What motivates charitable giving?

Many of you don’t read Grant Writing Confidential, the other blog I contribute to, but “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley” has wide applicability and will interest many of you, so I’m linking to it from here. There’s also a subtler, deeper point that I didn’t elaborate there: I think most people don’t understand what motivates charitable giving (I didn’t, for a long time). That may be good—perhaps greater ignorance leads to greater giving—but it seems obvious to me now.

It seems strange that greater ignorance would leave to more giving, but I think about my own experiences, since I’ve worked for nonprofit and public agencies in varying capacities for about 15 years. And I’ve been associated with universities in various capacities for about the same length of time. Before I began working in and around universities, for example, I likely thought that donations to universities are an axiomatically good thing.* Now I know a lot more about them and am also a lot more skeptical: universities use far too much of their money on administrators and amenities—signaling functions, basically (the hate for colleges in some precincts has its origins in excess administration). Now I’m much less pro-university and, if I had a bunch of cash to give away, I’d be very unlikely to dump it on a university. I know there’d be a decent chance that most of that money would fund runaway tuition sticker prices.

To be sure, there are probably good ways to give money to universities. Probably the best is to fund particular science labs at non-elite, non-wealthy schools. Stanford probably doesn’t need more money in its labs, but most University of [State] schools probably do, and funding them is underrated. But to learn which labs at which schools need funding is such an undertaking that knowledge would-be donors might simply not bother. In that respect, ignorance might be good—for me, too.

I also used to be convinced that more transparency is better in the vast majority of human realms. Now I’m not so sure. We seem to have far greater political transparency than we once did, thanks to the Internet and some other features of the modern media, but has that made politics better? If so, I don’t see it: We can’t get infrastructure built, and many lobbies are good at pushing their narratives out.

The truth is not transparent and obvious, as I once thought it was, and virtually all of us are susceptible to advertising, marketing, and sloganeering. That last one is especially apparent on Twitter. We “know” some of the important solutions to improving infrastructure development, but in the same sense we (in the sense of “the human race”) know how quantum mechanics work. But I can’t give you a detailed, technically accurate description of quantum mechanics, and how many humans can? A million, maybe, out of seven billion people? Less? I know more about what needs to be done regarding infrastructure, but to explain it all would take a long time a lot of background reading. Most people won’t bother. What good is transparency if the best answers are difficult enough to comprehend that no one seeks them?

Even this post is less likely to be read and understand than a random sloganeering, virtue signaling Tweet is going to be repeated. Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy. That itself is not a popular thing to say but it is true. And if “Knowledge is hard and feelings are easy” were turned into a viral Tweet, it would only demonstrate its own point! Frustrating, in a way, but perhaps the lesson is “chill out, because it’s really hard to get substantive improvements in the world, and most of those improvements probably don’t happen on the Internet.”

You may have noticed that I’ve wandered a long way from the title of this post. That’s deliberate. What motivates human giving probably shouldn’t be stated, because stating it runs contrary to social desirability bias. I will say that “effectiveness” and “ensuring the greatest efficiency per dollar spent” do not motivate the vast majority of donors—though almost all donors will cite those ideas. If you’re the sort of person who wants to know what motivates giving, and you’re frustrated by the way this essay doesn’t directly answer your question, see “Philanthropy is not being disrupted by Silicon Valley,” which offers some answers and links to better ones. But I don’t think most of us really want to know.


* The word “likely” is important because I don’t fully know my mental state from a long time ago.

Violence and the sacred on campus

Read Dan Wang’s “Violence and the Sacred: College as an incubator of Girardian terror,” before you read this essay, because I’m going to agree slightly and disagree slightly with it. Wang writes:

Where should we expect Girard’s predictions for mimetic crises to run most rampant? At places where values are confused and people are much the same. To me, that description best fits one place in particular: the American college.

I agree that American colleges are homogeneous and that homogeneity can create mimetic conflict, but I also think that kind of mimetic conflict is limited to a relatively small group and, in a political sense, they’re mostly activists (I argue something very similar in “Ninety-five percent of people are fine — but it’s that last five percent,” which is based on my experience teaching college students). Ninety-five percent of college students are not that susceptible to mimetic contagion for many reasons, an important one being that, most have no idea what’s going on (and I include myself when I was a college student and arguably now). Most college students at most colleges are more interested in self development, partying, getting a job, and getting laid than they are in mimetic competition for status-oriented pursuits.

