Saturday, June 21, 2014

On 50 Trips Around the Sun...

This is a list of 50 reflections from my particular 50-years of life, which may or may not overlap much with anyone else's particular experiences. For imaginary readers in a hurry, it more or less sums up into this 5-word philosophy that seems to work for me: Work Hard. Be Kind. Repeat.

On Social Structure

1. Every kid grows up in a world significantly changed from the one in which their parents grew up. This is the source of an inevitable, cultural, age gap.

2. People tend to live at the very peak of their economic means, with every penny committed and no room for disruption. This creates great stress, but few are able to resist the habit.

3. Now I see people living at the top of their logistical means, with every spare moment committed and no room for disruption. I think this is equally, if not more stressful.

4. I think I understand the evolutionary benefits of “tribe-loyalty” that led to modern fan loyalty to sports teams. However, given how the players move from team to team, I don’t understand why it persists.

5. Travelling the world is a great way to develop perspective. So is staying in your hometown and cultivating life-long relationships. These two paths may result in different sensibilities, but one is not superior to the other.

6. The selfless soccer mom seems, on the surface, to sacrifice everything for her family. In my view, many of them selfishly undermine their own communities in their efforts to gain personal advantages. More thoughts on soccer moms here.

7. As the saying goes, “Capitalism is the worst economic system in the world, except for all the others that have been tried”. That quote is a veiled endorsement for the American way, but capitalism has some serious flaws and promotes inequality.

8. Disparity in wealth is the world's most pressing issue, and is the number one source of unhappiness and conflict.

9. If I had been born on the other side of the border, I would cross it illegally to get better education and healthcare for my children. As I've written about Mexico, it boggles my mind that not all parents agree, but then again, point 25 might explain this.

10. Division of labor gave society a great leap forward. But it came with a price. Now, self-sufficiency is not possible.

11. Work is the constant in the structure of our social lives. Even if you have enough resources to eschew full time employment, the best course might be to stay employed. Winning the lottery has wrecked many otherwise fulfilling lives.

On Attitude and Perspective

12. Life is not fair. If you want it be fair, then start by treating others fairly. It will still be unfair, but at least you did your part to help, and did not contribute to the inherent unfairness at large.

13. I suspect that some people go long stretches in their lives without thinking much about how well their actions reflect their values. I think it is probably worthwhile to reflect often, maybe even continuously.

14. You cannot save time, you can only spend it. If you don’t think very carefully about what is important to you, you may not spend your time wisely.

15. A majority of great accomplishments come from those who are singularly focused. Such unbalanced people have been important in history. But I think I’d rather be balanced.

16. If you don’t like someone, you may not know him or her well enough. It is relatively easy to accept someone’s offending behavior once you understand the personal experience that has shaped it.

17. You should take some calculated risks in your life, but don’t be reckless with other people's hearts.

18. Every body thinks they are good at reading people. In fact, one of the traits that makes us human is an astounding ability to perform mental accounting, consider another person’s actions, and draw conclusions about their motives. We’re all good at it.

19. Almost nobody is as good at reading people as they think they are. And few are really any better then everyone else. Adults commonly under-estimate the complexity and nuance of the people they know.

20. There are no dumb people. Not everyone is smart in the same ways but everyone has their strengths. Not all strengths are equally valued in every society, but they’re still intellectual strengths.

21. Carrying a grudge is a burden you choose. Letting it go is probably a better choice.

On Human Nature

22. I hate the way people seek confirming evidence, and ignore contradictory evidence, with regards to the things they want to believe. Not sure why humans cling to favored ideas at the expense of understanding the truth.

23. When traveling abroad, it is easy to notice the cultural differences from country to country. I have always been more struck by the glaring similarities among people the world over.

24. I think people are too uptight about privacy. We should all protect our identities and credit cards, but worry less about a supermarket tracking our purchases and a web-browser tracking our online movements.  More on privacy here.

