Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Conscious Decision to Want Less

7 Minute Read

All of us waste precious life doing things we don't like, to prove ourselves to people we don't respect, and to get things we don't want. Why do we do this?
-Ryan Holiday, Ego is the Enemy

We Homo Sapiens are a finicky bunch. It seems as though once we've attained whatever pleasures we seek, it isn't long before we want more. As bestselling author and history professor Yuval Noah Harari explains, nobody is ever made directly happy by getting a promotion, winning the lottery, or even falling in love. These events have the ability to make us happy by triggering pleasant sensations in our bodies, and those sensations alone are what make us happy. 

The bad news about these sensations is that millions of years of evolution has created a condition in our minds that causes these pleasant sensations to wear off relatively quickly, leaving us with the desire to experience these sensations again and again. For thousands upon thousands of generations, our pleasure/pain system evolved to increase our chances of survival and reproduction, not our happiness. 

Think about it, what if some rare mutation had created a hunter-gatherer who, after enjoying a delicious antelope and a blissful night with a love interest, enjoyed an everlasting sensation of happiness and contentment? Who knows, a million years ago this may have happened. If it did, this hunter-gatherer would have enjoyed an extremely happy and short life, and his genes wouldn't have gotten very far. Conversely, his rivals who were designed to pursue more antelope and more mates had a much better chance of surviving and passing their genes to the next generation. 

Reflecting on his experience coaching Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the Showtime Los Angeles Lakers of the 1980s, Pat Riley famously coined the phrase The Disease of More, explaining that "success is often the first step toward disaster." After winning the 1980 NBA title, the following season's Lakers played like a collection of individuals, each looking for his own version of more--more playing time, more money, more media attention, etc. The '81 Lakers lost in the first round of the playoffs. Some title defense.

The 1980 Championship led to the Disease of More

And so it goes for us. As we pursue whatever it is we're after--lucrative jobs, attractive mates, big houses--the deeper parts of our minds only understand that we are pursuing pleasant sensations. These sensations are designed to be fleeting and, if we're not deliberate about what we're after--we have no choice but to pursue them constantly.

By Design or By Default?

Take a moment to consider what's on your calendar for the day and week ahead. Are these commitments a result of what's important to you, or what's important to someone else? The fact is, if we don't prioritize our lives, someone else will. In addition to our predisposition to want more, we're also hard-wired to desire social acceptance thus we often make decisions based on comparing ourselves to our peers

In other words, when we don't have a clear sense of what we're pursuing, we fill the void with our own social games based on comparing ourselves to others and pursuing what we think others want. We overvalue nonessentials like new cars and big houses, and we pay attention to trivial intangibles like how many Twitter followers we have and how many likes we get on a Facebook post. Considering the opportunity cost--that time and attention could be going to our loved ones, our health, etc.--this poses a real problem. 

As Captain Ahab pursues Moby Dick over the course of 822 pages, it becomes clear that Ahab is chasing the whale for reasons he doesn't even understand anymore. He's simply hell-bent on winning the game.

Wait, what am I doing here?

Decision Fatigue

Can anyone remember what it's like to be bored? It's rare these days. Not long ago, when there was a line at the grocery checkout, a friend was running late to meet for lunch, or the flight was delayed, we had to wait. Now, however, a staggering amount of information, entertainment, and distraction is at our fingertips at all times. I'm not suggesting humans necessarily need to be bored all the time, but this abolition of time spent alone and in thought is certain to have consequences.

According to most psychologists, our ability to make decisions (also known as willpower) is like the muscles in our bodies in that it wears down when used over and over again. Every decision we make is like another rep in the gym. While we make decisions about things that don't matter, willpower fatigues, and we begin to make decisions based on default. 

Grocery chains are well-aware of this, and have all structured their stores accordingly: Our willpower is strongest when we first enter the store, so healthy food (produce) is right there up front. As we proceed through and willpower diminishes, there are the cookies, candy, and ice cream. As we move to the checkout--exhausted from all the decision making--that's where we'll find alcohol, tobacco, and gossip magazines (who is buying those things!?). Now we're out of willpower, and we default to Wal-Mart's agenda.