Still, I suspect that, the richer the students and the society, the more prone we are to mimetic conflict. In the absence of real problems, humans tend to invent ones, including status driven ones. “Inventing problems where none [or only status-driven ones] exist” is one of the more charitable readings of Trump as president: we’re so rich that we feel we can elect an unqualified buffoon to office and get away with it. If we felt we were facing real crises and problems, we’d be warier of electing a buffoon.

Back to Wang:

Mimetic contagion magnifies small fights by making people focus on each other. These processes follow their own logic until they reach conclusions that look so extreme to the outside world. Once internal rivalries are sorted out, people coalesce into groups united against something foreign. These tendencies help explain why events on campus so often make the news. It seems like every other week we see some campus activity being labeled a “witch hunt,” “riot,” or something else that involves violence, implied or explicit. I don’t care to link to these events, they’re so easy to find. It’s interesting to see that academics are increasingly becoming the target of student activities. The Girardian terror devours its children first, who have tolerated or fanned mimetic contagion for so long.

Remember, though, that the crazy campus protests and the abuse of the campus bureaucracy occur among a small number of students at a small number of schools—to return to an earlier point, the students at Yale are rich and satisfied enough to go bonkers over Halloween costumes; students at community colleges are too worried about paying the rent to ignite mimetic rivalry. Most students, to the extent they think about free speech, respect and admire it. Most get the importance of free ideas. Those events that “so often make the news” make the news because they’re pretty uncommon, even at rich, well-marketed schools.

On problem campuses, more reasonable students are often reluctant to challenge the crazier, noisier ones—which is a problem. At the same time, the growing contingent faculty (like myself) are reluctant to explicitly challenge the crazier and noisier students,  because when college administrators see a ruckus they above all else want that ruckus to go away. One easy way to make it go away is to make sure there are no extra sections next semester for any contingent instructors who are involved with problems. The problem student soon graduates and the adjunct goes away even sooner. Ruckus solved! On to seeking donations and good PR and collecting a fat salary.

Don’t get me wrong—those mimetic-rivalry driven events are bad and the administrators (and sometimes faculty) should stand up for the freedom to speak and think. But always consider the incentives facing the actors in a given situation when you start applying highly abstract moral reasoning from outside the situation.

Wang notes many of the ways that students engage in zero-sum competition:

Once people enter college, they get socialized into group environments that usually continue to operate in zero-sum competitive dynamics. These include orchestras and sport teams; fraternities and sororities; and many types of clubs.

There’s a lot of truth there, but I’m not sure fraternities and sororities are good examples. I think the students are less in the grip of mimetic contagion and more in the grip of simple libido (which brings us to an easier supply-demand story and perhaps evolutionary biology story—as I argue at the preceding link). Frats and sororities have zero-sum qualities, but people can and do start new fraternities and sororities, and I don’t know that most fraternities and sororities have the kinds of hard caps that make them truly zero sum. They do practice a lot of exclusion, again primarily on sexual and sexual desirability grounds.

I’d say that the worst mimetic crises are actually experienced not by undergrads but by humanities grad students (Wang addresses grad students towards the end of his essay). In the humanities, there are almost no real jobs after graduation. The field has become highly political and grad school has become cotillion for eggheads, even more than it used to be. The dearth of jobs and challenges in getting them is one reason grad students are willing to do and think whatever their professors say: the students need to do everything right if they’re going to have an even remote chance of getting a real gig. Over time you get nonsense like most of “literary theory,” “intersectionality,” and Alan Sokal debunkings.*

Science isn’t immune to mimetic crises, but at least scientists have the real world as a fairly objective measuring stick. From what I’ve observed, the humanities have the most serious crises, followed by the social sciences, and followed finally by the hard sciences. Business and law schools are probably somewhere near the rank of the social sciences (and Wang’s Thiel quotes about MBAs are great).

Then Wang shifts to talk about Big Little Lies, and his reading of the show is also excellent:

I haven’t watched much TV recently, but the new show I’ve liked best is Big Little Lies on HBO. Rich suburban moms, with desires mediated by their children, are incited towards violence against each other in gorgeous Monterey, California. Who can resist?

