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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.