This past month, I went back and reread the book Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber. The first time I read the book was back in 2013 and, ever since, I’ve largely considered it one of my favorite books on economics, the history of finance and political history. It changed how I thought about money, government and business.
Yet, this time, I struggled to get through it. Sections I thought were thoroughly researched, I now found to be somewhat myopic and one-sided. Arguments that once convinced me now merely triggered skepticism.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a great read and full of fascinating information. But whereas the first time I read it felt like it was showing me all the many ways in which I was wrong, this time I couldn’t help but notice all of the many places where it was potentially wrong.
I love having this experience. There’s nothing like reading an old favorite book many years later to gauge how much more you’ve learned and how much your personal values have changed. I relish being disappointed reading stuff I loved 5-10 years ago. It signals that my thinking has evolved.
I have noticed that since I turned thirty, a number of my views on the world have shifted. They have shifted to the point that I now find myself on the opposite of many of the same arguments I had in my 20s.
(Although sometimes it’s hard to know how much you’ve changed and the world has changed. I’ve come to the conclusion that both have changed quite a bit in the past decade.)
I get asked all the time by readers if my views have changed, if I still agree with what’s written in my books, older articles, podcasts I appeared on five years ago, etc. Below are the four major areas where I’ve seen my beliefs and personal values shift, and why.
Keep in mind that when I say “shift,” I mean it’s as though they’ve moved along on a spectrum between two points. These days, if you say something like, “Wow, I really underestimated the role of genetics in human behavior,” people take that to mean that you are suggesting that all behavior is a result of human genetics. That’s just fucking stupid.
In none of the cases below am I switching from one all-or-nothing stance to another all-or-nothing stance. These are large, complicated topics with a lot of inputs. In every case, I have simply shifted the weight I give to each input.
I Have a Lot More Respect for Genetics Than I Used To
The self-help world has long held this naive and idealistic view that you can change anything about yourself as long as you work hard enough and set your mind to it. This belief is pretty convenient when you’re selling courses on how to change yourself.
Coming from a predominantly self-help background, I tacitly accepted this view for much of my young adult life. Yet, gradually over the years, as I’ve become more informed, my understanding of genetics has slowly chipped away at that belief, to the point now where I think genetics are probably just as important as any other factor in determining human behavior.
I’ll give you a simple example. Ten years ago, if a reader emailed me complaining that they were introverted and shy in social situations and wished they were extraverted and the life of the party, I probably would have launched into a litany of mental exercises, social experiments, and motivational tools to help them achieve their goal.
Today, if that same reader emailed me, I would probably reply with, “What’s wrong with being introverted?” The problem is not that they aren’t the life of the party. It’s that they’ve told themselves they need to be the life of the party to be happy.
Reams of research show that introverted people generally don’t become extremely extroverted (and vice-versa). People who experience tons of anxiety generally always struggle with anxiety.
Genetics are like the gravity of our personality. Sure, you can train yourself to be more social, to feel less anxious, to be more charismatic, but the degree to which you can change these things will always be limited by your genetics.
I could practice basketball everyday for a year and become a much better basketball player, but I will likely never be a good basketball player. I’m slow, clunky, and uncoordinated. Always have been.
This subject gets particularly touchy when it comes to childhood and trauma. If you accept the premise that you are capable of changing anything about yourself, then the most logical explanation for why you’re not the way you want to be is that your parents/childhood fucked you up. As a result, a lot of self-help and cheap therapy will spend a lot of time going over every upsetting experience you ever had as a child, as if that solves anything.
But the science doesn’t really back this up. You don’t have anger issues because your parents never respected your feelings growing up. You most likely have anger issues because your parents have anger issues, and their parents had anger issues, and so on.
Therefore, my view of mental health has shifted considerably over the past 10 years. Instead of focusing so much on change, it’s become far more about acceptance. Instead of dreaming about the future, it’s about being aware in the present. Instead of optimizing the good, it’s about managing the bad. Obviously, these ideas have been reflected quite a bit in my books. But the genetics train doesn’t stop there.
Because the power of genetics shows up everywhere. Political beliefs likely have a large component of genetic basis. Social and anti-social behavior does as well. So does ambition and/or motivation. So does intelligence and academic success. So does how we see and experience intimate relationships. So do things like gender and sex.
These facts upset a lot of people. As a result, they usually incite a lot of pushback about being a “biological determinist” or something—basically people with an all-or-nothing view of human nature (“it’s all nurture”) painting everyone else with an all-or-nothing brush (“you must believe it’s all nature.”) And if the criticism is really fucking stupid, they’ll say something about white supremacy or Nazism or whatever.
But I think these facts actually imply the opposite conclusion from what the critics assume: if much of human behavior is biologically-based, then we need more tolerance, not less. This is one area where left-wing politics has become completely incoherent in the past decade. They want to have it both ways. On the one hand, they want to believe that all behaviors and lifestyle decisions were a choice or a product of a person’s environment. On the other hand, they don’t want anyone to ever be judged or criticized for those behaviors and choices.
It makes no sense. The reason LGBT people should be respected is because they had no choice in being LGBT. The reason we should help people with learning disabilities is because they did not choose to have a learning disability. The reason we should not discriminate based on race and gender is because we do not control our race and gender. The reason we should support people with mental health issues is because they largely did not cause their own mental health issues.
The biology is what demands empathy, not what negates it. Therefore the reality of genetics is the best ethical argument the political left has. But for some reason they refuse to acknowledge it, much less use it.
