Looking on the Bright Side for the Future

When Jared Silver writes, it’s frequently thought-provoking, enlightening and worth considering.

This is a very interesting piece he’s written for Edu Surge that puts the argument that as the internet becomes readily available to anyone anywhere in the world, so, we are entering a new human revolution that will unlock human potential at levels we cannot even imagine.

EduSurge – The Impending Human Capital Revolution

His evidence for this is the rarity, historically of Indian or Chinese Nobel Prize winners – because the people in those countries didn’t have the same access to knowledge and education compared with those in more developed nations. Now that the internet is freely available everywhere, so everyone can have access to all of human knowledge.

The first issue I would have with this argument is that by no means does the internet contain all of human knowledge or even most of the best knowledge. I think we’re a very long way from that and will continue to be for a long time. For one, even if we think of new knowledge that is published in books. At most, people give access to snippets of it online in order to entice more people to buy the books. They’re not about to give it all away for free. Secondly, there are vast parts of the world’s population who have severely restricted access to the internet, with large parts of knowledge placed behind curtains where they are not permitted to go. Laws and rules that restrict access can all too easily be imposed on people in any part of the world, justified by nebulous concepts like ‘national interest.’

As highlighted by Daniel Kahneman in ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ there are different kinds of thinking (engagement with knowledge) that lead to advances in human development. Whilst the internet and ubiquitous accessibility might give greater potential for the fast and shallow kind of thinking, it gives little scope for the slower, deeper forms of thinking. For that deeper thinking, people need access to the kinds of written material not generally accessible through the internet (at least for free) and access to other thinkers and experts in the chosen field with whom to share thoughts and ideas. On the latter point, email and ability to ‘find’ experts has had interesting implications. I recall a meeting and discussion with Dr Howard Gardner in which he slightly ruefully acknowledged that today he spends a far greater proportion of his time responding to speculative communication that he receives from people all over the world who want to tap in to his knowledge and insights. There is serious risk that this heightened level of accessibility makes his work less whilst giving little benefit in the enhanced knowledge of those corresponding with him – considering that the vast majority will still only be engaging with him at the most superficial levels.

One thing that Jared Silver’s article doesn’t really make clear, is whether he sees this human revolution emerging because a few more exceptional people will be able to emerge because of their newfound access to knowledge, information and each other, or whether he actually foresees an overall raising of all intellectual levels of all people. If he’s arguing for the latter, I’m really not sure that his examples about Nobel Prize winners are convincing proof as these people are by their very nature the exceptional, rarest of the rare.

If you walked in to most western school classrooms (or those in more affluent private schools anywhere in the world) and asked students what the internet changes, gives them access to most of their answers would relate to social networking and gaming. There is a strong argument to say that, especially with its addictive qualities, the internet is far from fueling an intellectual step forward for mankind, but rather giving him new and previously unforeseen ways to fritter away life on meaningless, addictive and compulsive activities. This is at its worst for those receiving a lot of unfettered access in their youth when the wiring of their brains predisposes them towards addictive and compulsive activities that give them repeated doses of dopamine and other neural ‘drugs’ that have nothing to do with enhancing mankind. instead, like the Soma of Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ it dulls the mind, eats up their time in ways that don’t challenge or move them forward intellectually and keep them limited in their advancement.

This has become of such concern to some educators that it leads to news articles like this recent one from the UK:

The Times – UK – Your Teacher’s At The Door – He Wants Your Xbox

Some years ago i had the privilege to host as a guest in one of our Delhi schools the great economist, CK Prahalad (who I suspect if not taken from us too soon was destined to be a future Nobel Prize winner). over coffee before and after the event we had conversations ranging over a wide array of topics. The one that has always stuck in my mind was his fears and apprehensions for the youth we worked with. The new young elite of India whose parents were all too frequently the first generation in their families to taste real economic success. he saw them suffering from a disease he described as “Affluenza” – an infection of plenty that undermines motivation and drive when these young people are growing up with all opportunities handed to them with ease and lacking the drive and the need to strive that marked out their parents’ generation. Such a level of complacency is more likely to lead to short cuts than hunger to use and access all possible information and knowledge that is accessible in the world.

The workings of human motivation, drive and the inclination to purpose have been areas of fascination to many (Daniel Pink – Drive, Roy Baumeister – Willpower, Viktor Frankl – Man’s Search for Meaning, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs). Just because opportunity is available to people, doesn’t mean they will take it, grasp it or see it as important. People’s aspirations and feelings of what’s possible or what are realistic and meaningful life goals are not simply shaped by exposure.

For example, ten to fifteen years ago, there were plenty of eminent experts who suggested that the growth of the internet would lead to new and greater levels of cultural understanding, empathy and recognition of common purpose amongst people of the world. The argument was that knowing people from all over the world, being exposed to them, understanding more of their culture would reduce fear, animosity and distance. however, as we see a wave of nationalism, protectionism and inter-cultural and religious sabre rattling, it’s clear that there is still just as much potential for people to be divided on ethnic, racial, religious or nationalistic lines as there ever has been.

In conclusion, the possibility that future Nobel prize winners might be more evenly distributed throughout the world doesn’t, in my view, automatically add up to a human revolution. Access and opportunity don’t change things on their own. Whilst i can agree that intellectual and knowledge accessibility may contribute to greater equity in the world, there is no rule that says a rising tide of accessible knowledge will raise all boats.

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Understanding Willpower

When any of us stop to contemplate what we are (or are not) achieving by way of success in our lives - a popular pursuit at the end/ start of a calendar year - we are reminded that every one of us is blessed with the same 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Yet, some people are able to achieve great things in multiple areas of life, some others achieve great things in one area whilst living stunted lives in other aspects. And, the vast majority of people, in Thoreau's words are leading "lives of quiet desperation."

