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Our system of human development is broken


When I read this latest from David Friedman, I couldn’t help but think of one word, “broken.” There are so many people, myself frequently included, who are wasting their lives doing things they loathe. Meanwhile, they engage in hobbies, “other worlds” where their talents and energies are spent doing things they enjoy.

What we have is a system that tries to make widgets out of human beings. When the human beings inevitably fail to enjoy their particular widget design, they resort to other activities to distract or make their corporate lives bearable. Everyone loses in this system because people are not deployed to their highest and best (and most fulfilling) use.

The system is broken.

I was reminded of this recently when someone I know in WoW as an unusually competent and charismatic leader, organizer, and player, mentioned the problem of “parental agro.” He is apparently a college student, possibly a graduate student, living with his parents. Older examples are friends in the SCA of whose abilities and energy I think highly, who made their living as school teachers or secretaries or the like—respectable jobs, but not particularly high status or high paying ones.

The pattern is not entirely surprising. It makes sense that an energetic individual who doesn’t find much outlet for his energies in his current career will direct them towards his hobbies. Adam Smith long ago observed that, in the British universities of the time, a professor got no benefit by doing a good job of teaching, since the professors were on salary rather than, as in at least some of the Scottish universities, paid by the students. He concluded that if the professor were naturally energetic, he would spend his energies doing something that might be of some benefit to him rather than doing his job, which would not. Nowadays we call it “consulting.”

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Creating Communities (or Tribes)


Seth Godin points out that it’s the hallway impromptu meetings (and networking) at conferences that result in real value creation. In other words, the enumerated purpose of a bunch of people being in the same place — the conference, the Sunday church service, the political rally, etc. — is little more than a veneered excuse for humans to come together and socialize in real, meaningful ways.

I say “meaningful ways” because our enumerated causes are often incredibly shallow. I still have great friendships from my old days as a Christian (this was back in my teenage years) even though I am more an atheist or agnostic (whatever) today. Most Christians even within the same church body have vastly different beliefs and still manage to enjoy each other’s company. Why? Because the relationships are bigger than the beliefs. The beliefs are (mostly, or most importantly) just an excuse to get together with others.

I see this phenomenon of all the time, and I’ve often pondered the equivalent of Seth Godin’s question in his post. How do we create a central activity, like church, that ostensibly is the reason for people to gather around, but is in actuality just an excuse for us to get together, have fun, talk, share, build, etc. Religion functions fairly well in this regard but has some unfortunate side-effects (elitism, weird beliefs, dogmatism, true believers, etc.).

There are likely other solutions out there (outside of the dying corporate borg) — other ideas to build communities around — they just need to have a common purpose people can get behind that doesn’t result in too many negative consequences or take itself too seriously.

Hmm …

These tribes of people are arguably a more valuable creation than the fish that were caught or the physics that were learned, right?

And yet, most of the time we don’t see the obvious opportunity–if you intentionally create the connections, you’ll get more of them, and better ones too. If the hallway conversations at a convention are worth more than the sessions, why not have more and better hallways?

What would happen if trade shows devoted half a day to ‘projects’? Put multi-disciplinary teams of ten people together and give them three hours to create something of value. The esprit de corps created by a bunch of strangers under time pressure in a public competition would last for decades. The community is worth more than the project.

The challenge is to look at the rituals and events in your organization (freshman orientation or weekly status meetings or online forums) and figure out how amplify the real reason they exist even if it means abandoning some of the time-honored tasks you’ve embraced. Going around in a circle saying everyone’s name doesn’t build a tribe. But neither does sitting through a boring powerpoint. Working side by side doing something that matters under adverse conditions… that’s what we need.



(CNN) A picture is worth a few hundred thousand people.

Comparing the mass of humanity (as observed from space) at Obama’s inauguration to ants might be interpreted as criticism or distaste for our new President. That isn’t the case — I have no love for any President or politician (and any reader of knows my distaste for democracy).

Rather this is just inescapable observation. So many people flocking around a central hub to ring in the new ruler — it is plain bug-like. As for interpretation, I see it as a manifestation of the self-domestication of human beings, tragic. Restoring individuality — freedom — to man (finding a more favorable equilibrium between human nature and modern existence) isn’t something that can be accomplished easily, if at all. I don’t know many who even desire such a freedom, which makes me sad.

Individuals seem lost in the shuffle of our modern age: are human beings more like ants than lions? I’m afraid that may be the case. If I’m right, the consequences could be disastrous.

More on modern zoo-manity from Richard.

Update 1/23/09: Patri Friedman compared two pictures of mobs and got a bit of flack for it (one picture was from Nazi Germany). I get it. His point wasn’t to compare Obama to Hitler, but to point out the following:

So to me, the massive crowd at Tuesday’s inauguration represents part of the dark side of human nature. (as do lots of other things in life). The desire to worship and subsume one’s will to a leader, who is elevated about the mobs, who is perceived as superhuman and special and wonderful, and who will fix all our problems. To me, that is the opposite of the messy reality of complex systems, spontaneous order, individual preferences, and distributed systems that is life.

Emphasis mine. I couldn’t agree more, and I sense there’s a correlation between strong feelings of individualism and distaste for monstrous crowds. Mobs are the anti-individual even as they are nothing more than the sum of the individuals present. How do you keep sacred the indivisible parts — a mother, father, child — when all you see is a mass (?mess?) of humanity? What is lost in the mob?

A lot.