With a world that keeps getting more complex by the second, it’s hard to maintain your cool. And that complexity is unfortunately characterized by a messy web of factors that are mostly out of our control.
Lately, I’ve increasingly contemplated the state of the world and been kind of miserable because of it. I’m sure many others are in my situation. My days have been stained by feelings of powerlessness, anger and overwhelm. But I’ve also been thinking about what we can (realistically) do to keep our feet on the ground and regain a sense of control. This article will try to present some frameworks and practices to keep us sane. I don’t know if they are enough, but they’re a start.
It seems like we’re losing the reins on civilization and that we’re spiraling violently towards doom. Among the most alarming issues (or at least the ones that have been haunting me) we have:
– a war in Europe threatened by a nuclear escalation
– a looming economic crisis accelerated by inflation
– authoritarianism on the rise
– climate crisis manifested through abnormal temperatures and extreme weather events
– political unrest
– the energy crisis
Ugh. That was bleak. And it’s not even a comprehensive list. But it looks like every aspect of our civilization (from political to social to economic and environmental) is suffering. The bad news is that’s only one part of the equation, which showcases the state of the world at a macro level. But there’s also the people. We can’t resolve the first part if we haven’t got the other one in order, the micro level.
At the individual level, we’re not exactly scoring high points either.
I think it’s become increasingly obvious that we’re:
– deeply divided by in-group/out-group rhetoric
– poorly informed by a sensationalist media
– crippled by depression, stress and anxiety
– suffering from a lack of meaning in life
– riddled with uncertainty, especially in our careers
– bitter and judgemental
– lacking trust in institutions
– separated by economic inequality
So what can we actually do, given all I’ve outlined above?
Cruel Optimism vs Learned Helplessness
We should recognize what’s truly in our power and what’s not. This isn’t merely a cool stoic principle, but a necessary framework for thinking clearly.
Only after we determine what is in our control, can we assess the role we can play, objectively.
If we’re going to start somewhere, I think there’s no better place to start than this. There are 2 terms relevant for this discussion: cruel optimism and learned helplessness.
Cruel optimism refers to the over-simplification of solutions to complex problem in our society, and selling the cure as something each individual can undertake. This term was first coined by historian Lauren Berlant.
Learned helplessness is a behavior displayed by someone who has lost the belief that their actions can have a meaningful impact on the desired outcome. This concept is associated with self-efficacy, a psychological term referring to an individual’s belief in their capacity to act in the ways necessary to reach specific goals.
To help you grasp how cruel optimism manifests itself, just think of the responsibility put on individuals to alter their behavior in response to the climate crisis. The population is encouraged to abandon plastic straws and bags, fly less and “offset” their carbon footprint by paying $2 extra for a tree to be planted in their name, or something.
All these little practices have their place and are admirable. By all means, buy less plastic bags. However, this line of thinking can trick us believing the sole responsibility is on us and that the small changes we make each day will amount to a big difference overall.
Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It only diverts attention from the real offenders, the organizations that dump gallons of oil into the ocean, or that produce incredible waste from their manufacturing sites. They are the ones who should be held accountable first.
If possible, reduce your consumption of unnecessary products, recycle, donate, repurpose. It’s all steps in the right direction. But think of these acts as your personal pledge to a good cause, not the end-all-be-all solution to save the Earth.
We need to strike a balance between recognizing cruel optimism when it’s sold to us and stepping up to take charge of a situation we can control. It’s a tricky endeavor, but necessary nonetheless. We shouldn’t be shamed into taking on certain behaviors, nor silenced into obedience.
Another relevant concept to keep in mind is that of the big picture. This can be divided in 2 parts: present bias and systems thinking.
Let’s dissect the first one. We’re wired to consider more salient the events that are directly affecting us right now. The more we introduce variables like other people, other places, even other time periods (such as the future), our salience doesn’t light up as much. If it doesn’t concern the us now, it’s likely to be dismissed more easily. However, we should learn to tame this tendency and broaden our salience landscape, both in time and in space.
Just because someone is not close to you geographically, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take their suffering into account. Just because your kids (or future generations) are not born yet, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider how your actions will affect their lives. William MacAskill explores this in depth in his new book What We Owe The Future.
