Yesterday on Twitter, Andrew Wilkinson asked why anyone would optimize for something other than personal and family happiness.1
Leah Culver responded that she at least wants to make an impact and contribute to society. And then, in an Internet rarity, she said “Maybe it’s really good for society to have both viewpoints!”2
Her comment reminds me of something I’ve been thinking about lately: it was good for humans to have both picky and adventurous eaters.
I was a lightly-fried-chicken-tenders, crust-off-my-PB&J, only-cheese-pizza-please picky eater. I marveled at my friends who could pick up whole pickles and bite into them.
Perhaps I’m justifying my childhood. But humans needed people who’d eat those new berries and also people who wouldn’t.
We don’t appreciate how the differences between us are features instead of bugs. We crave to know what’s The Right Thing To Do and what’s The Wrong Thing To Do.
There’s rarely Right or Wrong, though.
Richard Dawkins has run models to find out if philandering is a more successful male mating strategy than being faithful. The steady state always ends up being a mixture of Hugh Hefners and Carl Fredricksens. Usually more Carl Fredricksens, but a mixture.3
Is that good or bad? Wrong question.
Almost every story - whether it’s a “Man In A Hole” story or a “Boy Meets Girl” story or a “Cinderella” story - involves good people facing bad situations who eventually triumph.4
Like Liam Neeson fighting and shooting and punching his way through terrorists to get his kidnapped daughter home.
Or Rachel Chu getting rejected by her boyfriend’s family, only to overcome their doubts and marry him in the end.
There’s a clear line separating good from evil, right from wrong, good guy from bad guy.
And then there’s Hamlet.
Hamlet’s father dies. His mother remarries his Uncle. Fine. He goes to see a ghost of his father. Is the ghost real? Who knows. He stages a re-enactment of his father’s murder. The re-enactment flops. As he talks to his mother, he sees curtains blowing in the wind and he accidentally stabs Polonius. Nothing happens. Then he dies in a duel. Is he going to go to heaven or hell? Maybe.5
“We are so seldom told the truth. And Hamlet tells us we don’t know enough about life to know what the good news is or bad news is. Thank you Bill.” -Kurt Vonnegut
The truth is “Yes.”
It's truly insane to me that people optimize their life for anything but lifestyle/personal/familial happiness.— Andrew Wilkinson (@awilkinson) June 15, 2020
What else is there?
Maybe it’s really good for society to have both viewpoints!— Leah Culver (@leahculver) June 16, 2020
The ‘philanderer’ strategy was postulated, not as the way males behave, but as one of two hypothetical alternatives, the other being the ‘faithful’ strategy. The purpose of this very simple model was to illustrate the kinds of conditions under which philandering might be favoured by natural selection, and the kinds of conditions under which faithfulness might be favoured. There was no presumption that philandering was more likely in males than faithfulness. Indeed, the particular run of the simulation that I published culminated in a mixed male population in which faithfulness slightly predominated (Dawkins 1976a, p. 165, although see Schuster & Sigmund 1981).
This is a condensed version of Vonnegut’s wording. I haven’t read Hamlet since middle school and I struggle to read Shakespeare. To me, the ambiguity of Vonnegut’s stories are what make Vonnegut brilliant. I like that he feels the same way about Shakespeare.↩
Last Monday, I wrote down a bunch of potential blog topics:
Deleting Twitter off my phone. How meritocracy is like free will: better to believe it isn’t an illusion. Taking noon-2pm off each day. Remote culture. Perception of time. The cult of Ayn Rand. “I want to know where I’m going to die, so I never go there.”
Each morning, I sat down to write. Even with a dozen prompts, I couldn’t type. I was thinking about the videos of unarmed protestors getting sprayed with tear gas, and worse.
Dave Chappelle has a bit in Killin’ Them Softly about the difference in black people’s and white people’s experiences with cops.1 Textbook “it’s funny because it’s true.” The painful part is how, twenty years and four Presidents later, nothing has changed.
I grew up in Birmingham. I went to an all-white high school. We took field trips to the 16th Street Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Museum. I thought my physical proximity to LBJ’s chapter in history meant I had a special view of race relations. It’s amazing what we justify.
Birmingham is a comparatively new city. When Lee surrendered to Grant, only 2,000 people lived in all of Jefferson County.
After the civil war, a geologist discovered limestone beneath Red Mountain. He called it “by far the most deeply interesting material fact on the American continent.” Jefferson County became the only known place in the world where you could find coal, limestone, and iron ore. Combine all three and you get steel.
By 1920, just two generations after the discovery, 300,000 people lived in Birmingham. It was the fastest-growing city in the country. “Magic City.”
Most of those 300,000 migrants came from northern industrial hubs. Birmingham’s steel industry had worked hard at recruiting both white and black laborers to fill their fiery furnaces.
It hadn’t been easy. White people in 1870 viewed factory workers as “wage slaves.” To them, America was still Jefferson’s agrarian dreamscape. A steel executive summed it up in an 1889 essay: “Skilled workers would not work for long in a society where labor was looked upon as the connecting link between blacks and whites.”2
So how did Birmingham’s boosters convince 300,000 people to move south?
They promised a rigid social order,3 one where only white people could be promoted into management. A flyer for the Avondale Iron Works explicitly read, “[We] do no consider black people reliable for higher grades of employment.”
“[Birmingham is] a place where labor and capital has an opportunity to build a social order in which the free labor ideology will be realized,” the boosters promised young white steel workers in ad after ad.4
Either I was sick for the “Steel Industry And Its Labor Market Day” in 4th grade Alabama History, or we skipped it completely.