I can! I watched a couple episodes and while the murder premise held my attention initially, the stultifying atmosphere of stupendously rich, childish idiots drove me away. It wasn’t funny enough to justify itself. In other words, I dislike it for some of the reasons Wang likes it. But seeing it through that Girardian lens makes me like it better, or at least understand it better. You could also do a good Girardian reading of the first season of UnREAL, which is my favorite recent TV show.

Then there’s this, which is just important and probably underrated:

Because acts of youth are more easily recalled, our future elites will be made up of people who’ve managed to keep their records unsullied. What happens when most records of our life are accessible via Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, or blogs? I think that makes it so that our future leaders will be selected for whether they were willing to be really boring in their 20s, who have no recorded indiscretions that might derail a Senate confirmation. Are these the people we want to be governed by?

Among my friends I hear a common joke or refrain: “I could never run for office after last weekend.” Or: “I could never run for office after the pics I sent her.” Except it’s not really a joke (though in the age of Trump I begin to wonder how true it is: maybe the electorate is more accepting than I’d previously thought). And you know what? I could never run for office. I also have a terrible personality for politics, but many people who show political promise can’t run in a polarized world that remembers everything. Not until the culture changes.

I’m not a Girardian and whenever I’ve started his books I’ve felt torn in two: some passages and sections are brilliant and some are idiotic, and sometimes brilliance and idiocy are right next to each other. Is the latter the price of the former? I just looked for my copy of Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, but I can’t find it and suspect I must have donated it somewhere along the way, assuming that I’d never read it again. My copy of Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World seems to have also disappeared.

Still, after the thousand words above, I do wonder if it might be a good idea to tell college students that they are susceptible to mimetic crises. I also favor explicitly telling students that some majors and paths to graduation are pretty bogus in terms of learning and are mostly there to keep students happy (they get a degree), professors happy (they get a job), and administrators happy (they get tuition money). One could at least conceive of colleges telling students to be wary of mimetic desire. One cannot conceive of them telling students to be wary of the incentives the college itself faces.

EDIT: I also thought, and maybe still think to some extent, that sexual attractiveness is not that subject to mimetic desire, at least among men. But while reading Henrich’s The Secret of Our Success I came across this passage, which supports the sexual aspects of mimetic desire (though not mimetic crises):

neuroscientists have examined the process by which people change their ratings of facial attractiveness in response to cultural learning. In one experiment, male participants rated 180 female faces on a seven-point scale from 1, unattractive, to 7, attractive. After each rating, they were then shown what they believed to be the average rating for that face by other men. In reality, however, on 60 random faces this rating was generated by computer to be 2 to 3 points higher or lower than the participants’ ratings. The rest of the time, the ‘average rating’ was calculated to be close to the participant’s own rating. Then, a half an hour later, participants underwent brain scanning while they rated all 180 faces again, though no average scores were provided this time. The questions are, how did seeing others’ attractiveness ratings influence their subsequent ratings of the same faces, and what was going on in their brains?

As usual, participants raised their attractiveness ratings when they saw higher averages from others and reduced them when they saw lower ratings. The brain scans reveal that seeing the different ratings of others altered their subjective evaluations of those faces. Combined with data from other similar studies, it appears that shifting to agree with others altered their subjective evaluations of faces. Combined with data from other similar studies, it appears that shifting to agree with others is internally (neurologically) rewarding and results in enduring neural modifications that change preferences or valuations. (265)

So we have at least one experimentally verified example of mimetic desire operating on men’s views of women. The faking of other people’s evaluations is a particularly nice touch!

This may also argue that we have much stronger incentives to manipulate user reviews than I’d previously thought. If so, that in turn applies we should not trust Amazon reviews that much.


* It’s still possible to find humanities articles that would make the kinds of moves that Wang does in his post: take someone interesting, comment on its relationship to some larger society, and tie it into some work of art in a novel-but-readable way. Today, though, that style of peer-reviewed article has mostly disappeared under an avalanche of bad writing and “theory.”

