New Essay on Pros and Cons of Wealth

I just published a new essay on my personal web site titled The Godilocks Theory of Being Rich. It’s about the pros and cons of being “super rich” as I’ve observed it second hand, along with some other comments on the connection between wealth and happiness. Any and all feedback, as ever, is welcome!

The Pros and Cons of Being an Insider vs. Outsider

A striking section of Elizabeth Warren’s memoir is about advice she says Larry Summers once offered her:

After dinner, “Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” Ms. Warren writes. “I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders.

This gets at one reason why powerful people tend to become less intellectually honest as they accumulate power: they begin protecting fellow insiders instead of speaking truth.

At various points of my life, in various contexts, I’ve been an outsider and I’ve been an insider. As an outsider, I relish the opportunity to think independently and speak my mind. But as Summers suggests, my outsider status relegates me to the margins of the “conversation.” As an insider, I tend to feel muzzled — i.e. countless blog posts drafted and then deleted. But I have the most impact on the world when I’m on the inside of a power structure, exerting influence.

Tradeoffs, tradeoffs.

The Dangers of Empathy

Photograph: Samantha Stock

Paul Bloom makes a persuasive argument in the Boston Review about the dangers of empathy as a guide for making moral decisions. He begins definitionally: there is a difference between what is sometimes called “cognitive empathy,” the capacity to understand the thoughts and emotions of others, and “emotional empathy,” the capacity to feel what others feel. He’s referring to emotional empathy.

Everyone seems to think empathy is an unabashedly good thing. Bloom says no.

First, “Strong inclination toward empathy comes with [individual] costs.”

Individuals scoring high in unmitigated communion report asymmetrical relationships, where they support others but don’t get support themselves. They also are more prone to suffer depression and anxiety. Working from a different literature on “pathological altruism,” Barbara Oakley notes in Cold-Blooded Kindness (2011), “It’s surprising how many diseases and syndromes commonly seen in women seem to be related to women’s generally stronger empathy for and focus on others.”

Moreover, an individual who’s less empathetic may be a better professional in certain contexts. Bloom writes that in one-on-one interactions with doctors, we seek them to be cool, calm, and collected — not necessarily empathetic.

More broadly, empathy distorts wise policy making and philanthropy. Some think apathy makes us better altruists:

“the empathy-altruism hypothesis” is when you empathize with others, you are more likely to help them. In general, empathy serves to dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it is a force against selfishness and indifference.

It is easy to see, then, how empathy can be a moral good, and it has many champions. Obama talks frequently about empathy; witness his recent claim, after his first meeting with Pope Francis, that “it’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.”

And yet:

Empathy is biased; we are more prone to feel empathy for attractive people and for those who look like us or share our ethnic or national background. And empathy is narrow; it connects us to particular individuals, real or imagined, but is insensitive to numerical differences and statistical data. As Mother Teresa put it, “If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” Laboratory studies find that we really do care more about the one than about the mass, so long as we have personal information about the one.

In light of these features, our public decisions will be fairer and more moral once we put empathy aside. Our policies are improved when we appreciate that a hundred deaths are worse than one, even if we know the name of the one, and when we acknowledge that the life of someone in a faraway country is worth as much as the life a neighbor, even if our emotions pull us in a different direction. Without empathy, we are better able to grasp the importance of vaccinating children and responding to climate change. These acts impose costs on real people in the here and now for the sake of abstract future benefits, so tackling them may require overriding empathetic responses that favor the comfort and well being of individuals today. We can rethink humanitarian aid and the criminal justice system, choosing to draw on a reasoned, even counter-empathetic, analysis of moral obligation and likely consequences.

The best way to think about empathy, says Bloom, is how we think about anger: we don’t want none of it (anger protects us and can spur positive moral action) but we don’t want too much of it (we want anger to be subservient to our rational mind). He says: “If we were all constituted in this way, if we could all put anger in its place, ours would be a kinder and better world. That is how we should think about empathy too.”

There are various responses to the essay by people like Peter Singer, Sam Harris, and others, at the same link above.

(Hat tip: Tyler Cowen)

“Don’t Compare Yourself to Others” – The Envy Problem

“Don’t compare yourself to others.”

It’s common advice. When you compare yourself to others, you are “comparing your insides to someone else’s outsides.” When you compare yourself to others, you’re more likely to become motivated by extrinsic, shallow reasons (fame/status/wealth) than intrinsic, sustainable reasons (meaning/purpose). When you compare yourself to others, you kill your joy.

