Christmas is a great hook to think about economic concepts. For students, the urgency of course requirements lessons and it’s permissible to deepen your interests. For interested laypeople, time to read allows you to broaden your horizons. Perhaps you received a “pop economics” book as a present, or – like me – you look forward every year to The Economist’s Christmas Special. I wanted to share some of my favourite resources.
Firstly, Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok have this lovely video:
For a fascinating account of what frankincense and myrrh are, and their role in the evolution of global trade, see Bernstein, W. (2008) “A Splendid Exchange” – pp. 58-67
Finally, don’t forget to do some charity work:
Christians should not celebrate festivals in a state of drunkenness and gluttony, or by dancing or merrymaking, but by tending to orphans and paupers, and by helping and giving to the poor and infirm… Woe betide those who have not observed the wisdom of the scriptures and who have idled, danced and indulged in wine”
Cyril of Turov (see Bazan, L., 2014, A History of Belarus, Glagoslav Publications, p.64)
The chief goal of any academic is to have scholarly impact – to be published in elite journals and for your work to be read, shared, and cited. But it’s also common to seek wider impact, and publicise those findings and implications with society at large.
One problem is that our research topics are often driven by the existing literature. Therefore pursuing an academic career can easily become a slide towards wider irrelevance. As we focus on scaling the ivory tower, we lose track of what anyone else cares about. Before we realise it, the landscape looks like this:
Perhaps, if we’re lucky, we can identify the areas where media interest overlaps with our research interests. Therefore we can create a list of topics we feel qualified to talk about, and seek media engagements. We can be available for comment and publish op-eds on newsworthy issues. But be careful. We might have made scholarly contributions to the field, and we may well be experts, but those topics won’t map perfectly onto “my research”.
Once we abandon the solid grounding of our published competence, we’ve started a dangerous journey. There is a risk that we end up like this:
By being receptive to media engagements we are opening ourselves to the pull of opportunity. But what your PR company deem to be a “hit” (i.e. being quoted in an article in a magazine no one cares about) is not really a “hit”, and a desire to do this tempts us to stray outside our areas of expertise. If someone wants a comment we provide it – it builds the brand and it’s fun. The ego is nourished, we feel that we’re representing our institution, we’re being productive. However our titles and status carry authority, and the wider public are likely to confuse the light blue dot for a dark blue dot. I believe that it is unethical to utilise our credentials for matters outside of one’s expertise. (I could add links here, but I won’t…).
The holy grail, therefore, is to end up like this:
I think fame seeking academics have two potential strategies. However both of them carry risks.
If you can’t beat them, join them. The first option is to move our research towards wherever the media interest lies (either by tweaking our current research projects in that direction; or by starting new research projects from scratch). However using current media interest as the guiding principle of your academic strategy has the potential to backfire. It takes time to gain academic legitimacy and what’s to say interest won’t move on? In addition, the media interest will draw in other academics to create a contested and competitive environment that is attracting opportunists. As I see more and more people jumping on the blockchain bandwagon I assume that they’re following this strategy (although this is a charitable interpretation because in many cases it’s probably a light blue dot rather than a dark blue one…). I’m wary.
Hope the mountain comes to Mohammed. The second way to occupy the overlap is to get your head down, do quality work, rise to the top of your field, get widespread recognition, and become the go to person for that topic. That, in itself, can be newsworthy. Win prizes, break records, give talks at elite institutions.
Personally, I am not sure what to do. I’ve tried to be entrepreneurial by choosing a few topics that I think have the potential to become important, and I am working hard to improve the quality of my scholarly work. But I’m largely abandoning the aim of creating a media profile for my research.
Let’s be honest, the media generally do not care about academic research. When we issue press releases for a new publication it’s because we want to share it. However even if it’s published in an open access journal newspapers will rarely link to the actual paper anyway. Even PR companies have a tendency to act as gatekeepers for the actual paper, and promote the top line findings without allowing third parties to actually verify them. We have a crisis of scientific replication and yet there’s a complete disjoint between how research is presented and our ability to engage with it.
Journalists don’t care about your research, they care about their article. They are writing articles to a deadline and need to fill them. They need contacts who will be available and tell them what they expect to hear. Editors don’t care about your research. They care about copy. They need people who supply well written content on a theme they want to publish.
I am aware that my profession and institution are underrepresented by people who aren’t white males. And as a white male I should reflect on my role in that. As I lose the novelty of youth I question whether the best use of my time is supplying free content to unremarkable publications by crowding out other voices.
Pivoting away from attempts to promote our research profile, however, doesn’t mean wallowing in academic irrelevance, and it doesn’t mean giving up on communicating economic ideas. It just means a recognition that our biggest value to the media is almost certainly a result of our teaching knowledge rather than our research findings. This is because the pool of media interest in which we’re able to play in is much wider when we act as teachers rather than researchers.
you need to be able to explain it to an Intro class and it needs to be an issue that you would indeed explain to an Intro class
So rather than send our new PR agency a list of my research topics, I’ve sent the following:
Price gouging – if a firm raises prices during a natural disaster I’m happy to defend their choice to do so and explain why it actually benefits consumers
Creative destruction – if a firm goes bankrupt I’m happy to explain why this is crucial to a competitive market
Free trade – if there’s a story about tariffs I’m happy to explain how they harm consumers and make us collectively worse off
Offshoring – if a firm offshores production I’m happy to defend their decision and explain how this benefits workers in (typically) poorer countries
Corporation tax – I’m happy to defend cuts to corporation tax on the grounds that they boost wages of that companies employees
Tax avoidance – I’m happy to defend the use of “aggressive” tax avoidance schemes and explain why the problem is complexity in the tax code
Efficient Market Hypothesis – if an investment firm claims to be able to outperform a market index I’m happy to argue that this is bad investment advice
I also think it’s potentially legitimate to comment on hot topics such as:
The gender pay gap
A specific companies strategy
Provided you limit your comments to the simple application of the economic way of thinking. However I fear that this won’t be providing journalists with what they want (which is a hook, or something controversial), and there’s a very real danger that you do turn into a light blue dot. So I personally avoid these topics. Leave them for commentators and opinion leaders and academic experts in the field. Don’t wade in as one masquerading as the other.
