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Ideal Speech Situation

I came across the term ideal speech situation the other day, while doing research for a podcast episode.

The core concept of this idea is that we’re most capable of benefitting from conversation when there are implied, mutually beneficial rules for the interaction.

These rules are that everyone capable of participating is allowed to do so, that any and every assertion made by anyone is open for questioning, that anyone involved can introduce new assertions (which can then be questioned), and that there should be nothing keeping anyone from fully expressing themselves while adhering to these implied rules — they shouldn’t feel socially or culturally pressured to not speak, or to not question, and they shouldn’t feel coerced by the threat of physical or psychological or social retribution for what they say.

I love this idea. Not because it’s perfect, as there are still numerous games you can play with these rules that would result in advantages for one participant or another, or that would nullify a lot of the potential positive effects. I love it because of what it’s attempting to accomplish, and how clearly it addresses some of the problems we’re struggling with as a diverse, interconnected species, today.

There are reasons we don’t speak as clearly as we might. There are reasons we don’t question certain authorities and refrain from rocking the boat, even when rocking might be just what we need.

There are social standards that set out what we can safely talk about and what is considered to be taboo. There are labels we apply to people who don’t follow these strictures, and labels we apply to people who follow them too assiduously.

We fail to include voices whose words might be relevant. We fail to question societal norms and traditional values. We fail to introduce all possible perspectives, even when those perspectives might better illuminate that which we’re trying to see more clearly.

Perhaps most confoundingly, we very often enter conversations in bad faith. We enter, not with the intent to learn or grow or come to the most ideal conclusion — we show up to win.

We plant semantic and logical traps. We attack the other person’s character or conflate their ideas on one subject with their ideas on another. We label them, brand them, define them from the outside.

We trip those with whom we’re speaking and claim that their stumbling means we won the race.

That’s not the point of a productive discussion. Or rather, it shouldn’t be.

Entering a discussion with the proper intent is a key part of actually accomplishing something, and that’s a standpoint that seems to be lacking in essentially all public discourse, not to mention dialogue at the interpersonal level.

As I said, this approach isn’t perfect. But it does seem like an idea worth remembering at the outset of future conversations. One of the more difficult struggles we’re going to face as a globe-spanning species in the coming decades is sorting out how to interact and coexist with people who believe differently than us. Coming up with a shared appreciation for civil and gainful discourse, and establishing guidelines for such discussions, would be a step toward that goal.

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Valuable Things

Possessions can make us happier, but only if we own the right things.

I should note that this doesn’t mean possessions are a replacement for experiences and relationships and a rich internal life: most ideally, the things we own are mere additions to a fulfilled existence. They add spice to something that’s already satisfying and satiating.

But all too often, the things we bring into our lives become anchors instead of wings; they don’t slake our thirst, they just make us more parched. This can result in a spiral of consumption that, for many, lasts their entires lives.

It’s important to question one’s own feelings about things, because there is a consistent low-level manipulation happening around us at all times. Like having just a little more oxygen in the air than usual, it’s unlikely that we’d notice the addition, yet it can still influence our behavior, adjust our priorities, and even hijack our rationality.

Many of us don’t have experience doing the math that might help us ascertain what a thing is actually worth to us.

Is this thing I’m thinking about buying a subjectively valuable thing? Will it fulfill my needs, my wants, my priorities? Will it help me get where I want to be? Will the price I pay for it be a good investment? Will I net more than $500 of value from a $500 television? How much more? And what other costs, monetary and otherwise, are associated with owning such a thing?

I find that working through these figures helps pour cold water on the riled-up reflexes that can flare during holiday seasons and sales. Clever marketing elevates the tempo on our internal ‘must consume’ chemical cocktails, and getting really specific, truly granular about how I intend to use something, and what specific value I will derive from it, helps me maintain a semblance of rationality, even when something is really cool and available at a deep discount.

Will I use this nifty device all the time? Will that use justify its cost and the space it occupies in my life and in my home? Is there some other way to achieve the same end without accruing a new possession? Is there some other way I’d rather be spending this money? Will I feel better knowing this money is there, in the bank, available at need in the future, or will I feel better knowing I’ve spent it — the money lost to me forever — on this thing?

We can make use of the systems that are out there, the same ones that try to manipulate us and which compel us to consume, but we can only do so if we know what we want, why we want it, and what it’s worth to us.

If we don’t have an understanding of ourselves and our hopes, needs, priorities, and yes, financial realities, then we can’t hope to consume intentionally. To buy assets, rather than just more stuff.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.

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That Seems Interesting

We all have metrics for personal success.

These are metrics we develop internally over time, and in most cases they’re predicated on what our society values: money, happiness, family, accomplishment, etc.

One of my prime metrics, gleaned from my parents and other influences I’ve been exposed to over the years, revolves around treating people well and leaving places and individuals better than I found them. Another of mine, which I find to be quite common in people who are drawn to entrepreneurship, is the desire to create valuable things.

Frequently tethered to that latter drive is the desire to profit from the value that one creates, which makes sense. The economic system most people around the world have been born into takes for granted that the creation of value should be rewarded, because we’re all better off when there’s more of it in the world. Unless there’s some major change in the way things operate (which is possible, at some point), this seems like a legitimate tit-for-tat.

That said, the pursuit of this metric, that of the value-creator, is a somewhat treacherous one. Not because it’s inherently negative in any way, but because the drive to create can become conflated with the drive to profit.

Take a poll of entrepreneurs around the world, and I’m willing to bet that at least half of them are in it for the money and prestige, not for the thrill of creation. This isn’t a value-judgement — to each their own — but it’s worth noting. We’re all responsible for cultivating lifestyles that suit our needs, and if money and professional respect are truly what will make a person happy, then more power to them.

That’s actually where I was at, mentally, for many years: on a path toward profit. This was before I realized that more digits in my bank account didn’t actually fill me with anything that could be mistaken for happiness. Satisfaction of a job well done, sometimes, and maybe a certain gratification that I could afford the luxuries that had once been out of reach. But happiness was still something I was convinced I would find after the next project completed, after the next networking event, after the next big check deposited.

I pushed away from that and started traveling full-time, not because I was sure that I would find anything different out in the world, but because I was pretty sure I would at least gain a different perspective on things. The life I was living wasn’t bad, it wasn’t even mediocre, but it was predictable. Secure. I found, a little more each day, that I knew what was coming next. I was able to see what lurked behind every corner and I knew where I would stand next year, in five years, in ten.

Even a beautiful view can lose its luster when you realize you’ll be looking at it every day for the rest of your life.

My metrics have changed wildly in the interim. Many of them I’m still struggling to accurately quantify, or even describe.

The main metric I’ve been focusing on for about a year now can be roughly described as the “That seems interesting, let’s try it” metric. To achieve success according to this measurement, I take action any time I learn or discover something interesting, pursuing further information about it, reading a book or watching a documentary, maybe learning some skills associated with it. There are many subsets of human knowledge that I’ve been curious about for ages, and I’m determined to pull those from the shelf, dust them off, and see what they’re all about.

Like most gauges of success, this one doesn’t have an end point; no final goals that can be completed. It’s a journey without a destination, which is kind of wonderful, because that means it can’t ever end. It will no doubt fork into many other paths along the way, and its up to me to choose how long to walk this one, and when to step off onto another that leads in another direction I want to explore.

The things we do are often only as good as the things we hope to accomplish by doing them.

Make sure the metrics you’re using to measure your actions are well-aligned with your priorities, beliefs, and ambitions.

This essay was originally published in my newsletter.