Indeed, Leo Babuta says, “One of the biggest reasons we’re not content with ourselves and our lives is that we compare ourselves to other people.” He analogizes the issue to running in the park and seeing someone run past you. It’d be silly, Babuta says, to conclude, “Gosh, he’s a faster runner than me, and therefore better than me!” You have no idea how far he’s running, where he is in his particular run, what training plan he’s on, etc. Better to just focus on your own run. Learn about yourself as you run. Focus on your journey.

But it’s more complicated than this. You can benefit when you compare yourself to someone else. For example, what if the person who runs past you in the park sports a running technique that’s superior to your own and that you could adopt with success? What if the person running faster wears a certain kind of shoes that you could buy for yourself? What if his training plan offers valuable insight that you might incorporate into your own training plan?

When you compare yourself to others, you might be inspired to run faster in life. Better yet, you can get ideas for how to run faster. The best way to achieve expertise in anything is to study the masters, deconstruct their techniques (by comparing your techniques to their own), and consider adopting their best practices into your own routine.

I believe what people really mean when they say “Don’t compare yourself to others” is “Don’t let yourself get consumed by envy. Be the best version of yourself, not someone else.” It’s the second order effect of comparing yourself to someone else that’s the dangerous thing. Thus, the advice would be better stated: “Don’t let yourself get consumed by envy.”

Envy sucks. It really does cause unhappiness. It’s important to remember, though, that you don’t feel envy when Bill Gates has a big success. He’s so different from you and me. You also don’t feel envy as much when someone achieves great success in a wildly different life pursuit. So when do you feel envy? You feel envy when someone who is roughly the same age/location/life stage/life situation as you achieves something similar to your goal in your field of choice.

Hence, the dilemma: how do you learn from successful people without being consumed by envy for what they have?

Here’s a perhaps radical approach.

First, study the lessons from successful peers in adjacent fields. If you’re a development director at a non-profit, study the career of and compare yourself to a director of finance at a fast-growing startup. If you’re a young doctor, study the career of a peer at a biotech company.

Second, study the lessons of people in your direct line of work but who are way, way ahead of you. Compare yourself to him or her. If you’re a software entrepreneur, study Bill Gates’ life and career. Or anyone else who’s 10-15 years ahead of you. Learn, learn, learn by comparing, comparing, comparing to a party elder. Read biographies.

Third, if you find yourself nevertheless obsessing over your direct peers fighting in the ring next to you — and, because we’re wired to obsess with where we rank in our tribe, it’s a hard instinct to suppress — then create a tribe of one. Forge a life so idiosyncratic that it’d be silly to compare yourself head-on to someone else. Take the path less traveled. Adopt a unique life philosophy. Do something crazy.

If you do something common, you have lots of direct comparisons. If you go to law school and become a young attorney, there’ll be thousands of people right next to you, neck and neck in the race of life, and their success will almost certainly trigger biting jealousy. They are like you in every way…except they succeeded.

Do something uncommon, and it’s hard to make the case — in your own mind, anyways — that it’s an apples-to-apples comparison. When you compare yourself to someone who by strict demographics may be a peer — by age, race, location, etc. — you have a narrative in your head that’s envy-repellent: “I can’t compare myself to him. I spent two years in my 20’s surfing in Costa Rica while he climbed the corporate totem pole.” Or: “Unlike many, I’ve chosen a flexible work schedule so I can play with my kids and husband on the weekends. This comes with tradeoffs. No one else at my company has arranged their schedule in this way. ”

Bottom Line: Comparing yourself to others is a great way to learn. Just make sure you compare yourself to people who are sufficiently different or sufficiently ahead of you so that your drive to soar will come from genuine inspiration instead of envy. That takes imagination. Better yet, carve a life so unique that there won’t be reasonable direct comparison points. Then you can freely stitch together whatever you learn from others into a life that’s all your own. That takes courage.

Happiness vs. Meaning, Continued

I re-wrote my post last week on meaning vs. happiness in a more succinct form for LinkedIn. Pasted below. Also, here’s Chris Yeh’s rebuttal post.

The things that make you happy (low stress, good health, sex) are not the same things that make your life seem meaningful (sacrifice, service, goals). Compare the effect that staying at a luxury hotel has on you (happy!) versus the feeling of training really hard for a marathon and completing it (satisfying and meaningful!).