Automatic, unthinking opposition is bad

Elon Musk actually believes Rex Tillerson could be an ‘excellent’ Secretary of State” strikes a skeptical tone about Tillerson, but so far I haven’t seen a strong explanation about why he wouldn’t be. There is much to dislike and fear about Trump—I in particular worry about the way he raises the risks of global nuclear war—but it is unwise to automatically oppose anyone he proposes for his Cabinet or anything he does.

It is also not impossible that Trump will appoint a good FDA commissioner. It is possible that House Republicans will reform Social Security, which is an unmitigated good for anyone under the age of 40 or so (barring a sudden, unexpected takeoff in growth, the Social Security and Medicare edifices will not provide anything like current benefits when people my age are the age of current recipients; workers my age are paying taxes for the fiscal services old people get that we ourselves are unlikely to get when we are that old, and that ought to affect our voting patterns (it doesn’t)).

One should reserve opprobrium for where it is deserved and not fire it off generically, especially based on innuendo or simple partisan affiliation. Again, that is not to approve of Trump or most things House Republicans favor, but it should contextualize the discussion. As far as I can tell, Tillerson could be an excellent Secretary of State (he could also be a terrible one). I know very little about him and wish to avoid castigating him or anyone else based on automatic partisanship.

Doing so is of course hard, for reasons Jonathan Haidt describes in The Righteous Mind and Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels describe in Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Those books are too long to describe briefly, but both show that most people are partisans first and thinkers about individual issues second, or third, or even fourth. There is much evidence for this case, perhaps the most interesting being the last election: Trump is not a Republican in an ideological or issue-based sense, but he did get the nomination and most Republicans and nominal Republicans voted for him anyway.

I’m also not sure I could enumerate the qualities of a good Secretary of State versus a bad one, and I wonder how many people with strongly stated views on Tillerson could. I wonder how many could say anything useful about his views and background. I can’t.

The Shipwrecked Mind: On Political Reaction — Mark Lilla

The Shipwrecked Mind is many things, including inconsistently fascinating and incredibly useful in the contemporary political atmosphere. It has something of Albert Hirschman in it (which is a tremendous compliment). Others have discussed it, including an NYT review here and Tyler Cowen here. Here is the anti-reactionary FAQ, from 2013 and over long but relevant to The Shipwrecked Mind; the title itself tells us something of Lilla’s sympathies or perspective. The book is consistently surprising, as when we learn that philosopher Leo Strauss liked using “Dear Abby” columns as teaching devices (that he did speaks well of him: maybe he had a strong grasp on the texture of real life than most philosophers seem to).

Some sections are just wildly good, like this paragraph, which I wish I’d written:

Successful ideologies follow a certain trajectory. They are first developed in narrow sects whose adherents share obsessions and principles, and see themselves as voices in the wilderness. To have any political effect, though, these groups must learn to work together. That’s difficult for obsessive, principled people, which is why at the political fringes one always finds little factions squabbling futilely with each other. But for an ideology to really reshape politics it must cease being a set of principles and become instead a vaguer general outlook that new information and events only strengthen. You really know when an ideology has matured when every event, present and past, is taken as confirmation of it.

shipwrecked_mindThese groups must also expand their size and scope, and convince others, none of which are easy: Most people are not ideological (or they are subconsciously ideological) and just don’t care. People who really care about and attempt to implement ideology in their own life are rare. Many also espouse an ideology but live contrary to it; socialists for example rarely got past this challenge.

There are many lines of the sort that explain why it’s hard for me to take philosophy seriously, like, “We live inauthentically because of Socrates” (note that this is not Lilla’s view; he is describing another’s view, accurately I hope). The section on Eric Voegelin is probably over-long, at least in my view, and it is hard to imagine him and his writings having so much influence on later reactionary thought. Or maybe I just find some of Voegelin’s claims ridiculous, like, his argument in The New Science of Politics, as articulated by Lilla: “the entire modern age, which grew out of a rebellion against Christianity, was gnostic in nature.” What? I’d argue that the modern age has grown out of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, with technical breakthroughs leading the way to social or cultural ones.

Still, Voegelin does eventually renounce his earlier thought, and until 1974 his “works were like those of other antimodern cultural pessimists who since the nineteenth century have constructed historical narratives presuming to pinpoint the moment when healthy modes of thinking and living were abandoned and the rot began.” Lilla’s list of those thinkers and their various answers is impressive, and it also points to the ridiculousness of the concept itself because of the variety of answers given and rationales behind those answers.

