On History and its Symbols

History is a long and tortured story of hatred, violence, racism, starvation, and misery. There are no exceptions. There are few good guys. Gandhi molested young girls. Thomas Jefferson slept with [probably raped] his slaves. Martin Luther was an anti-semite. There might have been three celibate popes in 2,000 years of church history. Name a hero, and I’ll show you a flawed person. Show me a “great nation,” and I’ll show you a group of hateful bigots.

“A celebrated people lose dignity upon closer inspection.” -Napoleon

That’s because we are all hateful, bigoted people inside. We have inherited our bigotry from thousands and thousands of years. If there is anything that truly approximates “original sin,” it is this: the lack of compassion we have for other people.

Open-minded progressive types are bigoted against people of conservative religious views. They often seethe in their anger and frustration with the ignorant. The Russians hate the gays. The Polish hate the Russians. The Muslims hate the Americans–and the Americans hate them back. The Greeks hate the Germans, the Germans hate themselves, and everybody hates the French.

The world is full of hate. Every human symbol has been used as a symbol of hatred for somebody, somewhere, sometime. Every one of them. From the Cross to every national flag. Because people do heinous things in the name of symbols. They want salvation at other people’s expense. They think that if there is a heaven, there must be a hell, and it’s their job to send somebody to it–just to keep the universe balanced. Whether that hell is here on earth or somewhere after death is an irrelevant detail. Some want their enemies to live in both. Some express their hell-lust with insidious language of “love.”

In the Genesis narrative, the story that is told after Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden is of Cain killing his brother out of envy–a grand metaphor for understanding our native impulse to react with violence against our fellow human–against our brothers and sisters for disgustingly trivial reasons.

I think envy is deeply misunderstood. It is simplistically conceived of wanting something somebody else has, but I think envy is more complex. I think envy also includes a desire to see somebody else involuntarily deprived of something they have–it may not even be a thing desired by the envious.

Historically lots of gods were involved in such envy. Some people had a god, other people wanted to take that god away. “No, no, ours is better.” Such attitudes are derived from a form of envy. People envy others’ freedom. They say “you can’t be free to be left alone to do something I won’t do because it makes me look stupid or wrong or I actually want to do it and am angry that I have imposed on myself arbitrary restrictions. So now you have to convert to my way of thinking–OR ELSE!”

Now we like to mix it up a bit. You don’t want to adopt my political views? To hell with you! [Literally]. We don’t like which piece of cloth you fly over your government buildings–you must die! You don’t eat vegan–eternal suffering to you! Your people have old symbols and remnants of something we despise–we destroy them! We have a dark spot in our history that you keep reminding us of–sanctions against you!

The thing is that the way I’ve written the foregoing paragraph, I could be writing about ISIS destroying the Palmyra shrines, the Confederate Flag controversy, the Armenian Genocide, or a whole host of other recent news headlines. Today, if you go to Washington D.C.’s Dulles International Airport, you can see the Enola Gay on display–a symbol of the worst single instance mass murder in all of human history.

If all of our symbols are so full of hatred and violent past, what do we do–destroy them all?

This has been the view of every radical project of Modernity–from the French Revolution to Fascism to Communism to ISIS. Destroy every reminder of the past. Replace everything with new language and new symbols. [It is ironic to see American Christians today bemoaning ISIS’s destruction of the Palmyra shrines, which were built to none other than the Old Testament idol Ba’al.]

This doesn’t seem to be a positive way forward. The cultural heritage of the past–regardless of what it represents–should be preserved in some way as a reminder of where we have come from, and why we don’t want to go back. There was no golden age in the past where people were virtuous and life was idyllic. None.

The Coliseum represents slavery too, and a brutality anathema to modern sensibilities, yet [I hope] nobody is calling for it to be torn down as an offensive symbol.

Here we arrive at our problem. Should we display the Enola Gay, but not the Confederate Flag? Should we tear down the Palmyra shrines and the Coliseum?

There appear to be no clear or easy answers.

If it were up to me, the Confederate Flag would come down, and the Enola Gay would be displayed with photos and stories of the evil perpetrated by the American government against thousands upon thousands of Japanese civilians. The Coliseum and the shrines, and the Buddhas in Afghanistan would all be preserved because we have so few old things left in this world, evidence and reminder that we humans have been doing things for a little while–a very short while admittedly–that we have been coping with this thing called existence in different ways, and we still haven’t figured it out.

Maybe I’m wrong though. Maybe I’ve arbitrarily drawn the line in the wrong place. That’s the thing–it’s not simple to draw the line. There’s no right place to draw it. So wherever we draw it, we have to do so with humility and respect–especially respect for people we vehemently disagree with. Respect for precisely those people who in our genuinely honest moments we would say “the world would be better off without them.” Because we have to inhabit this planet with each other, and we aren’t doing a terribly good job of it.

But what we shouldn’t do is look at any of these past symbols of violence and bigotry and say “look how far we’ve come.”

We haven’t really. We are still so hateful to each other. So bigoted. So cruel.

I literally weep almost every day, scrolling through my Facebook feed because of this cruelty. From ISIS drowning people in cages to Baptist preachers lustfully envisioning the lake of fire for gay people to Donald Trump spewing filth about Latin American immigrants to the way people interact with one another in the comments to all of these things. I weep at the fact that I myself spent so much of my life with these same cruel intentions and feelings toward so many of my fellow humans. I weep at the fact that all too often I react with unthinking cruelty to perceived offenses.

There is a difference of scale between these things, but essentially they are the same, with the same roots, and can lead only to the same outcome–poisoning ourselves and each other.

