What I’ve Learned at 21 (with brief justifications/explanations)

It’s almost obligatory at this point. Around your birthday, you write a post/article detailing what you’ve learned thus far and some thoughts going forward. Yet, just because the “what I’ve learned at x” post is common doesn’t mean it’s without value.

Hopefully, this blog post is the first step of what will become a lifelong project. I already journal every day and record some of what I’ve learned there, but making a public list helps me clarify my thoughts and allows friends to challenge them. In the future, it can also afford me an opportunity to publicly affirm or refute something I said in previous years. It’s certain some things I mention below will turn out to be false. Other things might take on additional significance with the passage of time.

Instances of the “what I’ve learned at x” genre typically proceed as follows: a brief introduction, a flurry of aphorisms, and an optimistic conclusion drawing attention to the next 365 days. I’m keeping the beginning and end, but modifying the middle. Instead of dispensing with the things I’ve learned in bullet-point format with bullet-point brevity, I aim to provide some additional justification/explanation for each one. Where I can provide an adequate argument for why something is true, I hope to do that. If not, the least I can do is outline why I think it’s plausible.


Three things matter a lot to me

(1) Having intimate relationships with wonderful people (2) Being interesting to myself (3) contributing to progress.

Explanation of (1): My friendships are my most prized possessions. To have people with whom you can speak candidly, who will push you in unexpected ways is invaluable beyond expression. Some of our most basic human powers can only be fully exercised in friendships like these. For this reason, I consider them essential for making a life go right, and count myself fortunate beyond belief to have already experienced several of these relationships in my short life thus far.

Justification for (2): A thought experiment: you must wear a secret service style earpiece for the rest of your life that relays you the real-time mental activity of another human being. Every thought they have, every idea that flashes through their mind enjoys the same force inside of your own head. What type of person would you hope to be connected to? Beyond wanting them to be kind and generally nice, chances are, you would also want them to be interesting. You would like them to have varied thoughts about varied things and play with ideas you might not have encountered otherwise. Under these circumstances, this freaky mind-reading scenario might actually be enriching, and you wouldn’t mind having another person occupy your head.

This might be even more convincing when you consider the alternative: having the same bland thoughts piped into your mind every day. I can imagine being neutral towards this possibility in the short run. After all, boring thoughts are inescapable. Yet, years of this might erode you until you are just as uninspired as your mental companion. This is, as it were, death by dullness.

If the possibility of mental poverty caused by foreign thoughts is unacceptable, then the same possibility caused by endogenous ones should be equally terrifying. Thankfully, our thoughts are controllable to a large extent. We can choose who we’re “hooked up to.” As a result, we can aspire to have our heads be exciting places to live rather than arenas of tedium and routine.

Explanation of (3): I don’t have an argument here (at least not yet) but this value stems from something intuitively compelling about the idea of progress. The world today is much better than the world prior to the industrial revolution, and that world was still superior to the world during the middle ages. Doing my part to make sure the future is still better than the past just seems like a reasonable thing to do.

Additionally, I can thank Lincoln High School and the entire city of Portland for instilling in me a desire to be normative. I spent my formative years in a community that publicly valued righting historical wrongs and securing our future from existential threats like climate change. I learned that it’s not only possible to shape the future into a just and prosperous society, but that we’re morally obligated to do so.

Wonderful people are rare and cannot be taken for granted. Do everything possible to maintain close ties even though time and circumstances may pull you and them apart.

Explanation: Whether there actually are few wonderful people out there or the conditions under which we interact make it difficult to recognize the wonderful-ness of others is an open question. Yet, it’s clear their company is not guaranteed. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet wonderful people who, though they no longer belong to the same institutions as me I’ve managed to keep in touch with. Our relationships have been rich and deeply fulfilling, and life would be much harder without them. The benefits of being around wonderful people need not decrease with distance, though ensuring this requires deliberate effort.

Everything worth doing is difficult, but not everything difficult is with doing.

Justification: This is best illustrated by an example. Curing cancer is incredibly difficult, but the suffering endured in pursuit of this goal is justified by your service to humankind and the pure pleasure of solving a seemingly impossible problem. Attempting to run up Mt. Everest is also hard, but it’s much more difficult to get a convincing answer as to why it’s worth doing. Even if you find a plausible reason (I must prove something to myself, I enjoy setting absurd goals and achieving them, etc.) it cannot have the same gravity that the reason behind curing cancer has.

