Is free will just another name for motivation?

The concept of free will – the ability to make our own choices – has occupied me on and off for some time. Recently, my interest has been reignited by Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions. Research seems to point towards the idea that awareness of volition occurs in parallel to actual agency. In other words, wanting to do something seems to occur n parallel rather than as a cause to it happening. There are a variety of experiments to support this. The explanation in Crash Course rather elegantly shows that there aren’t many arguments to support free will other than the fact that it just feels like it’s there.

free will vs instinct

Babies

In this context, it’s interesting to consider the instinct to reproduce. While planning a child involves conscious cognitive effort, instinct is a big part of the process.  This instict is far more subtle than let’s say the instinct to eat when one’s hungry. This doesn’t mean it’s less strong. We are pretty clear that the need to eat is largely outside of our control or free will – it’s just there and we work around it. If I had to make a decision as to whether children were a product of a cognitive decision making process or an instinct – I would have to choose instinct. However, that’s not how it feels. It feels like one made a mostly cognitive decision to have a child – rather than the feeling of a mostly instinctive decision to eat when one’s hungry.

So if it possible to have a child and think that you consciously decided to do so, what’s to say that everything isn’t driven through instinct.

Of course, one can argue that free will has the potential to override instinct. However, even in that case, free will only gets to speak after the instinct made itself known, adding to the conditionality and frailty of free will.

free will in animals

Cats

It is quite conceivable to look at a cat and explain all of its actions through instinct. Or a dog – does a dog love its owner so unconditionally because it is a better creature – or because we relentless bred it into them, by getting rid of all the non-submissive dogs in a given breed? We are obsessed with explaining how we are different from animals. Maybe, the distinction is blown out of proportion.

free will autonomic function

Breath

Alerting someone to their breath is usually quite fascinating (unless they are used to it through mindfulness or have a healthcare background). People usually have this slightly blunted uncanny realisation in their eyes – “what, I’ve been breathing all time? Yes, naturally I have, but… Anyway, play it cool.”

I am sure, if someone randomly asked me: are you in charge of our own breathing? Without much thinking, I would say, yes.

We can, to some extent, override our respiratory drive, alter our breathing pattern, etc (at least that’s what we think tudum-tshh). However, the bottom line is that breathing happens because it has been hard wired genetically. The temptation though, is to say we control it – probably fuelled by the fact that we can “control” any of it. I wonder what else happens that way: how many of our choices and thoughts happen just like the breath? We breath when we sleep – we think and feel while we sleep too, we call it dreams. Buddhists see thoughts as something external – they are like clouds that come and go. So who’s actually in charge?

Motivation

One of the reasons why it feels so… eery and empty to think about our lack of free will is that we are no longer in control.

Being in control is central to motivation – according to pretty much any study ever done on it.

Taking the lack of free will argument a step further, it is also possible that this sense of control is wired into us because it propels us forward. Most commencement speeches that get millions of hits on YouTube boil down to the same message: we have more choices and power than we realise. This feel good message is, in a sense, the opposite to the thought that there’s no free will. However, if free will doesn’t exist, by writing this, I -and countless people before me, prove that it’s possible to at least contemplate its lack. It’s possible to have insight, at least, even though it doesn’t feel good.

Maybe, this feeling of control is just like hunger and thirst – it is a drives us to accomplish, regardless of whether we have any choice over it.

There’s still hope…

That free will as we know it does exist.

Just because some actions occur without free will as evidenced through neurophysiology experiments, doesn’t mean that all actions occur this way.

… And if these bone fide free willed thoughts and actions exist, it is possible that they influence the will-less, or the subconscious, whatever you want to call it – just like you can teach your respiratory centre to stay quiet while diving for pearls for minutes at a time. This would mean that while decisions are made subconsciously, there is still a way to make them yours – and not predetermined.

Millennial corporate office workers and their transgender bathrooms

I wanna be the very best

Like no one ever was

– Pokemon opening titles

As part of my Christmas escape from routine, I’ve been trying to read more. After the off-putting Ego is the Enemy and the chilling American Tragedy , I stumbled upon an interview with Simon Sinek. He talks about how millennials are difficult to deal with in the workplace and attempts to explain how this is a product of our upbringing in a cautious non-accusatory manner. It’s kind of fun to watch because the set up is clearly intended for dialogue, whereas Sinek goes off into a suspiciously well-structured 15 minute TED talk while the poor host nods along.

millennials in the workplace

Sinek says millennials are accused of being entitled, narcissistic, unfocused and lazy.

He remarks on the fact that corporate purpose and bean bags aren’t cutting it. He talks about the reasons. According to him, there are four.

1. Parenting

According to Sinek, millenials have been subject to “failed parenting strategies”.

Sinek postulates that millennials were repeatedly told that we could have anything we wanted and that we are special.

I guess our parents belong to the generation when toxic compulsive positive thinking really took off, so that would make sense. “Just wish for it – and it’s yours”.

Sinek argues that we got into honours classes not because we accomplished enough, but because our parents complained. 

