Listen, Learn, and Empathize

Two of Tyler Cowen’s six insights from the Kavanaugh saga.

1) Alcohol is an underrated factor.

I am struck by how many of the accusations — from various women, not just Ford — suggest a role for alcohol in tales of abuse. Whether or not you believe any particular story, few can argue that alcohol is never connected to this kind of behavior. In the 1980s the U.S. had a major crisis with teen binge drinking and alcoholism, and many of those problems persist today, albeit at lower levels.

You might think the hearings would lead to a new consideration of alcohol as a major social crisis. If so, I haven’t seen it. Just a few weeks ago the World Health Organization released a report suggesting that 3 million deaths annually could be attributed to alcohol, or 1 of every 20 deaths worldwide. That barely made a splash in the news.

Closely related.

2) There is an asymmetry between male and female perceptions.

Most men are not abusers, yet very large numbers of women have been abused. So if a man is an abuser, there is a good chance he has abused a fair number of women.

That means many well-meaning men experience sexual abuse as a relatively rare phenomenon. They haven’t done it, and most of their male friends haven’t either. At the same time, most women have abuse, rape or #MeToo stories, and they experience these phenomena as relatively common and often life-altering. Probably they also have heard multiple such stories from their female friends. This structural asymmetry of perspectives is crucial to understanding the discourse and the often fundamental differences in opinion.

I would go further. This structural asymmetry of perspectives is why it’s crucial out-of-touch men get with the program and listen, learn, and empathize.

What Endurance Athletics Has Taught Me

Most people want to get in shape in a fraction of the time it took them to get out of shape. A vast majority also want to win the lottery and fall in love over night.

The key to success in endurance athletics is building strength, stamina, and mental toughness over time. The key is taking the long view towards incremental improvement, week-to-week, month-to-month, year-to-year. Am I stronger, fitter, more confident this week, month, year? I’ll never be strong, fit, and confident enough. When most successful, there’s positive momentum, movement along the continuum. Positive momentum requires waking up and getting out the door, even when I don’t feel like it. Especially when I don’t feel like it.

How to create positive personal finance momentum? The key is incremental improvement which results from saving more than I spend month-to-month, year-to-year, and then investing in passive index funds month-to-month, year-to-year. Building the strength, stamina, and mental toughness to hold on for five, ten, fifteen years. Rebalancing on occasion.

How to be a better human being? By being a more active, patient listener this week, this month, this year. By being a little more friendly to others, more empathetic, more curious, more understanding.

It’s much easier to write about the long view and incremental improvement than it is to apply it consistently. In some important ways—including as an endurance athlete, as a blogger, and as a close friend—I’m lacking positive momentum right now. This is the point in the post where I wish I had an inspiring insight to close with.

Postscript: Alexi has momentum in her life.

 

 

The Art of Getting Along

It’s irrational given my fitness mindedness, but I think of parking as a zero-sum game. It’s important to me that I get spot “A1” way more often than you. Towards that end, over the years, I’ve developed amazing brake light antennae and unparalleled, cat-like reflexes. In short, I have mad parking lot game.

Rewind to last week when I pulled into our local grocery store and saw car “A1” begin to back out. As I waited, I noticed a vehicle coming towards me from about 75 yards away. The evil driver timed it perfectly, used A1 as a shield, looked down to avoid eye contact, and swooped into MY spot.

No. You. Did. Not. I honked a couple of times to get her attention before slinking to the back of the lot, my reputation and psyche in tatters. Maybe I should let the air out of one of her tires I thought to myself.

Upon entering the automatic doors, I shot her the evil eye. “Are you mad at me?” No shit Sherlock. “Yes I’m mad at you. I was sitting there waiting for the spot and you didn’t even look at me as you pulled into it. I was waiting for it LONG before you.”  “We we’re both waiting for it,” she replied, which made me chuckle. And then I walked away. Only to have her pursue me into the produce section where she said, “I’m sorry for that. I don’t like when people do that to me, so I’m sorry.”

Well shit, I never could handle curveballs! Totally disarmed, I calmly said, “Well, I appreciate that. Thank you. Forget about it.”