Finally, Steve’s also right to point out that such media engagements are also advantageous for the institution. Indeed I’ve stopped seeing media work as part of my research profile. It’s actually organisational (and civic) citizenship.
Yes, it’s architecture and visible insignia reflect the fact that most of the city was completely rebuilt straight after the second world war. Military uniform is everywhere, tractors roam the streets, school children look immaculate. And the absence of a democratic transition casts an intriguing shadow of communist rule. But the city is vibrant, affluent, and spotlessly clean. It feels more like a Baltic city break than an Eastern European industrial wasteland.
Outside of Minsk there’s an efficient train network and the surrounding countryside is beautiful and famously peaceful. I strongly recommend a visit to Belarus, and hope these notes are useful.
Belarus has connections to most major European cities. The national airline, BELAVIA, do a direct flight from London Gatwick to Minsk several times per week. If you want to travel by train, there’s only one man to ask.
Customs officials will ask to see proof of Travel Insurance (and they may also request to see an associated membership card).
Using a travel agent used to be a necessity because they could provide a letter of invitation (which was mandatory to obtain a visa). I used MinskLuxx who have an array of city-centre apartments and helpful services.
There are clusters of cafes and restaurants in the following places:
The upper town (vulica Zybickaja) – this is the main tourist area and contains several bars and restaurants on the banks of the river. 442 is the best place to watch soccer and sample interesting beer. Cherdok do great burgers in a laid back setting. Malt & Hops have a long and classy bar serving beer and many malts. El Pushka is a fun and intimate tequila bar. Beer Cap is a classic Eastern European-style bar – an outdoor labyrinth with interesting beers and a range of customers.
Trajeckaja nabiarežnaja (the old town) – the only real area of pre-WW2 buildings, it has a nostalgic feel compared to the rest of the city.
Karl Marx street – a number of classy bistros and restaurants with sincere cooking.
Kastrycnickaja Street – former industrial units now famous for bright murals and hipster coffee.
For a distinctly Belarusian experience, Rakovsky Brovar is a large, popular brewery serving traditional food in a friendly atmosphere. And watching the world pass by at the bar at Centralny is one of Minks’s cultural highlights.
Typical prices (as of 2017)
Minsk provides a fascinating mixture of standard European ambience and a gripping historical context. Belarus is not quite Poland and not quite Russia – it is something else. Something tangible and settled. But forward looking and optimistic. It’s truly unique.
I use Overcast to listen to podcasts. The smart speed setting quickens the pace without you even noticing and I usually listen to 1.2x normal speed. If you want to get into podcasts I highly recommend tweaking these settings to get through them faster. An added bonus is that if you’re listening to a proper series or radio play at normal speed, you “feel the benefit” and get super engrossed.
EconTalk – the original economics podcast featuring an array of fascinating guests. Each episode is typically over an hour long which can be daunting, but permits a relaxed and casual conversation. As a former student of Russ Roberts, I thoroughly enjoy recapturing some of the intellectual curiosity and excitement of grad school through EconTalk.
Macro Musings – David Beckworth is a wonderful economist, and by focusing on monetary macro he provides a consistently high quality conversation on a topic I know I will want to listen to. I think it’s pitched at the perfect level to walk listeners through the career trajectory and major insights of an impressive guestlist.
Business and management
Planet Money – Short (20 minute) episodes that illuminate important economic concepts through interviews. Can’t get enough of them.
Adam Buxton – on the surface this is a comedy show, where likeable comic Adam Buxton (from Adam & Joe semi-fame) chats with his “showbusiness” friends. I enjoy it because it provides an honest and sincere look at the thought process behind public speaking, professional success, and the art of humour.
The Edge with Joey Barton – I have sympathy for Barton and find him a highly engaging character. In this series of interviews he demonstrates his curiosity for what drives peak performance with applications for sport, politics, and all forms of management.
Generation Why – two American friends present and dissect famous cases in an informal, engaging manner.
Casefile True Crime – the Australian narrator, following a well crafted script, provides an engrossing experience.
Criminal – somewhat hit and miss collection of interesting cases, but the good ones stay with you.
Slow Burn (Season 2 Clinton) – I loved this. Very well presented featuring interviews with key players in the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I particularly liked the broader focus on the controversy surrounding Clinton prior to him becoming President, and how that laid the ground for his impeachment. This was a historic event that I remember experiencing, but it was enlightening to do deeper. Especially relevant given the #metoo movement. B.
Self contained series
Caliphate – an exquisite series that reports on the rise of Islamic State and documents the fall of Mosul. It’s a deeply absorbing production centred around an interview with someone claiming to have joined IS, and provides a perfect balance of background information. A.
Atlanta Monster – all the ingredients for a fascinating sequence of plot twists and information about a case I wasn’t familiar with. But I felt it dragged on and I gradually lost interest. B.
This Sounds Serious – a well conceived and executed spoof of the true crime genre. Some daft comedic moments and surprisingly subtle nods to The Day Today. A.
The Butterfly Effect – very touching business history emphasising creative destruction and unintended consequences. High recommend. A.
Missing Richard Simmons – originally presents itself as having the ingredients of a unique and enjoyable mystery, but sadly turns into a slightly disturbing hounding. C.
S Town – a fascinating and gripping story, but I was somewhat annoyed by the presenter’s self-serving presence. B.
Tracks – a radio play that delves into a reasonably interesting conspiracy theory, but ultimately fails to replicate the engagement that comes from a discovery. C.
Homecoming – more of a play than a podcast, but one that utilises the medium very nicely. Season 2 was meh. B.