Adam Alter, in this recent online New Yorker piece about whether the poor have more meaningful lives than the rich, noted that if happiness was all that mattered, people wouldn’t do ultramarathons or Tough Mudder events: “Some of the most rewarding life experiences are popular because they favor meaningful hardship over simple pleasure.”

According to the research, if you ask someone who’s crazy busy, sleep deprived, and anxious about the future about whether he’s happy, he might well answer no. But if you ask him to zoom out and reflect on his broader life satisfaction and ask whether he thinks he’s living a meaningful life, there’s a better chance he’ll answer yes. Especially if his busyness and stress and sacrifice is serving some greater good (or what he perceives as the greater good). That’s because having goals, sacrificing for the future, and being part of something bigger than oneself all lead to a sense of meaning.

What does this mean when thinking about your career?

1. There are certain career paths that seem to lead people to neither feel happy nor create meaning. Stereotypical lawyers and bankers fall into this camp. There’s the obvious stress that reduces happiness; you make money but don’t have time to spend it; and all the while, there’s no sense of broader aspiration or sacrifice for something bigger.

2. There are certain career paths that don’t offer much day-to-day happiness but do promise meaning. A classic example is working at an NGO or non-profit in a tough place in the world (rural Africa, for example). Many tech entrepreneurs also have low happiness, high meaning. The tech entrepreneurs I know who are striving for big world-changing outcomes are not actually happy most days. But the long term change they believe they’re enacting, and the personal legacy that it might create, adds a sense of meaning. That makes the journey worth doing from their perspective.

3. Finally there are career paths that offer happiness but not meaning. An easy, low stress job — like being a highly paid social media analyst at a large company — is going to have you feeling good day-to-day, but won’t leave you feeling purposeful.

If you had to pick whether to prioritize happiness or meaning, my advice would be: choose a career that’s meaningful, but weave in happiness habits as much as possible. By “happiness habits” I mean the small tactical things — like keeping a gratitude journal — that’s proven to lift your mood day-to-day.

Another approach would be to embrace the fact that life is long, people evolve, and that you ought to emphasize different values at different times. For example, perhaps there are stages in life when you want to consciously focus on meaning and stages when you focus on happiness. Early on in your life you seek meaning with audacious career goals and sacrifice and travel; later in life you optimize for day-to-day happiness with a lower-stress, family-oriented job.

Do you buy the difference between happiness and meaning? If so, which do you optimize for you in your career and in your life?

Life is Not a Highlight Reel

The economist Tyler Cowen once told me a test for whether a couple can be happy in a relationship is whether they can go to a drug store together with a shopping list, pick out the right items, pay, and leave the store, without once getting in an argument. His point, as I understood it, was that when you’re in a relationship you need to get through the day to day trivia and tedium of life — such as picking up extra toilet paper at a Rite Aid — with a kind of communal contentment.

A romantic relationship is not about the “highlights” you see on Instagram or Facebook of international trips or fancy dinner parties. Those things are nice but necessarily infrequent. Most of the time is downtime, and if you can’t love the downtime, you’ve got a problem. As Kramer in Seinfeld once famously mocked, conversation with a spouse tends to be repeated discussion of very ordinary days.

Relationships, like life in general, consist mostly of ordinary moments, not extraordinary ones.

In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon, he notes that our day-to-day lives are full of tedium. For example, suppose after you work you need to pick up some food: “You will go to the supermarket. At the supermarket you will get a cart. The cart will have three functional wheels, and one wheel that spins out all curvy in a weird direction. That wheel – and thus the cart – will drive you mad. If you let it.”

Wallace’s point: How we choose to respond to things like the supermarket cart that can’t roll straight, and the million other daily hassles, in part defines who we are.

The minimum response, I think, is to simply tolerate the trivia, in some Zen kind of way. Accept the trivia for what it is and don’t get too depressed by it. Simple, but not at all easy.

The more ambitious response, as articulated by various sages over the years, is to aspire to find sacredness in, and have compassion towards, the ordinariness around us. Even if said ordinariness seems maddening or utterly banal on the surface. As Abraham Maslow put in: “…the sacred is in the ordinary…it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s own backyard.”

Indeed, some of the happiest people I know find joy in the smallest of pleasures and find amusement in what are usually inconsequential inconveniences.

And to Tyler’s point, some of the happiest couples I know are at their best when it’s just the two of them on the couch looking at YouTube videos on their iPad, or taking their dog for a walk together.

So, as I’ve come to see it, the reality is this: For the most part, life is one damn mundane thing after another.