I am not so sure about this mammy getting us things. If anything, if I had been born 20 years before, my mammy would have had an easier time calling in favours and getting me into a position I didn’t deserve. This is just an impression too, but to me, the world seems more equalised and transparent – at least in education, in Europe.

The underlying premise of Sinek’s argument is that millennials are different due to these 4 causes, but he doesn’t really provide any evidence to say that, beyond the obvious, these reasons are unique to our generation – and thus their explanatory power is questionable.

He argues that participation medals (8th best…) corrupted us. When millennials meet with reality, where coming in 8th doesn’t bring all that validation it did before and mammy can’t get us a promotion, we immediately question our specialness, feel we’re inferior and blame ourselves.

I do recall moving from Moscow to Dublin (for the n-time by in my teens), after not having really lived there for 2 or 3 years, which on that scale is forever, finding that

1. Maths is a dark art to most people

2. Everyone has a medal in something.

At that point, I had barely ever won anything. I recall talking to my dad and wondering how these mildly impressive people were top this and top that. I even talked to my classmate about the dissonance. My dad explained the reality of the differing attitudes in education:

in the West, medals are used for encouragement, and they don’t mean the same thing or serve the same function as the medals of my former Russian prodigy classmates.

My friend took a different approach – together with our other friends, she gave me a little trophy that said “Official Trophy Girl” and my name. That was my first trophy. Sinek clearly knows what he’s talking about.

millennials in the workplace simon sinek

2.Technology

Sinek’s argument is that our Instagram-filtered highlight reel lives raise the standard to the point that unless you are exactly perfect, know exactly what you are talking about, you shouldn’t talk. So when we do talk, we come to out uber-experienced boss and lecture him or her on how it’s done (while having no clue and even less insight). The 2 factors above work against out self-esteem according to Sinek.

Instagram and other social media are very naturally selecting.

I would argue that whatever harm is done through participation medals, it is probably shaken out of us by the cold reality that our ramens need to be quite good before people start liking and replaying them.

He explains how technology is addictive and introduces dopamine. He makes the grotesque comparison of alcohol and social media. Sinek states that the relationships we form are superficial and we’ve no coping mechanisms other than a dopamine hit from the likes on Facebook. He makes a very sweeping assumption that almost everyone is addicted to social media.

Yes, possibly.

However, weren’t there other ways to get hooked on dopamine before? It doesn’t have to be alcohol. Has he heard of Dungeons & Dragons? Maybe, Counterstrike? Back to back episodes of Sabrina on Nickelodeon?

Here, his argument is quite weak . There’s nothing to say that we are more addicted with poor coping skills – compared to any other generation.

millennials lack purpose simon sinek

3. Impatience

We live in a world of instant gratification: Amazon next day delivery, Netflix binges, Tinder dates: “swipe right – I’m a stud”. He argues that the meaningful things (confidence, impact, etc) are slow and meandering.

Again, all of this is true. But was it ever any different? Obviously, it wasn’t Amazon-related, but there were other ways to get instant gratification. For example, fast food is all about instant gratification – and millennials don’t really binge on that at least. Perhaps, impatience is just part of being young. This quote attributed to Socrates reveals so much about the timelessness of the nature of youth:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.”

why millennials suck

4. Environment

Sinek says that the corporate environment takes more interest in the numbers rather than the personal development of their employees.

First, that’s normal.

Corporations owe it to their shareholders, not their employees – that’s the premise of capitalism.

Yes, there is CSR, etc, but they are very much at the margins of corporate life. In fact, there’s nothing necessarily evil about the financial purpose, as at least in theory financial gain is a reflection of the usefulness of something to society – albeit through the prism of a supply and demand intersection.

However, it’s not the act, it’s the cover up. The fact that corporations so often come out with unfalsifiable statements that seem to want to please everyone and stand for nothing as their “values” and “purpose” is really off-putting. Working there makes one feel like a low-ranking accomplice of a gargantuan fraud – without even the freedom to admit it.

The thing that is actually going on here is that the entitled whiney millennials “ruin everything” are specifically the corporate office workers. In generations that came before, fewer people worked in offices of big corporations. Now that there are sufficient numbers of young corporate workers, the generalisation has been spread to millennials as a whole.

In these large corporate institutions, millennials don’t know their boss. Their actual boss is a hedge fund who owns the shares. The person they call their boss is just a slightly more senior employee, who has 10% more of an idea why they’re doing what they’re doing than the poor millennial. There’s no actual real work to do. Going around with balloons for people’s birthdays and making presentations – even pulling all nighters while at it – makes people feel unfulfilled and trapped. There’s no genuine purpose beyond the obvious financial one. That’s the clincher. Justin Bieber knew what to sell to his audience [his recent tour was called Purpose].

I suspect that millennials who are out there chopping wood aren’t as morally dissatisfied as the corporate office worker millennials. Now that wood is chopped, but that presentation you made is probably never going to make any difference – to anyone, anywhere, ever. And you worked so hard to make it into that position – good grades, college, years of delaying gratification – only to end up making dead presentations. You were promised that you would be making an impact. Yeah.