Serial Season 1 – a documentary about the death of Hae Min Lee featuring interviews with Adnan Syed, who is in prison for the murder. But did he do it? This helped build the genre of the developing real time podcast, and bingelistening to this with noise cancelling headphones, on a transatlantic red eye, was super sweet. The theme music still gives me shivers. A.
Given what I know of this person’s performance, and if it were my money, I would award this person the highest possible compensation increase and bonus (five point scale)
Given what I know of this person’s performance, I would always want him or her on my team (five point scale)
This person is at risk for low performance (yes/no)
This person is ready for promotion today (yes/no)
I like the idea but not the questions chosen (they are too hierarchical). Mine would be something along the following lines:
Does this person excel at their job?
For example, is there documented evidence of other people attempting to learn from them?
Is this person a pleasure to work with?
For example, would you look forward to making a transatlantic trip with them?
I recently became aware of the concept of a Personal Boardroom. I think it is a good way to recognise whether you have an effective support network, and to identify why your career may be stalling. The idea is that you should have people in your life – with whom you are in regular contact – that perform each of the following roles:
As an educator it’s a real priviledge to have the opportunity to engage with so many ambitious and intelligent students. My colleagues that teach on PhD programmes tend to have lists of their former students (I even appear on one!) but working in a business school means that I don’t produce future academics. I do, however, look on with pride when I see the achievements of former students in their professional careers.
A Krupnik Medal (🏅) is my way of saying “well done!”
I consider myself fortunate that my young adult life coincided with the emergence of the boxset. When the kids go down the wine comes out! My aim is to provide recommendations based on how intense you want it (your internal engagement); and how exciting you want it (a more external feeling); and how daunted you’re willing to be in terms of the time commitment. The reason Sopranos, West Wing and House of Cards don’t feature is that I’m yet to start them. In truth, my main motivation is to promote some older boxsets that many people haven’t seen – i.e. Oz, and The Lakes.
The chart below shows the overall ranking:
The score is = excitement X intensity, although at some point I should weight it in the direction of intensity. Maybe 40/60. I’m not sure.
Each axis is superficially on a 5 point scale, with minor adjustments around a 0.5 gradation. Crucially, I re-calibrate all of the scores whenever a new series enters the list.
~ attributed to a French person by Dwight Eisenhower
2016 marked my 10 year wedding anniversary and that marriage is the central pillar of my social identity. It is where family and friendship coincides, and the basis upon which the meaningful relationships I have are developed.
I thought that having children would make me more selfish, because I’d be focusing my efforts and attention on propagating my own genes rather than considering humanity as a whole. I realise, however, that being a parent makes me a role model, and this encourages me to become a better person. It means that when I see distant tragedies I feel greater empathy than I did before. Children mimic behaviour and setting a good example outweighs instruction.
I also thought that the circle of life meant that I care for my children because my parents cared for me. And then my children would care for their children and so on. Upbringing passes from one generation to the next, with the gift of “becoming a grandparent” being sent back in return. That’s not really a circle though, more of a straight line. Indeed recently I’ve seen how much support and care my grandparents required, and how your duties as a child revert back to your parents when they age. Providing grandchildren isn’t your ultimate gift to your parents; it is being there.
I believe that the thread of ancestry to descendants isn’t self-involvement, it’s self-realisation, and this essay discusses some of the books that I’ve read in pursuit of being a better father, husband, and son. As I move through the 4 stages of life the content will develop.
“There are parts of the cultural heritage of a society that are more effectively transmitted through the family.” FA Hayek, 1960, p.90
Both of my children have turned three which seems to be a real turning point in terms of their development. At three they can (by and large) – talk; talk to adults; sleep at night; dress themselves; feed themselves; go to the toilet by themselves. Horizons open.
When they were growing up I organised photos of the kids into these categories: Newborn (birth – 2 months old); Baby (2 months – 1 year); and Toddler (1 year – 3 years). When they both turned 3 I went through those albums and made them a printed collection.
When they were younger, my job was to keep them alive. To survive. But increasingly I understand that physical development (i.e. weighing, measuring, testing) has taken a back seat to their emotional and mental development. It’s incredible to watch this all happen on a daily basis. It frightens me that my daughter’s problems will soon go from “Daddy I banged my knee” to “Daddy my best friend has spread a rumour about me and people are calling me names”.
Not being stressed is the biggest gift you can give your children.
If you’re the type of parent who worries about good parenting, you’re probably a good parent.
Most of the factors that drive children’s future prospects are outside of your direct control.
Tim Harford’s Messy has a great chapter on openness and adaptability, with plenty of lessons for parents. I particularly like the comparison between ladders and climbing walls. Because ladders have rungs in the same direction and an equal distance apart, they stop our thinking. This is why climbing walls (or better still, trees) are so much better. They require more mental engagement. They are messier, and more dangerous. But children adjust for risk.
When the kids are getting fractious with each other it can be hard to encourage them to play nicely together. One strategy I take is to interject myself as a nuisance, and provide them with an even bigger problem. Since goal harmony beats team harmony, their behaviour improves. Give children shared goals and watch them prosper. Team building is overrated.
I also think it’s dangerous to view your role as a parent in terms of a debate between the forces of nature and the forces of nurture. Really, it’s neither, because:
“we can be active agents who in part control how those interactions play out…it is the individual who is the agent of action” (Mischel, p.278)
Whilst Descartes famously said “I think, therefore I am”; we might say “I think, therefore I can change what I am” (p.278). This ties in nicely with my article, “Only Individuals Choose“.
So I believe in self-improvement, and want to cultivate that in my children. But I also recognise that reading to them of an evening is largely for my benefit, and my love of books and reading is part of a far broader set of abilities that will impart themselves on my kids in various multifaceted ways…
The sibling relationship is an important one, and only superficially amounts to bullying. I see it more as a form of testing boundaries of love and engaging in counter signalling.
