Push Yourself

We are capable of more than we think. I’m not one to say overly optimistic tropes, but we really are. There are facts, science, and personal experience that can guide us, but at the end of the day, we can never know what we are capable of until we try.

Nothing is Easy

A common saying in the weightlifting community is “There’s no such thing as an easy squat”. Life is hard. So much so, that even “doing nothing” eventually presents challenges to our health and well-being. I say that to make the point that whether we exert ourselves or not, difficulty lies ahead. This isn’t pessimistic, but rather motivating because if action and non-action lead to difficulty, choosing action will bring so many more benefits than non-action.

My workout today had me scheduled to squat 275 pounds for two sets of five. I honestly didn’t think I could do it. I was tired and irritated by a current difficulty in my life. But I just tried because I knew that I would feel better after a workout as opposed to sulking. Turns out, I completed my workout rather easily (easy meaning completing all reps, not easy meaning no discomfort).

My point here is that life presents us with difficulties no matter what we do. Why not push ourselves and see what we are capable of? If we fail, we can just acknowledge it as temporary, and then keep going.

Difficulty Strengthens

The main principle of physical strength, endurance, and fitness is overload. Overload is the idea that if you (marginally) push your body, given proper recovery and fatigue management, it will grow back stronger. Lifting weights isn’t everyone’s passion, but in most areas of life, intelligently pushing our boundaries is the key to growth. Yes, there will be some discomfort, but remember there is also discomfort in inertia. Perhaps more.

Every season is not a season to push yourself. There will also be seasons of rest and enjoyment. But when we want to get to the next level, we must embrace the discomfort. It shouldn’t feel overwhelming, but it also shouldn’t feel easy. Next time you know that you need to push yourself, go into it knowing that discomfort lies ahead regardless, so you may as well choose the discomfort that has benefits.

2020: Fuel, Spark, and Fire

Peter Turchin talks a lot about social dynamics and cycles societies go through over time. He predicted 2020 would be a year of turmoil for the United States (warning; his material is very dense). Today I wanted to touch upon his idea that the conditions that create unrest take decades to form, but once these conditions have built, a spark can create an “unexpected” fire.

Fuel

If you have ever gardened, you know that the beginning stages of growth for a plant are slow (or seemingly slow). When the conditions are right (warm, loose soil, sun, and appropriate moisture), a plant will begin to make changes inside of the seed not visible to the human eye. By the time those changes are visible above ground, the plant bursts forth in quick growth.

What we see in America in 2020 is the visible part of the unrest and dissatisfaction. What most of us didn’t see were all of the small decisions we made as a society starting in about 1970 that led to an astonishingly divided country in 2020. Starting in around 1970, we switched our focus from the community to the individual. During and after the Great Depression and World War 2 (1930 – 1968), we began to come together to increase the quality of life for everyone. We passed generous social programs like the GI Bill and Social Security, and even made social progress in the form of Civil Rights. But then, for some reason, we stopped. My guess is that societies (like individuals) tire of discipline and “revolt” at some point.

Spark

These small gradual changes shifting from community to individualism are not in and of themselves bad, but when left unchecked for an extended period of time they can wreak havoc. These ideological shifts are the fuel that needs a spark. The spark could be anything. Namely, 2020 has brought us four sparks: a global pandemic, economic injustice (exacerbated by the pandemic), racial injustice, and an aspiring autocrat as President.

Now we have a fire on our hands. A fire in its natural state is cleansing. It burns up old dead leaves and shrubs. It creates fertile soil for new life. The duration and severity of our “America in 2020” fire depends entirely upon what we do next. If we remain obstinate and refuse to make systemic changes for the betterment of all people, the fire could rage and threaten to destroy our nation totally. We could make small cosmetic changes and put out a small fire, but be “surprised” when the next spark sets us up in flames. Or, we could be wise, notice the opportunity in our current fire, and burn up the old things that no longer serve us and use it as fuel to create a better country. I honestly have no idea what path we will choose, but all three options are equally available.