“A man is not called wise because he talks and talks again; but if he is peaceful, loving and fearless then he is in truth called wise.” –Gautama Buddha

“A great nation is like a great man: When he makes a mistake, he realizes it. Having realized it, he admits it. Having admitted it, he corrects it. He considers those who point out his faults as his most benevolent teachers. He thinks of his enemy as the shadow that he himself casts.” –Lao Tzu

“O Almighty! May there be Peace! Peace! Everywhere!” –Ishawashya Upanishad

“Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged.” –Rumi

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” –Jesus of Nazareth

My final thought is this: whatever we do with our symbols of hate from the past, let us strive to cease creating new ones in the present.

Time, the Rolling Stream

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

-Isaac Watts

A year is not a year.

-Venkatesh Rao

No question vexes me more each day of my life than the question of time and our mortal relationship to it. I last wrote about this issue three years ago to the day, which was my 29th birthday. That day could be said to be the most critical turning point in my life, the day that I decided–to borrow Emerson’s words–not to postpone my life, but live it already. I decided not to wait until circumstances were ideal to begin what I have long thought of as my life’s real mission. I decided not to wait until I had enough money, the right people, the right support. I decided not to straddle the fence of my calling anymore, but do what I couldn’t imagine myself not doing.

As Andrew Marvell wrote to coy mistress, I heard “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near,” and was determined to outrun it, even if for a short while. If I had known then the events that would unfold as a consequence of that truly fateful decision, I would have flinched–I would have hesitated. One of the blessings of human finitude is that we cannot peer into the future–we can barely peer into the past. We have only about three seconds at a time that we can live in the present and everything else is warped recollection or speculative fantasy. Thus, I did not have the opportunity to flinch. 

Primitive man, fleeing into the forest from a larger predator likewise could not foresee the snake or the spider in front of him due to the feeling of the warm breath of the lion behind. Likewise I ran away from the specter of death’s pursuit and into a forest riddled with snakes and spiders. The lion intends to eat us all–the snake bite merely needs urgent attention when it occurs. When we fully embrace the reality that time, like that ever rolling stream will bear us away too, we must resolve to act, to do something in the world, to make something of ourselves. 

Three years ago I was angry with myself for all of the time I had lost, all of the time I had wasted chasing things I didn’t care about in order to be thought highly of by people I didn’t respect and prove myself to people whose standards were not my own. Even as I had had the courage to strike out on my own and do my own thing from the time I finished university, I was merely taking a personalized path to someone else’s finish line. This may be the singularly most pernicious unacknowledged disease in entrepreneurial culture today. At the end, too many entrepreneurs are vying to win the same phallic measurement competition as the rest of the world, and are sacrificing their calling–and often their principles–in the process.

I was angry with myself for another reason, too–for all of the years I had lost not pursuing the kind of deep personal relationships and connections that can only be forged in and through the process of building real community. A life full of only fractured relationships, with no sources of healing, no mutual commitment to reconciliation is nothing more than a torture, and yet, we accept it as normal. So normal in fact that we fear the alternative–we look upon relationships characterized by honesty and acceptance with some degree of suspicion–even “too good to be true.”

I realized that most existential suffering in life is derived from these two phenomena–doing work that is out of alignment with our calling and broken relationships with other people. From within this personal hell and its attendant pain I determined to set out to do something about it, both for myself and for others. Such deep and fundamental pain can only be resolved by addressing the human spirit. It cannot be purchased or bartered for. It cannot be taught or even described. It can only be experienced–and if it is to become a new reality–practiced over and over each day. It must also be accompanied by an acceptance of a mystery, namely the mystery of the deep compatibility, even fraternity, between Self-Reliance and Community.

Only when we live truly to ourselves, embracing and loving ourselves and our uniqueness, accepting ourselves in our shortcomings and yet never losing the resolve to grow and change; only when we are clear about our individual callings and the sacrifices we have to make to pursue them–only then can we accept others for theirs. Only then can we relate to each other genuinely, without pretension or expectation or judgment. But the mystery flows in both directions, for our individual callings require the support of others to be realized fully. We need the ongoing support and influence of other people to become what we have the potential to become.

Here I do not mean superficial or two-dimensional “moral support” when we are depressed or encounter some obstacle, but a deeper, more committed form of support. We need the friction that authentic relationships engender in order to be dedicated to truth. We need to be constantly comparing our maps of reality if our understandings of the world around us are to be accurate enough to pursue and achieve our goals. We must be challenged every day by other people to maintain rigor in our lives–both in our beliefs about the world and in our interactions with it. To be open to challenge is to be open to growth–to be vigorously challenged is to grow vigorously.

We do not have these conversations very much in every day life. Questions of the “spirit” are almost taboo or off-limits, conjuring up ideas of religion or new age woo woo silliness. But the spirit need not be connoted with metaphysical claims. The spirit can be discussed without the need for heaven or God or gods or doctrine or anything else of the sort. The spirit, the mind, the psyche, whatever term one prefers to use, is the non-physical part of our existence. That part of our identity that we might not be able to easily define or explain, but we seem to know it’s there. The thing that makes me uniquely me and you uniquely you–the only truly private part of life to which only we ourselves have direct access.

You may ascribe it further, higher metaphysical qualities or merely see it as the collection of our thoughts, perceptions, and desires–it matters not your particular definition. We do not have to have the same one. Indeed, we certainly and almost by necessity cannot have the same one. We cannot even understand each other’s definitions of it fully or accurately. It is central to our existence and experience of life. And yet, we have no place where we can discuss such questions openly or honestly.

All of our institutions demand of us some sort of orthodoxy. We must believe certain things or deny certain things. We cannot wonder too openly about certain questions in intellectual circles without being deemed anti-rational. We cannot question too openly certain doctrines in religious circles without being deemed heretics. Our institutions purport to love truth, but they are less in love with its pursuit.

This is what rankles me about the movements to have “church for atheists.” It really is church. Certain ideas are ok and others are not. Just like religion.