The other side of the argument involves systems thinking. When dealing with any complex problem, it’s essential to realize there’s an interconnected network of smaller parts that influence the larger system. It’s almost impossible to reduce the problem to only a subset of factors, because those factors are probably influenced by other elements of the system. Take climate change. There’s a myriad of parts involved: from industries, to practices, to regulations and policies that each play a role in how the landscape is shaped.
So, in order to attempt to solve any complex problem, we have to be aware of the big picture involving the entire system and determine the interactions and influences of the smaller parts on each other. A simplistic reductionist thinking won’t do.
Whenever we’re at a crossroads in our history, the fabric of society is teeming with unrest and uncertainty. It seems that we’re forced to accept that the future nebulous and we can distinguish ahead only a few steps at a time.
Thus, learning to befriend uncertainty is mandatory. Trying to reduce it as much as possible is preferred, but we can only do so much. We have to deal with the rest as it comes. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb talks about in his work, black swan events are high-impact occurrences that can’t be predicted, but are often rationalized after the fact. The pandemic was a black swan event. And there will probably be other black swan events.
Learn, Learn, Learn
Before we take any action, we need to have an accurate perspective of where we stand. There’s a high likelihood you won’t be able to get a Masters level understanding of the major issues besetting our world, but perhaps there is a certain field that particularly interests you. Maybe it’s because it’s related to your job or you simply are drawn to the subject. It could be human rights, AI or inequality.
Whatever it is, take it up. Research it. See who are the top intellectuals operating in that field. Get to understand the problem deeply, but also the proposed solutions and roadblocks. Also, what does “the other side” think – the contrarians? What concerns are they raising?
Don’t stop at the surface level. Get into the nitty gritty. The truly boring stuff. The footnotes. The information that’s too dense and too ambiguous and too unsexy to be public knowledge. Most importantly, learn who benefits from the status quo. Follow the money. And the power. Who is interested in keeping things running as they are and what avenues are available to catalyze change?
This is my (incomplete) list of book recommendations.
I’ve seen a lot of advice regarding reducing the news we consume. Some went as far as to encourage completely eliminating the news. I think the intentions are good, but the proposal is terrible. The logic is that the news makes us anxious and accelerates negative feelings. I agree. There are some terrible stories out there and the (majority of the) media is not keen on portraying a level-headed take. When you’re in the business of getting clicks, an anti-inflammatory article is not good for business.
With that said, I think it’s naive to cut all news from your information diet. It makes me think of an ostrich that buries his head in the sand. You not reading any news won’t make the events un-happen. I’m not saying we should all be up-to-date with everything that happens 24/7, but 5-10 minutes of getting valuable information a few times a week is beneficial.
Be intentional about what you consume, but don’t discard it altogether. Try to find people and publications that present the facts as unbiased as possible, that are dedicated to truth and impartiality. These outlets would also deal with more relevant issues concerning humanity so you won’t have to read about the latest celebrity stories.
We all know what a filter bubble is by now. It refers to finding yourself surrounded by opinions you agree with without being exposed to any opposing views. If all the articles you read on social media and all the tweets in your feed make you go: “Yeah, that’s right!,” then it’s very likely you’ve isolated yourself from views that contradict your own. These filter bubbles were created by you (by reading, liking and sharing) and reinforced by the algorithms that govern the sites you browse, because keeping you engaged is more important than keeping you informed.
And even if the you think you haven’t personalized your feed, you most likely did, maybe without even knowing. Because we tend to follow the people who share our opinions, and un-follow the ones who go against our beliefs, we shield ourselves from “unpopular” views.
But why are filter bubbles so dangerous? Because they reinforce our beliefs and predispositions and in doing so, they become ossified into a rigid thinking system. When everything you see agrees with your thinking, it becomes hard to imagine you may be wrong. This has the potential to alienate other people and make you see them and their views as dangerous or extreme. Sure, sometimes, they may even be that. But you won’t know until you actually get in contact with them and hear their side of the story.