A few days later at work, I watched one colleague totally lose it while interacting with another while we worked through a vexing problem. I mean totally lost it. In terms of the substance of the debate, she was mostly in the right, but I realized that didn’t matter one bit, just like when I walked into the grocery store and overreacted to a lost parking spot.

Our anger was so disproportionate to the situations that we became more than half responsible for the conflict. The take-away. Careful consideration of peoples’ feelings is more important than being in the right.

That’s what I learned last week. This week I’m going to try applying it.

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Maybe I’d have better luck running errands on my bike. Photography by JEB.

How College Changed Me For the Better

I guess it makes sense given tuition inflation, but today, nearly every “is college worth it” discussion revolves around one consideration—roi—or “return on investment”. More and more people worry whether a college education will lead to more secure, higher paying jobs.

In the last week I’ve been changed for the better by a movie and two books that I probably wouldn’t have seen or read if my curiosity hadn’t been jumpstarted during college.

The movie, Wadja, was an engrossing window into what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Wadja has grossed $1,346,851 as of January 17th. That means few people are curious about what it’s like to be a woman in Saudi Arabia. Had I not attended college, where I learned to like learning about other people, places, and time periods, I doubt I would have sought out Wadja. I’m a more informed global citizen as a result of having watched Wadja.

The books were Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail and The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Together, Cheryl Strayed and George Packer challenge my assumption that privileged people like me will never truly grasp what it’s like to teeter on the edge of economic destitution. Thanks to their story telling genius I have a much better feel for why some people struggle to feed, shelter, and clothe themselves. And more empathy, an attribute in shorty supply these days, for poor individuals and families.

I may not have been curious enough about the people’s lives in those books if three decades ago I hadn’t studied history in college and became keenly interested in other people, places, and time periods. Thanks to excellent professors, challenging readings, constant writing, and discussions with classmates and roommates, I became more curious, insightful, and empathetic.

How does one place a dollar value on that?

Job Prospects in the New Economy

Last Sunday the family and I woke up at 3:45a to drive the college junior to the Portland airport to catch an early flight. The airport was the midway point of our ultimate destination, a vacation spot in central Oregon. Like a couple of comatose puppies, the high school senior was curled up with her older sissy in the back seat of the car. Picture overlapping blonde hair everywhere. While they dozed the GalPal and I listened to a BBC segment about job prospects in the new economy.

The participants were Oxford or MIT professors. Cut me some slack, at 4:30a.m. the world’s best universities all kind of blur together. They made two points, the first which I’ve been making for awhile. The more my daughters (and their friends) develop sophisticated data processing knowledge and skills, the more job opportunities they’ll have. Quantitative analysis is probably a better term since data processing might conjure up mindless keypadding. This turn towards numbers is not a fad, the Quantitative Era is here to stay. Nearly every organization is analyzing more data than ever before—hospitals, schools, businesses, prisons, college and pro athletic teams, churches, you name it. People steeped in statistics and adept at using SPSS will be able to write their own tickets.

Which doesn’t help the sound asleep sisters. They did well in math, but didn’t embrace it, and have and will stop as soon as they’re able. According to the egghead professors, all is not lost, there’s another strand in the economy that holds promise for secure employment. Work that requires empathy.

They highlighted the work of preschool teachers. I was surprised by the choice, but clearly, unlike most jobs today, skilled preschool teaching can’t be automated because it requires nonstop empathy. The problem of course is unlike most quantitative analysis jobs, preschool teaching doesn’t pay a livable wage.

This excellent BBC dialogue made me think about our empathetic daughters who may end up leveraging their empathy as teachers or counselors. Other empathy-dependent jobs include pastor, social worker, nursing home worker, and nurse.

Had the BBC invited me to participate in the dialogue I would have posed some questions.

• Given the breadth of probable work in the future, why do we emphasize STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) at the expense of the humanities and related disciplines?

• Certainly, empathy is part nature, but also part nurture. How do parents nurture empathy?

• How do primary and secondary teachers encourage it—without usurping parents’ rights?

• More specifically, how do we help young males be more empathetic?

As always it seems more questions than answers, for me, for you, for the sleeping sisters and their friends.

