Intro³: The Two Priorities

I have written two previous introductions for this blog.

The first involved using this blog to talk about self-improvement, talk about critical issues in culture and politics with “courageous empathy,” and making a list of the 100 most important books to give to my children.

While I still want to do many of those things (especially the book list), that introduction post was way too long, and has been archived.

The second involved refocusing the blog into writing a book “Julie and Julia” style (short essays which get turned into a larger book), specifically about using biotech to make astronauts healthier while living in space (and the issues attached to that).

While I still think it would be a good idea to write that book, and it needs to be written, it’s a book that will take 10 years or more to write – so that post has been archived as well.

In light of August 1st being the 1 year anniversary of starting this blog, I’ve recently reevaluated my priorities – as of right now I have two priorities, and two priorities only. With every other issue I could pay attention to, it is either being de-prioritized or ignored entirely.

The First Priority: Self-Improvement

If you wish to rule a nation, you must first rule yourself.

Put another way for those uninterested in ruling: the mastery of anything first begins with the mastery of self.

I want to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. I want to be a strong person, in both mind and body. I want a life that is long, meaningful, fulfilling, and has a positive impact on the world. I want to be productive, effective, and above all competent. It doesn’t matter if I lack skills or resources for my goals – the most important skill is the ability to learn skills, and the most important resource is resourcefulness.

In my quest for self-improvement, I’m going to be reading (and have read) dozens of books – rather than write a long review that helps few, I write short reviews, which you can find here.

The Second Priority: Stopping the Climate Crisis

If climate change continues unabated for the next several decades, life on Earth will be radically altered and radically diminished.

Sea level rise. Increases in droughts, heat waves, monsoons, and other extreme weather. Melted permafrost and ice sheets. Radically changed boundaries of ecosystems. Desertification. Mass extinction of plants and animals. Ocean acidification. Climate refugees traveling to cooler ground. Resource wars and food shortages created from all of the above. The list of effects goes on an on.

There are lots of problems in the world, but you can’t solve all of them. You need to prioritize. Climate change might not kill or harm the most people in absolute numbers, but it has the most potential to make every other problem worse. Climate change won’t kill you directly, but it’s a force multiplier for any other problem that will.

As far as I can tell, climate change is only getting worse, and there’s only a few decades to stop it at most.

Right now, I have a potential solution in mind – one that works with “technology” we already have, can be deployed at scale, and at minimum will give humans more time to solve climate change (if not reverse it entirely). It’s just a matter of learning to use technologies that are exponentially decreasing in cost – and being willing to take a bold risk on a moonshot solution.

If that path doesn’t work, I’ll try something else until something does work.

What I’m De-Prioritizing

Like I said earlier, I’m de-prioritizing writing that book about making astronauts healthier. Astronauts don’t matter if Florida is underwater.

I love politics. I got a degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, and consider myself a political junkie. From now on I’m only going to pay attention to political issues to the extent that they affect me – unless some political issue rises to the level of nuclear war (or is otherwise about to lead to my death), I’m most likely going to ignore it. The latest tweet from the President matters for today’s news cycle, but not in the long run.

I love video games – I’m not going to give up video games entirely, but they’re being scheduled in as a “minor hobby” rather than a big part of my day or identity. Virtual piles of gold don’t matter if wars are being fought over something as basic as water.

I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from Tim Ferriss:

“Doing the uncommon requires uncommon behavior.”

Turning Inward – Politics, Empathy, Selfishness, and Human Destiny

[Previous: Becoming a Political Indepenent in the Age of Trump]

In light of the recent Kavanaugh slow motion train wreck hearings, this might be incredibly poorly timed.

When I was fifteen years old, I was in a state of radical open-mindedness. I was in a position where all of my previous beliefs had proven to be false or incomplete, I was reading from multiple conflicting thinkers, examining my own motivations, and looking for ways to improve myself.

Over time, this attitude faded. I accepted one ideology or another, and lowered my priority on self-examination and self-improvement. I went to college, I made friends, I observed the political movements around me and tried to make sense of them.

I’m at a crossroads in my life, and I believe I need to adopt an attitude similar to the one I had at fifteen – hopefully without the emotional volatility of puberty or the risk of being quickly seduced by an ideology. I’ve come to a couple of realizations over the past year or so – about politics, life, and my own motivations, and I’m going to need that attitude of skeptical open-mindedness and concern for self-improvement to get anywhere.

Politics

I’ve said something about this in the political independent essay, but over time I’ve had a realization. I’ve come to the realization that many (if not most) people aren’t advocating for their ideologies or policies out of the pure goodness of their heart, let alone from disinterested careful examination of reality. You’ll also find more dubious or primal motivators: resentment, disgust, fear, embarrassment, pride, and other feelings or biases that most people are smart enough to hide. Alongside those motivators is the king of motivators: pure unadulterated self-interest, whether in the form of self-preservation, maintaining current power/privilege, and support for your tribe (and therefore, yourself).