Second, Sinek also assumes that it is the responsibility of a corporation to develop and help the personal growth of employees – which is a bit too invasively brave new world for me. Certainly, my experience of corporate life was that acting like everyone else and generally participating in group think was part of the job. There wasn’t the group of nerds to rescue me this time.

millennials in the workplace video

There’s no real mobility and or even a promise of real success in corporate life. So no wonder we’re out there – overeducated and whinging about issues other people feel are outlandish. Bob Geldof’s recent soundbite about transgender bathrooms is an example. My points isn’t about LGBT.

My point is that you can laugh all you want, but transgender bathrooms give people something they can fight for that is meaningful to them – as it makes people feel significant, makes them feel they made a difference and belong to a group. This is what’s actually missing for millennials.

This phenomenon occurs where religion plays a minor role in one’s upbringing, as was the case with millennials.

Young people who lack a purpose and a sense of belonging can very easily be swayed by politicians into things like violent nationalism.

We’re seeing something in that vein in the recent political developments.

Another threat comes fro the fact that millennials seem to glorify working in corporations – especially if they are tech-related like Google or Facebook, because for years we were taught that that’s the best work there is.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone, but for some of us the veneer of corporate glamour is stopping us from making honest assessments. Remember, “if it’s repeated – it’s true“; that’s just the human brain.

I wonder if it was different for other generations. Yes, corporate office work wasn’t as big a phenomenon, but how did people get through it without complaining as much as the millennials? Maybe, it was quite a prestigious thing in and of itself – providing the feeling of being special. Now it’s pretty standard. A long time ago GS Elevator came out with a tweet that there aren’t many jobs out there for which you actually need a degree. Cynical as this tweet is, the first year of a corporate graduate programme is likely to confirm that assertion. Getting the most educated, most competitive people and putting them into that environment is a shock to them. Perhaps this didn’t apply for the generations above us who enjoyed their careers more than the millennials as there were fewer people with degrees.

It is also quite possible that it was all the same for previous generations – and their parents also told them that they were lazy, entitled and all the things millennials are hearing. It’s simply their turn to complain.

On the bright side, it has become cool in our generation to be an entrepreneur. While the seasoned entrepreneurs go on about how this romanticised view of building businesses is toxic, I feel it is good to encourage non-bet-the-farm entrepreneurship at least. Or even freelance. It is creative, it has as much purpose as one wants and it is both self- and socially-serving.

Most of all, millennials, myself included, should remember that there’s no use in waiting for someone to come along and give us this magical real purpose we so crave. It is up to us to make our own purpose.

*If none of this makes sense – and you happen to like video games, try Stanley’s Parable. Whoever made the game must be the great-grandchild of Descates and Huxley’s first cousin. They understand corporate life better than those who created it.

millennials in the workplace video simon sinek

You may also like:

Confessions of a career-switching millennial

Millennial ENTP studies

Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a very sobering piece on the nature of employment

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Infatuation: Scarlett O’Hara vs Jay Gatsby

Ultimately, it is the desire, not the desired, that we love.

– Friedrich Nietzsche

Seeing as how it is Christmas, I am spending some time in front of the piece of furniture I otherwise avoid – the auld telly. One of my favourite films of all time, Gone with the Wind, was on just yesterday.

I must have seen it a hundred times as a child. Those were the days of the Spice Girls and girl power, the economy was only growing and I was full of curiosity as to what it would be like to be an adult. I am not much of a vocal feminist, but Scarlett represented a kind of strong independent woman to me at the time. Naturally, I noticed that she has an unreasonable obsession with Ashley. I thought that that’s what they called love. Yes, Ashley was always a bit of a disappointment, but in my 10 year old mind, it made sense that love is love – and that’s it. Scarlett was obviously far from perfect: s a bit self-centred, a bit impulsive… But, boy, she kicked ass like no one else I’d ever seen before. I felt that the centre-stage relationship was between Ashley and Scarlett – and everyone else was a third-wheel of ill fate, the same kind that brought war and poverty to Scarlett.

infatuation in gone with the wind

Watching it now, it looks so different. Scarlett was an ambitious woman with more than a touch of insecurity and narcissism. There was no relationship. Her supposed love was in reality a crush that managed to solidify through Ashley’s response. Scarlett made the first move. There was a purpose to it, like with everything Scarlett did: she wanted to marry Ashley. Ashley told her he loved her, or rather, denied that he didn’t love her. She continued her infatuation for the rest of the film. It was fuelled by continued scenes where Ashley’s reluctantly reaffirms that he has a soft spot for Scarlett. I guess he didn’t want to hurt her – and he wasn’t lying either. It is obvious that Ashley is not the sort of man that Scarlett would naturally be interested in. There was always something odd about the extent to which she was drawn to him.

Scarlett was interested not in Ashley, but in how it made her feel to know that he loves her. The bitter sweet thought of a man trapped in a marriage to an almost perfect woman nevertheless constantly thinking of her, of Scarlett – that was what was playing on her mind constantly, yielding endless validation.