But I also think I’m not alone in seeing that exclusive attention to the spirit and spiritual growth neglects the fact that we are not spirit and body as separate entities, but our minds exist in the context of our physical bodies in a physical reality that puts certain demands on us in order to survive. We have to eat, wear clothes, have shelter, and so on–the rubber eventually does have to meet the road.

It is easy to pursue a life of the mind in abject poverty. It is easy to pursue a life of wealth and pleasure in abject poverty of mind. But the full experience of life is only achieved with a complex and nuanced understanding of the deep interplay between the physical and the spiritual. 

Everybody understands this at some level, whether they acknowledge it or not. Everybody feels impoverished by the inadequacies of one or two dimensional living–the ignored calling, the broken relationships, the lack of contemplation, the dearth of action.

Even in the most ideal of circumstances it is difficult to pursue all of these things. It is nearly impossible to do alone. Ultimately this is why I founded Exosphere–to have a place to pursue these things with other people. I wake up every morning dedicated to the work to make it become a force for social change the world over. The world has had too many small ideas in recent years. It is time for a big one.

That brings me to my other thought on Time. While it is certainly the case that death comes to all, and Time is its agent, the most important development in thought I have had in the last three years, is that we have a lot of control over how Time comes to collect its due. I am forever indebted to Venkatesh Rao for his book Tempo, and for his insights on time in general and in particular that “a year is not a year.”

All of my anguish over lost years, my own Proustian search for lost time has fallen away by understanding the power of narrative time. Indeed, the last year of my life has felt longer (in a good way) than the other 10+ years of my adult life combined. I have experienced more, achieved more, and seen more facets of my work grow organically and unaided by me in 12 months than in the previous 120, far more than I thought possible. We can indeed make up for lost time. We can reclaim those “wasted” years, but we have to think about time differently. 

We have to understand our experience of time and reality with new intentionality to maximize whatever literal units of time we have left to live. Since few of us know that number, we can construct for ourselves new narratives that will allow us to experience more, achieve more, and most importantly, enjoy more life than we may even have left. 

We can cheat death, even if we cannot escape it. 

We cannot reverse the flow of the ever-rolling stream, but we can row against its current. 

For all of you who are rowing with me at Exosphere, thank you for your support, for helping me grow, and strengthening me to be more than I could ever have been on my own. We have countless not-years ahead of us to keep disturbing the universe, and I know I couldn’t possibly be in better company.

Sliding Back to Modernity

Nothing stings more than the end of a revolution, for in failure it brings a loss of hope, and in success, the bitter disappointment that the world continues to operate as before.

So the intellectual revolution of post-modernity has left us straddling between success and failure, with the twin disappointments of the end of a revolution. There has been almost nothing of profoundly new written in the realm of social philosophy since the death of Foucault. The critique of the post-moderns remains with us, but so do the Enlightenment institutions they were supposed to tear down. Instead of new, more functional institutions, we have the old, broken ones, but without the blind faith that previously gave them enough clout to function at a minimal level (albeit with ghastly discrimination).

In our cynicism we have abandoned the bold task of rebuilding society and Generation Y is content to lob snark projectiles as an emotional outlet for its frustration. In the realm of technology, where the media tells us people are “revolutionizing everything,” we see a lot of hype, but very little meaningful revolution. For all of the remarkable speed of Internet education, for example, it is just a more flashy, digitized version of the public library.

As a result, we have slid back into modernity, its categories, and its presuppositions, but with the ever-present knowledge that it’s all a broken mess. We know the University is screwed up, but we don’t know why, and we don’t consider genuine alternatives to reviving the sciences and the literary disciplines. We may not be content that our educational institutions have become credential-factories and that truly brilliant people have almost no chance of success in an academic career, but we have accepted it as an immutable rule of contemporary life. Wittgenstein not only wouldn’t be offered a teaching post at a major university today, but he probably would not have even received a Masters degree (much less a doctorate) for Tractatus–not enough sources cited! The same would probably be true of a Newton or an Einstein in the sciences.

The neo-marxists sit around complaining about neo-liberalism and the IMF-imposed world financial order. The libertarians sit around complaining about the Rothschild-Bilderberg global conspiracy in central banking. The conservatives wring their hands about a decline in morality because gay people want to live in committed relationships and raise children in a two parent home. The liberals are still fighting the Civil Rights movement of the 60s fifty years later. Our categories are broken, but we dare not discard them.

The French Revolution’s lasting victory was to eviscerate all of the non-State institutions of civil society. Given what most of those institutions were, it was a first step in the right direction. The post-modernist critics succeeded in completing this revolution. Not many Americans under the age of 40 are going to Rotary Club meetings, and most people’s relationship with church is as a consumer of religion. These institutions represented the perpetuation of a social and economic order that needed to be deconstructed, but once we finished deconstructing everything, we were too tired to build something new and better in its place. And so we are living in a society where we maintain mild attachment to hollowed-out organizations and empty notions because the void would be too painful to bear.

Western Conservatives want to rebuild the old institutions and claim that our contemporary anxiety and depression is the result of abandoning the old, “tried and true” ways of organizing society, and indeed of forgetting God himself. The left believes we still have deconstructing to do. It is a stale war with soldiers only feigning genuine interest in its outcome–but they fight on because they wouldn’t know how else to fill their time. Old culture warriors never die, and they apparently don’t fade away either.

In the face of the anxiety and meaninglessness of our existence, we have no context, no institutional framework to come of age and learn to navigate the actual process of living. The Western meta-narrative has been dead for decades, but it is still the closest approximation to a framework we can find. What has happened as a result is its continued perversion. Life has become hyper-atomized. Materialistic aspirations have morphed slightly, and subsequently become more acute. Status is still the most prized possession, but different things now constitute it. Even though my generation believes it is more spiritually and emotionally advanced than our predecessors, we are in fact moral and emotional midgets who have tacitly and unwittingly embraced the financialization of existence. We speak about the ROI on friendships, we are concerned about whether our romantic partners have a good enough credit score, and our careers have come to define who we are more than at any time in human history. Our parents were building families by their mid-20s and decentering their identities. We wonder if we can “afford to be in a long-term relationship,” or have children, or any other things we now continually delay out of financial concern.