Start conversations, not debates
People are averse to anything that goes against their carefully-constructed belief system. If you approach the discussion with someone holding an opposing view as a matter of winning or losing, you already lost. You lost a real chance of connecting to another person and getting to know their point of view, the reasons behind it and why they think it’s right.
If we can’t have conversations that bridge the gap between two opposing ways of thinking, then any hope of collaboration vanishes. It’s paramount that we stop being so adversarial in our discussions and instead focus on understanding the opposing party and finding common ground.
Learning to view other people as independent agents, with their unique set of experiences and beliefs is crucial for connecting with them. Our tendency to assign labels and put people in an ideological box removes their authenticity and blinds us to their humanity. This exercise is by no means easy, even more so when we deem the other person to hold dangerous beliefs that can hurt others. But it is necessary for fighting divisiveness.
Independent, honest thinking
With an abundance of information fighting for our attention (either approval or outrage), it’s difficult to remain impartial. Sometimes it’s even impossible, because you need to make a decision.
But in a lot of situations, we’re jumping to conclusions and making value judgements way too quickly. If there’s something the world won’t ever have a shortage of, it’s opinions. But guess what? It’s okay to not have an opinion on something! Especially when the subject is complex and needs a bit more research than 2 compelling tweets and a half-read article.
The most dangerous trap we can fall into is accepting as gospel any views from “our group”: for example our political aisle or nation state. When we fail to think independently and scrutinize the information at face value, we remain trapped into unproductive ways of thinking.
It’s all too prevalent for people to engage in black and white thinking, where nuance is non-existent. This cognitive distortion disregards the complexity of life and reduces everything to an “either/or” mentality. To keep our sanity, we must be aware of these biases and not fall prey to them.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Another side of independent thinking has to do with how we respond to rather controversial ideas. Or even, how we respond to controversial ideas proposed by a group or person we don’t like. If we value intellectual integrity, we should evaluate the facts, not the messenger. I’ve noticed way too many cases in which an idea is completely dismissed simply because of its origin.
The role of Community
Small, vibrant communities sharing a common goal may be a necessary part to surviving the next decades. Given that the world is an overwhelming mesh of facts, interests, events and ideologies, a way to make sense of it all would be to find like-minded people keen on working on the same projects you deem important.
It’s no denial that we think better and come up with more useful ideas when we consult the minds of others, so we need to leverage this power. We’ll need small, tight knit and active communities revolving around a shared goal. This doesn’t mean that they’re closed off from the larger population, nor that they won’t welcome input from “outside.” It’s important to stress that this sort of community is not “tribal” in nature, meaning that its purpose isn’t to stand opposed to other groups, but that it draws its purpose from the shared ideals.
Communities will also be a vital component of our sense-making efforts. Sense-making refers to the act of trying to understand reality, civilization and what our next steps should be.
Use your Voice
If you’ve spent time learning about an important subject concerning humanity’s future, such as existential risk or other global priorities, then you can share your findings.
You can start writing, tweeting, engaging in discussions and furthering the conversation on the subject you deem important. Even better if you start a community that’s willing to learn along with you. And if taking the central spot is not your thing, support and share the work of others who are involved in the most central issues of our time.
If you’re a teacher or a parent, don’t underestimate the role you play in shaping the minds of future generations.
Another part of using your voice is voting. Put your stamp of approval on the officials that are willing to work on humanity’s greatest problems.
Use your Time
Time is undeniably the most valuable resource we have. Using your time can take many forms. It may mean volunteering at a local organization, getting involved in a charitable project, or even taking a gap year to figure out a meaningful career, focused on important issues. Join a startup or build your own, because the world needs more daring individuals, driven by social change.
If you’re serious about education, it could also mean pursuing a degree focused on tackling a serious problem, such as artificial intelligence, energy or infrastructure.
Use your Money
We’re at our happiest when we’re generous. So if your financial situation allows, perhaps you can consider becoming a donor to an effective charity. I say “effective charity,” as opposed to any random charity because the former will apply principles to ensure your money goes to the most competent projects, aimed at reducing suffering in the cause you choose. Projects like GiveWell, Giving What We Can, The Life You Can Save can help you make an informed decision and contribute to a worthwhile endeavor.