 I only spotted this now, in my late twenties. The reason I believe it is true is that in the scene where Melanie dies – and lo and behold, Scarlett falls into Ashley’s arms, the following  crucial dialogue unfolds:

Ashley: I can’t live without her, I can’t. Everything I ever had is… is going with her.
Scarlett: Oh, Ashley. You really love her, don’t you?
Ashley: She’s the only dream I ever had that didn’t die in the face of reality.
Scarlett: Dreams! Always dreams with you, never common sense.
[…]
Scarlett: lf you knew what I’ve gone through! Ashley, you should have told me years ago that you loved her and not me and not left me dangling with your talk of honor. But you had to wait till now, now when Melly’s dying to show me that I could never mean any more to you than than this Watling woman does to Rhett. And I’ve loved something that…that doesn’t really exist.

It’s bad enough to be infatuated – like Gatsby was with Daisy. However, it is much worse to be infatuated because of the belief that the subject of one’s infatuation loves them. Of course, there was an element of reciprocity adding fuel to Gatsby’s infatuation, but it wasn’t nearly as strong.

Gatsby was infatuated with Daisy from first principles; Scarlett was infatuated with Ashley as a reaction to what she perceived as his infatuation with her.

infatuation in the great gatsby
Leo never looked as intense as Robert

It makes more sense from an evolutionary point of view for a person to be obsessed with someone who already has a crush them , but it is also kind of… pathetic. It’s like the decision wasn’t even theirs. It is especially pathetic if they don’t have a crush on the infatuated person- and it’s only in their mind.

The dialogue above is so ironic. Ashley, the supposed dreamer, off with the fairies while Scarlett was saving Tara, saving Melanie’s life and just generally solving the most complex of problems, talked about Melanie as the one thing that was real. It finally hit her then that she was the one who was living in a dream. Ashley told her that they would never be happy together because they are so different. He saw reality much more clearly than she did – in this sense. On the other hand, Gatsby never even made it as far as Scarlett. What about Rhett – was he infatuated? I think he was hopeful, but still kept an eye on reality.

It’s tough denouncing Scarlett from her “super-woman who was unlucky with men” status to “needy super-woman who ruined things because she was too silly to see the truth” status. At least now, it makes more sense.

understanding infatuation great gatsby gone with the wind

Ego undermines greatness by deluding its holder

In short: don’t be a needly distracted narcissist because it sabotages your mission. That’s it.

After Audible recommending this book for me in every way, Ego is the Enemy finally made its way onto my reading list. I wish it didn’t. Of course, there are some things that I feel the author got perfectly right in a refreshing way – especially because he is 29 (in 2016). Overall, the better insights of Ryan Holiday are concisely expressed in Ray Dalio’s Principles.

Premise and logic

Holiday takes the “study the successful” approach. There are a number of problems with that approach – and I am very close to banning any such book from my reading list for the future.

In general, these books tend to make an assertion, back it up with a historical fact – et voilà, it’s true. Not really. As a bunch of musings and hypotheses, it’s fine, but this kind of work implies that it’s didactic – “here’s how to defeat [your ego]” the title reads. Meanwhile, the “logic” doesn’t really hold water and violates, in the broadest sense, the scientific method. This isn’t science, it’s more related to philosophy, but it has to be logical regardless.

These Socrates-quoting authors assume that the idiosyncrasies of the successful are causal to their success. In reality, it’s a very small observational study with a handpicked sample. The collection of stories explains more about confirmation bias than it does about the proposed subject.

ego is the enemy ryan holiday book review

Holiday even talks about how passion in a certain field is common among the highly successful (e.g. Steve Jobs) – but he also points out that there are countless cases of passionate entrepreneurs, writers, etc – who failed. Great insight – and there are a few like that. Only Holiday didn’t manage to take another step out of his own work to realise that this very logic applies to saying that being dispassionate is the real cause for success.

Holiday simply swaps one brand of snake oil for another.

On this note, Nassim Nicholas Taleb just published this one-liner on Facebook that I simply have to include here:

Scientism is to science what a Ponzi scheme is to an investment.

While I don’t endorse using it as a manual, the only examples of useful books written in this style that I am familiar are Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses on Livy. Many of the “facts” that Machiavelli uses to substantiate his argument in The Prince are wrong – most likely deliberately, as it was intended to persuade his audience, namely Lorenzo de’ Medici. If there’s one thing we can learn from Machiavelli – it is that these books are written as least to some extent for the benefit of the writer. I much prefer books that simply theorise and use historical references very vaguely – rather than as quasi-scientific evidence – like most philosophers and my proposed substitute for Holiday – Ray Dalio. Musing should be musings – and they can be very good, but they cannot be sold the way that Holiday proposes. Ryan Holiday is such a clever and accomplished man though, why does he do it? I don’t know, but maybe the fact that it sells – and builds connections – has something to do with it. Indeed, the Amazon reviews are rather good: 4.6.

Nonetheless, we will have a look at his musings.

ego is the enemy summary

Millennials

Holiday doesn’t mention millennials, but it is pretty clear that that’s what he’s talking about. He is one too. His view of us, special snowflakes, geniuses who cannot bear the waste of working in junior positions clearly shows that he himself has never been in that situation. He knows that being in such a position involves just doing the work and making your boss look good. Holiday knows that that’s not what the Harvard grad that was selected out of thousands time after time for this position wants to hear. He reminds us of these, what he calls, realities:

  1. you’re not nearly as good or as important as you think you are

  2. you have an attitude that needs to be adjusted

  3. information you learnt in college in outdated

I broadly agree with assertion 1 and 3. Two is in and of itself attitudinal. Indeed, Dalio has interesting things to say about all of this and my views are for more resonant with his.