Later, in “From Luther to Walmart” (my favorite chapter), Lilla writes:

It is a revealing psychological fact that the most common historical myths with which early civilizations comforted themselves were stories of fated decline, which give temporal reasons for why life is so hard. We suffer because we live in the Age of Iron, far removed from our origins in the Age of Gold. If we are good perhaps one day the gods will smile down and return us to the world we have lost.

I don’t think I’ve ever bought the myth of the golden age; getting specific about what prior time one would like to live tends to kill it. Today is not perfect, but few of us choose to even attempt to give it up—not for any length of time, at least. I am reminded of the very end of Philip Pullman’s anti-reaction His Dark Materials Trilogy:

“We have to be all those difficult things like cheerful and kind and curious and brave and patient, and we’ve got to study and think, and work hard, all of us, in all our different worlds, and then we’ll build…”
“And then what? […] Build what?”
“The republic of heaven.”

In Pullman’s reading, we don’t get handed heaven (or much else). We make it for ourselves or don’t get it at all. A thrilling conclusion, in my view, and too uncommon, which is part of what makes it stand out.

Few if any of the writers in The Shipwrecked Mind seem to take this sunny view. It is perhaps telling that sunny views seem common in the tech industry and uncommon in the philosophy industry. A longer essay might explain why, but for now I will post the question.

Oddly at times I find myself thinking of The Shipwrecked Mind, “Does any of this shit matter in comparison to pop culture?”

I don’t think I got enough out of it in the first pass, which is a good sign.

The more you do it the better you get: Why Americans might not work less

In “Why Do Americans Work So Much?“, Rebecca Rosen poses some answers to the question in the title, most notably, “American inequality means that the gains of increasing productivity are not widely shared. In other words, most Americans are too poor to work less.” I’m not convinced this is true; one problem we have involves the difficulty or illegality of building and selling relatively inexpensive housing in high-demand areas (see here and here for two discussions, and please don’t leave a comment unless you’ve read both links thoroughly). Some of what looks like financial “inequality” is actually people paying a shit ton of money for housing in New York, Seattle, L.A., and similar places, rather than living in cheaper places like Houston or Phoenix. Homeowners who vote in those areas vote to keep housing prices high by strangling supply.

Plus, I’d add that, per “The inequality that matters II: Why does dating in Seattle get left out?“, financial inequality isn’t the only kind, though for some reason it’s gotten an overwhelming amount of play in the press over the last ten years. I’ve seen people speculate that financial inequality is fun to attack because money can easily be taken from someone at the point of a gun and given to someone else, while other forms of inequality like beauty or a playful disposition can’t be taken so easily.

Still, there’s one other important factor that may be unexplored: Demanding and remunerative cognitive jobs may not be easy to partition. That is, one person doing a cognitively demanding job 40 hours per week is way more efficient than two people doing the same job for 20 hours a week. And that same person may be even more efficient working 50 or 60 hours a week.

Let me explain. With some classic manufacturing tasks—let’s imagine a very simple one, like turning an hex key—you can do x turns per hour times y hours. With many high-value jobs, and even ambiguously defined median-value jobs, that isn’t true. In my not-tremendous-but-not-zero experience in coding, having one person stuff as much of the code base—that is, the problem space—into their head as possible makes the work better. The person learns a lot about edge cases and keeps larger parts of the codebase in their mind. The cost of attempting to explain the code base to another person is much higher than keeping it all in one’s head.

Among professors, the ones who’ve read the most and written the most usually exponentially better than those who have read 75% and written 75% as much. They’re 5x as valuable, not 33% more valuable.

One sees similar patterns recur across cognitively demanding fields. Once a person has put in the 10,000 hours necessary to master that field, each additional hour is highly valuable, and, even better, the problem domain is better understood. That’s part of the reason law firms charge so much for top lawyers. Those top lawyers have skills that can only be developed through extensive, extreme practice.

I see this effect in grant writing: we don’t split proposal tasks because doing so vastly increases the communication overhead. I’m much more efficient in writing an entire proposal than two or three people could be each writing parts. We’ve rescued numerous doomed proposals from organizations that attempted this approach and failed.