Scientific research (as well as common sense) have suggested that the biggest influences are self-control or sometimes referred to as agency - the ability and inclination to resist base urges and to take ownership for the decisions made. My own view is that any person who believes with full conviction that they're accountable for their own actions, exercising control over their own decisions and choices (whether they be good or bad ones, in their own long term interest, or not) will make more good decisions and have a greater sense of control and purpose over their life. They will see themselves more as actor and less as 'acted upon'.

As I've written in some past blog posts, Roy Baumeister and others have developed the concept related to willpower of 'ego depletion' which suggests that within a day we have a finite amount of willpower or decision making power and that, the more decisions we have to make in a day the greater the likelihood that we'll reach a point where it's all used up. This is often used to explain why people like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg choose to wear the same clothes every day for work (keeping their mental energies for things they consider more important and value adding). The idea that willpower runs out when drained suggests the reasons why our willpower can crumble under pressure and we find ourselves doing things that are not in our own best interests.

However, this year, we've seen the concept of ego depletion challenged. I wrote about this back in March;

Hold the Chocolate Chip Cookies

Fast Company published an article on the subject recently, suggesting that what the research now appears to be telling us is - if you think your willpower is a depleting asset, it will be. It's all in the mind, apparently. This has implications in many areas as there are a variety of topics on which others have built on to Baumeister's views and ideas. For example, I happen to be reading "Deep Work" by Cal Newport at the current time. This book, published in january 2016 makes frequent reference to Baumeister's research and the implications for doing focused, high quality, meaningful work in a distracted world - especially for knowledge workers.
Fast Company - The Myth About Willpower is Holding Back Your Productivity

One of the questions that this challenge raised in my mind was whether it's all been a bit too convenient to want to believe that Baumeister was right. If I do something (or fail to do something) in a way that exhibits a deficit of willpower it's much more palatable to say that this was because of ego depletion. Without that, I have to acknowledge to at least some extent that this represents a failure of me. I can no longer put it down to something that "wasn't my fault." Such self-scathing critique doesn't sit comfortably with most people. It smacks too much of the self-help movement's "I am responsible" mantra that says that we must own up in the harshest terms to ourselves for every act or omission.

Productivity angst is probably one of the biggest issues of our current decade. The idea that everyone else is being more productive, more efficient, making better decisions and choices about how to extract value from time. the idea that others are capable of being fully wired and inter-connected with a vast online world whilst fully engaging in all the correct opportunities in the real physical world around them, whilst we run from pillar to post leaving vast to-do lists largely undone. FOMO (fear of missing out) keeps people believing that they have a duty to focus a bigger and bigger part of their time on achieving their goals (and you must have plenty of goals) and that 'down time' is for losers.

As a result, debates about the role of willpower, how to control it, have more of it etc. are far more than merely interesting academic debates. Baumeister, as highlighted in the Fast Company article, has questioned the scientific methodology of some of the more recent experiments. He and others continue to defend the concept of 'ego depletion' and I'm sure that in coming months we're going to see this fascinating debate evolve further.

Hold The Chocolate Chip Cookies

The theory and principle behind ‘Ego Depletion’ has been with us quite a long time (close to 20 years). It’s been incredibly powerful and influential, shaping theories related to effective handling of procrastination, losing weight, motivating employees in the workplace, point of sale techniques to get people to buy, classroom management with young children and many other important ideas.

So, to learn that the experiments that led to the development of the theory are now being questioned amid conflict and argument in the world of social psychology is a bit unnerving.

The whole spat is well explained in this article:

Slate – Everything Is Crumbling

Having read Roy Baumeister’s book – Willpower a few years ago my own personal belief is that the issue is more about difficulties in setting up experiments that isolate the single factor being studied. Intuitively, I believe in the idea of a reservoir of willpower that gets drained more or less by certain things. Anyone who’s ever tried to lose weight through modifying their diet can vouch that the slip-ups and failures don’t happen early in the day. They happen later in the day, often catching the vigilant dieter completely off guard. it’s almost as if the harder they try, the greater the risk of failure.

Again, this highlights that as our knowledge in the fields of psychology grows there will be times when there will be setbacks, when routes to new learning turn in to cul de sacs. Nevertheless, this is important work that leads us to better understanding how we as humans can live our best lives.

Pursue Meaning, Not Happiness

Quite a few years ago, a trainer on a programme i was attending suggested a book I might like to read. When I found it, it was small, blue and didn’t look very exciting. However, it has become the most prized in my ever burgeoning book collection (even over the books that i’ve been fortunate enough to have signed by their authors.

That book was, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor Frankl. To be honest, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read that book and my copy now looks even less attractive to anyone who doesn’t know what they’re looking at. To me, it is quite simply, one of the most inspiring and moving books ever written.

Here’s a great article I came across a little while ago, that sets out what’s important about this book:

Business Insider – Article – A Lesson About Happiness

The article also cross-references another of my favourite books (certainly Top 30!) – Roy Baumeister’s “Willpower”. Reading the article again, I’m also reminded of the work of Adam Grant on giving and his great book “Give and Take” (also Top 30).

So, there you go, three of my top 30 books referenced in one place!

Willpower

If there’s one activity i love, it’s rummaging around in bookshop sales – even more so when i find great books at bargain prices. One of the best recent acquisitions was from Landmark – Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.

For me, it tied together some of the strands of learning in recent years related to motivation, self-control and human potential. I loved the ingenuity of some of the experiments conducted and the conclusions coming out of them were fascinating. Here’s an excellent review of the book by Steven Pinker in the New York Times around 18 months ago:


New York Times – Steven Pinker Book Review Article on Willpower