To our friends we are nice (with signals such as asking them how they are, sharing our food etc).
But with our close friends we take the piss, trip them up, because only friends would find that funny.
Teasing with siblings is the ultimate bond of security and love because only a confident peacock can cut off their tail. It isn’t that we can “be ourselves”, but that we can test elements of ourselves in a safe environment.
Just before Hope’s 5th birthday I attempted to do the classic Marshmallow Test (see The Marshmallow Test, by Walter Mischel). Interestingly, I failed! I found it too difficult to leave her on her own, and stopped it after just 5 minutes. I then set up a camera for Tate (he’d turned 3 a couple of months before) and managed to get to 10 minutes. The kids seemed better at it than I was! The test is as follows:
Set them up in a quiet room with a bell, a plate with 1 marshmallow on it, and a plate with 2 marshmallows on it.
The instructions are: If you want to eat a marshmallow you need to ring the bell to call me back into the room. I will be close by and we can stop whenever you want. However if you don’t ring the bell, and wait until I come back into the room myself, you can have 2 marshmallows.
The standard test is for 20 minutes. As I said though, without a monitoring device I found this unbearable!
The “test” is one of self-control, which is an important prerequisite for independence. But the purpose of the experiment is not really to categorise your child. It’s not about trying to measured the extent of their self-control. It’s more about seeing how they cope with situations that require self-control, and then using that as a basis to develop their skills. (Note that like many seminal psychological studies the marshmallow test has failed to replicate. Variables such as household income may underpin self-control and later performance, and in certain situations (e.g. low household income) a focus on present resources is perfectly sensible. I don’t think this undermines the usefulness of the test, merely shows that we should exercise caution before making too many causal claims).
Generally speaking, self-control is easier when we cool the present and heat the future. Being hot makes us react quickly to emotional stimuli, and triggers our feelings. Babies are often “hot” in this sense, responding to immediate and stressful conditions. And from an evolutionary perspective this was very important for dealing with danger. The cool system is slower to operate, more reflective and aids rational and strategic thinking. It is only fully developed in young adults, and is not the natural way to deal with pressure. But in situations where you want to exercise self-control, the crucial thing is to recognise the need to move from hot to cool thinking. Mischel mentions how:
Create a distraction (my daughter did this by finding a notepad and drawing a picture).
Make the focus of your attention more abstract (i.e. think of the shape, or colour, rather than the feel or taste).
Imagine that you’re looking at a picture, rather than the real thing.
Ask what someone else in your position would do.
Sing to yourself.
Have a mantra.
Ultimately what these have in common is that you’re generating cognitive distance between yourself and the temptation. You can heat the future by imaging the pleasure you will get from achieving your goal. (Another option is chunking. Split an extended commitment into smaller periods with rewards at whichever intervals required to keep on track).
Young children do not have well developed causal reasoning, and this is perhaps why negotiations are so fraught. I try to make clear “If/Then” scenarios (e.g. “if you don’t eat your dinner then you won’t get any pudding”, or “if you eat your dinner then you will get pudding”) and then follow through. I find that if a threat isn’t credible (e.g. “if you don’t stop crying then I’ll leave you here” or “if you don’t tidy your room then we won’t go to the zoo”) your bluff will be called. Writing down an “If/Then” scenario makes me more likely to follow through, and generate credibility.
According to Temple Grandin, “observant teachers can tell the difference between a massive fear reaction and the calculated use of bad behaviour to avoid tasks the person does not want to do” (Thinking inPictures, p.175). I’m clearly not an observant teacher…
Do our children see us being hard on ourselves and exercising delayed gratification? It’s hard, because a lot of our gratification (in my case a glass of wine and a boxset) comes when they’re asleep. But we should demonstrate it. Indeed the main objective is to make good behaviour an intrinsic goal, so we’re not rewarding behaviour but seeing that behaviour as a reward in itself.
“If you aren’t consistent and are tough on your children but lenient with yourself, there is a good chance they’ll adopt the self-reward standards you modelled, not the ones you imposed on them” (Mischel p.225)
Don’t hot house but do provide a focal point for learning. It’s your job to ensure it isn’t stressful but give them an attainable target and watch them flourish as they rise to meet it. Kids love a goal.
Make sure you set tasks that get progressively harder. Yes, it feels good to iron your shirts for the week and you deserve a beer at the end of it. But are you improving? (No!) This is why playing a musical instrument is such a good means of development – as you get better it doesn’t get easier. The same thing applies to games such as Lego. Do things that have the potential for unlimited growth. Then you can avoid the Narcissism Epidemic by focusing on the pursuit of success and not protection from failure.
Teach kids about moral dilemmas, which “arise when two legitimate moral values clash” (Brooks 2015, p.258). They are not mere dilemmas.
If you have a mere dilemma, however, and can’t decide which option to take try to pre-live them both. Our instinct is to favour our present self’s opinion of what ones future self should want to do. Rather, we should recognise that our future self will be pretty similar to our present self, and if something wouldn’t be enjoyable today, we shouldn’t commit to doing it down the line. “When my graduate students are fortunate enough to have more than one job offer and are tortured about their decision, I suggest that they imagine, as concretely as they can, living life in each job, one full day at a time, as if the job were happening now” (Mischel, p,133). If the prospect of doing an activity in a few days time doesn’t excite you, don’t commit to it in the distant future.
I have two concrete examples of advice I acquired from having read Mischel.
Hope was given a speaking role for the school nativity and expressed concerns about having to talk in front of everyone.
I showed her some videos of me doing public speaking and explained the process by which I learnt how to do it (i.e. starting off with similar worries in a similar situation)
We practiced in front of a smaller audience of adults
We spoke about breathing as a way to remain calm
In other words the way to deal with phobias is to allow them to watch someone they trust encounter the problem in a calm, step-by-step manner, and then follow them
Tate would often have tantrums where he’d seem unable to calm down by himself
I took a photo of him and asked him to explain what he saw. This provided a little distance and engaged the cooler part of his brain.