The choice that determines sanity is whether you let the little things drive you bonkers, or worse yet let the little things foment existential angst — or whether instead you can find a way to tolerate it all peacefully.

The choice that determines higher wisdom or enlightenment is whether you can learn toappreciate the little experiences — most of them trivial, indeed — as the precious, joyous stuff.

As the writer Dani Shapiro has noted, if you wait for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — you may just miss your life.

If You’re Hot and Smart You Can’t Be…

Many years ago, when I was writing my first spec for a software product, an engineer told me: Your software can be good, fast, or cheap. Pick two.

It crystallized the idea of tradeoffs very powerfully in my brain.

Ever since, I’ve noticed the “pick two out of three” rule applies in a broad set of contexts. Tradeoffs abound when traits are inversely correlated or simply rare in combination.

Here are some other examples some friends and I came up with. Pick two out of three.

  • Products generally: easy to use, secure, private
  • Your significant other: hot, smart, emotionally stable
  • Vacations: exotic, relaxing, cheap
  • Non-fiction: original, entertaining, short
  • Meals made at home: tasty, nutritious, easy to make/cleanup
  • Shoes: comfortable, durable, stylish

And as I learned in compiling this list:

  • Blog posts: honest, politically correct, concise

Reciprocity and Lust, Built Into Our Brains

Richard Dawkins explains the similarity between reciprocity and sexual lust:

The selfish gene accounts for altruism toward kin and individuals who might be in a position to reciprocate your altruism.

Now, there is another kind of altruism that seems to go beyond that, a kind of super-altruism, which humans appear to have. And I think that does need a Darwinian explanation. I would offer something like this: We, in our ancestral past, lived in small bands or clans, which fostered kin altruism and reciprocal altruism, because in these small bands, each individual was most likely to be surrounded by relatives and individuals who he was going to meet again and again in his life. And so the rule of thumb based into the brain by natural selection would not have been, Be nice to your kin and be nice to potential reciprocators. It would have been, Be nice to everybody, because everybody would have been included.

It’s just like sexual lust. We have sexual lust even though we know perfectly well that, because we’re using contraception, it is not going to result in the propagation of our genes. That doesn’t matter, because the lust was built into our brains at a time when there was no contraception.

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Here is my earlier post on reciprocity titled Why Are We Kind to Strangers?

The Materialism Trap

In an interesting profile earlier this year of Rajat Gupta, the former head of McKinsey who was caught up in the insider trading scandals on Wall Street, there’s this:

Bankers and private-equity founders, like Pete Peterson, were getting extraordinary paydays by taking their firms public. Speaking at Columbia University around this time, Gupta reflected on his new ambition. “When I look at myself, yeah, I am driven by money,” he said. “And when I live in this society, you know, you do get fairly materialistic, so I look at that. I am disappointed. I am probably more materialistic today than I was before, and I think money is very seductive.” He continued: “You have to watch out for it, because the more you have it, you get used to comforts, and you get used to, you know, big houses and vacation homes and going and doing whatever you want, and so it is very seductive. However much you say that you will not fall into the trap of it, you do fall into the trap of it.”

The last sentence caught my eye. Self-awareness of the phenomenon isn’t sufficient. People say they won’t, know they shouldn’t, and yet still do.

Would You Rather Enjoy Today, or Have Great Memories Tomorrow and Forever?

Would you rather enjoy today, or have great memories tomorrow and forever?

Should you optimize decision making in life to have great experiences in the moment or to create great memories to look back on later?

They are not the same thing; to get one you may have to trade off on the other. In other words, oftentimes if you want to maximize the likelihood of experiencing pleasure in the present means you minimize the likelihood of creating a great memory to look back on in the future.

Travel illustrates the choice. Sit on a beach in Mexico for a week and you’ll almost certainly enjoy a decent amount of experienced, in-the-moment pleasure. But it’s not likely to lead to many memories, especially if you’ve sat on a lot of beaches before. On the other hand, wind your way through the streets of Cairo for the first time and you’ll likely experience some harrowing and maybe not altogether very fun moments, but you’ll be telling stories about your journey years later.

There are merits to both styles of travel. The experiencing-self enjoys being able to be in the moment on the Mexico beach; to be mindful, meditative, and attentive; to feel each sensation. To have a great meal in a low-stress situation, say. The remembering-self (to use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology), on the other hand, wants memories. In an article about his trip to Tasmania, James Fallows said, “I judge travel by the density of the memories it creates.” Why? Because memories underpin meaning.