We read of our younger members being a lost generation because they cannot find high paying jobs after college–as if the lack of cog-in-a-machine corporate serfdom is the defining nature of us as individuals or collectively as a generation. The alternative of founding a Silicon Valley start-up and raising venture capital is one of the few other options available to our status-craving selves. Starting a successful business just won’t do–we have to raise investment capital and get featured in TechCrunch. We need that invitation to speak at SXSW or TED to feel accomplished. Actually advancing the bounds of science anonymously or publishing a work of literature under a pseudonym is an unthinkable way to approach life more than a decade into the 21st Century. If you can’t take credit for something in the social media universe, why bother doing it?

This is not just a social malaise, it is a cultural cancer that is eating away at our core. We cannot imagine that we would be valued for our actual merit–we have to be sure to take public credit in order to be valued. We cannot believe that years of toil to solve a particular problem with no significant reward in the short or even medium term could possibly be worth it. This is because we lack new institutions to encourage, support, and frame such ways of living. We have thus far lacked the imagination required to conceptualize what an institution of such a sort would even look like, how it would operate, how it would persist into the future beyond our deaths. No, we can’t be bothered to think about these matters because they aren’t sexy, the don’t live up to the expectations of the zeitgeist to talk about how we don’t need institutions anymore and that the Internet is making them obsolete. Ignore all of that inner loneliness and longing, for a bunch of barely 20-something upper middle class white kids in Northern California are going to become multi-millionaires making photo-sharing apps and turning educational lessons into online videos!

The revolution is coming!

We were told something similar before, back in the 90s. The world is better off, no doubt. Technology has improved our lives, and its continued marginal innovations are empowering us to do a lot of things that we couldn’t do before. But we are not pushing the boundaries of technology in any meaningful way. Solar panels that are efficient enough to be at grid parity–iPad Mini–3D Printing–these are not revolutionary by any stretch of the imagination. 3D Printing has been around for decades, and while it is now becoming more accessible to more people, and there are tremendous opportunities that will flow from this, it is not a revolution, but an evolution. We will be as disappointed by it as we were by the bold claims of the Internet hype-sters of the 90s. Life rarely changes by revolution.

But like the religious zealots longing for the rapture or some other apocalyptic event to save them from their boring and absurd lives, the technology televangelists will keep preaching about the imminent appearance of their savior, one invention this year, some other invention next year, and the revolution will always be near, but not present. Repent of your Luddite ways, for the kingdom of Kurzweil is at-hand!

The Marxists promised salvation by revolutionizing the economic order. Not only did it not materialize, it produced disastrous results. So too will the techno-fascism that has become the religion-of-the-day in Silicon Valley and is being imposed on the rest of the world in our smartphones, our web browsers, our cars, and nearly every other electronic way we interact with the world. Technology can and does improve our lives, but it is not inevitable, and given the motivations of the culture driving the creation of most, it is growing more unlikely by the day.

If we remain (or grow more) hyper-atomized, alienated from each other, devoid of enduring relationships other than those that are mutually beneficial at the margin, without a framework for confronting the difficulties of existence, then we will be nothing more than the hapless victims of the Digital Robber Barons in Cupertino, Mountain View, and Menlo Park, their products rather than their customers, infinitely replaceable parts addicted to making money for them impoverishing ourselves in the process.

It does not have to be this way. No course of history is irreversible. But our slide back into modernity, its categories, its consequences, can be changed if only we find the resolve to push back against it, to battle the inertia in society and in ourselves and build from nothing with worn-out tools a foundation for a new way of living, a new way of thinking. There will be no sudden transformation of life from its current state into some euphoric utopia. Indeed, most of the benefits of the work will not even be ready to be enjoyed by the people doing it, but instead will be the inheritance we leave to future generations.

For me this is not mere idle chatter or navel gazing. This is what I have decided to give my life to doing. Exosphere is not an educational institution–it does fulfill that function–but it is exactly the kind of post-post-modernist civil society framework that I have been describing in this essay. We are doing the low-time-preference heavy lifting needed to make the world a livable place and we are creating a space where people can make sense of their lives through collaboration, innovation, and mutual support. If any of this resonates with you, please join us. We are creating an open community, not an elitist hang-out like most entrepreneurial “communities” that are being built on mountains in Colorado or beaches in some exotic location. We want to help you where you are in your life–to help you figure out what you can uniquely do with your talents and your passions, to learn the skills you need to do it, to provide you with a forum to find collaborators, to lift you up when you fail, to cheer you on when you succeed, and to empower you to help others to do the same.

 

 

 

 

 

Rooting the Unrooted

“Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents.”
–Italo Calvino

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”
–G.K. Chesterton

Generation Y is getting older, but we aren’t quite growing up yet. In just over 30 days, I will be observing my 30th birthday, and the flood of people who graduated high school and university with me will soon be having theirs as well. In generations past, it would not be uncommon for somebody of our age to be looking at the immediate specter of their own children emerging into adolescence. For us, it seems we have barely left it ourselves, for ours seems to have embraced an ethos that is an odd hybrid of Peter Pan’s and the fare that might be expected of a high school graduation speech about our power to change the world. We crave impact and indeed believe we have made it, even in spite of evidence to the contrary.

We craft our life stories in the best light, spinning every experience into a harrowing tale with just a dash of self-abnegation in order to avoid the disbelief of our audience. Genuine, true failure cannot be expressed unless it has been followed by great success. For all of the talk of a culture that embraces failure, it is hardly true. We love the comeback kid, but not the kid trying to come back. Even less the graying adult trying to do so.