At the time, I thought the worst of racism was behind us. After all, the Civil Rights Act was signed 40 years ago! I was wrong.
When I learned more about Birmingham’s birth, it made sense to me why 80 years later MLK’s famous letter came from Birmingham’s jail.
This isn’t a criticism of Birmingham in particular. I like Birmingham. As an export, it’s depressing how Nashville and Chicago and Seattle and Boston and SF are equally blind.
De facto segregation across our country proves foundations are hard to fix.
There’s a quote from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo that I love, when Lisbeth is asked who deserves to be punished for the plight of women who are raped:
“There are no innocents. There are, however, different degrees of responsibility.”
I am responsible.
The built-in caste system had the dual advantage of pitting black and white people against each other in order to prevent labor unions from forming.↩
John Witherspoon Dubose, one of Birmingham’s early steel executivess, commented about the racial divide: “[it] excites a sentiment of sympathy and equality on their [white workers’] part with the classes above them, and in this way becomes a wholesome social leven [sic].”↩
Back in February, I had a routine. My light alarm would turn on. I’d chug some water, put on my shoes, and head outside. There wouldn’t be cars on the road yet. I’d watch the sun rise somewhere around Van Ness. After 2.7 miles, I’d be at Industrious.
The office would be empty. The lights would be off. Nobody was expecting an email from me. No calls on my calendar. No nagging tasks.
I’d pour myself coffee. Sitting by the window with a steaming mug waiting for the world to wake up was the best part of the day.
Since March, we’ve been making French Press every morning. We buy nice beans. We grind them ourselves. We use an electric kettle to hit 212° water.
The coffee doesn’t taste any good.
Perhaps I’m waking up too late. It’s tough knowing New York is getting ready for lunch by the time I fill my mug. Or perhaps I’m checking my email too quickly.
I’ve tried getting out of bed, walking around the block, and then coming in for coffee. It doesn’t help it taste better.
I’ve tried taking the coffee with me on a morning walk. I’ve tried drinking the coffee while wearing a robe. I’ve tried drinking the coffee in jeans. I’ve tried reading while sipping. I’ve tried writing. I’ve tried programming.
I end up staring out the window, my mind jumbled.
I don’t know how to make it taste good again.
Most of my friends growing up had the same hair style: long bangs, swiped across the forehead. The style is often paired with boat shoes, Costa Del Mars, and golf shirts. Brodie Croyle and John Parker Wilson both have vintage “Southern Swoops.”
I have a version of the swoop.
Like the dropping of R’s from “Harvard Yard”, bangs over the forehead give away people’s childhoods. Dressing and talking are identities. Identities grant access to tribes.
The problem with identities is all the maintenance. It’s like trying to trim all the bushes in the Biltmore gardens. Endless.
However far you can run, somebody can run further. However much Vonnegut you’ve read, somebody has read all his books and essays and personal letters. However many fish you have caught, somebody has caught more and has epic stories to tell about all of them.
If somebody sacrifices even more for their kids than you, are you a bad parent? If you take a day off work, are you a bad entrepreneur?
Exhausting. So I swore them off. “I Am Nothing,” I pronounced in the words of Paul Buccheit.1
I like this viewpoint. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and Munger teach others how to reduce the surface area of their identities. I am me, nothing more.
But recently I discovered a positive use case for identities.
If you’re standing in front of the fridge and trying to avoid packaged food, ask yourself, “What would a healthy person eat?”
If you’ve got a pile of Amazon boxes and you’re sick of tripping over them, ask yourself, “What would an organized person do?”
James Clear suggests using identity in this way in Atomic Habits. Our human brains try very hard to be consistent. By defining who we want to be, we can drive our behavior.
If we tell ourselves we are studious before deciding how to spend our time, we’re more likely to read Slaughterhouse Five than to binge Schitt’s Creek.
Here goes nothing: I am disciplined.
We moved to SF in October. After 18 months of lugging my Osprey around, I wanted an office to walk into and a coffee shop to meet new friends in.
Industrious is now closed.
Bean Bag is closed.
So much for having an office and meeting new people.
Our one bedroom is $3,400/mo, not including the internet, water, electric, and trash. We aren’t allowed to sublet. It’s a two-month penalty for breaking the lease.
Bottle is remote. Elizabeth is now indefinitely remote. We are mulling three options.
Option 1: Leave. $
We break the lease, suck up two months of rent, visit family and friends, and then move somewhere new in the fall. Maybe we move across the country. Maybe we build an a-frame in Idaho.
Option 2: Wait it out. $$$
Stay in the lease. Visit some family this summer or rent a house for a week or two somewhere just to get out of our little apartment. Recognize that people will be willing to make new friends again, perhaps sooner than we think.
Option 3: Create a hacker house. $$
We break the lease, find a four-bedroom, granite-countertop home in a climate where it cools off at night, convince 4-6 other people to join us, and spend the summer with a tightknit group of people* who want to work during the day and split cooking duties at night.
*Romantically this would be either close friends or people who are also building companies.
I feel like I’ve been late to everything in life.
I was late to learn to talk.
Late to walk.
Late to start kindergarten.
Late to learn phonics.
Late to read Harry Potter.
Late to get an Xbox.
Late to black out.
Late to choose a major.
Late to make real friends.
Late to start programming.
Late to buy a suit.
Late to get a job.*
Late to drink coffee.
Late to open a 401(k).
Late to start writing.
Late to learn design.
Late to get married.*
Late to move to a new city.
Late to thank my parents for everything they’ve done.
Late to start blogging.
Late to start tweeting.
Late late late late late late late.
It’s why I like this quote: “Don’t mistake speed for precocity. The world doesn’t need wrong answers in record time.”1