Finally, Mishel (p.251) provides some dimensions for what constitutes character (what we do when no one is watching, or “an engraved set of disciplined habits, a settled disposition to do good (Brooks 2015, p.53)). I think it’s useful to reflect on whether you can find good examples of each of the following:
Focus on the goal – “I paid attention and resisted distractions”
Temper control – “I remained calm even when criticised or otherwise provoked”
Grit – “I finished whatever I began”
Optimism – “I stayed motivated, even when things didn’t go well”
Zest – “I approached new situations with excitement and energy”
Social intelligence – “I demonstrate respect for the feelings of others”
In ‘Cinderella Ate my Daughter’, Peggy Orenstein (p.140) mentions a study that compared New Year’s resolutions of girls at the end of the nineteenth century with those at the end of the twentieth century. This is an example from the past:
Resolved: to think before speaking. To work seriously. To be self-restrained in conversations and actions. Not to let my thoughts wonder. To be dignified. Interest myself more in others
I will try to make myself better in any way I possibly can… I will lose weight, get new lenses, already got new haircut, good makeup, new clothes and accessories.
I found David Brooks’ ‘The Road to Character‘ to be a useful resource (although I didn’t like feeling as if he was trying to convert me, and I think he uses economic thinking as a strawman – individualism isn’t necessarily atomosing, see my chapter in this). The main conflict of vision that underpins it is whether you believe that humans are risen apes, capable of anything we wish to achieve (and that our pure heart is the best guide to realise what that is); or fallen angels, capable of greatness but constantly having to strive against ourselves.
Our brains evolved for the relevent tasks of survival and the phenomenal pace of technological and social change imply that our instincts won’t always be correct.
There’s an elephant in the brain. Robin Hanson’s point is that we are a PR machine for ourselves, attempting to rationalise and explain our behaviour. The “elephant” in our brain is the mental flaws we pretend not to be aware of – the contradiction between what we say about ourselves and our actions. Revealed preference can go a long way.
There’s a chimp in the brain. Steve Peters uses a nice analogy of how the “chimp” part of our brain, responsible for survival, can dominate our “computer” and “human” parts. The chimp is geared to quick, clear, emotional decisions with little regard for long term implications. We can tell if the chimp is in control if we’re doing things we don’t want to do or feeling things we don’t wish to feel. The problem is that chimps are quicker and stronger than humans so in real time we can’t wrestle control. Instead, we need to put systems in place that reduce the chimps impact. The chimp isn’t us, we don’t have to follow it.
Let the chimp out every now and then, speak honestly and openly in a conducive environment.
Box it – rationalise your behaviour and train the chimp to accept the human point of view
Reward it – bribe the chimp to let you complete a task with the offer a future treat.
Distract it – engage in an activity (e.g. counting to 10) to give your human time to get involved.
According to Kurt Hahn, founder of Gordonstoun, there were 6 societal ills:
Lack of physical fitness
Decline of initiative and enterprise
Decline of imagination
Decline of craftsmanship
Decline of self-disicpline
Decline of compassion
Read novels: they refine our ability to understand other people and enlarge our experiences.
Don’t read novels: they turn us into pyschopaths.
Marriages are exposures. We may be heroes to our spouses but we may not be idols. [Leon Wieseltier’s wedding toast to Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power (see Brooks 2016, p.176)]
Follow the strengths of your resume virtues
Focus on the weaknesses of your eulogy virtues
I’m sympathetic to the concept of the “mental load”, as explained here. The gist is that husbands may believe that they share in the world load by offering to help, but this reinforces the view that it is the wife’s responsibility to organise. But in the same way that free-riding can often be at route a disagreement about the value of the task, we should avoid the assumption that there’s a fixed amount of “work” that needs doing. In other words a prior conversation needs to occur about whether an activity needs to take place. And if it does, an agreement about roles and responsibilities. This is crucial because otherwise an attempt to share the mental load actually duplicates it. The key factors are:
Develop better routines – to paraphrase WH Auden, routines are not monotony they are in fact a sign of ambition. They “provide the scaffolding with which you can build your best life” (Tim Farris).
Better communication. Talk about where you are on the love map.
Remember that romance is cheap. I was reading a list of the most romantic holiday destinations and one mentioned Paris,
… it’s not known as the City of Love for nothing. Grab a baguette, some Brie, and a bottle of wine, and have a romantic picnic by the Seine – yes, drinking outside is legal.
I think I’m a better husband when I am alert, relaxed, and communicating well. To improve these I find value in the following:
Have sleep plan. Nothing prepares you for the tiredness of being a parent, and when we had two children both under two I felt permanently knackered. Being tired makes one irritable and unable to think clearly. A sleep plan will always be far easier for men to achieve than women (i.e the first responders) but a sleep plan meant that I now enjoy getting up before 8am. It has become a normal part of my routine and this has helped massively.
Mindfulness. The basic principle is highly compatible with being a secular hermit and I try to find time for sporadic meditation. Diet and exercise is also crucial for this.
Susan Cain’s book on introversion has had a big impact on me, and Chapter 10 focuses on the communication gap between different personality types. What I found especially useful is instead of debating which activities to do, talk about what it is about a specific activity you do or do not enjoy. This opens up the potential for modifying an activity in a way that makes it mutually tolerable (or perhaps even beneficial). The example in the book is that Greg is outgoing and Emily is more pensive. He wants regular big dinner parties with lots of guests, and she wants a quiet night in. Their solution is to hold an event only once a month; buffet style food (i.e. not sit down); and Emily isn’t obliged to mingle. A regular date night is a good communication facilitator because it involves alcohol but doesn’t involve children. David Freeman has written a great article on his experience in a leadership position at the ONS, as an introvert.