If the Baby Boomers were the tragically vain generation, ours is the farcical one. We no longer collect material possessions or even monetary savings, but stories and experiences, and we believe ourselves in this sense to be superior to our parents and Generation X before us. It is a parallel to our transformation of the rest of our life from the real to the virtual. How convenient for our vanity, as stories and experiences can be so easily forged, embellished, crafted, and perfected through artful blogging, tweeting, and Facebook updating. The moment we begin telling one of our experiences is the moment the truth of it becomes obscured, especially to ourselves. We do not even realize we are doing it.

Perhaps this is why we are a generation of tourists, perpetually on-the-go, attending conferences, designing vacations that will have the most impact when recounted through social media, and even building a career around the vaunted ideal of “location independence” so we can become nomads, darting from one exotic location to another. If we are honest with ourselves, we realize the veracity of the Calvino quote at the opening, that there is nothing exotic, only other people’s familiar, that once encountered, is incorporated into our own. Ultimately, this should be the aim of travel–for all things to dissolve into the familiar, as it is what unites humanity in a mutual understanding. But to actually experience that is quite different from crafting a story about such an experience, and all but the most discerning audience won’t be able to tell the difference between the two.

As long as we are moving, we do not see the cracks in our own artifice, and as long as we are interacting with people doing the same, they won’t see them either. We have utterly lost touch with the Genuine. The more we talk about authenticity, the more meaningless the term has become.

None of this is to say that travel cannot be uplifting, inspirational, or efficacious. It can and should be all of those things. But we are not travelers, as Chesterton observed, we are tourists. We see what we go to see.

Even when returning ‘home,’ we view it as nothing more than a brief interlude between stories, a time to tell of our experiences in vapid conversations over drinks. We no longer even have a working definition of ‘home,’ and it most certainly is not a physical house where we expect to reside for the next 20, or probably even 5 years. Our loss of this sense says much about who we are as a generation, but it is an even greater predictor of what we will become–or fail to become.

History has few examples of generations as privileged as ours, even better highlighted by the Great Recession, rather than being disproved by it. In the 1930s the jobless and poor were destitute. Living at home or having massive student loans and no job may seem like a drag, and a dashing of dreams, but compare it to the life of our great-grandparents. My great grandmother, who to my great blessing lived until I was an adult, told me of carrying buckets of spring water for miles every day, storing milk in the river, and sewing a pocket in her slip where she kept the $1,000 that was all she and my great grandfather had to their name. They had three children to support. The government made them kill much of their livestock while prohibiting them to sell it as part of the policy to artificially raise agricultural prices. They had elementary school educations.

Yes, I’d say we have it pretty good by comparison. We have been given more than previous generations could imagine having at the end of their lives. But we are squandering our inheritance. We are not investing our talents and resources for the long term. Our time preference is so high that we are spending the ‘capital’ given to us on things that will yield short term results, for our selves. There are exceptions, no doubt, but not many. At best we are telling ourselves that the reason we are focusing on these immediate (and usually vacuous) projects or jobs is so we can make enough money to set us up to do what we want to do–inevitably something more noble–rather than making sacrifices today to pursue those noble goals for whom the payoff is somewhere in the distant future.

Ultimately, we have become incapable of this way of thinking. We are so afraid of the psycho-spiritual realities we would be forced to face if we slow down long enough to examine our priorities that we busy ourselves with an ever-more frenetic pace. In order for a seed to put down its roots, it must first stop blowing in the wind. Stillness is a necessary prerequisite to rootedness.

Rootedness is the frightening concept our generation must come to terms with. It is not mutually exclusive to travel, or taking advantage of new opportunities, but it does mean making some difficult choices. It means casting our lot with some place and its people–the ones who aren’t continuously moving around themselves. It means investing in a future generation that will be attending nearby schools. It means investing in the broader societal infrastructure that will support those children as they come up in life–clubs, professional organizations, etc. It means saying “this is my home.” Most of all, though, it means the conscious decision to invest in human relationships and genuinely intimate friendships that will grow over time, relationships that are not predicated upon their utilitarian benefits.

Generation Y will only be a lost generation if we allow ourselves to be one. We will only fail to change the world if we continue trying to collect experiences that we can repackage as stories instead of dedicating ourselves to often thankless work building things whose rewards we will only see in middle or old age. A mighty oak tree cannot grow from shallow roots. Neither can remarkable human achievement.

 

In Praise of Redistributing Wealth

Wealth in the world is unequally distributed. That, at least, is a demonstrable fact. What is a matter of debate, however, is whether wealth is fairly distributed. For all but the most callous Ayn Rand sycophants (yes, I’m a libertarian who doesn’t like Ayn Rand), the “Nays” are likely the winning side of this proposition as well. If anybody in the comments section wants to present a cogent case to the contrary, be my guest. For everybody else, we must move from the apparent economic injustice in the world to viable solutions to it.

(Soapbox thought: We should learn to distinguish between fair and unfair means of gaining wealth. Hard work itself is not sufficient to gauge whether or not one came by their wealth honestly. There are many people who have worked very hard at screwing over other people. Goldman Sachs employees work very hard, I’m quite sure, but that doesn’t make their wealth honest. After all, I understand that mafia bosses work very hard and long hours too.)

For many people, the ‘obvious’ solution is the forcible redistribution of wealth by the State, employing its police powers and geographic and constitutional monopoly on violence.  This, they say, is a fast and effective means of achieving the desired ends. Unfortunately, history has shown it to be neither fast nor effective, and every time it has been tried, it has brought with it ruinous consequences, unnecessary repression, and economic destruction. Everybody has become poorer as a result. Even the “soft” socialism of post-World War II Europe and America, which have taken a Fabian approach to statist wealth redistribution, are seeing the fiscal consequences associated with such an approach. The 1960s and 1970s in America and the 1980s and 1990s in Europe proved that oppressively high marginal tax rates always lead to GDP stagnation. The alternative approach, deficit-financed redistribution is now proving itself to be even more disastrous, as we watch Europe and the American States implode under the weight of their entitlements (by this I do not only mean transfer payments like welfare, social security, and medicare, but in-kind entitlements such as public education and health care).