Holiday feels that our problem is the “indignities of serving someone else.”

He argues that rather than obsessing with one’s own ego, the said snowflake should trust the apprentice model that has produced great results in the past. (Holiday provides no data on how many lives it diverted into a mindless, creative-less funnel of paying mortgages and 9-5). He says, be an anteambulo (one who precedes to clear the way), attach and subsume your identity to the identity of those who are already successful and basically ride that wave to your own success.

Most of us snowflakes don’t have a problem with serving someone else. Making your boss look good is no problem. We understand that apprenticing under a solid role model is beneficial.

I feel the problem is the shocking emptiness and pointlessness (“should have been automated 10 years ago”) of much of this work in reality.

Frequently the work and the people at the top are both uninspiring. Many of them aren’t there out of professional fervour, but out of familiarity and necessity. The ones who do become anteambuloes are becoming the people at the top – with fewer perks year on year. Holiday had a different experience – it seems that the people in the organisations he worked for were there out of more exciting reasons. He probably doesn’t realise how rare that it. Us snowflakes, we yearn for purpose besides having the nicest car in the neighbourhood – which categorically satisfies the generations above us. Maybe it’s an illusion, but it’s at the heart of our snowflake-hood, not the indignity of serving someone else.

The other problem with accepting this lifestyle is that it quickly drives out whatever creativity was inherent in the bright-eyed intern. No matter how aware we are of how corporate indoctrination works, the bottom line is that it works. Staying in long enough will result in successful zombification.

ego is the enemy review

The ego

Holiday’s use of the word refers to our need for validation and self-importance. Sometimes what he actually means is better described as jealousy. Sometimes he means lack of focus. He states a lot of obvious things about the harm done through ego barriers and emphasises the value of letting go of them.

In Chapter 10, the author says that tolerating badness can be necessary as part of achieving goals, and this tolerating is actually avoiding one’s ego.

Unless this book is aimed at finished narcissists, it’s kind of sounds like a Stalinist “goals justify the means” turned on oneself. Again, Dalio talks about this in his Principles – making far more sense. Not letting ego barriers stand in the way of achieving a goal is quite different to the ambitious/masochistic attitude that Holiday seems to advocate.

Holiday is refreshingly honest about the way the world requires us to be master story tellers and build our own brands – and hence the need to be special.

The author is averse to living in a fantasy and encourages action over overthinking. He describes the psychological phenomenon he calls imaginary audience with suspicious finesse.

ryan holiday book review

Marketing, not philosophy

The opening chapters are much better than the average quality of the book. His structure isn’t terribly clear and he repeats himself a lot. It should definitely be shorter. By chapter 17 of 35, it was a bit “When is the end?” “Oh, could this be my ego sabotaging me?” “Mmm, no. It’s you thinking”.

My conclusion is that there are much better books out there on the subject. There’s nothing new here. It was interesting to get inside (the accessible) part of the mind of a rich and famous self-made millennial rich guy who knows how to sell things.

Ryan Holiday is definitely no philosopher. Even his references to stoicism are a bit lopsided, but then again – it’s just another example of confirmation bias. The language and references to history and literature – even the pretentious image on the cover – create the atmosphere of intellectual finesse. It’s not actually there.

He is a marketer – and seemingly a shady one too. I’d been warned by the kind of people that recommended his book not to buy it. Having read it, I feel a bit like my friends who went to Jordan Belfort’s seminar after watching The Wolf of Wall Street – only to come back and say that it wasn’t at all useful. It was a sales pitch of some bigger weekend seminar that he does later in the year. I never even considered giving money to Jordan Belfort – not after watching the film. Should have used that logic this time too!

“Impressing people is utterly different from being truly impressive.”

Indeed.

Infinite appetite for distractions

“…reality, however utopian, is something from which people feel the need of taking pretty frequent holidays….”

Brave New World is one hell of a book. I am so impressed with it, I barely know where to start. This book made me understand why people write fiction. Until now, fiction always seemed lyrical – and only accessible to those with a particularly creative rather than an analytical mind. For example, poetry always made more sense to me than fictional prose – because it doesn’t usually require one to conjure up things that have never happened, but rather seeing things that others mightn’t see in what did happen. Huxley strikes me as analytical – but well able to articulate his analysis through an elaborate metaphor that is Brave New World. The story line didn’t flow and felt contrived to me. However, the descriptions and the dialogue more than made up for it.

The book came out in 1931. Interestingly, it was banned in Ireland “for being anti-family and anti-religion.”

