Friday, January 10, 2014

Build the world you want to live in

I think I stumbled across a guiding principle for my life today.  It’s called “Build the World You Want to Live In.”  The key operating word here is build, which is a much stronger statement than choose.  Choosing is important, too.  It’s a way of voting, of endorsing a version of the world that someone else has built.  But I don’t want to just choose, I want to build.

“Build the World You Want to Live In,” is a better credo for shaping a career path than “Follow your passion” or “Try to get paid for doing the thing you’re good at.”  Your passionate desire could be solving thousand-piece cardboard jigsaw puzzles all day long, and you could innately be the world’s best solver of cardboard jigsaw puzzles.  But that should hopefully not be the basis for your career, for your life’s work...unless you genuinely believe that your puzzling is contributing to a better future world where more and more people are solving more and more cardboard jigsaw puzzles.

I want to live in the sort of world where people use evidence, experiments, and argument to back up their claims, instead of making things up or enforcing ideas with fear and intimidation and an environment of persistent ignorance.  That’s why I studied science, and evangelize for more scientific thinking every chance I get.  But I also want to more actively be a better-world-builder, which is why I am currently gravitating more towards engineering, entrepreneurship, and writing for public audiences.

I know someone who wants to live in the sort of world where people use their carefully conserved cultural heritage to revel in the creativity of their ancestors, to learn from their mistakes and their triumphs, and above all to empathize with people who made tough choices in the past.  That’s my wife.  She used that vision to become a historian and an archivist.  I want to live in her vision of the world too.

Some people think:

“I want to live in the sort of world where people appreciate the teachings of Jesus more.”
- Be a pastor.
“I want to live in the sort of world where more hearts are touched and inspired with music.”
- Be a pianist.
“I want to live in the sort of world where people have more variety in customized plastic keychains made from the cheapest, lowest quality materials I can find.”
- Be a crappy plastic keychain maker.
“I want to live in the sort of world where lots of people make their living stealing from ships and threatening peaceful sailors.”
- Be a pirate.

Even if it’s an awful world you’re building, as long as it’s aligned with the principle that you are building the world you really, actually want to live in, then you are welcome to go ahead and try building it.  I will just take comfort in the fact that you can be prevented from building an awful world by other people...people who want to live in a different world where there are not so many crappy plastic keychains or oceanic pirates.

I can use my “build a world” tool to help think about politics, and how other people I disagree with are thinking about politics.  Deep down they might be thinking...  “I am worried that by endorsing any form of abortion, my neighbors are building a world where people thoughtlessly view human life as disposable.” or  “I am worried that by endorsing homosexual marriage, my neighbors are building a world where I might be grossed out for a second if I accidentally see two men kiss, or my gay neighbors might trick my children into not producing grandbabies for me.  That would be a disaster.” or  “I am worried that by endorsing the legalization of recreational marijuana, my neighbors are building a less economically productive, and less physically safe world for me and my children.”  Everyone you disagree with politically on hot-button issues seems a lot less stupid, and a lot more compassionate, when you think about things this way.

I can use the “build a world” idea to think about competing ideas for economic systems.  Some people think, “I want to build the sort of world where I live in a luxurious castle, and I want all of my neighbors to live in mud huts.  I get to live in a castle because my daddy lived in a castle.  My neighbors get to live in mud huts because that's where their daddies lived.” or “I want everyone to be equal in every possible way so badly, that I will build a world where all of my neighbors’ talents and wealth are systematically handicapped and redistributed, Harrison Bergeron style.”  Hopefully with evidence and argument and persuasion and experiments and historical precedent, we can eventually sort out the ideas that end up building a bad world from the ideas that end up building a better one.

I can use the “build a world” idea to help decide where to live and the community of friends and colleagues I want to establish.  Do I want to live in the sort of world where people live in big houses, but have long commutes and “no time”?  Do I want to live in the sort of world where I can frequently collide with people who have a wide variety of interesting thoughts and opinions, or surrounded by a pocket of people who always think the same thoughts and have the same opinions? (Or retreat to a lonesome corner of the world where I’m not bothered by any pesky people at all?)  Do I want to live with only old people, or only young people, or a mix of both?  Is the town I want to live in full of lots of builders, too, or is it only full of people who want to choose and buy the creations of the builders?  These are much more important considerations to me, personally, than details about whether a particular neighborhood has lots of granite countertops, or pleasant weather, or a consistently winning sports team.

It’s a nice new lens for me to view the criticism of creative work: of a novel, of a movie, of a painting, of a product, of a business, of an essay, even of a system of bus routes.  Is the critic saying “I wish I lived in a world where you were more prepared and thoughtful than you are right now, and I want to help you to build something better next time.”  Or is the critic really saying, deep down, “I could never have built what you have built, and I am envious of you, so I will criticize your accomplishment in order to make it seem smaller than it really is.”  I guess that’s why they call it “constructive criticism,” there’s the building part right there in the expression.

I can use this idea to think about how to design and instill values in my growing family.  Do we want to be the sort of family that only visits Disneyland, or the sort of family that visits the world's largest refracting telescope?  Do we want to be the family that watches television together, or the family that tours art museums together?  How do my wife and I decide which family traditions to keep and which new family traditions to create?  Build the family you wish you had grown up in.

How can I decide what activities I need to pursue on a daily basis?  I could ask myself, “Does this activity lend me credibility, knowledge, skills, credentials, personal connections, or capital that might help me eventually build the world I want to live in?”  I suppose I could maximize the activities that answer that question with a “yes,” and minimize the activities that answer that question with a “no.”

My “build a world” principle finally makes sense of why I have always hated complainers so much.  They only have half of the equation.  They know which sort of world they want to live in, and they know they currently sure as hell don’t live in that world, but they aren’t willing to do the really hard building work it takes to make a big change.  Better to complain and complain until someone else comes along and builds it for them.

I thought of the initial germ of all of these ideas after reading a chapter about the evolution of morality and free will, in a book called Freedom Evolves by Daniel C. Dennett.  In a portion of the book, he argues that there is not really such a thing as true altruism, but there is such a thing that he calls “benselfishness.”  Benselfishness is when you engage in cooperation with others, you engage in almost-altruism seemingly for the sake of others, and you seem to do good things as much as you possibly can, merely because you are actively trying to build the sort of world that you want to live in.  And more importantly, from the point of view of evolution, you are actively trying to build the sort of world you want your children, and your children’s children to inhabit some day.  How benselfish of you!

Here’s to the builders.


  1. I think that "cheapest" and "most toxic" might be mutually exclusive. Polyethylene is pretty cheap, but not that toxic. Polonium is deadly, but not very cheap. On the other hand, you have benzene and hydrogen cyanide, which are both cheap and toxic.

    1. Your point has been noted, and the text has been updated accordingly. I don't actually care that much about toxicity, I just wanted to think of a random job that you could spend your whole life doing, without really adding much anything of value to the project of humanity, and also something that perhaps adds only negative net value. You might argue that crappy plastic keychains are adding value, because *someone* out there is buying them, and therefore finds them in some way valuable at the time they bought it (maybe only short term value, for example a gift item that delivers a one-time inside joke as an emotional payoff). I am open to other suggestions as well of a career or activity that makes this same point but better.

    2. I'm also interested in anything else you have to say on any topic, Nate. The point of trying to start writing and posting blog posts is to force myself to write more as a way to think more clearly, and also to get more practice writing.

    3. My offhand opinion is that we should make an attempt to quantize human "values" for easier comparison and better decision making. For instance, you doubt the net value of crappy plastic keychains to human well-being (and I think the keychain example is fine). But at least we can measure the value of keychains with some confidence. They have positive value that can be measured in units-sold, dollars, or sales leads contacted (assuming they are for promotional purposes). On the negative side of the ledger, plastic keychains contribute to pollution, resource depletion, maybe some cancer, and maybe some soft-impacts on quality of life that would be harder to measure. The more abstract things get (e.g., what is the net value of clothing fashion, pets, social etiquette...), the harder it is to assess value, but maybe we should try anyway.

      I suppose that what I'm reinventing here is really something called "economics".

      I'm OK with assessing values of things in dollars in cases where we don't have any more natural unit to substitute. In that light, an individual should pursue the career in which they can make the most money (which is distinct from the career that makes the most money on average) - thereby presenting the maximal value to society. The more parts of society that are measured in dollars and monetized, the closer this rule (to pursue the highest-paid job you can attain) approaches the optimal net value condition.

      I'm not necessarily following or advocating the above, just offering it as a tangent for consideration.

      Cool blog, bro.

    4. That's exactly the type of thinking I was trying to push back against, actually. It's not clear to me that what I want, and what other people should want, is to pursue the path in which to make the most money. Not because it's greedy or I have anything against money, but because it produces a world that is different than the one you want to live in (to stick with the theme of this particular post).

      A chemist might make more money producing sarin gas (to pick something extreme), than they could make producing crappy plastic key chains (to pick something mundane). And then let's say that they could make 50% higher salary formulating and injection molding crappy plastic key chains than they could teaching chemistry to middle schoolers. Maybe you think that the market is just distorted and the middle school chemistry teaching is monetarily undervalued compared to crappy plastic keychain making and sarin gas production. How would you think about the choice for a chemist between these options where sarin gas making pays more than crappy plastic keychain maker pays more than middle school chemistry teacher? What if you factored in the externalities and fuzzy costs as you say and the payscales still have the same ranking and roughly the same relative magnitudes?

      You can pick other examples if you wish rather than picking on details of these three particular ones (as you are often wont to do), but hopefully you get my point of making personal career choices based on salary alone versus other values (the desire to build a better world, even if it's an uphill economic battle and you sacrifice a little salary).