What is worse, wealth distribution hasn’t really improved. It has shown itself to be a persistent, sticky problem that does not respond easily to policy pressure. Soviet guns and gulags couldn’t equalize wealth. Public education and welfare haven’t been able to equalize wealth. The traditional approaches seem to have failed in their goals, not to mention the unintended consequences that have followed. (If anything, we have witnessed redistribution in reverse, from the middle class to the wealthy, particularly the financial elites. This is thanks to Central Banking and un-tethered fiat money creation, but that is another topic for another day.)

This does not mean, however, that we are doomed to a world of gross inequality. There are certainly elements of society that would prefer us to think this is inevitable, and far too many libertarians have accepted this premise as not only an unalterable reality, but an optimal one. Unquestionably, wealth and income inequality will always exist. Each human being is a unique individual with unique and individual talents and abilities. We are not capable of being the same, and it should not be desired to be so. Inequality is not in and of itself the villain. The problem is when the manifestation of inequality means that billions of people in the world live in abject poverty while others live lavishly.

Fortunately, we have a way to fight this that does not require wise and enlightened policies from government (since those are unlikely to be forthcoming) or the largess of multinational corporations being bequeathed sanctimoniously to the downtrodden. No, we have at our fingertips the tools and ability to lift ourselves out of this world of massive inequality and to redistribute wealth from the ground up without destroying any in the process.

This tool is entrepreneurship, and with the advent of the Internet Age, it is available at unprecedentedly low barriers to entry and to literally billions more people than have ever truly had access to it in the past. Unfortunately most of the people in the world don’t know how to use these tools effectively, and the current system of education exacerbates this reality. Entrepreneurship doesn’t mean the lone, Rand-inspired capitalist shrugging the Atlas and accumulating as much wealth as he can get his hands on. The romance of rugged individualism is dystopian and counter-productive, because it discourages vast swaths of potential entrepreneurs from starting out.

We are social creatures, we are diverse and unique individuals but who all have an internal desire to be part of a community (I do not mean a town or place, but in the way described by M. Scott Peck). Removing entrepreneurship from the context of community has tended to relegate the practice to the few driven egos (which I do not mean pejoratively) who can handle striking out on their own, more or less alone. Entrepreneurship means much more than that. It means groups of people taking control of their lives and their destinies and supplying their own needs better, faster, and cheaper than multi-national corporations can. In making such attempts, they will undoubtedly innovate their ways to solutions that can be packaged and sold to other groups of people for whom such a solution means they can concentrate on solving other problems. There is no requirement that such groups of people be organized around a capital-centric model of ownership. The Mondragon Corporation in Spain is an excellent example of a labor-owned cooperative that has achieved scalability.

Entrepreneurship increases the world’s wealth while simultaneously redistributing it. Entrenched corporate interests are effortlessly dismantled by the power of competition and consumer preference, when they are allowed to operate freely. More importantly, though, it is done without violence or the use of force, without malice or theft, and without the overreach of statist redistribution mechanisms. Where the State has no way of knowing who came about their wealth fairly, and treats all wealthy people the same, the market distinguishes between those who are meeting consumer needs and those who are taking advantage.

We should embrace the redistribution of wealth–it is something sorely needed. But we should seek means of fostering it that are voluntary and bottom-up rather than forced and top-down. One injustice cannot be remedied by another.

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Customizing Education

One of the problems with our industrial era university system is that it provides a commoditized service rather than one customized to the needs, passions, and desires of the individual learners. This has become even more pronounced since the renaissance of the classical Core Curriculum since the late 1970s and 1980s, whose origins have more to do with the academy’s position as the final vanguard of late capitalism (that is, corporatist capitalism) than with the practical concerns of the learners themselves.

Entrepreneurial capitalism, which favors disruptive innovation, agile non-permanent institutions, and accepts chaos and uncertainty is the next stage of market development, one that will produce a new era of invention and widespread wealth and far more equality than we have ever witnessed before. Unfortunately, our commoditized university system is preventing us from rapidly making the transition.

Education is a peculiar business. It is the only sector whose end-product and end-customer are the same. Given the diversity of the customers, one would expect a diversity of production processes. Instead we have several thousand factories in the world attempting to make the same product and reverse engineering the perceived gold standard of educational manufacturing: Harvard.

Whether a person attends Harvard or a state school in the deep South, the body of knowledge being passed on to the ‘student’ is roughly the same. The professors will be different, the networking value of the four-year experience will be dramatically different, and the way society perceives their respective graduates will be different, but the aim and process are essentially analogous. Teaching is done through highly rigid disciplines, and the extent of customization for the student takes place in elective course selection (to the extent that they even have many elective opportunities with more and more subjects being considered ‘essential’).

Moreover, the opinions and approaches the faculty take will be basically the same. Students attending university are unlikely to be exposed to any truly disruptive mode of thinking, and only the most conservative students will find significant challenges to their views & assumptions. The bureaucratic nature of the modern academy generates conformism and ladder-climbing among both students and faculty.

The alternative is a carefully crafted, customized learning experience that is co-curated by ‘student’ and ‘professor,’ though such labels do more harm than good. Let’s use ‘learner’ and ‘learning coach’ instead. The learning process would begin by getting to the heart of what each learner’s motivations and passions are. This is not an interest inventory. We shouldn’t be concerned with what university subjects they find the most enjoyable. Rather, we should be concerned with what kinds of problems learners find interesting and then proceed to learning the skills and knowledge necessary to put together real solutions to those problems.

