Naturally, we’re all a tad solipsistic – some, like me, a bit more than others.
The Earth moves around the sun, but in our minds, we can’t help but think that we’re the center of the universe. I guess you might call it an egocentric, rather than a heliocentric, view of the cosmos.
I recently went to Berlin and it’s a concoction of some the wildest flavors and experiences I’ve ever witnessed. The possibilities seem endless in a place with such history.
But with such possibility, the paradoxical remark I heard most from people was:
“What’s the point of it all? Why do we work so hard to end up getting tossed into the void regardless? Shouldn’t we just accept nihilism and give up?”
I would say that a micro-view of the world is imposed upon us since we’re born. When we’re nascent thinkers, maneuvering in the intellectual darkness, we see that our dreams are stamped out for micro-progress. Micro-progress would be actions that seem to be pushing you forward day to day but in the long run, they have no connection to your dreams or goals.
Even someone like Peter Thiel (America’s premier public intellectual) was trapped in the inane race of mimetism and competition for the longest time: attend Stanford, go to Stanford law school, clerk for a supreme court justice, work for one of the best securities law firms, and then probably die. Indeed, he quit the race for micro-progress after he left his career in New York to start what would become a legend in the startup world, PayPal, with the PayPal Mafia.
In hindsight, attempting to play the game of micro-progress has led to a form of existential exhaustion for most of the people I know, including myself. You can also see this with burn-out rates among people in formal professions like law, finance, and medicine.
I would bring up the Kanye West interview with Jimmy Kimmel. West talks about a child who believes that they are a superhero and in an act of play, he or she jumps on a coffee table. As expected, they are told that it’s impolite and disrespectful to do that. The “coffee tables” aggrandize over time and perhaps when the then child turns 40, they realize that they never really questioned “why?” in a lot of areas.
Building off this is the Wait but Why post by Tim Urban about choosing to be a chef or cook. A cook imitates recipes: they simply follow instructions for ingredients that they know to work to soothe the appetites of hungry patrons. While the life of a chef is dastardly. They must be irreverent to cultural norms and must possess a level verisimilitude beyond belief. Often, that’s the price of doing things differently – an abstract belief that you’re on the path of greatness.
At the same time, a close friend recently sent me an Actors on Actors video – a great series by the way – of Amy Adams & Andrew Garfield. Like people do with videos, I halfheartedly daydreamed until Amy dropped what I think is the most important line in the interview:
“It’s kind of part of growing up, right? You sign up for one thing and realize it’s something else.”
She says that she realized she was working too much after her first child and that the opportunity cost of missed time was regrettably high. Time is God. From there we have two options. You continue on the path you were on before or you decide enough is enough and it’s time to switch it up. The former is micro thinking while the latter is a flavor of macro thinking.
It’s super simple to say “oh shucks, time to turn in the towel” and give up on improving ourselves and our ideas. Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge fan of dialectics and the steel man approach – attempting to uncover truth is an ideal I strive for. Inevitably this leads itself to a macro, abstract style of thinking with my colleagues and friends. You won’t want to give up when there’s a lot at stake that must be accomplished.
Is this pragmatic? I used to say no – who needs to think about the culture or traditions of Tanzania if we’re in a sheltered, western lifestyle. I think it’s a part of maturity: realizing that solipsism isn’t fully worthwhile for a satisfied life. We do better when everyone does better. I believe it’s this style of thinking we need most in contemporary times.
A century ago, when the world was still undiscovered, there was a necessity for thinking above and beyond ourselves. Like a Prester John in the east, we were chasing places and lands that nobody had ever heard of. Not that times were better as I’m incredibly optimistic for the future, but there was an excitement among absolutists and utilitarians that indeed the world could get universally better.
Technology is doing enormous amounts to create a fervor for more macro thinking among people. We can look to the stars again with SpaceX and there’s a hope that our wildest dreams of space exploration might be achieved in our lifetimes. We have crypto as a way to democratize most of finance – we won’t be trapped by the whims of banks and monetary policies forever. Change brings hope, but it only starts if people can think on the macro rather than just the micro.
The thing that helped me think in the bigger picture was reading more literature. Competing against failure day in and day out takes an unbelievable amount of persistence as is apparent from the biographies of Rockefeller, Musk, and Hughes. Indeed, my reading list is always packed with an array of nonfiction because it reminds you that time is short– great things take a long time, if not a lifetime, to accomplish.
What would others remark about macro-style thinking to helping us realize our goals?
I like what Indira Gandhi had to say, especially given the turmoil she faced politically:
“There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group; there is less competition there.”
(Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
In addition, Jeff Bezos is a huge believer of thinking on the macro (his first shareholder letter in 1997 was called “It’s all about the long term”):
“If everything you do needs to work on a three-year time horizon, then you’re competing against a lot of people. But if you’re willing to invest on a seven-year time horizon, you’re now competing against a fraction of those people, because very few companies are willing to do that. Just by lengthening the time horizon, you can engage in endeavors that you could never otherwise pursue.”
This is also why he donated $42 million for the creation of a giant clock that aims to last for 10,000 years. I’ve always believed that it makes more sense to act like you’ll live forever most of the time versus dying tomorrow.
That notion of a better tomorrow is also highlighted by the novelist, Alice Walker:
“The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.”
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