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On Courage and Adversity in Modern Life

In an Infinite Loops podcast episode with Venkatesh Rao, Art of the Gig, the discussion revolves around the importance of courage and taking risks in order to find meaning in life and business.

They talk about the gig economy, and argue that one of the most important things for meaning in life and business is having the courage and nerve to take risks.

Rao explains how many people start out with naive optimism, then get punched in the face by life and don't know how to regain agency. Agency and using it creates meaning, according to him. He casually dismisses the meaning crisis as a failure of nerve and a lack of courage on the part of young adults. I could probably write a whole piece on extended adolescence.

On the other hand, he does acknowledge that many people are so overburdened by life's traumas that they may not even reach the naive optimism stage. Even if they do, some people get lucky and are never challenged, whereas others get screwed and are thrown out of the economic system. This division looms especially large in the developing world.

These conditions lead to a bifurcated system where, as Rao calls it, the "tragically lucky" go through life with naive optimism, but near the end of their life have a crisis because they never learned to deal with challenges or change themselves to have more agency. This archetype would be the guy who comes from a rich family and "fails upward," just collecting titles and promotions without thinking deeply or having to engage with the darker side of the world. The tragedy here is that they never have a chance to truly grow or develop as people, because they never have a real opportunity.

On the other hand, those who deal with adversity when young, or those who don't have strong models in their life who display courage and a sense of agency, either can't have a positive viewpoint on their lives due to trauma, or enter the workforce/college/wherever, fail badly, then feel cheated and can't work up the nerve to take another risk.

These two life experiences are so distinct that they're almost perfectly mismatched for people to understand each other. I don't think it neatly aligns with different political groups, but I'm sure many are likely to make that comparison.

So the question becomes - how do we set up a society in which people can routinely take small risks or deal with small amounts of adversity, and learn to become more agentic in steps as they grow?

Unfortunately, our modern society seems designed to do the opposite of this training for courage. Children are increasingly coddled, their parents' minds befuddled with safetyism and the precautionary principle. In the Western world especially, people are presented with one track in life. Typically, this track starts with schooling, which goes directly into a career, dovetailing neatly into retirement the moment you turn [insert cultural age of retirement here].

People have a narrative where they either stay on the track their whole lives and are successful, or they fall off at some point and are failures. Risk-taking becomes incredibly difficult because the perceived risk of getting off the beaten path becomes much larger. The standard PMC careerist feels that if they take even small risks, they risk throwing their life into disarray. Learned helplessness and non-courageous behaviors become instilled, in my view, due to early-stage trauma, which makes this process even more weighted against risk.

With these priors, we come to an interesting problem. On the one hand, we need to help kids have less trauma and not learn as many passive or non-agentic behaviors. Reducing trauma is often a stated goal of many safetyist maximizers and those who hold a torch for the precautionary principle.

However, we've also got to figure out how to challenge kids. It seems that the artificial hoops we have them jump through in grade school, then the workforce and/or college, don't have an even enough distribution. A lot of this probably has to do with the narrative associated with school and the one-track life I discussed above.

I'm in favor of having high school include some sort of working apprenticeship, and I'd even support time being split 50/50 with half of the time having kids be in a working environment, the other half in the classroom. This inclusion of work would solve a lot of the problems with hyperactive kids that can't learn in a classroom environment. It would also make more well rounded adults, as they'd have a taste of the 'real world' while still being in a relatively safe environment. The big issue would be getting businesses on board and making sure there aren't any legal issues - parents would be a nightmare here I'm sure.

We could also create a sort of bank of school years, or at least make it more culturally acceptable to go back to school. Have kids graduate at 16 and enter the workforce, with two years of schooling 'banked' in case they fail out. Maybe make it mandatory before 30 so there isn't a sharp social distinction. The extra two years could focus on business skills or help students that can't carve out a place in the economy find their niche.

I've tried to be as charitable as possible in this piece, and I'd ask commenters do the same. I firmly believe that one of the reasons this topic stays muddled is the constant refrains around fragility and people being 'snowflakes' or whatever the term de jour happens to be. I don't see how harsh language and derision will help solve this problem, it seems far more based on structural issues in our schooling or overall narratives, rather than a personal failing of individuals. I'm open to disagreement here as a separate point, of course.

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Don't have time for an effortpost, but you lost me at the prologue. Risk-taking behaviors can be meaningful, but I don't at all agree that risk-taking is a prerequisite for psychological fulfillment, and I think the crisis of meaning has a lot more to do with a decline in meaning gleaned from community, spirituality and introspection than that derived from constructively overcoming adversity. (which I'd summarize as 'glory')

Far be it for me to disagree with Conan about what is best in life, and I wouldn't object to plenty of work-culture reforms in the proposed direction, but I don't think they'd cure the disease that's being discussed.

So the question becomes - how do we set up a society in which people can routinely take small risks or deal with small amounts of adversity, and learn to become more agentic in steps as they grow?

By making it easier for people to find work. Too many people are risk averse because of the difficulty of acquiring the necessary credentials and expertise to find a good job that will provide the necessary funds for risk-taking down the road.

You've got some very thought-provoking riffs in here, I am fascinated by greater male variability, surprised I haven't come upon that myself yet.

I find it difficult to fault people for preferring stability and the well-trod path, but when too many people take that path it introduces its own forms for vulnerability.

I generally agree with this framing, the oft-cited solution is a social 'safety net' of sorts. Although as @The_Nybbler points out in the CW thread, this type of 'solution' tends to make the problem worse. If anything being on a welfare problem leads to people taking less risk and feeling less secure.

I recognize now I've just rederived "greater male variability hypothesis," which leads me to rephrase that question: which should society optimize for?

This question is definitely beyond me, however I'd argue that as a society we should help people genuinely discover their own strengths, talents, whatever, then optimize in that way. This could look like more self-selection into different tracks during early education, a stronger emphasis on genetic determinism in education (although this may be hopelessly fraught with the current Overton Window) or just a greater push on making folks aware of the benefits and downsides of risk. Currently the social consensus, at least among the majority of productive members of society, is that risk is always bad and you should never take a risk professionally.

Even if people don't say this out loud, their preferences certainly reveal an extremely low risk tolerance. What's ironic is that we have so much more wealth than previous generations, yet we seem ever more afraid of loss.

I wish I had an explanation here because I think this is mostly true, but I'm also sure our local historians could come up with a lot of notable exceptions. I'm thinking of things like Victorian gentleman-scientists who could only do their experiments or adventures because they were landed gentry

I think the difference is clearly based on self perception combined with status in society. Because welfare (rightly) has such a negative social connotation, and because there are a lot of bureaucratic procedures around getting on welfare that can function as transformative rituals, I’d posit that people who go on welfare see themselves as fundamentally worth less than they were before. When you have no strong belief in religion, the modern state becomes the most powerful force in your life. If that force is continuously telling you that you can’t productively contribute, you’re likely to believe it.

IMO much of postmodernism could only be dreamed up by people insulated from the consequences of their thoughts.

I actually think we have the opposite problem - there are tons of issues like HBD, the difference between equality and the real world, etc where there are plenty of consequences for those thoughts. Postmodernism also has a wealthy tradition of important insights behind it, but runs into the problem of being inscrutable. Because it’s inscrutable many grifters just parrot the language for status without understanding it at all. Doesn’t help that numbers of published papers are rewarded far more than the quality of someone’s writing.

On the side of risk, I think we generally agree from what you’ve said. I also am working to increase my risk tolerance, and there’s really no substitute for just taking risks even if it terrifies you.

I don't really have any substantive thoughts to offer, but just wanted to say I enjoyed the post. I think you're basically right that we need to make sure we give children ways to face challenges on a small scale, so that they know how to face challenges on a larger scale. I thought that Haidt's The Coddling of the American Mind talked about this really well. But I don't know how we do that, especially since society currently seems to be optimized towards protecting children from everything at all costs. You need to first get people to walk back from that, but how we do that or where we go from there exactly idk.

Thanks! I hadn't heard of that Haidt book, putting it on my list. Sounds right up my alley. And yeah, unfortunately Safetyism has infected pretty much everything, not just childcare. You have IRBs in healthcare, legal statutes that stop anything from happening.

I feel like we modern Westerners have this delusion that if we just implement a ton of rules and get regulations right then we can fix everything immediately and prevent pain from happening. It's a comforting delusion because people don't like complexity and uncertainty, but in my mind it's doomed to fail. We have to accept the world as it is, understand that bad things will happen for no good reason, and try our best to mitigate the bad circumstances while still taking risks. I agree that I'm not sure how to break out of the status quo.

So the question becomes - how do we set up a society in which people can routinely take small risks or deal with small amounts of adversity, and learn to become more agentic in steps as they grow?

By instilling terminal values in parents that incentivize them to expose their own children to doses of adversity at each age and to foster in them a sense of responsibility for their choices and for those circumstances over which they can exercise control. I think that's the only way, unless you want to go full Plato's Republic.

Thanks for the reply.

By instilling terminal values in parents that incentivize them to expose their own children to doses of adversity at each age and to foster in them a sense of responsibility for their choices and for those circumstances over which they can exercise control.

With this, I think the problem I see is one, nobody can agree on which terminal values will help here. This solution sounds nice but we need practical steps that can be implemented today, or at least strived towards.

Do you have any ideas that you can lay out as to how to achieve this instilling of terminal values?

No, because any government-led social transformation project will suffer from assuming terminal goals that not everyone shares, whether intentional or not. And I think it unlikely that these values would overlap with my own, so my default position is to oppose any such utopian projects.

If it were up to me, I guess I would reintroduce shop class and home economics, return dangerous and fun equipment to playgrounds, and perhaps try to offer some sort of apprenticeship/mentorship program in partnership with local businesses like you mentioned. It couldn't hurt, and those things were awesome. But even then I think the best possible outcome would be a marginal increase in resiliency. The vast majority of these traits just need to be taught in the home. How do you teach someone to be honest? Empathetic? Conscientious? Adventurous? Brave? You do it from a young age at home by modeling the behavior. Unless agents of the state substantially or fully replace the parents as the child's primary caretakers and role models, there not much that government intervention can accomplish.

Well how do you make parents more brave and conscientious etc? I tend to agree that government programs have issues, but even a broader social movement needs something to coalesce around.