The beauty of the book is that we aren’t strongly drawn to side with one side over the other. While one side is infinitely more familiar and natural, the other eerily makes a lot of sense. Hence, it isn’t just a praise of our “old” values, but an insightful examination. I don’t know that Huxley meant it that way – but that’s how it reads to me today. Consider this, for example. Opposing the brave new world, we have John, a boy who grew up in a close-knit tribe and whose morals are deeply aligned with those of Shakespeare’s heroes. So far – so good. However, he had a troubled mother and grew up without a father. This clearly left a mark on him – and would never have happened in the brave new world. He also self-flagellates. Minutes after confessing his endless love to a woman, he violently disowns her – for wanting to have sex with him. He ultimately commits suicide. Not so good. John is implicitly compared to Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, nearly all of them – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear and Romeo as he is pensive, ambitious, proud and impulsive.

While there are lots of insights to be derived from this book, I am not convinced of how new this brave new world really is. Is this regime really much different to what we have had before?

Most of all, for me, this book is a distilled vision of how human nature shows up when people are put into a very particular set of circumstances.

Brave New World meaning

Highlights

The biggest highlight is Chapter 16. The Controller, the man who runs this new world, is a tyrannical yet highly intelligent and calm person. He is the one who makes the rules of the brave new world. He reveals how he made his decisions. Ironically, it reminds me of the last chapter of every Harry Potter book – where we always find out the real behind-the-scenes from Dumbledore.

/I really need to read more. But while we’re here, could the fact that Dumbledore’s first name is Albus be an allusion to Aldous Huxley’s first name – as J.K.R. took on some of the structure, (even though it’s not necessarily unique to Huxley)?/

What’s interesting is that, on a certain level, the arguments presented by the Controller seem both logical and humanitarian. Here are some highlights:

On the subjected of happiness versus grand feats:

“Civilisation has absolutely no need of nobility or heroism.These things are symptoms of political inefficiency. In a properly organised society like ours, nobody has any opportunities for being noble or heroic […] [In this society] People are happy; they get what they want, and they never want what they can’t get. They’re well off; they’re safe; they’re never ill; they’re not afraid of death; they’re blissfully ignorant of passion and old age; they’re plagued with no mothers or fathers; they’ve got no wives, or children, or lovers to feel strongly about; they’re so conditioned that they practically can’t help behaving as they ought to behave. […] The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. […] you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist.”

“Actual happiness always looks pretty squalid in comparison with the overcompensations for misery. And, of course, stability isn’t nearly so spectacular as instability. And being contented has none of the glamour of a good fight against misfortune, none of the picturesqueness of a struggle with temptation, or a fatal overthrow by passion or doubt. Happiness is never grand.”

On the subject of social order:

John asks: Why don’t you make everybody an Alpha Double Plus while you’re about it? For those who haven’t read the book, Alpha Double Plus is a genetically superior person who is educated (“conditioned” – and I believe that’s a fair word) to be aware of their individuality.

“We believe in happiness and stability. A society of Alphas couldn’t fail to be unstable and miserable. Imagine a factory staffed by Alphas that is to say by separate and unrelated individuals of good heredity and conditioned so as to be capable (within limits) of making a free choice and assuming responsibilities… An Alpha-decanted, Alpha-conditioned man would go mad if he had to do Epsilon Semi-Moron work – go mad, or start smashing things up.

Alphas can be completely socialised – but only on condition that you make them do Alpha work. Only an Epsilon can be expected to make Epsilon sacrifices, for the good reason that for him they aren’t sacrifices; they’re the line of least resistance. His conditioning has laid down rails along which he’s got to run. He can’t help himself; he’s foredoomed.”

The Controller cites the Cyprus experiment, where Cyprus was cleared and populated with Alphas – resulting in civil war. While this is obviously not a real reason to substantiate Huxley’s assertion that a caste system – whether deliberate or not – makes society more stable, it shows that the Controller didn’t make this decision out of pure tyranny – but instead out of a rather unethical overuse of science. Yes, we usually say it is unethical to experiment on humans – at least in a social way, but perhaps it is also unethical to live in ignorance. Plus, in our real new world, it happens. Notably, Facebook experimented with our moods by adjusting our feeds – without letting us know, of course.

Brave New World philosophyOn the subject of the necessity of stupid work:

“Seven and a half hours of mild, unexhausting labour, and then the soma ration and games and unrestricted copulation and the feelies. What more can they ask for?”

… This reminds me terribly of the life of the graduate intake of a corporation. Soma, “a holiday from the facts”, is described as alcohol without a hangover – I think most people wished for that at some point. The feelies are terribly reminiscent of VR. Earlier on in the book there was a reference to conditioning people to love expensive outdoor sports (rather than simply loving nature – as this alone doesn’t generate economic activity). Fancy sports is also a corporate favourite. There are reasons why that is besides a Huxley-themed conspiracy theory, but it’s interesting to note.

Another (thought)-experiment to back this:

“Technically, it would be perfectly simple to reduce all lower-caste working hours to three or four a day. But would they be any the happier for that? No, they wouldn’t. The experiment was tried, more than a century and a half ago. The whole of Ireland was put on to the four-hour day. What was the result? Unrest and a large increase in the consumption of soma; that was all. Those three and a half hours of extra leisure were so far from being a source of happiness, that people felt constrained to take a holiday from them. The Inventions Office is stuffed with plans for labour-saving processes. Thousands of them… We don’t want to change. Every change is a menace to stability.”