Find a vocation – which is a “problem addressed by an activity you intrinsically enjoy”. You don’t find that by looking within and finding your own passion, you must look without and consider what life wants from us. (Brooks, 2015 p.266)
Time for each other. It’s easy to be busy but being busy is a decision. We make time for priorities (note we don’t “find” time) and should treat the most important people as a priority. Be careful about making your partner the residual claimant for your time. Because most of us run out of time.
Consider accelerators and brakes. Adding accelerators won’t work if the problem is the brake
Be wary of depression, “hunger leads to eating and satiety, fear leads to flight, lust leads to sex. But sorrow is an exception. Sorrow doesn’t direct you towards its own cure. Sorrow builds upon sorrow” (Brooks 2015, p.226). And according to Samuel Johnson, “The safe and general antidote against sorrow is employment”.
I grew up placing a premium on integrity, and almost seeking situations in which to demonstrate the righteous path. I remember a professional situation where I had a choice to make. One option was to do what I considered to be the right thing. But it would have a negative impact on other people. I chose the former, and commended my courage. However, Brooks (2015, p.160) uses an example from Mary Anne Evans:
Yes, she had an obligation to follow her individual conscience… but it was her moral duty to mute her own impulses by considering their effect on others and on the social fabric of the community…. By the time Mary Anne Evans became the novelist George Eliot, she was an avowed enemy of that kind of stark grandstanding
I used to have a blase attitude towards sin, equating it to doing something “naughty”. But Brooks (p.56) shows a plethora of examples that demonstrate how dangerous our (inevitable) sins are be for the social order. We should also complete the Proust Questionnaire over a nice bottle of wine.
Always take your job seriously, never yourself
My parents are fit and healthy and I’m thankful. We go on physically demanding holidays and I cherish my time with them. I have seen my grandparents age, and recognise the closing chapters of a life well lived. That experience made me want to learn more about the end.
I highly recommend Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. The goal of modern healthcare is to keep the elderly alive and safe but this is usually because we shy away from difficult conversations about what quality of life is important to them, and what tradeoffs they are willing to make. Because we often delay this conversation until it’s too late, we care for the elderly in an intrusive, expensive, and unsatisfactory way. Some steps to mitigate this:
Talk early and often about care home desires (my prediction is that “being put in a home” will become less of a problem over time as the elderly in the future will be more likely to associate care homes with university halls rather than a military barracks)
The sum of evil would be much diminished if men could only sit quietly in their rooms
Pascal (see Huxley 1954 The Doors of Perception, Vintage, p. 25
According to many, the early hermits were the desert fathers, and are therefore associated with Christianity. But there is a deeper and more widespread spiritual affinity for becoming (not necessarily permanently) detached from society – a walkabout is a contested example from Aboriginal culture, and I assume there’s similar for Native Americans.
I use this page as a think space for a secular hermit manifesto, and I define a secular hermit in the following way:
Hermit: thirst for solitude
Secular: not supernatural
(1) Intellectual foundations
My secular hermit philosophy is based on three separate movements: (i) scholasticism; (ii) introversion; (iii) Paleo.
Many religious practices had hidden (i.e. evolutionary) meaning, for example Kosher laws and fasting were effective ways to reduce infection. Using them as religious rituals ensures their widespread coordinated adherence, and therefore made them more likely to work. Having said this, there’s obviously lots of religious superstition that is high cost and serves little benefit. Hence we should be open minded about why traditions emerge, utilise the ones where we can understand the value, and drop those that conflict with our scientific explanations.
In Lubov Bazam’s ‘A History of Belarus’, the author outlines the progressive, positive impact of Christianity (p.60). To build churches you need skilled professionals – architects, masons, carpenters, painters, blacksmiths, etc. A new social stratum, the clergy, is formed, which leads to literacy, education, literature and painting. Monasteries became hubs for the spiritual lives of people, for schooling, and the copying and translating of books. Historically, religion served as the focal point of thoughtful enquiry. Universities took over.
I believe the link between monasticism and academia is pretty clear. Both involve the study of sacred texts, a detached physical space to think, and ascetic practices (such as silence and in many cases the abstention of physical intimacy…). I found it very moving that almost immediately after publishing this article, I learnt that Edward Hugh had passed away,
The economist, born in Liverpool to a Welsh family, never hid the fact that he had wanted to live in a monastery, and this small Empordà hamlet of 60 inhabitants came rather close to this idea of having a place to reflect, read, and write. Satellite television and the internet allowed him to remain connected to the world, while Escaules gave him the peace he needed to work.
My “Thoughts on Administration” makes a conscious effort to integrate monastic practices with programme management. I am a fan of management but working with a team should be seen as a conscious opportunity to develop other people. If you don’t want to coach, then don’t take on such responsibility. Also, I try to be an institution builder, not an organisation builder. This makes it easier to respond to sunk costs, and although your output will be less visible you can actually have a deeper impact.
“Rest for a scientist, Vavilov said, should be regarded as another way of furthering creative work” Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber, p.137
Quiet (Susan Cain, Penguin 2012) is an excellent survey of introversion. Introverts often feel pressured into conforming with a society that seems built on extrovert principles. The book helped me to understand my own introversion and gain strategies to deal with it. It also gave me confidence to shape my social interactions around my preferences, and to communicate better with friends. (I also strongly recommend Create your own Economy (Tyler Cowen, Dutton 2009) which ventures more into the autism debate but makes a compassionate argument for why OCD tendencies should be better understood and the value they serve). See “Caring for your introvert“. According to the autistic animal scientist (and advocate) Temple Grandin, “It’s clear that the genetic traits that can cause severe disabilities can also provide the giftedness and genius that has produced some of the world’s greatest art and scientific discoveries… there is a reason that disabilities such as autism, severe manic-depression, and schizophrenia remain in our gene pool even though there is much suffering as a result” (Thinking in Pictures p.217). She continues, “after all, the really social people did not invent the first stone spear. It was probably invented by an Aspie whoi chipped away at rocks while the other people socialized around the campfire. Without autism traits we might still be living in caves” p.122)
As Tim Harford says in Chapter 3 of Messy, “People flourish when they control their own space”. It’s all about autonomy. The chapter is called “Workplaces”.