Interrogate your goals. They may be ambitious and difficult, but this does not mean they are worth your time.

You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, but this doesn’t give you an excuse to be an asshole.

Justification: The first part is almost a cliché, and I take it most people can recognize the immense power of your immediate social circle on your thoughts and attitudes. Exercising personal aspiration by controlling your company, however, carries a hint of snobbery that’s difficult to dismiss. Pick your friends wisely, but having high standards is also compatible with being kind and open-minded.

Good roommates are incredibly valuable

Justification: This is intuitive, though it’s tough to know how much more valuable until you’ve gone from having a poor roommate to a fantastic one.

The majority of your interestingness is determined by how much you read.

Justification: I’ll claim that your level of interestingness is related to the volume and quality of ideas that go through your head. It’s possible to have a lot of interesting thoughts on your own, but we’re all limited by our experience and expertise. The solution is to maximize exposure to ideas, and this comes either through reading or interacting with interesting people. However, the people you can interact with are also limited by their experiences, and all of you are limited by time and place. The fact you can interface with them and speak the same language means you all live in the same era, within roughly the same culture, and mentally developed with respect to the same dominant ideas.

Reading faces these problems to a minimal extent. Translators alleviate the language barrier, and our compulsion to write and record has given us the opportunity to hear the major ideas of every civilization up to the present, provided the relevant texts survive. The volume of potential ideas you can be exposed to expands dramatically with reading. I’ll also claim reading exposes you to higher quality ideas. Poor thinking is less likely to have survived millennia, or be published in collected essays or anthologies. It’s possible to get your fix of ideas via oral exchange, but reading is generally superior.

Live music is wonderful

Explanation: I always forget this until I see a live performance with someone really good. There’s nothing quite like feeling the bass in your chest or getting chills from a vocalist. We all need a little more of this in our lives.

Girardian Terror is real

Explanation: Very roughly, Girardian terror refers to the idea that our desires are mimetic. We want things that we see other people want, and competition between us and others similar to us who desire the same thing leads to anxiety, conformity, and terror. For a lengthier discussion, see Girard’s wikipedia page, or his IEP entry. To see how Girard’s theories apply in a business context, check out Zero to One.

The intuitive appeal of this idea is easy to see. If everyone in your community (school/friend group) wants to be a doctor/lawyer/engineer, it takes a substantial amount of awareness and willpower to resist finding yourself aspiring to the same careers. Once desires are standardized, then competition between you and your peers for the limited number of med school/law school slots is fierce. So little differentiates you from the others. Every triumph over them represents a step towards distinction. Every failure is a slide backwards into obscurity.

Dan Wang has an excellent post on how American colleges and universities are perfect incubators of Girardian terror. I highly recommend reading it.

Alcohol is overrated

Justification: Who are you more likely to have a good conversation with, a drunk person or a sober person? Is this more likely to happen when you’re drunk, or when you’re sober?

Always have several uncommon/interesting questions on hand.

Justification: Unless it’s the case you and another person happen to have much in common, meeting someone new can be painful. Bypassing small talk with pointed, interesting questions can be the first step towards making a mundane interaction interesting, or performing conversational triage. Two of my favorite examples include: what’s the worst advice you have ever received? What’s something true but unpopular? Lama Al Rajih has a fantastic list of such questions here.

I want to die in Portland

Justification: circularity.

I do not want to raise children in Los Angeles or the Bay Area.

Justification: I have a clear bias towards my non-Californian upbringing. Yet, I still think both locales fail in several major areas that are, in my opinion, crucial for healthy development.

Los Angeles is devoid of natural beauty. It’s a great place to be if you’re into highways and overpasses, but I have not once looked around and thought to myself “this is a really beautiful place to be.” Malibu and Pacific Palisades suffer from this problem less, but let’s be real. It is unlikely I will live in either location.

For the Bay Area, if half of what I’ve heard about their high schools is half true, the entire educational experience is psychologically damaging for the average student.

Air quality is also a concern for both locations. The Bay Area less so, but if we continue to discover that air pollution is really bad for you, this would become more of a factor.