On the subject of the natural instinct to believe there is a god: 

“You might as well ask if it’s natural to do up one’s trousers with zippers,” said the Controller sarcastically. “You remind me of another of those old fellows called Bradley. He defined philosophy as the finding of bad reason for what one believes by instinct. As if one believed anything by instinct! One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them. Finding bad reasons for what one believes for other bad reasons–that’s philosophy. People believe in God because they’ve been conditioned to.”

Indeed, the premise of effective “hypnopaedia” (repeating statements to children in their sleep for the purpose of teaching them) is that one doesn’t need to understand ethical statements to be able to use them (unlike science – where hypnopaedia fails). It seems that that’s true to me: groups of people tend to have similar values because everyone around them has those values. Most people’s values aren’t derived from first principles, they are adopted through repetition. There are, of course, many reasons for this, e.g. it is a survival strategy and the basis of any community, but… it’s still a dangerous instrument. A particular aspect of hypnopedia seems quite realistic: people are convinced that their caste (a proxy for position in life) is the happiest place they could be. While gratitude is a virtue, it has gotten quite compulsive these days, much like in the book. Every self-respecting Instagram user reminds us of it daily. Then again, before Instagram & co., we had other sources who told us to be grateful – they know who they are. The author also talked about god in Chapter 17, very elaborately with lots of references to philosophy. I don’t think I can dissect that even to the same standard as above. I did very much enjoy his look at Edmund, Gloucester’s illegitimate son from King Lear. The Edmund of the brave new world would have been chilling with the ladies and “looking at the feelies” – not being killed off by the gods as in Shakespeare. Huxley’s argument that this mindless chilling is as good (as bad?) as death – it just depends what standard one holds themselves to.

brave new world analysis

On the subject of truth:

“I’m interested in truth, I like science. But truth’s a menace, science is a public danger.” … We […] carefully limit the scope of researches. […] We don’t allow it to deal with any but the most immediate problems of the moment.”

This applies today. The usual argument is economic necessity determines whether research should be carried out. Indeed, Huxley believes so too, but in a rather twisted way: he says that truth and beauty don’t lead to economic growth. Economic growth, however, is the ultimate value: the goal is to be a “happy, hard-working, goods-consuming citizen”. Brrr.

Knowledge was the highest good, truth the supreme value; all the rest was secondary and subordinate… Universal happiness keeps the wheels steadily turning; truth and beauty can’t… Our Ford himself did a great deal to shift the emphasis from truth and beauty to comfort and happiness.”

Huxley also points out that there is real science – and then there are applications of that knowledge for the good of society – that may have little to do with the bona fide scientific method. Indeed, the fact that Ford is a god in the brave new world is scary. While in the real world, we don’t have a conveyor belt mania to the extent that Huxley feared, we have indeed sanctified phenomenally successful people. While countless people still look to god for guidance, we have seen humongous growth in these business school types (or just, types) who “study successful people.”

On the subject of love:

The indoctrination concerning love is particularly chilling. Perhaps the most likeable character, Helmholtz, who belongs in the brave new world explains what he thought of Romeo and Juliet:

The mother and father […] forcing the daughter to have some one she didn’t want! And the idiotic girl not saying that she was having some one else whom (for the moment, at any rate) she preferred!

It’s chilling because it’s not wrong. It is robotic. Helmholtz acknowledges that Shakespeare wrote in a way that provokes strong emotions and admired his craft, but Helmholtz wasn’t able for any empathy. Lenina, John’s romantic interest, however, seemed to have some real feelings for him. Her friends though thought that she was unwell.

Amusing Ourselves to Death

Neil Postman said:

“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.”

I think this has happened even during my own lifetime. Even among the most educated people I know, coming out with interest and knowledge in some obscure subject often provokes the question why do you know this?  Was your primary degree in X?  I am pretty certain that knowledge acquisition has lost a lot of its perceived value during my lifetime – now that we have Google. The deeper layer, of course, is that the process of acquiring knowledge yields much more than just the knowledge. At the same time, I wonder, has it ever been different? At the end of the day, if nobody wanted to read books or write down their thoughts, why is blogging such a big thing these days? I wonder if back when this book was written – writing – and especially reaching an audience – was primarily the province of those who had gone to Oxford and could afford to not have a day job?

“Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance.”

Welcome to social media. This, I think, is quite unique to our age. Furthermore, in the brave new world, people are never alone – leading to the distractions that perpetuate lack of insight.

Brave New World Revisited

Huxley later wrote in a non-fiction reflection of where the world is now in relation to his Brave New World that we “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” Indeed, he even sees religion as part of this distraction:

“’The religious sentiment will compensate us for all our losses.’ But there aren’t any losses for us to compensate; religious sentiment is superfluous. And why should we go hunting for a substitute for youthful desires, when youthful desires never fail? A substitute for distractions, when we go on enjoying all the old fooleries to the very last? What need have we of repose when our minds and bodies continue to delight in activity? of consolation, when we have soma? of something immovable, when there is the social order?”