How to be healthy? How about:
Don’t drive while drunk, distracted, or tired.
Finally, there’s many points of tangency between being a secular hermit and the increasingly popular Paleo philosophy. For a general overview I recommend John Durant’s book, The Paleo Manifesto. I don’t follow a Paleo lifestyle strictly but I do make marginal changes in that direction. Here’s what works well for me:
Here are some simple substitutes that I make to move in a more Paleo direction:
I don’t understand Bullet Proof coffee but breakfast is usually just coffee, maybe a natural yoghurt as well. On the odd occasions I have toast or cereal that counts more as a brunch.
Bureaucrats drink beer or wine at lunch and fall asleep, but since coffee generates alertness it is “the drink of commerce” (Liss, D., (2003) ‘The Coffee Trader’ p. 15 and “the elixir of enterprise” (Bernstein, W., (2008) ‘A Splendid Exchange’ p.249).
Kerrygold butter instead of margarine
Tortilla wraps instead of bread (“I can walk away from their bread, not needing it at all… I can go into the forest and survive there on mushrooms and berries” Father Ferapont, in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’)
I do still eat meat and agree with Durant’s point that creating a niche market for ethically sourced meat would do more for animal welfare than boycotting it entirely (p.270). Discomfort with killing animals for meat seem to reflect more our discomfort with death generally than concern for animal rights. Breeding animals for slaughter is a lesser concern to me than animal suffering. As Temple Grandin (in Thinking in Pictures) argues, “when slaughter is conducted properly, the cattle experience less stress and discomfort than they experience during handling procedures in the veterinary chute” (p.180). A meat eating guideline would be:
Make animal welfare part of your buying decision
Eat animals with low pain thresholds (e.g. fish, insects)
If people are open to the upsides of alcohol I’m sure there’s a plethora of other drugs that could form part of a mentally healthy lifestyle. Such as mescaline, as Aldus Huxley said,
What is needed is a new drug which will relieve and console our suffering species without doing more harm in the long run than it does good in the short. Such a drug must be potent in minute doses and synthesizable. If it does not possess these qualities, its production, like that of wine, beer, spirits and tobacco will interfere with the raising of indispensable food and fibres. It must be less toxic than opium or cocaine, less likely to produce undesirable social consequences than alcohol or the barbiturates, less inimical to heart and lungs than the tars and nicotine of cigarettes. And, on the positive side, it should produce changes in consciousness more interesting, more intrinsically valuable than mere sedation or dreaminess, delusions of omnipotence or release from inhibition.
Huxley 1954 The Doors of Perception, Vintage, p. 40
It’s easy to use weather as an excuse not to get outside, so I like the phrase: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”. In England this is mitigated by the fact that so much bad weather is rain, and rain does curtail a lot of outdoor activities. And we need to avoid the temptation to blame our clothes. Hence my mantra is: There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices.
Durant (p.231) suggests that for short periods of time in the sun suncream is unnecessary. Indeed applying it can be dangerous because it will prevent the warning signs that damage is occurring without actually stopping it (i.e. it’s better to feel burnt and get out of the sun than to feel bronzed and stay in it). For sunbathing use a broad spectrum cream that blocks UVa and UVb.
I’d love a standing desk but I need depth when I’m working and elevating it would be ludicrous. If only there were a standing desk that folds down…
An addendum to the “exercise” plan is a sleep plan. I try to nap and also have a sleep plan based on this cartoon:
I am a big fan of the Gro clock and it’s amazing how many years it’s taken to suspect that an adult version might be useful as well. I do appreciate a key difference in that the former intends to make morning a binary issue, whilst the latter does the opposite. But still, it’s about the light – make sure that nightlights are yellow (i.e. sunset) and only use blue tones for morning.
I also have an evening alarm clock – my watch beeps at 9:30pm which is a signal to avoid electronic devices, stop consuming food, and consciously start winding down.
I intend to do a monthly 20 hour fast using the following schedule:
A phone is fine for interacting with complete strangers (I quite enjoy battling with customer services and sabotaging nuisance calls), and I enjoy phoning my parents and siblings. However, generally speaking, the telephone is a horrible way to communicate. You miss out on social clues and have to think quickly (see Cowen 2009, p.72). It’s also very hard to say “leave that with me and i’ll think about it”, and so a business call in particular can generate tension (I’d love to see experimental evidence on negotiations conducted via phone vs. face to face). Over the phone I am concentrating on not committing to something I don’t want to do, and therefore I find it very difficult to establish where mutual gains are.
In addition, you are left without a record of what has been said. If like me you follow up a business call by taking notes and sending agreed to do lists over email, the call is a waste of time.
Having said this, if you are frustrated that emails aren’t being responded to, have an urgent query, or are hitting a stalemate, picking up a phone is usually the mature and sensible thing to do. But if face to face and email contact are options, I struggle to see the purpose of a telephone call.
Don’t be afraid to eat alone. The South Korean term is Honbap. I call it Going Solo.
Social media: Facebook started out as a way to track down acquaintances (the first rival that it killed was Friends Reunited, after all) but is now like calling home (it really is about “updating” friends and family). Twitter is the type of side-to-side conversation that occurs if you’re in the pub (Cowen 2009, p.78). You just shout a few things, a couple of people might respond, and a few more will listen to it. Message boards are like a pub when you’re drunk. They are perfect for in jokes/banter but also confrontation and love ins (depending on whether you’re an angry drunk or happy drunk). I use all three regularly.