Contrived lab experiments are never a substitute for real experience, and a customized education would be replete with real experience, including what would undoubtedly be lots of real failure. Learning coaches should be highly skilled in assumption-challenging and probing interrogation of learners, and they should take a meaningful interest in the learners they are responsible for mentoring. Much of our society’s coldness and atomization stems from the perverse ideal of disinterestedness in all realms of society, but especially in education and medicine, two of the most intimate areas of human experience. We learn to compartmentalize the different facets of our lives, and then we wonder how we can be so inhumane to one another. This is a trend that should be reversed on its own merits, but reversing it will inure substantial benefits to the learning process.

Furthermore, there should be no expiration date on learning. Graduation is an archaic notion we should abandon in its entirety. Life-long learning should be the new expectation, and it should be tied to the creative activities of the learner over the course of her life, in the context of a unique community of fellow learners solving their own problems and pursuing their own passions.

Project Exosphere, which will be launched later this year in Valparaiso, Chile, is a problem-solving syndicate and renegade alternative to the commoditized higher education that pervades the world today. Project Exosphere focuses on combining close relationships, deep community, and an open approach to learning and entrepreneurship that exists nowhere in the world today.

We have a world of more than 7 billion diverse customers who all have different needs, wants and dreams. In order to meet their incredibly diverse demands, we need hundreds of millions of creative, agile entrepreneurs each with unique skills, passions, knowledge, and experience to come up with solutions for all of earth’s people. Our commoditized factory university system isn’t going suffice.

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The Curse of the Disciplines

Much of the creative potential in our world is either locked inside the minds of physicists and chemists who have been trained to think like scientists or in the minds of artists and architects who do not have the scientific knowledge to bring their ideas to fruition. This is the curse of the disciplinary society that has ingrained in our culture by the modern university. Specialization has taken place along arbitrary lines dictated by the academy’s self-serving status preservation motive and its status as guardian of late capitalism.

The silos of knowledge created by the arbitrary disciplines keep human & intellectual capital subservient to financial and physical capital even though technology breakthroughs in the last twenty years have ameliorated intellectual capital’s subsidiary status in reality. With these breakthroughs (and as we are on the verge of nearly a dozen more), the world can be disrupted and reshaped from one minute to the next based on the power of an idea and the willingness of small groups of people to execute on it. The academy, whose endowment funds, “endowed chairs,” research grants, and other financial wheel-greasing, has become the pawn of the status quo interests in business and politics who do not want to face competitive pressure from the market.

In the past, it was the banks and financial institutions alone that prevented new market entrants who could compete with established companies, but with the advent of venture capital and more importantly, the transformation of new businesses’ cost curve in the Information Age, these traditional barriers have become less and less effective. The modern university is now all that stands in the way of a tidal wave of innovation and market competition that will remake our world into a richer, more vibrant, freer place with greater equality in the distribution of wealth, more opportunity, and higher levels of income mobility than have ever been seen in human history.

But to get there, we need to rethink the entire way we organize our learning process to avoid the kinds of tunnel vision that permeate every layer of what passes for our most innovative research today.

Rather than training physicists, we need to find people who are passionate about building structurally sound skyscrapers that have 1-inch walls and then help them acquire the knowledge to create the new materials necessary to make that a reality.

We must break down every barrier between the disciplines by raising up a new generation of innovators who do not even see that there were barriers before, who have not been corrupted by the arbitrary divisions that have been passed down to us by the academy and the standard-bearers of late capitalism. The kinds of specialists who arise from this new approach will be specialized in solving particular, real problems faced by people in the world.

Big Data, Robotics, 3D Printing, Nano-materials, artificial intelligence, alternative transactions, and much more are putting a new reality at our fingertips, one devoid of many of the physical limitations that currently hold us back. But we must be prepared to harness these exponential technologies rapidly and efficiently.

Project Exosphere is a problem-solving syndicate, a renegade alternative to traditional university education creating just this kind of community and environment to cultivate the next generation of innovator-entrepreneurs. As we launch in Chile later this year, we will share our progress and ask for your help in challenging the most ingrained assumptions in our society.

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Learning How to Innovate

Most entrepreneurs will say that the skills necessary to be an entrepreneur and innovator cannot be taught. This may well be true, but that does not mean that those skills cannot be learned.

We should find it a bit remarkable that for all of the talk of hands-on learning and practical learning in the past ten years, that we still do very little of this in school, whether in grade school or university. Worse, what does tend to pass for hands-on learning is usually just some arbitrary simulation of something in the real world. Universities in recent years have specialized in an attempt to re-create reality in the cloistered confines of their Ivory Towers, in spite of the fact that few of their personnel have any experience outside of the academy.

Consequently, practical learning in the university tends to be a representation of reality, through the lens of an academic who in any case is mostly concerned with her own research far more than teaching, and certainly more than student learning (which is not necessarily aligned with teaching). Of course it is not the professor’s fault. Her incentive structure does not promote student learning and real-world experience. Indeed, the professor herself is actively discouraged by the institutional framework of the university to do much that resembles real-world activity.

Changing the institutional mandates of the university would be insufficient to meaningfully reverse this situation. Professors would at best come up with arbitrary simulation activities, as long as their principle motivations are the publication of academic research and teaching evaluations. They might make the course material more fun in the process, but it would merely be dressing up academia to look practical.

There is a growing body of advocates for “un-schooling,” encouraging university students to drop out and for high schoolers to forgo university altogether. PayPal founder and billionaire Peter Thiel is not only one of the most prominent voices in this movement, he has literally put his money where his mouth is, starting the Thiel Fellowship  which gives 20 young people under the age of 20 a $100,000 grant and 2 years to pursue their passion, travel, study, write, and start an entrepreneurial venture.

