone else was faster than I am and that I didn't have the right stuff to win an Olympic gold medal, but by the end of the race - gee whiz! - I had won!"

*        *        *

Of course, mindset isn't merely about achieving something. The reason that sorting out your mindset has the effect of helping you achieve something is because if we fixate on our limiting beliefs or on transitions we haven't been able to make, then new things we want to do are just off the table. In a way, it's less about having a "positive mindset" than it is about not having a negative one. 

Any pessimist realist will tell you that positive thinking isn't enough to get you where you want to be. You also have to put in all the hard work, and get a few lucky breaks along the way, and eventually serendipity happens. However, negative thinking will definitely screw you over before you even get started. 

And if that's what negative thinking does to your attempts at achieving something, think about what it does for your daily life. We don't always want to get up and get ready for work in the morning, but who do you think is going to have a better day: the man who groans and grumbles and frowns and complains the whole time, or the man who focuses his attention on whatever he has to look forward to that day? 

I can tell you from experience that my days pass a lot more quickly when I get to drive my daughter to her ballet class once a week. Those are simply wonderful days. We hurry to get ready, and then we drive together, just the two of us, to her class; we listen to our favorite music as we drive, or else we have a nice conversation together. Then she goes to class, and I go for a walk around the scenic neighborhoods surrounding her dance studio. When it's over, we drive home, she tells me about her class, and then we get takeout from a favorite restaurant and everybody sits upstairs eating and watching our favorite TV shows. It's become a whole ritual, one that we all look forward to, and one that we all find very satisfying. 

Not every day can be that fun, but simply by virtue of the fact that my Wednesday evenings are so nice, my Wednesday work days pass by quickly and happily. That's a positive mindset for you.

You might have had a "divorced friend," a friend who went through a particularly bad break-up, and it soured his or her perspective on everything. So every time you talk with your friend about your own spouse or partner, your comments are met with derision, or sarcasm, or else steered toward a rant about your friend's ex and how bad they made everything. How much fun is it to spend time with these people? 

A few days ago, I wrote about how, after going through my own break up, I decided to turn myself into the kind of person who my ideal partner would want to date; unlike other people I knew, who allowed their break-ups to make them cynical. I think the results speak for themselves.

*        *        *

All of these things come down to having the right mindset. Whether you're trying to overcome a bad situation, trying to achieve something remarkable, trying to lose weight, trying to find the love of your life, or just trying to make it through Wednesday, having the right mindset is the power that will carry you through.

And if it doesn't? You're still not out anything, because you will have spent most of the day thinking positive things and being happy, rather than thinking negative things and being sad. I'm not a fan of Pascal's Wager, but in this case I think it works. If you maintain a positive mindset, and things don't go your way, then you haven't really lost anything. If you maintain a negative mindset, things still might not go your way, but what you've lost is the happiness you could have felt if you had a better attitude. And in the meantime, that positive thinking really could end up paying off, and then you have both the happiness your attitude brought you, along with whatever victory you were hoping for at the end of the day.