It’s when I take stock of my life as a whole — “as a whole” being a trigger phrase for memory — that I feel most deeply satisfied. It’s when I look back on all that I’ve experienced that my life feels most meaningful. I revel in the sweep of nostalgia. Ultimately, I think memories matter most. We are the stories we tell ourselves, says Joan Didion. Yet, unless we’re on a strong diet of self-delusion, we can only tell stories about things we remember.

Practically speaking, I’d argue most people underinvest in memories. Here some tips:

Prize novelty. Novelty leads to memories. Seek bulk, positive randomness. Mix things up. New food, new people, a new route home from work. Steven Johnson wrote about slowing down time by moving to California from New York. A new place forces you to pay attention and take in new complexity—denser memories result. As we get older, by default, people experience less and less novelty. I sometimes hear people who turn 50 remark that their 40 birthday felt like just yesterday. I’ve never heard somebody who turned 30 say the same about turning 20. We generate fewer and fewer memories in late age. Unless, that is, we do something about it, by prioritizing novelty. Here are 50 specific ways to invite newness into your life.

Take on challenges; endure struggle; feel intense lows and highs. You remember what you have to overcome. As Oliver Burkeman says, an awe-filled life is about feeling more intensely — experience lower lows, like during a mighty struggle where you’re totally exhausted, and revel in higher highs when you make it to the finish line.

Do things with people. And use people as a key variable. Great memories usually involve other people. Relationships matter. But think of people as a variable that can easily layer novelty on top of the tried-and-true. New people, old places. Or old people, new routines. Go to Mexico every year for Christmas, but with a different group of friends each time. Or go on a different hike every week, but with the same friend.

Seek novelty, yes, except when novelty itself becomes routine. Non-stop travelers no longer see a new hotel or city as new. Instead, they process the novelty in terms of their past experiences. The new hotel is worse/better/different than last night’s hotel, instead of being evaluated on its own terms. Meeting new people from different backgrounds becomes a chore instead of an exciting quest to understand the variety of human nature.

Review and re-live memories soon after the fact. Go to the Sunday brunch after the Saturday night wedding. Walk down memory lane with your colleagues after a big week at the office. As I’ve written, doing this systematically can significantly increase an experience’s meaningfulness – in part by solidifying the memory.

If you consciously focus on creating a great memory in the moment, it sticks. A friend writes: “I once had a passion fruit Pisco sour in Lima, Peru that was so great I quipped: “Just the memory of the drink would have been worth the $7.” Something about making that statement has made the memory of the drink stick much better in my mind. I can still almost taste it and I especially remember the thick, velvety texture. Perhaps just a coincidence, but I do see some potential in focusing consciously on how great certain memories will later be.”

You want to both enjoy today and have a rich memory?

The wise approach seems to be to optimize for both the experiencing-self and the remembering-self at the same time. You want both in-the-moment pleasure and memories.

Witness the balancing act in this regard at weddings. To create memories, couples spend a fortune on wedding photographers. The couple’s logic is, “In the end, all we’re left with are the photographs of the day.” At a recent wedding I attended, the photographers popped out of a curtain behind the couple as the couple was reading their vows. It was distracting; it hurt the moment that was being experienced by everyone at the time. But it no doubt led to some especially intimate photographs that will be enjoyed for years to come.

But elsewhere at the wedding, present-experience optimization prevailed. The couple didn’t stop during the vows and hold a pose for the photographer. They didn’t re-do certain lines for the benefit of the photographer to capture them at just the right angle with their mouth open just so. They selected the flowers, tables, and music primarily with the experience-self’s experience in mind, not caring what was going to show up best for the photographs and videos that the remembering-self would enjoy later.

Optimizing for both is good guidance for life decisions more generally. Thus, the bottom line…

Bottom Line: Have a few key areas of non-novelty; put everything else on the chopping block. Do have a long-term significant other. Do have a “home” that doesn’t change every year. Do maintain some traditions and routines. Cherish these routines. (Put them in a lockbox that only you and Al Gore have the key to.) Then, experiment widely, take chances, and kill your status quo everywhere else – you’ll be investing in your memory bank, slowing down time, and increasing the meaning you feel when you take stock of your life.

(Thanks to Stephen Dodson, Charlie Songhurst, Tyler Cowen, Nathan Labenz, Michael McCullough, David Zetland, and Brad & Amy Feld for their useful feedback on this topic.)

(Photo: Prathima Pingali. Originally published on LinkedIn.)