Both also suffer from housing and transportation woes that may only increase in severity. Being wealthy solves these problems to a certain extent, but I do not my children to grow up thinking they need to make at least $117,000 to enjoy a decent life.

Human reason can solve any problem

Explanation: This is a big claim that I can’t defend well. To do so requires an incredible understanding of history and philosophy that I do not have.

What brings me to this view is an intuition. Humanity has solved countless, seemingly intractable problems, and there is nothing to say we will not continue to do so. A skeptic mentions the problems we haven’t quite solved yet. P=NP,  the Goldbach conjecture, the existence of God, etc.. My naïve reply is that these problems are really hard, but solvable given enough time. Perhaps we eventually get there on our own. Perhaps we “solve” these problems indirectly by cooking up an AI that can handle them for us. Who knows? I think it’s a lack of imagination that causes people to think that just because we cannot solve something now means we will never be able to do it.

Ask and ye shall receive

Justification: This is all anecdotal, but cold emails work wonders when you’re a student. When I was running the Stumptown Speaker Series in high school, we booked free event space, got advertising, and brought in fantastic speakers like Kim Malek of Salt and Straw, all pretty much by asking. The strategy worked the same in college. While I was in charge of bringing in speakers for Bruin Entrepreneurs, we booked local entrepreneurs and members of Forbes 30 under 30 all via cold email.

The trick is to never copy/paste the same email template. Every message I sent was “handwritten” and included something specific to the receiver. I wanted them to come in, as opposed to someone else, and the emails demonstrated that I had done my homework. This is why to book three speakers I only had to send four emails.

People aren’t comfortable asking strange/intrusive questions but are perfectly fine answering them.

Explanation: I actually learned this from some social science research that came my way, but I can’t find the exact paper at the moment. The takeaway is that you should ask more questions, regardless of whether you think they go a bit too far. Obviously, there’s a boundary, but it’s not where we think.

Become friends with the strange people you meet. They’re much more interesting.

Explanation: Self-explanatory. A corollary is that if there are no strange people around, you are not in for a good time.

Sexy things are almost always overvalued

Justification: Here’s an example. The global professional sports industry took in revenues of $91 billion in 2017. The global cardboard box industry recorded revenues of $500 billion in 2014.

People like to be applauded for what they do. They like to feel their industry is “hot” or “sexy.” Some industries certainly deserve the hype they generate to a certain extent, but many of the products and services that are absolutely integral to our daily lives and current standard of living are very “unsexy” by mainstream standards. Think public infrastructure and the like.

I’m willing to generalize this beyond the economic sphere, too. Sexy restaurants, institutions, or ideas are probably so because there’s at least one thing extraordinary about them. Yet, what they offer is probably small in comparison to the price we pay for them.

Take more risks.

Justification: I’ve noticed people tend to regret the risks they didn’t take more than the consequences of a risk that didn’t work out well. Obviously, this only goes for situations where you can afford to lose what you wager. Still, I believe living an interesting life, stumbling upon new ideas, or learning new things, requires more risk than we think.

A just society is opportunity oriented, not outcome oriented.

Justification: Ensuring outcomes is problematic for two reasons. (1) Tough decisions need to be made about what outcomes are acceptable. Settling on a finite list might exclude outcomes some really desire. This privileges some people’s “good life”‘s over others, which is not consistent with a commitment to treating everyone equally. (2) Attempting to guarantee outcomes would require meddling with our lives to an unacceptable extent. Not only would this represent a gross intrusion, but it limits us. Part of our self-respect is founded upon making decisions for ourselves and living with them. To understand our social outcomes are fixed as a result of some gigantic scheme would be disheartening, and deny us an opportunity to exercise the agency that is an essential part of being human.

The best we can do is attempt to ensure everyone has the opportunity and resources at their disposal to pursue the good life as they see it. This idea is borrowed from John Rawls, and a lengthier discussion of it can be found on page 94 of A Theory of Justice.


The plan is to learn more this coming year. The thing I think is most likely to turn out false is that I hope to die in Portland. The thing I actually hope is false is that “wonderful people are rare.” The thing I’m most convinced is true at this point is “Girardian terror is real.”

Friends and strangers: hold me accountable! If you want clarification, aren’t convinced by what I’ve said, or want to chat, send a message.

Here’s to another year.

-Riley

 

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