This isn’t limited to the left or right. The current political climate is full of attacks on the left and left-leaners as being motivated by identity politics and political correctness – supporting policies and laws based on how good they are for specific groups (along lines of race/class/gender etc.), and then shaming anyone who bring up inconvenient facts or alternative policies as wrong. From the perspective of those bringing up unpopular facts/policies, they got rejected not for being wrong, but for being politically incorrect.

Yet as far as I can tell, these exact forces of identity politics and political correctness also exist on the right. In the current political climate, you’ll observe people on the alt-right publicly taking on the mantle of white identity politics, advocating for what they believe are the interests of white people.

Less obviously then that, it’s possible to interpret gun rights activists as those whose identities are centered on being a gun owner (which I don’t mean as an attack on gun owners or gun rights activists). Obviously not every gun owner makes it a part of their identity, but those who do most strongly will join the National Rifle Association, and vote against any politician who isn’t sufficiently opposed to gun restrictions (even if they agree with them on every other issue). So it goes with every other group, to the point where it’s hard to draw the line between “identity politics” and “interest group.”

And if you think conservatives are immune to political correctness, consider how difficult it would be for a modern American conservative to be honestly and publicly concerned about climate change (or any other environmental issue) without being suspected of being a secret liberal. You only have to go back a decade to observe current Republicans talk openly about believing in climate change and the need to do something about it – you don’t see that anymore.

I know. I realize that these probably aren’t radical ideas, and at least one person reading this is rolling their eyes, saying “Wow, look at the top quality galaxy-brain-meme thinking from this guy!” Alternatively, this probably stinks of BOTH-PARTIES-ARE-THE-SAME-WHATABOUTISM that tries to conflate the flaws of both parties, and justify apathy or inaction. But you have to admit: tribalism, and tribal epistemology run rampant in the current American political climate.

Questions

But when all of this comes together – that almost everyone has ulterior motives for their political beliefs, and most people are being influenced by their tribe to support certain people or reject certain ideas – I have to question large parts of my life that may have gone differently if I had realized this earlier.

What ideas have I supported because they were good ideas, and which ones did I support because they were popular at my school?

What groups did I declare my support or allegiance for out of ethics, and which ones were because those groups were the ones my peer group or generation supported?

What ideas, books, schools of thought, or people have I rejected not because those things were wrong, but because my political tribe rejected those things?

Worst of all, I suddenly have to ask a question I really don’t want to ask. I’ve spent about 75% of my political development on the left, in one form or another. On quick reflection, one of the biggest motivators I’ve had for my liberal and left-leaning beliefs has been a sense of empathy and compassion for those in need. But in this moment where I’m questioning the motives of myself and others, I have to ask:

What have I believed because it was true or good… and what have I believed because someone hijacked my empathy?

It sounds like a bizarre question, and I don’t like asking it. I don’t like considering the possibility that someone manipulated me into believing something or supporting something that I otherwise wouldn’t have – even unintentionally, even if the goal or belief itself is noble. I don’t like the idea that I’ve been manipulated to ignore toxic people and ideas on the left, or label any uncomfortable realities as toxic only because the current available solutions to those realities are toxic solutions.

I don’t like being manipulated. I don’t like being lied to, exploited, or influenced to do something I wouldn’t normally do. I don’t know if any of those things have happened during my time on the political left (or currently, for that matter), but if they have, that’s unacceptable – and it’s a possibility I can’t ignore.

A Turn Inward

“Okay, you’re wondering how many of your previous beliefs were your own rather than being influenced into having them, what are you going to do about it? You already said you recently became a political independent, what else are you going to do?”

I’m making an intentional decision to turn inward, and focus on myself for the foreseeable future.

There are a lot of problems in society, and problems in the world. Problems that haven’t been solved because they require complex solutions, or the cooperation of large numbers of people who wouldn’t normally cooperate. Meanwhile, I’ve got my own set of personal problems, faults, weaknesses, and obstacles towards making the world look more like I would like it to look.

How am I supposed to solve the world’s problems, when I can’t even solve my own?

I’m going to focus on understanding myself, and improving my competency as a human being. I’m going to focus on understanding my motivations, my goals, my desires, and my overall psychology. I’m going to focus on improving my skills, improving my health, improving my thinking/decision-making, and improving my overall quality of life as a human being. I’m going to ask “What would it look like if I got everything I need, everything I want, and everything that would be good for me?”

In short, I’m going to be selfish (at least more than I consciously was).

However, as they say: no man is an island. It’s hard to ask what you want for yourself without also stating what you want for the world. It’s hard to understand yourself as a human without understanding humans in general. So I’m also focused on increasing my knowledge about reality, about humans, about society, and about the world at large.

While doing this, I’m prioritizing psychological health over ideological purity, and prioritizing knowledge about reality over social approval. If someone tells me that it’s unacceptable to have a certain belief, then that’s the belief I need to explore. If someone tells me that listening to a toxic person will make me toxic, I’m going to listen to them regardless. If someone tells me that reading a certain book will make me an evil person, then that’s the book I need to read.

In short, becoming a better man is the priority. Everything else is secondary. Any distractions from my own improvement are unacceptable, as are any obstacles to getting the knowledge and perspective that I need.

“Okay, so you’re becoming a better man, but whose side are you on? Are you on my side? Are you on the side of the people who hate me?”

None of the above. I’m on my side.

“You can’t stay neutral on a moving train!”

I’m aware of that. I’m trying to figure out 1. How do I make myself the best train-mover possible? 2. Why is the train moving in the direction it’s going? 3. Where do I want the train to move instead?

Regardless, even as I explore new ideas and taboo ideologies, there is one belief that I doubt is going to change: my belief in the importance of preventing human extinction. It should go without saying that you can’t improve your life if you’re dead, you can’t improve your family’s lives if they are dead, and you can’t improve your society’s political situation if your society no longer exists.

I say that, knowing full well that it’s not enough to just want to avoid complete disaster. When the bar is that low, any outcome is acceptable, even extremely negative futures.

With that in mind, if I wish to avert disasters, I must be capable of averting disasters. If I wish to fix the problems outside of myself, I must fix any and all problems within myself. If I want to believe the best (or least flawed) ideas, I need to be aware of the full spectrum of ideas, and why people support them.

But first: I need to bring home the bacon for myself.

If You Wish To Change The World, First Change Yourself

There’s a reason you’re told to put your oxygen mask on first.

If your flight loses cabin pressure, and you only have seconds to breathe, it’s tempting to help your children or other family members put on their oxygen masks. You care about your family, and it’s natural to want to put their needs before your own.

But the fact that you care about them is precisely why you need to put on your mask first. You can’t help the people you care about if you’re struggling for breath, or unconscious. Before you can help others, you must first help yourself. If you wish to improve the world, you must first improve yourself.

Think about firemen, and all of the other everyday superheroes who runs towards danger, towards gunfire, towards people in dire need of saving. For every normal person who decides to be a hero and run toward danger, 99 professionals put in hundreds of hours of training before they start fighting fires or healing the wounded.

Firefighters need training before they fight fires, and so do you.

Think about every innovator, inventor, genius or visionary who changes the world through their inventions and organizations. You can probably name them before I do: Benjamin Franklin. Steve Jobs. Thomas Edison. Henry Ford. These people did not do great things upon exiting the womb; they had years of practice and training before they made their contributions to humanity, with hundreds or thousands of failures along the way.

Inventors need practice before they invent something extraordinary, and so do you.

Think about the great leaders, rulers, and conquerers of the past. George Washington. Alexander the Great. Nelson Mandela. Teddy Roosevelt. Napoleon Bonaparte. Winston Churchill. Genghis Khan. Saints and despots alike, they came to rule vast empires and great nations at the most critical moments in history. Those that succeeded were those who made sure their personal problems did not command more attention than the problems of the nation. Those that didn’t were brought down by their own weaknesses.

If you wish to rule a nation, you must first rule yourself – even many leaders today do not understand this.

Read the histories and biographies of important people in history, and you’ll notice patterns. These people were not perfect, not angels, messiahs, enlightened beings, or paragons of virtue. Many come from impoverished, and even abusive circumstances of birth. Many are born into the middle of wars, revolutions, feuds, and catastrophes you would not wish on your worst enemy. Many experience early tragedies that would break even the strongest of people.

They had flaws – often incredible, mind boggling flaws you can barely imagine – but found ways of fixing or managing their weaknesses, so that they could focus on the great work. You’ll find again and again that these people who accomplish extraordinary things don’t do so because they lack weaknesses or obstacles – they do so in spite of them, sometimes arguably because of them.

What you’ll also see over and over are intense periods of training, learning – and failure. Students kneeling at the feet of living masters, so that they might become great. Voracious reading, to try and get the answers to important questions they have, or to make their own answers. Violent battles not with opponents or armies, but with their own weaknesses, desperately trying to overcome their own demons and create something larger than themselves.

If you have even the vaguest ambition of doing something important or noteworthy, ask yourself which is more likely: Making an impact while leaving your personal problems unsolved, unmanaged? Or succeeding after long periods of training, learning, and self improvement?

Is it wise to walk into a hurricane, when you can barely withstand the breeze?

It is easy to look out into the world, and find it lacking. It is to easy to find problems to be solved, corruptions to be fought, people to save. Much harder is looking at yourself, solving the problems that afflict you, fighting the corruptions within you, and saving yourself.

From the New Testament: “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own? How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye? Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)

Focus on the problems within you, that might prevent your movement or vision, before seeking to challenge the problems afflicting others. If those problems are a current threat to your existence, always ask if this is a problem you need to solve now, or one that can be better challenged when you are stronger, smarter, and more competent.

“But what if I’m called to action? What if I’m forced or challenged to solve something before I’m ready?”

Then it’s even more important to prepare now, to learn now, to train now, and to conquer as many of your inner demons as you can right now. You never know when when you will hear the call to adventure – or be forced by circumstance to avert crisis and tragedy. The more competent you become now, the more you will be able to do when your time comes, whenever that is.

If you wish to rule a nation, you must first rule yourself. If you want to improve the world, first improve yourself.

Before putting on someone else’s oxygen mask, put on your mask first.