Many of you have probably heard about unfinished and perhaps unfinishable projects (often initiated by government). Here’s a list of famous failed software projects. Some of those projects simply become so massive that latency and bandwidth between the workers in the project overwhelm the doing of actual work. The project becomes all management and no substance. As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, we’ve seen many grant proposals fail because of too many writers and no real captain. At least with proposals, the final work product is sufficiently simple that a single person can write an entire narrative. In software, thousands of people or more may contribute to a project (depending on where you draw the line, hundreds of thousands may contribute: does anyone who has worked on the compiler or version control system or integrated development environment (IDE) count?).

Put these trends together and you get people working more because the costs of splitting up tasks are so much higher. If you put five junior lawyers on a project, they may come up with a worse answer or set of answers than a single senior lawyer who has the problem space in his head. The same thing could conceivably be true in software as well. The costs of interconnection are real. This will increase inequality because top people are so valuable while simultaneously meaning that a person can’t earn x% of the income through x% of the work. A person must do 100% or not compete at all.

This is also consistent with changes in financial remuneration, which the original author considers. It’s also consistent with Paul Graham’s observations in “The Refragmentation.”

Finally, there may also be signaling issues. Here is one Robin Hanson post on related concerns. At some point, Hanson described working for Lockheed before he did his Ph.D., and if I recall correctly he tried to work fewer hours for commensurately lower pay, and that did not go over well. Maybe Lockheed was cognizant of the task-splitting costs I note above, or maybe they were more concerned with what Hanson was communicating about his devotion to the job, or what example he’d set to the others.

So earning may not be scalable. It may be binary. We may not be “working” less because we’re poor. We may be working less because the nature of many tasks and occupations are binary: You win big by working big hours or don’t work much at all.

EDIT: See also “You Don’t Need More Free Time,” which argues that we may not need more free time, but rather the right free time—when our friends are free. I also wonder if too much “free” time is also enervating in its own way.

Praise, criticism, and hypocrisy around people you know

I got some pushback on two recent posts, in which I said “Bess Stillman is the best med school essay writer there is” and that Mate is good but that I’m not an unbiased observer. The basic thrust of the pushback is that I shouldn’t talk about books or services or people I have a direct connection to. But I don’t think it’s true: Dr. Stillman is the best person in her genre I’ve ever seen, and Mate is the book that young straight guys (and probably some older straight guys) need to read. It’s possible to praise those works without compromising intellectual integrity, and indeed if I thought either of their works weren’t good I’d be silent. Silence is often tact; I’m sure some people I know dislike or feel neutral towards Asking Anna or The Hook, and for the most part they’ve said nothing. But approval matters too, and Dr. Stillman’s admission consulting and Mate are worth your attention; attention is the scarcest commodity in the modern information economy and I don’t want to waste mine or yours.*

We live in an information-rich and insight-poor environment. Much of the writing masquerading as insight isn’t, really, and I want to imagine that I’m ever-so-slightly changing the ratio of information to insight. That happens not only around books or ideas I write about, but also about books or ideas or services by people I know—and there is still a key difference between people who I know in real life and people I don’t. For as long as humans are humans personal interactions will matter. That’s why I only do book interviews in person: there’s a different energy there that unlocks ideas not unlocked via written interviews. I’m not saying one medium is better than the other—they’re different—but I am saying the outcomes tend to be different in ways hard to define but easy to feel and notice.

Within this context, it’s possible to be silent when something is not worth attention and loud when something is. If you’re writing bad things about your significant other in a public space, you should really reconsider who you are married to, dating, or sleeping with. Actually, the person you are married to, dating, or sleeping with ought really to reconsider you. The place to offer (suitable delicately phrased) criticism is in private, not on the public Internet.

I of course am not the first person to discuss these matters and I won’t be the last. They’re matters tact, money, and interest, which never go out of style and are always a challenge for every era, and arguably moreso for ours. Authenticity is a bogus concept and yet it’s everywhere (and its bogosity makes it attractive to marketers and other people with shit to sell). I like to think I’m disinclined towards bullshit, in the Frankfurt sense, while still being able to speak to books, works, products, and services that I know through personal connections. So I include disclaimers about potential conflicts of interest where they’re relevant and otherwise try to say things that are true and interesting. The world has an eternal shortage of statements that are true and interesting.