Outside the grocery store, default can often mean giving in to the world around us, and that world is almost constantly pushing us to want more. Get a job that pays more so that you can spend more, get more, and keep the cycle going. You'll notice that the outside world implores us to take exotic vacations, dine at fancy restaurants, and buy new electronics, but we never seem to be encouraged to go for a walk with Mom, sit by a pond, or visit a National Park. 

Photo from a recent trip to Del Norte campground at Channel Islands National Park (that's my shadow). Unlike Vegas and Disney, National Parks do not advertise.

How to Want Less

Perhaps Tyler Durden, Brad Pitt's character in Fight Club, said it best, "Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don't need."

According to several recent studies, the number one regret of the dying is that they never pursued their own dreams and aspirations, opting instead to live up to the expectations of others. With this in mind, perhaps it's time to take Ryan Holiday's advice: To take time out, figure out what's important, and take steps to forsake the rest.

To find that space, we may have to say no to certain people and commitments. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, schedules two hours of empty space onto his calendar every day in order to process what's happening around him. Bill Gates famously takes it a step further by taking a biannual Think Week--a week off simply to think and read.

Our ancient biological desire for more no longer makes sense in a world saturated with stuff and the opinions of others. Whether it's two hours per day, two weeks per year, or 10 minutes each morning, it's imperative to deliberately create space to want less and to do less.

If this is all there is, it is more than enough.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Puzzling Story of Daylight Saving Time

5 Minute Read

We've all obeyed this dictum for a hundred years, and no one can really understand why.
-Michael Downing

If one thing is clear about Daylight Saving Time (DST), it's that it is unclear.

A recent informal survey of some of the smartest people I know regarding the reasoning behind this biannual jet lag infusion produced the following hypotheses:

Uh, I think it's the farmers. Isn't it?
I heard it's for school buses and, like, kids.
Isn't it for, uh, like TV?

These absurd answers, combined with my own lack of knowledge on the issue, have prompted this blog post. What are the origins of DST, and why do we still do it? Here's what I found out:

First let's dispel a few myths:

1. Daylight Saving Time has absolutely nothing to do with farmers. In fact, considering the rise-with-rooster lifestyle, farmers were probably among the last Homo Sapiens to own clocks.

2. Ben Franklin didn't seriously want to do it. Although he was the first to bring it up, he was certainly joking. During his time as French ambassador, Franklin wrote a letter to spoof the lazy French and make them aware of how much daylight they slept through.

The Real History
While the idea had been attempted in a few local communities, credit for implementation at the national level goes to none other than the bold, innovative, and sometimes genocidal early 20th century Germans! This is what most of them looked like:

Here's how it went down: shortly after making the bold (and unprecedented) decision to fight a war against THE WORLD, Kaiser Wilhelm, Paul von Hindenburg (of blimp disaster fame), and other jerks in spiked helmets realized they had no plan for any sort of wartime economy, and that they would have to improvise. Here's what they came up with:

1915: Start rationing bread and hope that does the trick. This was a short-term success.

1916: Slaughter millions of pigs, eat them, free up whatever grains the pigs were gonna those too. While another short-term success, this had obvious consequences after they ate everything and the war continued. The threat of civilian starvation became constant from this point forward.

1916: Ok let's have everyone eat turnips for a while. As widespread malnutrition set in, there was virtually only one food left and it was ordinarily used as animal feed. Turnip Winter is well-known in German culture today, and is almost certainly invoked by scores of contemporary German parents as part of vain efforts to get kids to eat unsavory vegetables and such.

1916: Maybe we can conserve kerosene if we get everyone to move their clocks ahead an hour? This kinda makes sense if you think about it. The world was lit by kerosene lamps and candles at the time, and if people utilized natural light for an "extra" hour each evening, it could add up to something over time. So the Germans implemented it and sparked a wartime fashion trend.  Like early 90s suburban middle schoolers and Girbauds, soon all of Europe wanted to be down with DST (yeah you know me!).

Was it effective? According to Michael Dowling's Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time, it's impossible to know. Energy consumption varies widely with the weather from year to year, and that's under ordinary circumstances. 100 years ago with the world at war, I'm assuming a mass data project of such little consequence was not a high priority. The world pressed on with DST based on a hunch.

1918 DST Promotional Material

American Response

By the time the United States jumped into WWI in the spring of 1917, the DST domino effect had run its course in Europe. Some dude named William Willett proposed American DST, threw out a baseless prediction of $25 million in annual savings, and proceeded to confuse a relatively simple-minded nation with an unprecedented concept.
Those in favor of DST believed working parents would be able to play with their kids for another hour, working women could walk home safely during daylight, and that DST would lead to an increase in social welfare (somehow).
Those opposed employed similar irrationality, arguing DST would prevent people from leisurely mornings and would directly cause overcrowding of transit lines (somehow). Ultimately, in 1918, America decided to give it a shot. And then? A comedy of errors!

  • 1918 - America implements Daylight Saving Time 
  • 1919 - Everyone hates it, American repeals DST and replaces it with nothing
  • Spring 1930 - Josef Stalin declares DST to be a thing in the Soviet Union and vows to personally devour anyone who doesn't think his idea is awesome.
  • Fall 1930 - Stalin, bless his heart, hilariously forgets to order everyone to fall back later that year, resulting in all clocks in every Russian time zone being off by an hour for the next 61 years. Oh, Josef Stalin, I had you for a savage and murderous tyrant, but forgetful!?
C'mon Man!
  • 1920 - 1941 - Everything is weird, but people can get along ok.
  • 1941 - 1945 - FDR tells everybody we're shifting to "war time" (DST). Everyone likes the idea and it's back on for a while.
  • 1945 - 1966 - Everything is weird again, and our prosperous lifestyles are making things complicated. No federal law exists and cities/towns/communities can just do whatever. 23 different start/end dates to DST exist in Iowa alone, and even the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul can't seem to get on the same page. People are missing meetings, late for sock hops, and an hour early for church.

Minnesota Newspaper - 1965
  • 1966 - The Uniform Time Act of 1966 is passed. Everyone is mercifully forced onto the same page, and that page happens to include DST.
  • 1980s - Clorox and 7-Eleven fund the Daylight Savings Time Coalition in an effort to extend DST beyond 1987. They convince both Idaho senators to vote for it based on the theory that DST fast-food restaurants sell more French fries, and those are made from Idaho potatoes.
Modern Daylight Saving Time

Today, DST plods along despite a glaring lack of convincing evidence that it does any good for anybody. In fact, recent studies have concluded the annual "spring forward" leads to an immediate increase in auto accidents, workplace injuries, and even heart attacks (!).

Before conducting research for this blog, I believed that people belonged in one of two camps: Those in favor of DST abolition and the ignorant. Now, however, I understand there is a third school of thought on this issue.

If we were to get rid of Daylight Saving Time, what goes in its place? Nothing? Do we leave the clocks sprung forward or fallen back? Meet halfway? Are we ready to have this debate? When the US toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, they knew they were getting rid of a dickhead. What they did not prepare for, however, were the unintended consequences of overthrowing an iron-fisted dictator who was able to maintain order by way of assholery...and now we have ISIS.

The similarities between Saddam Hussein and Daylight Savings Time are uncanny

In my recently-informed opinion, Daylight Saving Time--much like Saddam Hussein--is bad for the world. But the alternative--lengthy debates based on personal preferences while we certainly have bigger fish to fry--could be worse. So we're stuck with it.

DST across the globe today. 1/4 of the world population is affected by DST.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Troublesome '17: Differentiating Signal From Noise

5 Minute Read
We face danger whenever information growth outpaces our understanding of how to process it.
-Nate Silver

In addition to our status as the only animals able to think about the future, we Homo Sapiens are the only earthly beings able to ask questions. In The Upright Thinkers, Leonard Mlodinow writes, "Chimpanzees and bonobos can learn to use rudimentary signing to communicate with their trainers, and even to answer questions, but they never ask them."
For all other earth residents, things are just what they are. We, however, are in constant pursuit of why and how.

Recording Information

Roughly 10,000 years ago, we figured out a couple of nature's secrets and acquired the ability to farm and to domesticate animals. As a result, we no longer needed to hunt and gather our food and could begin to hunt and gather knowledge. This was a big step.