Joe Biden as Gray Champion

Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a short fictional story in the 1800’s about a mythical figure called the gray champion. The basic gist of the story is that a town of settlers is about to be overrun, and right when they need him, an old man (the gray champion) appears and inspires the people with courage. I think Joe Biden is America’s gray champion in 2020.

Setting the Stage

The gray champion only comes along when his people need him the most. He seems to show up at the last minute, to inspire and uplift the people. He (or she) himself doesn’t need to fight the battle, he just needs to inspire. The gray champion joins people together to fight a common enemy.

Joe Biden has stated numerous times that we are in a battle for “the soul of the nation”. His rallying cry is for us to unite to face the crises of a fragile democracy, the coronavirus pandemic, rising income and wealth inequality, and climate change. He says again and again that he is a “bridge”. This means that he himself will fight the battle only as much as he can rally and spur on the right people.

At a time of maximum threat and danger, the gray champion appears “out of nowhere” to bring people together and inspire them. Joe Biden has been a consistent, but not necessarily influential political figure for decades. What he sees is his chance to remind America of what we could be if we rise to and overcome our current challenges. In contrast, Donald Trump represents “business as usual”, even when it is clear it isn’t working for the majority of people anymore.

From, and Back to Nowhere

One of the main criticisms of Joe Biden’s campaign is that it lacks the fiery, cult-like nature of Donald Trump’s campaign. But therein lies the appeal. Joe Biden is not saying he will fix our problems, but rather we will do it together. One of the most encouraging things I heard Joe Biden say was in an interview with Andrew Yang. Joe praised Andrew Yang, and in turn, Yang said he was excited for Joe Biden to lead America. In that moment, Joe Biden interrupted Yang and said “we will lead together”.

The gray champion appears out of nowhere and returns back when his job is complete. America’s most recent gray champion, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, appeared on the political scene to a nation in crisis. FDR mostly fulfilled his purpose, passing not long before the end of World War 2. Similarly, Joe Biden is advanced in age, but he is coming to a deeply divided America with a vision for a better future. He isn’t coming with an oversized ego, but rather to lift up our best and brightest to tackle the challenges of our time.

Although it is a fictional story, the gray champion provides us with a narrative that every organization (family, country, business, civic, etc.) in a crisis needs a leader to come and bring people together and inspire them to search for higher ground. No one can tell the future, but a Biden presidency has the unique opportunity to revive that cooperative spirit we have long lost as a nation.

Humans vs. The Algorithm

I had in my mind to write about many different topics. But I just saw “The Social Dilemma” on Netflix. There are few things that I read or watch that seem to be a big connection in my effort to somewhat understand our world. But this is one of them.

Attention Economy

When we think of humans vs machines, the mind conjures up a Terminator-like scene of men fighting against cyborgs. After watching “The Social Dilemma” I realize that our existential battle against technology is already here. Instead of fighting robots, we are fighting for our attention.

Social media companies make money off of our attention. Yes, indirectly they make money off of “advertising”, but advertising only happens when we are consuming media. So the true product that is being sold to corporations is our attention. This is fine in a sense. We pay attention to media, and then companies make money by suggesting what we might like.

The problem is that we have no control or regulation of how our attention is bargained for. Some could argue that it is up to the individual to protect their attention. Indeed it is! But there is a reason why we censor what goes on billboards (and some counties don’t have them at all); it is to protect the vulnerable, namely children. Marketing for vaping has revived the teen nicotine addiction.

Just as importantly, we get recommended more of what captures out attention. Bad news, fake news, and conspiracy theories are enticing. It is estimated that these types of sensationalized news travel six times faster than regular news. Each of us becomes an echo chamber, not knowing that many of the views and beliefs we hold are such because we are getting recommended (read: fed) most of what we consume based on the attention and interaction we give media.

Retaking Control of our Attention

Now that we are aware that we are in the “wild wild west” of the attention economy, there are certain steps we should take to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Most importantly, we have to self-monitor our use of social media. We would like to believe that we can exercise self-control when using social media, but the mechanisms used to capture our attention and to keep us maximally engaged play on our reward circuitry. We may even be “addicted” to social media. Delete your favorite social media app and watch yourself reach for your phone out of habit to check notifications.