25. We all have things in common, but everybody is different. You just need to accept it. YOUR logic, even if impeccable, is not likely to change THEIR nature.

26. Truism: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. You really do need to struggle and be challenged if you want to learn and grow. Confidence never comes to the over-protected, nor does conviction.

On the Cycle of Life

27. Heroic end of life care doesn't make sense to me, especially if the quality of the remaining life will be poor. Why extend poor quality of life?

28. I think we should honor and cherish old people much more than we do. If we did, old age would be a more inviting destination.

29. The constant battle against aging is a futile effort and might not be waged so vigorously if we could all see the tremendous value of perspective that only aging can bring.

30. If we could more consciously appreciate the brevity of a single lifetime, accept the aging process, and embrace our own inevitable mortality, life perspective would improve. We would have less angst as we age, and less sorrow/regret when we lose our elders.

31. Species appear on earth, thrive or struggle, and then disappear. This terminal track record for all life forms has been clear and unblemished. Humans will also become extinct one day. Our time on earth is brief in the scope of ecological time.

On Religion

32. To the extent that organized religion fosters community and promotes kindness, I am all for it. Not sure why it always gets tangled up in the concepts of creation and the afterlife.

33. Faith can be a great positive force and I am happy for all that have it. But I’m not sure we should brainwash our children to believe; probably best if they come to believe on their own.

34. If there is a god, and if he’s all-powerful, then he’s not benevolent. All-powerful means you can teach lessons without tragedy and suffering.

35. “God works in mysterious ways” translates into, “I want to believe so badly that I am willing to ignore all the suffering”.

Random Reflections

36. Reading fiction is very educational. The stories may be specifically untrue, but good writing can efficiently fill your brain with new perspectives.

37. Multi-tasking is about the most over-rated “skill” I can imagine. In fact, there is no such thing as multi-tasking, there is only a continuum of distraction that one might tolerate while performing a single task.

38. For many of us, the sound of birds has been a common source of background noise for all of our lives, and tuning it out is natural. But it is free music for the soul if you pause to listen.

39. I really hate waste born of laziness. It is a despicable, and all too common, human trait. More thoughts on waste here.

40. Achieving a world-changing accomplishment in one lifetime is difficult and unlikely. If you want to impact the world, your best bet is to raise confident, conscientious children who are well grounded and who care about others. Your kids are your final report card.

41. The pen is absolutely mightier than the sword. Violent defeat by the sword will not change the attitudes that initially led, and will lead again, to conflict. Shaping underlying attitudes with the pen, through dialogue, is the path toward lasting change. More on why speeches matter here.

42. If you can only be known for one thing, be known for being kind. Show your kindness to those least able to repay you.

43. Don’t underestimate the power of punctuality. When you show up late, you basically signal that you don’t respect other people’s time. That’s usually a bad thing to signal.

44. You should know what you stand for, and you should stand for it consistently. Even if it is in a small, subtle manner that no one else notices. You will know.

45. Driving courteously is a great stress reliever. This works for you and for the recipients of your courtesy. But, as written here, over-courteousness can be a problem.

46. Don’t be afraid to do something for nothing. This is one of my father’s sayings that took me many years to appreciate. If you don’t appreciate it yet, keep trying.

47. Rereading a book you enjoyed the first time is almost always a surprising delight. You only have one chance to read a good book for the second time.

48. Having alternative personal choices is better than having no personal choices. But in terms of ultimate happiness, having only a few choices is best. Decisions become burdensome when too many alternatives are at hand. Earlier I wrote about the angst of high-schoolers with too many choices.

49. Even though we all know how boring it is to hear someone brag about his or her kids, you should brag about yours anyway.

50. Despite all the reasons why it makes sense, I don’t like the philosophy of living in the present. Your present is most appreciated in the context of the past, and hopefully, it is a product of the plans you made when it was your future. I prefer to spend some time in all three time zones.