About 5,000 years ago (3,000 BCish), the defining trait of human civilization appeared--the written word. Once we could write shit down, we could build upon the knowledge of those who came before us and, ultimately, outgrow the limitations of individual knowledge and memories. Awesome!
500 or so years after that, we decided to create a profession dedicated to passing on knowledge, and we have evidence of the first schools in Mesopotamia. So to all you teachers out there, your profession is roughly 4,500 years old. Not quite as ancient as farmers and prostitutes, but a cornerstone of humanity nonetheless!

The First Books

Jumping ahead a couple millennia, we see the emergence of Homer's Odyssey, the Bible, and others by Plato and Aristotle that you may have heard of. But even then, books were luxury items produced one at a time by scribes, and would have cost roughly $20,000 a piece in today's money. 
The pursuit of knowledge, although possible, was still futile until 1440 when a German fella named Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Now, books could be mass-produced, and that $20,000 copy of the Bible you had your eye on quickly became $70. Game changer.

Information quickly became ubiquitous, but competing authors and publications often contradicted each other. This had consequences: Martin Luther's Ninety-five Theses (1517) sold over 300,000 copies (bestseller!), and promptly dragged Europe into a series of wars that lasted over a century (1524 - 1648).

Gutenberg's printing press also allowed for mass production of errors. Look no further than what we now refer to as the Wicked Bible, published in 1631, which omitted one measly word and ended up causing all sorts of tomfoolery in London:

The "Wicked Bible" 1631

Regardless of whether you're more offended by 124 years of butchering each other in the name of God or by "honey, I won't repeat myself. God commands me to bang whores, and whores I shall bang!" Gutenberg's invention ultimately revealed a human characteristic we were previously unaware of: When presented with an overwhelming amount of information, we instinctively take a shortcut. We digest what appeals to us, disregard the rest, and proceed to high-five those who share our views. Compounding this, we are embarrassingly bad at separating truth from misinformation. Or, as Nate Silver puts it, differentiating signal from noise.

Modern Times

Quick refresher: 
  • 2 million years ago, we stood upright. First humans.
  • 40,000 years ago, we developed language, curiosity,  and the ability to think about the future
  • 10,000 years ago, agriculture, pursuit of knowledge beyond "how do I stay alive?"
  • 5,000 years ago, written language, humanity begins to build collective knowledge
  • 577 years ago, printing press, mass production of information and misinformation
  • 20 years ago, the internet becomes a thing
  • 10 years ago, the internet is unavoidable, Homo Sapiens exist in perpetual state of distraction

Today, more information is created in a single day than one of us can consume in a lifetime. Every minute, the world receives:
  • 400 hours of new Youtube video
  • 350,000 Tweets
  • 3 million Facebook posts
  • 4 million emails
Our primitive brains may not be ready for this

Our brains, wired to detect patterns and draw conclusions, are dangerously overmatched against all this noise. Consider this: According to Sapiens author Yuval Noah Harari, terrorists killed a total of 7,697 people in 2010 across the globe. Don't get me wrong, that blows. But comparing that to the 3 million people killed by obesity-related illnesses the same year puts things into perspective. Here's what that looks like on a standard bar graph:

Why isn't everybody talking about this? While we squabble about ISIS and immigrants, sugar quietly kills us all.

While it doesn't look like we'll be putting the genie back in the bottle on this one, we Sapiens are equipped with methods to deal with this information onslaught:

1. We get to decide what matters
Considering the bewildering lengths companies will go to acquire our attention, this can be difficult. Exercise, meditation, and/or a simple stroll through nature can all help with this.

2. We get to be ruthless to what doesn't
Put another way, you don't have to have an opinion on issues you've deemed irrelevant.

For what does matter, let's get our Nate Silver on and identify the difference between hedgehogs and foxes:
  • Hedgehogs are type A personalities who believe in Big Ideas--in governing principles about the world that behave as though they were physical laws and undergird virtually every interaction in society. Think Karl Marx and class struggle or Sigmund Freud and the unconscious.
  • Foxes, on the contrary, are scrappy creatures who believe in a plethora of little ideas and in taking a magnitude of approaches toward a problem. They tend to be more tolerant of nuance, uncertainty, complexity and dissenting opinion.
Hedgehogs are hunters, always out for the big kill, whereas foxes are the gatherers. Let's be foxes.