This is a first and fundamentally necessary shot across the bow of the self-appointed institutional gatekeepers of the modern credentialing cartel.

The challenge now is to take the premise of un-schooling and systematize the life long learning & entrepreneurial ethos without attempting to institutionalize it. This is the paradox my colleagues and I are taking on in Chile with Project Exosphere, which we are launching later this year. Our goal is to create a scalable model for exponentially expanding the entrepreneurial & innovative potential in developing countries by providing a systematic alternative to a formal university education.

Thiel Fellow Dale Stephens, whose non-profit UnCollege is another leading voice in the alternative education crowd frequently discusses the concept of “hacking your education.” This is an appropriate metaphor, and we would describe Project Exosphere as a sort of “educational hackerspace.” We believe that innovation & entrepreneurship can be learned by anybody within the right environment. Such an entrepreneurial learning ecosystem can be characterized by:

  • Community (cohesion, mutual respect, interested interdependence)
  • Problem Identification
  • Solution Process Thinking
  • Action-oriented learning (that is, learning because one needs the knowledge or skills to perform tangible actions toward their passion-goals)
  • Non-disciplinary approach to learning (that is, a unified concept of knowledge, rather than it being broken down into fields of study)

Further, innovation-learning must incorporate three essential pillars of entrepreneurship into all activities:

  • Invention (i.e. solving technical problems)
  • Aesthetics & Design (i.e. making technical solutions apparently desirable)
  • Sales & Marketing (i.e. commercialization of solutions through direct customer contact)

These general skills must be learned alongside specific knowledge required to solve particular problems faced by “customers” in the real world. Consequently, we must abandon the traditional distinction between professor and student in favor of a model of co-discovery, whereby more experienced innovators coach less experienced innovators on how to learn, how to adapt, and how to develop their passions into solutions to problems in the world. This means the coaches must be actively engaged in entrepreneurship themselves while they are coaching.

In the coming days I will be writing further about learning and the philosophical framework from which we are working as well as the radically de-centralized and non-institutional approach we are developing to systematically produce a culture of forward thinking and innovation, especially in developing countries.

At Exosphere we are going to raise up a new generation of innovator-entrepreneurs that are going to re-create and renovate the world as we know it.

Stay tuned to this space for more information and for the coming launch of the Exosphere website.

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The Power of Passionate People

A comprehensive survey of employee satisfaction in 2009 showed that only 14% of respondents were extremely satisfied with their jobs. Among Millennials, only 35% were even somewhat satisfied, with over 62% of Millennials responding that they intended to intensify their search for a new job in the following 12 months. Such high levels of satisfaction show a fundamental problem with the current division of labour.

People are simply not doing what the are called to do.

In the aftermath of the Great Depression and World War II, career began to take center stage in American life. What a person did defined who they were. We need this to be reversed. Who a person is should define what they do. This is the beginning of revising our understanding of vocation, but it will be a long and difficult process, for the mere acknowledgment of our poverty of passion does not begin to undo the numerous institutions, norms, and cultural expectations that have ingrained the careerist mentality in our collective psyche. For this reason, we must start at the beginning, at the root of the problem.

Our schools and universities are factories. Indeed, the modern schooling system was developed in the age of industrialization, the heritage of Prussian military organizational principles applied to production and then modified yet again for public education. The division of students into age-based ‘grades’ and the division of learning into rigid disciplines, with each teacher consigned and labeled “a physics professor” or “a literature professor” has all the trappings of a factory. Each cog has its function, and the output are uniformly educated ‘graduates’ who have been bequeathed a common body of knowledge. That product is then shipped to factory-like corporations who can plug these cogs into their own machinery.

As we are witnessing the twilight of the era of mass production (and with the advent of 3D Printing, we are truly near a revolutionary time in decentralized, small-scale production), this model of education could not possibly be more archaic.

Universities regiment students into pre-defined disciplines, and although there is lip-service paid to the value of “interdisciplinary studies,” the emphasis continues to be on high degrees of specialization in these pre-defined disciplines. The innovation economy at once demands a more generalized body of knowledge (in order to connect the dots between different disciplines) and a higher degree of specialization (in order to produce a specific product or service to meet customers’ demands). The university is not merely poorly equipped for this task, it is intensely counter-productive.

Our learning environments need less structure, less testing, fewer arbitrary metrics for assessment, and more emphasis on embracing the chaos and rapid change of the innovation economy. More than teachers we need learning coaches, who help people equip themselves with the ability to continually learn and adapt, and most importantly, to discover their own passions and calling.

Moreover, we must embrace the fact that people can have multiple passions over the course of life, and that they may be substantially different from each other. Today if one wants to change careers he must take 2-4 years (or sometimes more) out of his life to go back to school and get a new degree and then start at the bottom of some new ladder. Lifelong learning communities should supplant the university model. Participation in research, study & discussion groups, and other forms of learning should become part of our daily lives.

We attend the gym for our bodies, and church for our souls, why do we not dedicate similar attention to the expansion of our minds throughout adulthood?

If we embraced a more fluid, flexible model of learning that embeds it as a taken-for-granted part of life, we will not only have happier, more satisfied professional lives, having discovered our passions and then equipped ourselves to dedicate our work to pursuing them. We will also unlock vast creative resources locked in the minds of people who currently live for the weekend because they hate their job. These creative resources will propel society at-large past our current boundaries in innovation and could just solve some of the seemingly intractable problems that plague our world.

Passionate, driven people have given the world the automobile, the airplane, the Internet, antibiotics, the Human Genome Project, and so much more. Imagine if that tiny minority of people were expanded to all of us. In less than a generation, this little blue planet would be unrecognizably better. We cannot allow inertia, vested interests in the status quo, and a “that’s just the way things are / have always been done” mentality to deprive us of such a future.

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