I don’t believe in the cloud (“not quite visible, not quite tangible, but awfully real; amorphous, spectral: hovering nearby, yet not situated in any one place”, (Gleick 2011, p.395)) – instead I opt for a well-ordered vault.
My backup strategy is threefold: (1) a constant USB link to a hard drive; (2) a wireless link to a WD My Cloud. These two steps protect me from me two biggest concerns (that I accidentally delete a file and need to recover it, or that my computer gets stolen). Since I don’t feel fully protected against the risk of a natural disaster (i.e. if my study floods or burns down my wireless back up would be affected), I (3) copy an annual backup onto a portable drive and store it in my office. This seems a more reasonable strategy than using a fireproof safe. All three are WD products and they integrate seamlessly with a Mac. They are much better than Apple’s own products.
“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it. The missing plays of Sophocles will turn up piece by piece, or be written again in another language. Ancient cures for diseases will reveal themselves once more. Mathematical discoveries glimpsed and lost to view will have their time again.”
I keep all of my photos within Photos for Mac, categorised into albums and folders for each year. I don’t believe in a “Photostream” and shake at the thought of having a single image outside of my purview. My computer is well ordered and I spend a lot of time filing electronic and physical documents. I’m fighting against a tide when it comes to photos, but I have a system that I like:
A selection of photos from some albums are posted onto Flickr and shared with friends and family (and all of my photos on Flickr must be in an album).
An even smaller selection of photos are shared on Facebook. I make use of the albums in Facebook, but I “keep” them in Photos
Thus I don’t shed as I pick up, at all. I don’t have a stream in the cloud, I have a well-ordered reservoir in a vault. For me it is: archiveandshare.
(3) Travel & epistemic architecture
The advantage of travel is that when you move between time zones, you lose touch with each. Consider this account of the Trans-Siberian railway:
“In the great, monotonous spaces, the measures of time are lost; they cease to have any force, cease to have any meaning. The hours become formless, shapeless, elastic like the clocks in the paintings of Salvador Dali. Moreover, the train passes through various time zones, and one should be constantly adjusting the hands of one’s watch, but what for, what is there to gain by this?” Kapuscinski, R., Imperium, (Granta, 1994) p.32
Or Rachel Polonsky,
Russian literature is full of trains, because (like prostitutes, who also populate the literature) they bring together places, social worlds and life stories that would otherwise never touch. Trains are vehicles of plot and destiny, adventure and tragedy, surprising thoughts and conversations, uniting the squalid and the sublime, iron and plush, making intimacy possible across the great reach of space” Polonsky, R., 2010 ‘Molotov’s Magic Lantern’, Faber and Faber
My idea of heaven is sitting down with a few cans of lager and a good book right here (or here):
I think I found this on Twitter, but can’t remember where. It’s a beautiful photo!
“Something about train travel – the rocking motion and the passing scenery, there for you to admire or ignore – lends itself to creative breakthroughs” Weiner, 2016, p.175
The key ingredients for travel are the mode of transport and the hotel room (see My Guide to Travel). Whilst train journeys are my preferred mode, they are usually prohibitively costly. So my staple is to pass through airport and hotel. These spaces are much maligned, but I love them.
All the time, and especially at home, we all have a mental “to do” list. Even if not tempted to do anything on this to do list, we must still spend mental energy deciding not to do it. One way to escape this pressure is to find a neutral territory where there isn’t much that we can do. Airports, the plane itself, and hotels perform this function admirably. The decor is uniform and predictable and you could be anywhere. But that is the point. That is their beauty. Their neutrality is sophisticated because it wipes clean your mental fatigue and allows you to concentrate and focus on the book that you’re reading, or the thought process you have. It is very hard to replicate this at home, when the burden of “other things to do” is so strong. And it’s almost impossible to replicate it at the office, when interruptions are expected (and note that interruptions per se aren’t productivity killers, it’s the anticipated threat of an interruption). I’ve always recognised that I am at my most productive late at night (typically 10pm – 3am) or when there’s few students or staff on campus (i.e. after classes or during holidays). I’d previously attributed this to being a night owl, but now realise that these are times when the potential for interruption are lowest. Once you enter the airport/airplane/hotel realm the potential for interruption falls dramatically.
These days the constant connectivity of social media and email means that a chief source of potential interruption is your phone. So recognise that flight safe mode works on the ground as well. I routinely turn it on if I know there’s little chance of a genuine emergency (e.g. if I’m at home with my wife). If I need to keep a possible communication line open I’ll use “Do Not Disturb” (and ensure that close family would still come through). If not at the match, my preferred method of watching Everton games is to turn flight safe mode on at 3pm and then wait until the 10pm extended highlights without knowing the score. Routinely disconnecting every Saturday is a nice way to find focus on other things (such as writing, or spending time with family).
On average I make a foreign work trip once a month and this isn’t enough to be productive. So I supplement the airplane/hotel room dyad with train/coffee shop. When booked in advance off peak train journeys are cheap and quiet so every month I try to take a 1 hr + journey with a book. There’s a very good independent coffee shop near where I live but my go to place is Starbucks. Starbucks is brilliant – loads of chairs, good coffee (and flat white pioneers), subtle design, not chaotic, great app and loyalty programme. I love it.
“For me, cafes are a kind of second home, a prime example of what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls a “great good place.” The food and drink are irrelevant, or nearly so. What matters is the atmosphere – not the tablecloths or the furniture but a more intelligible ambience, one that encourages guilt-free lingering and strikes just the right balance of background din and contemplative silence.” (Weiner, 2016, p.16)
For almost five months now, I have been living and working as a deckhand on a 906 foot container ship making 57 day runs from New York to Singapore, while hitting many ports in between. We are importing/exporting goods from the Middle East, Asia, and America. As I am writing this we are making our way through the Gulf of Aden on what will be my last trip. Here is a little description of what its like to go to sea in the merchant marine.
I thought the photo of the Emma Maersk was mind blowing, but take a look at this: