Aligning Your Internal Values – Empathy, Selfishness, and the Future

[Previous: Turning Inward – Politics, Empathy, Selfishness, and Human Destiny]

The easiest way to go through life is to not have any values. Instead of having guiding principles that limit your possible actions to the best ones, you just do “whatever” or let someone else decide for you.

The harder thing is to have values and principles – but they can end up being conflicting, or you’re not sure how to follow all of them. You end up feeling pulled in different directions, act like a hypocrite, have double standards for yourself (and your friends) vs everyone else, and other similar things.

The hardest thing of all is to have values and principles – but then, actually sit down and figure out how to align all of your different values in the same direction.

For myself, one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out for nearly a year now is how to deal with the conflicting motives of self-interest vs altruism – selfishness vs empathy.

Empathy, as far as I’m concerned, is about understanding. It’s the mental process that humans use to understand one another, and when turned inwards, to understand yourself. You’re trying to imagine what it would be like to have the thoughts and feelings of another person, to relate to them, relate to their experiences, to put yourself in their shoes and briefly experience what those shoes feel like. It’s what leads to altruism, and helping others.

But it’s clear that empathy has limits, and can be abused. It’s clear that there are a lot of people who demand empathy from the world, while offering none in return. They find ways (mostly unintentionally, sometimes intentional) of making you relate to them, their negative experiences, even their trauma – which they then use to justify a simple narrative of them vs huge groups of “enemies.” Of course, if they had any empathy for these “enemies,” they’d find that many of them aren’t enemies at all (they might even be trying to solve the same problems that you are), and even when they are enemies, have been pushed by historical events (and failures of human nature common in all of us) towards them becoming your “enemy.”

Selfishness seems obvious – it’s putting the self, and self-interest, first. But more than being about self-interest, I’d say that selfishness and creation are heavily linked. What do I mean by creation? I don’t mean when you’re working for someone else “creating” what they tell you to. That’s working on someone else’s vision, which is quite the opposite of selfishness. But if you have a vision of the world, a vision so compelling that you have to alter the world towards your vision – that is selfish. You’re putting a priority on your own idea of what the world should look like, rather than someone else’s. The world is changed and made better (or worse) by visionary people placing a priority on their own visions.

The drawbacks of selfishness are more obvious. Refusing aid to those who need it. Refusing to cooperate with others, even if together you’d build something even more self-benefiting than you could build alone. Selfishness plays a part in the outlook that your interests and the interests of another person (or group) are fundamentally in conflict, leading to conflict and often violence.

Empathy is basically good. It’s what allows two different people or groups, who on paper have nothing in common, to work together for something bigger than themselves. The problem isn’t necessarily empathy. The problem is that there are a lot of people who demand empathy for themselves and people like them, while offering no empathy in return. The problem isn’t empathy – the problem is that these people are hypocrites who wouldn’t understand integrity if it threw a beer mug in their face.

It’s easy to call selfishness bad (unless you’re a huge Ayn Rand fan). The downsides of selfishness are easy to name. That said, if selfishness is evil, it’s a necessary evil – or even neutral. Selfishness, and the drive to benefit yourself, is what has pushed many thousands of history’s greatest figures to accomplish their amazing feats – they wanted fame, glory, wealth, and status for themselves.

But really, selfishness and empathy aren’t necessarily in conflict. With work, they can be aligned in the same direction.

There are lots of problems out there – problems that inspire a person to try and change them, help people, make the world a better place. Concern for others exists on a scale of lots of concern to almost none, and unless you’ve been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, is normal. The trouble comes, especially if you’re a person particularly motivated by helping people, is that if you help people too much, you won’t have enough of what you need to support yourself.

There is a saying though: if you want to make a billion dollars, solve a problem for a billion people.

Everyone has at least a little self-interest – things you want, and want only for yourself. Power, fame, wealth, love, admiration, and so on. Wanting these things isn’t bad, and I’d say it’s completely natural. That said, no one cares what you want. They care about what they want. Everyone is leading their own little lives, with their own personal goals and desires, and most of the time don’t have time to worry about anyone else unless someone else’s interests conflict with theirs.

The thing is: if you tell people about a goal and they believe that you completing the goal will help them, they won’t just like your goal – they will actively support your goal. If you have the right goal, work for it in the right ways, and tell enough people who want you to have that, achieving the goal becomes a whole lot easier. Having a selfish goal that other people love is how you make sure you don’t end up working alone – when isolation is so ineffective, even dangerous.

Wanting to help people is easy, and completely normal. Wanting to bend the world to your will, even in small ways, is completely normal. What isn’t normal is finding a way of bending the world to your will in ways that end up helping other people. Aligning these values, of wanting to help others, and wanting to help yourself, can be hard. It can be so hard that it’s tempting to give up entirely and just go live a life of hedonism – anime, video games, smoking pot, going clubbing, whatever floats your boat – all to ignore both the problems of the world, and your hardest to achieve desires.

But if you do align them, that’s how you become powerful or influential enough to help the most people. That’s how you benefit yourself the most, with people actively trying to help you achieve your goals.

That’s how you build a legacy – something that will last, and keep making an impact, far after you are gone.

You’ll have built a legacy for yourself – and you won’t have to do it alone.

The Descendant’s List – What it is and How to Make One

When most people read books, they don’t bother reviewing the book. When they do, they might talk about what they liked or disliked, and give a number out of five or ten for how much they liked it.

When I review books, I’m not just reviewing the overall quality; I’m also looking at whether the book would fit onto a hypothetical list. I’m calling it the Descendant’s List.

What is a Descendant’s List? Why should you make one? How do you make one? I’ll be answering these questions and more.

What is a Descendant’s List?

A Descendant’s List is a list of books that, in your opinion, form the best and most important resources for success in life. Reading these books (especially these books, rather than the alternatives) would give the reader the essential resources for success in as many fields as possible. Whatever their goal in life is – billionaire, Olympian, Nobel laureate, President of the United States, bestselling author, or anything else – reading these books would lead whoever reads them to an increased chance of success.

Whenever I finish a book, I ask myself question:

If I created a list of the 100 most useful books of all time, and my descendants read that list to have the greatest possible chance of success in life, would this book be on that list?

This isn’t just a list of “books you like” – if it was, it would only be books you gave 5 stars to (and sometimes, the best book available on a topic isn’t perfect). It’s not just a list of good books either – for any subject, there are lots of good books, while this list is for the best possible book on the subject. And it’s not just a list of books that are useful right now – the future is uncertain, and a book that’s useful today might be outdated or even useless tomorrow.

The key thing about the books that appear on this hypothetical list is that they will be useful for your descendants. They will be useful for your children, and their children, and their children. Including a book on this list implies that it’s not just useful now, but you predict it will be useful for multiple generations into the future. You’re not just trying to help yourself (though you obviously should) – you’re also trying to help your children, grandchildren, and other descendants.

And because you’re trying to help your descendants, it’s especially important for this list to not just be books that you like. You have no idea what your descendants will be like, what problems they’ll run into, what their ambitions will be, and so on. That said, you can make some educated guesses, based on 1. your predictions for the future, 2. common experiences most people have, 3. problems that people from your culture/background face. The more a book deals with one or more of these areas, the more helpful it will be to your descendants.

Why 100 books? The number is honestly pretty arbitrary – you could make arguments for a very exclusive list (25 or less), or for a more expansive list of every good book a person should read in their lifetime (250? 500? 1000?). But 100 has some advantages – it’s large enough to include a moderate number of extremely good books, while also being small enough to force a choice about whether the book you’re reading is not just good, but one of the most important books of all time.

Why should I make a Descendant’s List?

I’ve come to believe the following: while there is specific knowledge about how to succeed in specific areas, there is a body of knowledge, skills, and mindsets that enable success in all areas of life.

If you wanted to go full-on Napoleon Hill, you’d say that there was a philosophy of success. I’m not saying that. But I am saying that there are certain ideas or mindsets that won’t just enable a person to be successful at one field, but enable them to be successful at multiple fields or any field. Better yet, those ideas would enable two different people, with very different goals, to both achieve success in completely different areas of life.

So, assuming this is at all the case, how would you learn this body of knowledge, skills, and mindsets?

My answer is pretty obvious: Books. Lots of books. But which books? Out of the literal millions of books that have been published, which books are most likely to teach you these essential ideas, skills, and mindsets?

How do you make a Descendant’s List?

The first step is the unstated one: Read. Read lots of books. Read as much as you can. Read to expand your mind, expand your skills, and expand your life.

But again, which books should you choose to read?

Part of my answer comes from one of the best books I read in 2018: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss. Tools of Titans is made from the interviews Tim Ferriss has done with over a hundred mega-successful people (such as billionaires, icons, and world-class performers…). One of the questions he asks is “What book have you gifted most to others, and why?,” creating this huge list of books.

What’s the big deal about a list of books? The big deal is that 1. the people Tim Ferriss interviews are the best of the best from wildly different fields (sports, politics, academia, entertainment, etc.), and 2. many of these books get recommended multiple times, by different people – implying that they’re useful across fields.

That’s one place to start – but don’t just stop there. Look at the books recommended by other successful people. Start creating a mega-list of books to read. The more often a book gets recommended, the more likely that it’s an essential book to read.

You’ll end up with a huge list of books to read, possibly 1000 or more (if you’re like me, several thousand). But you don’t have to read all of them. Over the years, you’ll get a better sense of which books are actually helpful, and which ones aren’t. And also over time, you’ll pick out the most essential books that aren’t just good for you to read, but also good for your descendants.

What does a finished Descendant’s List look like? I don’t know. Many people throughout history have made recommended book lists – but as far as I can tell, a “Descendant’s List” specifically is an original concept created by me, and I just started the quest to make it last year. It takes a lifetime to make, constantly adjusting it as you go.

But creating this list doesn’t end with picking the 100th book. That’s the beginning. The next step is the one taken by the descendants this list is gifted to.

Let’s say that I successfully make this list. I give this list of books to my children, along with me giving these books credit for my success in life. Assuming I have a moderate or even high amount of success (and assuming my children are as curious as I am), they read these books earlier than I did, such as in their teenage and college years. If I’ve chosen correctly, these books will also lead them to a moderate or high level of success in their chosen fields.

Further, if my children are anything like me, they won’t just stop reading with those 100 books – they’ll read more books, including books from two groups I will logically never be able to include in my original list: 1. books that I didn’t read yet, and 2. books that haven’t been published yet. They’ll take the least useful or most outdated books from my original list, remove them, and include even better books in their place. Over time, each of my descendants will make improvements on my list to make their own Descendant’s List – which they will give to their children, who if they’re anything like their parents, will also improve on the list they were given.

That’s an optimistic scenario – I give my original list to each of my children, and they each make an individual improved Descendant’s List to give to their children, who repeat the process. This ends up creating many varied lists, each claiming to be the list of 100 most essential books.

The Collaborative List

But there’s an even better scenario, one that’s even more optimistic – but possible with the right incentives.

I give my original list to my children, who then read the books on the list – my children then start exploring which books are even better that they can add. But rather than each of my children making their own improvements, they come together to make a single list that they improve together. They democratically decide which current book on the list is least useful or most outdated, and then vote on what book to include in its place. The idea would be to do this slowly – maybe once a year, and only one book a year – keeping the list at at total of 100 books.

Books that get voted off or almost included aren’t just forgotten. Instead, the voted off or almost include books get put on an extended list (“Extended List”) of books that almost made it, noting why they’re not on the main list (voted off and when, how many votes they received short of the required number, so on). Over time the main list evolves slowly, to prevent any malevolent descendant from ruining the list. The extended list is used not only as a record, but also as list of suggestions for which books could be included in the future (or re-included if a book was removed by mistake).

Further, as the number of descendants grows, they bring their own priorities and knowledge about the modern life to this decision process. For example, while my immediate children might be determined to include Tools of Titans on the list, my grandchildren might decide that the book isn’t that useful anymore, instead wanting to include Human-Android Communication or something else suitably futuristic. The list improves with each generation – and with each version of the list, the chance that the reader will be successful at life grows with it.

Closing Thoughts

This is a difficult idea to make work. There are multiple points of failure, even before the collaborative list idea. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing anything like this (at least publicly), and I can’t be sure if it’s because it’s completely new… or because it’s hard to make it work. Whatever the answer is, I’m going to attempt it – not just for my own success, but for the success of every single one of my future descendants.