Good and Bad News—Your Life Experience is Unique

No one has followed your exact path. No one has grown up in the same family, attended the same schools at the same time, read the same books, worked the same jobs, traveled to the same destinations, settled in the same place. Ever. Your unique life path is a wonderful strength. As a result of it, you “get” the specific people you grew up with and you’re an insider at the places you’re most familiar.

But your unique life path is a serious limiter too. One that inevitably handicaps you at times. It’s the reason you struggle to understand people and places with which you’re unfamiliar. Clearly, seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. More specifically, we routinely fail to adjust for other people’s different life paths. Which is why there’s so much interpersonal and intergroup conflict.

A close friend attended a mostly white, mostly upper middle class liberal arts college. By most conventional measures, she received an excellent education. But in some ways she was ill-prepared for an increasingly diverse world. At one of her first teaching jobs she had a militant African-American colleague who routinely ruffled her feathers. Deeply frustrated, she complained to me, “He’s racist!”

In college she had few opportunities to interact with African-Americans and never with militant ones. If she took the time to learn more about his life path she would have been much more sympathetic to his radical critique of the dominant culture of which she was a part. And consequently, she wouldn’t have taken his anti-white diatribes quite so personally.

Can you supersede your life path? Can I? Partially.

How? By purposefully seeking out unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and travel whether near or far. And when interacting with unfamiliar people, substituting curiosity for negative preconceived notions. Asking, for example, why do you believe what you do? And then listening patiently.

Coping With Narcissists

Is it just me or is it seemingly impossible to get along with narcissists? Of course if you caught my betrothed after one of our spats, she’d say I’m a self-centered sad sack.

I’m three-quarters the way through Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs and I can’t help but make connections between it and Whybrow’s American Mania.

Don’t know if I’ve ever been so conflicted about one person. There are at least three Steve Jobs—1) the counter-cultural Zen Buddhist, exquisite designer, artist-philosopher, modern Stoic, vegan; 2) the focused, driven, scarily perfectionist, extremely mercurial, control-freak, business genius; and 3) the sometimes cruel, heartless, empathy impaired human being.

Readers of the bio are probably most interested in Jobs 2, but I find the human nature/human being story far more interesting.

I need to finish the book and think some more about it before reconciling my schizophrenic thoughts. For now I can say Jobs 3, the uncaring, mean, empathy impaired knucklehead often repulses me. Which brings to mind Whybrow’s insights on empathy. He writes, “. . . the experience of intimacy and the stability of the attachments one has in early years ultimately shape our capacity to understand the feelings of others. Human empathy is largely a learned behavior, much as is language. . .”

So we’re not hardwired to care about others? Whybrow says empathic understanding results from “social anchors” or a “. . . wellspring of healthy families and the nurturance of supportive, economically viable communities. . .” In other words, immerse young children in caring families, schools, religious and civic organizations and they will follow the caring adults’ lead and end up empathetic young adults.

Could the fact that Jobs was adopted have compromised the stability of his attachments so much that he never “learned empathy” in the way he learned English? I wouldn’t think so because he was months old when adopted and his adopted parents were stable, supportive, and loving.

After deciding not to marry Jobs, one of the two women he was closest to in his life found a psychiatric manual, read about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and concluded that Jobs embodied all of the symptoms. (Here’s hoping Betrothed never stumbles upon that.) She said, “It fits so well and explained so much of what we had strugled with, that I realized expecting him to be nicer or less self-centered was like expecting a blind man to see.” “I think the issue is empathy,” she added, “the capacity for empathy is lacking.

I’m clueless as to the root causes of Jobs’s lack of empathy, but the larger, more important takeaway is that empathy is learned. Whybrow convincingly argues that empathy results from a “wellspring of healthy families and nurturance of supportive, economically viable communities.” Sadly, some families aren’t sufficiently healthy, nurturing, supportive, or economically stable enough to pass on empathetic understanding to the young in their charge.

If expecting narcissists to someday be nicer or less self-centered is like expecting blind people to someday see, the best way to cope with them is to stop expecting them to return personal interest and care with similar curiosity and kindness. Far easier said then done.

Narcissus admiring himself shortly before his first triathlon