* That’s also one reason why I no longer write negative reviews of books or other materials that are bad in uninteresting ways.

The Friendship Challenge

The Limits of Friendship” is primarily about the Dunbar number, and the article’s attendant Hacker News discussion evolved or devolved toward discussing friendship more generally (“Reading the comments, I’d say many members of HN should probably invest more time fostering friendships”). Both remind me of discussions with friends, about the nature of friendship, and how most people seem ill-prepared for social life after school.

In American and perhaps Western society as a whole like-minded people at similar life stages continuously mix together from age five up to at least age 18 and often well into the 20s through school. Then people often stop routinely mixing with new people, different people find themselves in different stages of life, and the friend machine often stops.* Yet it doesn’t have to, but making friends and meeting people becomes a skill more than a side effect of being.

A friend observed that I have a “gift” for talking to strangers, which would probably be a funny observation to my family or people who knew me in high school. Still I thought the comment was awesome because I’m quite the opposite: when I was a teenager I was pathologically shy for a lot of my life, and it’s taken a lot of effort to cultivate the ability to be social with strangers. I wrote to the friend that casually and regularly making friends is a learned behavior for me.

I used to never do it (flirting with women was also a learned behavior, as extensively and embarrassingly discussed here). Now that I do, however, I’ve noticed that people think I’m automatically good at it. A lot of things people now identify as characteristic Jake behaviors are really, really learned. I think that the temptation to see them as innate is attractive because it excuses us from doing the work necessary to cultivate and practice them.

I don’t want to be one of those people who hit 30 and are like, “Gee, I don’t have any friends anymore…” Part of the challenge comes from friendships being defined by time-of-life. Single people want to party and mingle with other single people. Couples (often) with couples, since single people can be threatening to relationship stability. Parents of young children rarely hit the bars at 10:00 p.m. on Thursday night.

Generalizations are obviously not universally applicable to all people all the time, but they exist for a reason. People with kids identify with other people with kids and so on. Parents talk about babysitting and their children’s shitting habits (I seriously hope to never do that). Your best friend at 20 might have nothing in common by 30 depending on when / where / how you evolve.

I see more and more lonely people who are like “Why am I lonely?!?” Let me be harsh for a moment and say they’re like fat people who are like, “Why am I fat?” and “I want to lose weight.” Some people have medical or medication issues, but for most the answers are straightforward: “Stop eating cookies and drinking soda and do some pushups and ride your bike instead of driving your car.” The response is usually, “I don’t have time blah blah blah.” Problems have solutions and there are many ways to falsely divide people into two groups, and one of those ways is between people who do the shit necessary to be effective and the ones who don’t.

Everything I have learned I feel like I have learned the hard way, through enormous amounts of error. That’s one reason I’m not too pissed about being told I’m a novice lifter at the gym. Chances are the trainer is right and I need to practice. Practice is everything. I suck at everything until I try, really hard and really repeatedly, to get better at it.

Friendship also isn’t quantifiable, which probably dissuades some high achievers who want everything measured in grades, dollars, or some other metric (that Facebook can be measured in this way may be one problem with it). There are still guides to becoming better at people. For example, How to Win Friends and Influence People is surprisingly good. I heard about it through reputation and assumed it would be stupid. I was wrong. Read it, annotate it, read it again in three months. There is a reason it has endured for (literally) generations—I think it first came out in the 1920s or 1930s—and that’s because its advice is timeless.

How to Be Polite” has one or two paragraphs that are brilliant (it also has some other paragraphs):

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.

The resources are there. The challenge is implementation. Let me repeat myself: Making and keeping friends is a learned skill, which many of us never learn and some of us learn much later than we should.


* (Adolescence is hard because it scrambles all the rules and principles learn about friendship from approximately toddlerhood to say age 12. Tom Perrotta’s Election has a great line in which a character observes that sex habitually turns friends into strangers and strangers into friends. Francine Prose’s young adult novel Touch hits similar themes. It may be that many people are unhappy that we never really return to those pre-puberty rules and roles because our desires and incentives change, and we have powerful evolutionarily shaped drives to do certain things and behave in certain ways.)

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