Secondly, we need lawmakers who are aware of the myriad ways social media has infiltrated our democracy, and are willing to take action. Seeing as how the average age of a senator is 62.9 (?!?!) years old, we need younger people to take the lead on this. Only someone who understands the technology and its effects on people can effectively do so. Common sense legislation is needed to protect children (and adults) from social media addiction. Not many people argue that having some level of regulation on cigarettes is a net positive to society. Of course, you can never completely stop someone from “using”, but simple measures can be put in place with great collective benefit.

Lastly, we need to have a talk about fake news. This insidious media has blood on its hands. We need to have a collective vision for truth in our society. This is not the same as “silencing dissenters”, rather we need to take fake news to court, just as we would any other person or entity that threatens our safety.

As we continue to look into ways to live healthier and happier lives, I have no doubt that the attention economy will be getting a lot of attention in the coming years.

Dangers of Winter in Young-Adulthood

When I initially read the Strauss-Howe generational theory, so much of how and why our world is the way it is became clearer to me. In the United States we are obviously in a winter season. Institutional mistrust is very high, racial tensions flare (after being largely dormant for a while), and politics is more resembling a circus than an efficient machine to meet the needs of the people.

This series of articles will describe the dangers and opportunities of facing a winter season as a young adult. I can relate to these insights because I myself (a Millennial man) am braving this winter as a young adult. As a young adult, one would like to be advancing in their career, starting a family, and building wealth. Of course, all of these tasks would be best suited for a Spring season, but all of us (if we live long enough) will have all four seasons, so there is no basis for complaint. Bad break? Perhaps, but we must make the best of it.

Dangers

Of course winter is when very few things grow. This is true in a metaphorical sense of our current situation. Our health, relationships, wealth, and economic prospects are uniformly bleak. In a brighter season, we would still feel the effects of mental health crises, but nothing like what we have now. Record numbers of young adults feel mental and emotional despair. A financial crisis, divisive politics, and a pandemic have made our hopes for the future dim. It is no wonder that many young adults are feeling anxious and depressed. When we should be starting families and building wealth, we are more focused on surviving.

Intersexual dynamics have also shifted out of our favor. Due to the divorce boom circa 1980 many young adults have grown up in broken homes, never intimately interacting with a functional male-female relationship. Women have been taught that they should pursue their careers (which is fine), but now feel the pressure of starting a family. Men are receiving messages that they are potentially toxic and need to watch themselves. As with all things in winter, starting a family seems very hard.

Perhaps most talked about is the effect of this winter season on wealth creation. The Great Recession and Coronavirus pandemic tamped down Millennials’ earning potential and income disproportionately. Job losses are also disproportionately effecting Millennials. Record numbers of young adults are actually moving back home at a time when they should be buying homes. No generation since the GI Generation had to endure such bleak financial prospects in the young adult phase of their lives.

Understanding the Seasons

I write a lot about the seasons in my blog. After reading The Seasons of Life by Jim Rohn, I began to have much more perspective about what was happening in our world and specifically the united States.

Winter doesn’t last forever, and also presents some opportunities (albeit the least of any season). Just like winter on a farm, the best time to prepare was last spring (which we were not alive for), and the second best time is now. Winter is a time for introspection and seeking to rebuild community. Although opportunities are rare, we can emerge from the winter season stronger and wiser. In my next article, I’ll talk about the lessons and opportunities in this winter season for young adults.

DIY White Oak Plank Table

So with all of the extra time on my hands during quarantine, I decided it was a good time to take on a new project. My wife and I had purchased a cheap dining room table that left much to be desired. It was made of a cheap engineered wood and actually started to bow in the middle. We decided that a nice sturdy wooden table would be a good project and potential family heirloom. I have done small diy projects around the house, but this was by far the most challenging project to date.

Materials and Instructions

I based my work off of a Youtube video. This project did require some tool purchases, but I never mind those haha. I’ll keep this part relatively brief, but if you want any more details just let me know.

Tools and Materials:

All the needed tools (minus the block planer, circular saw, and oil)
  • Block Planer
  • Bar Clamps
  • Dowel Jig
  • Basic tools (hammer, hand clamps, power drill, circular saw, carpenter’s square, dowels, wood glue)
  • Six 2x6x8 (1.5×5.5) pieces of solid white oak (these are heavy and expensive, but I want this to be my forever table)
  • Tung oil and polyurethane

To start, I used the dowel jig to place dowel joinery every six to ten inches between planks.

I drilled the holes and filled with dowels and wood glue. Then I ran an extra bead of wood glue down the inside edges for extra support, clamped, and let dry overnight.

I then used the bar clamps to secure the dowels (and wood glue) overnight. After that I used the block plane to level the table.

An electric block planer would have been useful, but the hand planer worked just fine. Then I sanded the wood down to a smooth finish and cut the table to size. I applied some tung oil and a polyurethane coat to finish. I added some nice legs that I found on Easy, and viola!

The finished product!

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you would like more details.

Generational Insights from TikTok

For old heads and people living under rocks, TikTok is a social media app that allows people to post (usually 10 seconds to one minute) of content. Very similar to the app Vine that was a big deal circa 2015-16. TikToks can be comedy sketches, informational blips, recipes, and generally anything. TikTok has a remarkably care-free feeling about it (more on that later), and normal people have just as good a shot at stardom as the elite (well, perhaps not an equal shot, but disproportionately better than say Instagram or Twitter. Wealthy and famous people just have too much social capital for it to be anything other than a boon to a social media account). For the purposes of this article, I want to talk about interesting trends I have noticed from TikTok that point to a “new” type of young person as the teenage and young-adult torch is handed from Millennials to Gen Z.

Gender Wars 2.0

Millennials grew up in the “you go girl” era. Think of the HBO sitcom Girls. A wildly popular (and entertaining) show about leisure class women living it up, usually while showing the weak despicable men that frustrate them. Much of what we have seen in the Me Too Movement has been a (necessary) criticism of men and masculinity, largely from Gen X and Millennial women. In my experience, Millennial men are super cautious when it comes to women and relationships. Millennial men have been hearing for decades how women are smarter and better than men. Interestingly enough, that is borne out in the number of women going to college as opposed to men.

Here is where it gets interesting. TikTok is full of (mostly polite) banter between the sexes. But the cultural change with Gen Z as opposed to with Millennials is that Gen Z seems much more inclined to validate the importance and value of men. Videos that disparage men (or women) do not go down unopposed. I think this is great. My feeling is that Gen Z has seen the gender wars tear apart their families and communities, and they are searching better alternatives to hating each other. I know that this is anecdotal data, but I suspect that more scientific data will back me up soon enough. 🙂

Style and Self-Expression

BORING millennials in flared jeans circa 2006
A cooler and more eccentric Gen Z. Looks a lot like Gen X’ers in the late 80’s and early 90’s

Gen Z seems to resemble most closely their Gen X predecessors in their stylistic tastes. We see much more ripped jeans, goth, crop tops, interesting colors, and hats and beanies than we did with the Millennial generation. I think this will be with a concomitant relative rise in risky youth behavior (and a nicotine addiction thanks to companies like Juul). Millennials were a relatively tame cohort of young people. They had lower rates of substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and are famously risk-averse.

Contrast that with Gen Z and the revival of cool. Gen Z has a budding nicotine addiction, mental health crisis, and I would suspect rising rates of other risk taking behaviors. Gen Z has embraced the “outcast” aesthetic. Think of popular rap stars from 2017-2020 such as Xxxtentacion, Post Malone, Tripe Redd, and 6ix9ine who have face tattoos. Even the most hardcore rappers of the 2000’s were reticent to sport face tattoos. Looking at Billie Eilish, Ava Max, and Dua Lipa, you can barely see a commonality to the Millennial darling Britney Spears. Both cohorts make sexualized music, but the Gen Z artists more closely resemble grunge and punk rock style.

As a curious person (and a teacher) TikTok has given very interesting insights into the next generation of teenagers and young adults. I, as a Millennial, am happy to see that our sullenness hasn’t completely consumed our successors. Just joking. Kind of.

Why you Shouldn’t be a (False) Optimist

Optimism is a foundational value of a good life. If we don’t believe that we have any agency to improve our lives, we can quickly fall into stagnation and then decay (moral, financial, relational, or otherwise). What I suggest we be wary of is a sense of false optimism. This is a slight play on the idea of indefinite optimism described by Peter Thiel. False optimism is a close concept to the idea of determinism; the idea that things are the way they are because of events outside of our control. While it is certainly true to say that there are influences beyond our control, it is a defeatist mentality to say that those are the only (or even most important factors) in our success or failure. We would call a farmer who doesn’t plant in the spring and then complains in the winter a fool. Likewise, we wouldn’t call a farmer who plants in the spring and a blizzard wipes out his crop lazy and entitled.

When we want to advance, we have to take advice from definite optimists. I have written about this before. Successful people suffer from selection bias. Many successful people are indeed self-made, but some have hidden advantages that run unaccounted for. For example, being a good sprinter is determined largely by your muscle fiber composition aka genetics. So if we take advice from an elite sprinter, chances are we are getting advice from someone who is successful in spite of their advice, not because of it. Does that make sense? Similarly if we take business advice from a Harvard graduate, they will likely fail to tell you (to no fault of their own) about the importance of industry connections and support systems.

Things will “Sort Themselves Out”

Things don’t always sort themselves out. And if they do, there is a curse hidden in that blessing. A false optimist will overestimate internal factors and underestimate external factors. For example, when a baby-boomer tells a millennial to “get a job” and “start a family” they think that the external conditions that were present for them are present for millennials. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Graduating into a recession, seeing the highest income inequality in decades, and continual government non-intervention are factors that are present in the experience of millennial but mostly not present for baby boomers while they were coming of age.

On the other side of the coin, a false optimist is also likely to underestimate internal factors and overestimate external factors. This is the danger of being too extreme in either direction. Religiosity can be a form of false optimism. Instead of taking steps to improve a situation, someone could say “it is what it is”, or “let go and let God”. While these statements are true at times, we must always do our due diligence. I had a co-worker explain this perfectly when saying: “Pray like it depends on Him (God) and work like it depends on you”.

A true optimist has balanced expectations. They study both the internal and external factors that are working for and against them. They know that their actions will determine their future, but they are not simple-minded in thinking that there are no external factors at play. Lending back to the example of the farmer, they do their part to plant in the spring and tend in the summer, and they have hope that they will harvest in the fall. But they are not naive to think that forces outside of their control (an early frost for example) have no effect.

I think everyone should be an optimist. Optimism requires that we do reconnaissance of our situation and plan and execute to the best of our ability. There will certainly be things out of our control, just as likely as there will be things in our control. If we plan and take action, we can rest easier, both in our successes and in our defeats.

Conservatism and Conflicting Ideology

When people hear conservative, they think of a person who believes in the free market, small government, and traditional values. I’m not making a case for or against conservatism, but I would just like to point out how conservative ideology is quite contradictory. For what it’s worth, I also think that “liberal” ideology is contradictory. I think I’ll discuss that in my next post. In this post I will discuss conservatism through the lens of the United States from 1970-present. For all intents and purposes, neo-liberalism and conservatism overlap in the ideas I will discuss below.

Free-Market Capitalism and Traditional Values are not Currently Compatible

When one thinks of a conservative movement, we think of a pull away from big government. The government acts as a sort of watchdog so that the cutthroat free market doesn’t eat citizens alive. A not so conspicuous consequence of free-market capitalism is growing income and wealth inequality. This makes total sense. In an attempt to make the most money possible, I as a business owner, would seek to cut costs. The biggest ROI comes from cutting labor costs. With growing technological capacity, for every robot arm I hire, I can save untold dollars in labor costs. But someone also loses their job.

Starting in the 1970’s we see a decreased focus on government intervention. The result? Disproportionate spread of income gains. Makes sense.

