Four Ways to Think About Changing the World

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I recently finished the phenomenal series of essays by Venkatesh Rao, Breaking Smart, focused on how software is eating the world and the implications from this. It's easily the best thing I have read this year so far. This turned me on to a little compilation of essays by Rao called Be Slightly Evil  (Taylor Pearson has a good little chunk of excerpts here), which focuses mostly on how to navigate organizations and present yourself in workplace conflict.

In BSE, Rao presents a dichotomy for how people view whether or not people can change. He lines up idealists and tragedians. Idealism is a common theme in American culture (especially politics), he says, and is defined by the belief that people can change. The American Dream and the rise of Self-Help are testaments to this. The idea of changing towards an end -- like what you may see in an inspirational instagram post -- is the theme here. Self-betterment, personal development, and the study of getting an individual from the place where they currently are -- imperfect -- towards a more perfect end (Rao notes that this phrase appears in the founding documents of the United States) are mindsets in the idealists world.

The tragedian is perhaps improperly named. They do not believe that life is a tragedy in the lay-sense that it is sad but in the sense that people do not change. To the tragedian, focusing on changing other people (and oneself directly) is a waste of time because people don't respond to that. The tragedian is more likely to write a book or start a business in order to change the world around them to better reflect themselves. The mindset here is, "if people don't change, then I am going to change the world to better suit me, damn it."

Rao gives the example of an embittered corporate worker who goes on a self-reflection retreat looking to find enlightenment in a week. This would be the idealist. By focusing inward, he hopes to change himself to a better, objective end that exists somewhere out there in the ether.

The paradox of the tragedian is that they do change, just not through direct ends like the meditative retreat. Through the acts of starting a business or writing a book (examples he gives), they end up becoming a different version of themselves, a more-distilled creation of their own values. To quote Rao:

idealism believes in change and creates unchanging human beings. Tragedism (to coin a word) believes humans cannot change their fundamental natures, yet believing in it actually transforms humans far more radically than the idealist view.

loc. 473-475

This has big implications -- especially for self-help types who focus so much on growth towards specific ends that they miss out on the real opportunities for growth.

To recap, you have idealists and tragedians.

The idealists believe that people do indeed change their fundamental natures and can change themselves. They are the American-dreamer types, the meditative-lifehack-personal-growth-coach seminar types, and the types disposed to trying to get others to change their fundamental natures.

The tragedians don't buy into this dogma. People don't fundamentally change. These are the types who are will change the physical world or the world of non-people in order to make it more accurately reflect themselves or their values.

Combine this with a mindset on whether or not this belief that people do or do not change is a good thing and I think you end up with an interesting matrix that can help describe a good chunk of people -- especially those prone to some kind of social change or broader movements involving lots of people.

Optimists view the truth of the statement, "People can change their fundamental natures," as a good thing (optimism doesn't tell us what they believe that truth to be, Idealist or Tragedian does). If people can change their fundamental natures, great! That means we can constantly work on bettering our own natures and focus inward towards a state of enlightenment or self-help. If they can't, that's fine! We can mold the world around us to reflect our own personal, innate values.

Pessimists are the opposite. They view the truth of the statement, "People can change their fundamental natures," as a bad thing and work from there. People can change their fundamental natures? Not good! We need to concentrate power to make sure they don't choose the wrong thing! People can't change their fundamental natures? Also not good! They're inherently predisposed to making the wrong kinds of choices unless we intervene to make the world better for them.

From this, I think we can get at least four activist* ways of looking at the world.

American Dreamers (Optimistic Idealists) and Self-Help Gurus view people's fundamental natures as changeable and view this as an opportunity for each individual to work to better himself. This quadrant is inwardly focused on bettering the self and betterment of the conditions around the self follow from those positions. This is the type that Rao says will go to meditative retreats and self-help seminars. People can change their fundamental natures? Great! That means I can better myself to get closer to some kind of ideal.

Authoritarians and Puritans (Pessimistic Idealists) view people's fundamental natures as changeable and view this as mostly a bad thing (or, an opportunity to rise to power if one interprets them more cynically). These are the types that look at the world around them and look at the choices people make, especially over a lifetime, and are disgusted. The fact that they are nostalgic for a fictional past in which people acted more in line with their own values shows that they are really idealists -- they view people as changeable over generations -- and reveals their desire to control the direction in which others move.

Prometheans (Optimistic Tragedians) don't see people's fundamental natures as changeable, and that's okay. These types are driven to create in the world around them a state that reflects their own personal values -- mostly through acts of creation in business, industry, art, literature, and the intellectual realm. They're not driven to control others as much as they are driven to steal fire from the gods and light the world ablaze so they can enjoy the ability to see in the dark for themselves. I originally called this quadrant Randian Heroes to reference fictional types like Howard Roark and John Galt -- men who are ideals (so there is no need for them to change their fundamental natures) -- and who work to mold the world around them to reflect the values they hold. Paradoxically to some, the Prometheans are the least inwardly-focused despite being most sure of themselves. They better the world out of a desire to see it reflect what they value.

Technocrats (Pessimistic Tragedians) are like the Authoritarians and Puritans by viewing other people in the world as disposed towards making poor decisions, but they don't necessarily believe that these people have a fundamentally alterable nature. The technocrat is excited at new opportunities to measure, track, corral, and nudge others that the Internet and other innovations unlock. They're not nostalgic for an era-gone-by -- but they are going to jump on the opportunity of the now to make people make better decisions. They aren't focused on propaganda or indoctrination to change people's natures -- they're focused on realigning incentives to nudge people in the direction to make the "right" decisions that they see fit. They can be from the Right or the Left -- what is important is that they want to rearrange the world around them and watch people follow the new paths they set up as the incentives change.

Idealism-Optimism Matrix-5

 

Obviously this doesn't capture everybody in the world -- but it is a good start and insightful for thinking about what makes people tick and get up in the morning. I find myself most attracted to the Optimistic Tragedian category -- I neither have reason to believe that people can change their fundamental natures nor do I really have an interest in changing them if they could. I have a lot of friends who are Technocrats (and would balk at being called that, sorry) and are caught in a constant war of shifting and realigning incentives. I think most people are Optimistic Idealists -- it's a popular trope in American media and it makes you feel good and even I have been tempted to buy into it at times.

Which one are you?


 

 

*By activist, I mean we start with the assumption that the people in this matrix are driven to action and creating for some kind of reason. I want to exclude people -- idealists and tragedians alike -- who view the drive to create action and change as inherently worthless and take up a passive resignation to be the victim of other people's natures. We exclude types who think, "people don't change! It's not worth my time to struggle!" and people who think "People are so unpredictable in their natures! Why would I try to control them?" and resign themselves to be pawns in others' plans.

 

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I'm Zak. School should have taught you how to succeed at work and build a great career. Instead, it taught you that mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. Thankfully, I teach what school never taught.

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