As a concluding remark, if I could, I would definitely make this mainstream in schools. I know in some places it is, but not everywhere. 1984 is a much bigger deal in most places -perhaps as it served a political purpose. This book deserves more attention, I feel. Most school kids struggle to understand Hamlet and King Lear through generating their own insights, but I think they would be able to relate to this much more.

And Happy Christmas, of course.

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Management consultants now selling neuroscience

The Financial Times published an interesting post today on how management consultants are looking at brain chemicals to help analyse leadership and workplace trust.

Deloitte is looking into brain chemistry – and how they can apply what they learnt in neuroscience to management. Some of the quotes from management consultants sound like they need a bit more time in the oven: “Neuroscience would be saying you need more neural pathways to make people think differently.”

management consulting psychology neuroscience

I think Thinking Fast and Slow should be read by every management consultant and leader. I wonder what these guys will have to add on top of this. Paul Zak, the neuroscientist that the FT quotes, talks about trust as an “economic lubricant”. Isn’t that Marketing 101? In fact, I doodled about it here. Ok, they mention a few chemicals that most management consulting folk and their clients probably haven’t heard of before like oxytocin. In management consulting, a new name usually means a new sales pitch, so I can see why they are excited. Another management consultant references the idea that we are more irrational when we are in fight or flight mode. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised that in some boardroom some CEO of a gargantuan business is signing off on a contract with a management consultancy that just presented this – but really, it does sound like plain common sense.

There is one very interesting idea in the article: predictive hiring.

Instead of relying upon CVs and interviews, they ask applicants to play 15 or 20 computer games designed with the aid of neuroscience — revealing a cognitive and emotional profile. The result is matched against the gaming profile of high-performers in the role to be filled. Combined with techniques such as machine-learning and trawling social media profiles, this approach opens the way to hiring based on capability. “Companies won’t worry where they went to school or what their grades are”…

I think that games that seeing how a person takes decisions is a great way to understand their personality. It is the basis of psychological tests. However, if, instead of trying to go into the reasons why a person is like this and what they can do about it, we could simply use this information for what it is, I think it would really help to match people with certain jobs. It’s like a decision making genome that you can then marry with a job description – of course only after you accumulate enough data.

using psychology neuroscience in management consulting

Words or empathy?

Words. Words can change how we feel in an instant, they can prime us to act in a certain way without us knowing – but they also can completely misfire.

It seems very obvious now, but it took me ages to figure this out: people don’t always mean what they say.It’s not necessarily because they are lying, but a lot of the time it is because they lack insight and communication skills.

What really hammered it home to me was when a consultant psychiatrist was explaining to me how to handle the “admit-me-or-I-will-kill-myself” kind of presentation. He asked me a very simple question: “If you wanted to kill yourself, would you go to a hospital to inform the doctor?” I’ve no intention of trying to simplify the complex issue of suicide, but there is certainly a type of patient who honestly believes they want to kill themselves and come to hospital, still. Why??? Because the words are misfiring. The words they are saying are: “I want to kill myself”. What (some of them) mean is that they are in so much emotional pain that they have no idea how to get out of it, but they would really like help. It can be, strangely, easier to identify the desire for suicide as the problem because it is a bit more external – at least compared to one’s coping skills.

The moral of the story was: people don’t always mean what they say – and they may not even know it.

This disconnect between words and insight is well known among international relations officials. Here what is said is just as important as what it is left unsaid. The people who answer questions at conferences (e.g. press conferences at the White House) aren’t the officials and military generals actually who know the most. The spokespeople are briefed in a very specific way and believe the things they say. It is too difficult to have insight into how you will be understood, so they get people who specifically understand the exact right stuff.

The significance of precise language is well known in Hollywood.

The production team of Gone with the Wind fought long and hard just to be allowed to have Rhett say “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”

Damn was a vulgar word and the censors weren’t happy. However, “I don’t care” just doesn’t provoke the same emotions. Also, it is often said that the word frankly was an unscripted improvisation by Clark Gable – it wasn’t. It’s just different from the book, but that’s how it was in the script.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb said it well here:

when one of these [Salafi] fundamentalists talks to a Christian, he is convinced that the Christian is literal, while the Christian is convinced that the Salafi has the same oft-metaphorical concepts to be taken seriously but not literally –and, often, not very seriously.

empathy and suicide

What got me reminiscing about this was a post by FJ of The Pensives about critical thinking as an antidote to manipulation. FJ identifies reading people (and empathy) as a key part of examining one’s true intentions. FJ’s insight certainly resonates with my own – that there is meaning way beyond words. I think context needs to be examined. Incentives need to be looked at. FJ’s argument is that putting oneself in someone else’s shoes is important. Maybe he is saying the same thing in different words – no pun intended, but there’s also a potential caveat here. It’s best expressed by Nicholas Epley wrote in his fabulous book Mindwise:

Reading body language and trying to take on the other’s perspective doesn’t seem to help to understand the person better. What does help is creating situations where people can openly tell you what they think – and listen carefully.

Obviously, that’s not always possible. However, the point I am trying to make is that while empathy has become an increasingly popular concept, we shouldn’t envisage it as an antidote.

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