The inadvertent result of this is a destruction of the family. Starting a family is the ultimate act of optimism. You have to feel that a future is possible to pledge your life to another and try to build a family. Growing income and wealth inequality makes this harder and harder. Financial security is the foundation of optimism. As a result, people who have a better shot at income and wealth stability (and possibly growth) would be more likely to take the plunge to start a family.

Makes sense.

I think education is an important factor to bring up because of how our economy has changed in the last six decades or so. A typical male could graduate high school in 1955, get a unionized job, and then use that income to live a comfortable working class life. Not anymore. Most work (some sources say 60% or more) that pays a living wage requires at least some college. So in a strange way, conservatism actually hastens the destruction of traditional values.

In my heading I made it a point to say “currently” because this could all change at any time. Do I believe that capitalism necessitates the destruction of the family? No, but it requires strong stewards of the common good to ward off excesses.

Traditional Values and -isms

Conservative movements also tend to be socially conservative. They are marked by (usually male European) people making the case for separatism. I don’t necessarily think that forced integration is a positive, but I believe history makes the case for expanding rights to all people. As much as we love to say the arc of history bends toward justice, at each turn there are many many people who resist. I am not seeking to brand them as “evil”, but this is where another contradiction lies.

We are seeing today that more and more innovation and growth (particularly in America) is coming from people of diverse backgrounds. That includes ethnic minorities, women, and people in the LGBTQ+ community. If one really stood for a free market, that would necessitate all people being able to participate in that market. Anything less would stifle the bottom line.

My goal in this post is not to bash conservatism, but rather point out some fairly obvious contraindications. And as I said earlier, there are just as many contraindications of liberalism.

Thanks for reading!

Coronavirus and Seasonal Neglect

I saw an interesting video the other day that posited that America’s inability to respond appropriately to the Coronavirus is a result of decades of institutional decay and neglect. The presenter blames Republicans although I would posit that it was both Democrats AND Republicans. He goes on to say that we have spent decades slashing government programs and involvement, and right at the time we need a large-scale government intervention, we see the impotence of our system. This makes me think of the idea of the seasons. The season of spring isn’t just to enjoy the flowers, but to also plant for the coming fall so you can make it through the winter.

Success has a way of tricking us that it will always be so. For example, in the 1940’s and 50’s government intervention was large and pervasive in all facets of American life. It had to be. We had just come out of the Great Depression and were tasked with winning World War 2. A weak government would have spelled certain disaster. The plethora of government programs that we take for granted (GI Bill, Unemployment, Social Security, Medicaid, etc.) were made because we already made the mistake of pulling back too much in the decades before the Great Depression. The 1920’s looked a lot like 2020 in terms of income inequality and government dysfunction.

It takes wisdom and discernment to know that tomorrow’s difficulties should have been planned for yesterday. Our current unrest should have been wholly predictable. Indeed, many great thinkers like Peter Turchin and Neil Howe predicted a crisis around the year 2020 years before. If we could have seen the patterns of rising individualism and weakening government and community taking place beginning in the 1970’s and taking off in the Reagan era, we could have predicted our sad state with astonishing accuracy.

Human life has many parallels to the natural world. Anyone who knows about gardening knows that you have to have a long term time perspective. In order for me to harvest in the fall and survive the winter, I have to plant in the spring and tend in the summer. Winter is somewhat predictable. We never know the exact day, but we know the general time. Once the frost comes, it’s too late to sow and reap. You have to bear a bad winter and wait until the next year to start over. Coronavirus is a winter for America. It’s a winter for the whole world, but especially for places that have been seduced by individualism and community destruction (United States, Brazil, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom). Not to say that individualism is wholly negative, it certainly isn’t. But every period of social unrest has been preceded by growing individualism and community decay (read Bowling Alone).

I say all that to point out the obvious fact that the reason we can’t respond to our current crisis is because we spent decades tearing apart the exact institutions needed to respond to a crisis like this. But all hope is not lost. Although it has been, and probably will continue to be, a harsh winter for America, Spring will show up eventually. If we are wise, we will begin sowing the seeds of a new and better country, and preparing for the next inevitable Winter that comes along.

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