Culture is the Most Underrated Explanation for Most Long-Term Social Problems
From 2009 to 2015, I lived all over the world. I visited over 60 countries and lived in about eight of them for multiple months at a time. Initially, when I began my travels, I had what you would consider a classic naive view of your typical privileged 20-something American kid. I believed people were the same everywhere and it was just their unfortunate circumstances (as well as a history of colonialism, war, and oppression) that caused inequities around the world.
Part of this is true. People’s needs are universal. Whether you’re in Cambodia or Cambridge, Tokyo or Toronto, people want to feel appreciated, they want to feel competent, and they want to feel secure. They care about their families, their friends, their reputation, and their futures.
But each place has constructed different strategies to meet these needs and different value systems to provide them. And in each place, these systems and strategies feel totally normal and expected, even if they look nothing like what people do in other places.
These differing value systems are their cultures. And after enough time and visiting enough places, it’s impossible to ignore that some cultures help people meet their needs better than others.
I will give a simple example from a country I know well. I lived in Brazil for over two years, speak Portuguese fairly well, and I’m married to a Brazilian. In Brazil there is an attitude loosely known as jeitinho, which doesn’t really have a direct translation in English.
Jeitinho refers to the ability to find ways to cut corners or “hack” the system in some way. So if I figure out a way to renew my driver’s license without having to wait in line for three hours, that’s jeitinho. If I manage to find a way into the soccer game without having to pay for a ticket, that’s jeitinho. If I discover that I can park on a street without having to pay for it because the police only check at certain times per day, that’s jeitinho.
Every country has some corruption and most developing countries have a lot of corruption. What’s different in Brazil is that jeitinho is seen as a cultural norm. Something expected and even admired. Many Brazilians have a certain amount of pride around their ability to exhibit jeitinho. It’s like that feeling you get when you get an ‘A’ on the test without studying.
This pride totally makes sense, too. Brazil has a long history of exploitative colonialism and dysfunctional governments. Their social systems have been either incredibly corrupt or non-existent for centuries. Often jeitinho was the only way to actually get things done in the country. As a result, jeitinho became a cultural value, something that people see as good and impressive.
The problem is that when everyone exhibits jeitinho, that corruption and dysfunction never stops. Because it’s not just the guy trying to get out of a parking ticket who is trying to hack the system, it’s the guy giving the parking tickets, and the bank processing the parking tickets and the government official who created the legislation for the parking tickets—they all have ways in which they slightly cheat the system to their own advantage, and the result is that the system continues to not work.
To me, this is a clear example of a cultural value that is damaging to society. And if you look closely, pretty much every culture has at least one. In the United States, I’ve written that our “jeitinho” is probably related to our belief in the American Dream, the idea that if someone is poor or broke it’s their own damn fault, that they should have worked harder. Again, this cultural value made sense for a number of centuries, as you had a mostly empty continent with tons of natural resources and few restrictions or regulations to commerce. Under those circumstances, you really couldn’t blame anyone but yourself if you didn’t succeed. But in the 21st century, the economy is not what it used to be, and I believe this same ethos is largely damaging.
The problem with these cultural problems is that when you grow up and live in that culture, you’re like a fish in water: you don’t even know it’s there. It doesn’t even occur to you that it could be otherwise, that there are other potentially better cultural values that could be adopted.
The other problem with dealing with culture is that it’s highly abstract and hard to measure. How do you determine what is culture and what’s not simply economics or incentives? Has the southside of Chicago developed a culture of violence because of the poverty and lack of opportunity? Or is there poverty and a lack of opportunity because of the culture of violence? It’s a chicken-and-egg situation that is often impossible to untangle.
Some would say that for these reasons, we should simply not talk about culture at all. Many people see the conversation that superior/inferior cultural values could potentially exist at all, as a form of bigotry.
But, to me, this is insane. If one culture tolerates sex trafficking and violence against children (as some cultures in the world do), then I have no problem stating that those are inferior cultural values. Nor should you.
I think the reason culture is so important is because it is so persistent over the centuries. Last year, I read a massive biography of George Washington. And throughout the book, it struck me over and over how much things haven’t changed in the United States. Much of our national character (and political polarization) was present even in the 18th century.
One thing I noticed on my travels is that pretty much every country in the world that was part of the slave trade is still dealing with huge issues around racism, crime, poverty inequality and political strife, even hundreds of years later. There’s a social instability in former slave-trading countries that doesn’t exist in other parts of the world.
I also think one reason people don’t like to talk about culture is because it is so hard to change. It takes generations to affect cultural change. It’s much easier to talk about tax cuts or regulations or how this one guy in Congress is a huge asshole. Whereas figuring out how to significantly shift the value-based narrative of an entire country is not only too hard to figure out, but probably can never be achieved by one person alone.
The More Experiences I have with Governments, the More Capitalist I Become
Look, I get why so many millennials identify with socialism. The two biggest industries that have dominated our lifetimes—tech and finance—have produced innovations that have arguably not made society any better, and potentially made things much worse. As Peter Thiel once said, “We asked for flying cars and instead all we got was Twitter.”
I suppose I should pre-empt this point by saying that I’m not a radical capitalist—I don’t think every market should be free and open. Clearly, free markets produce worse results in some industries (e.g., health care) and the redistribution of wealth is necessary. But all else being equal, free markets are generally going to create the most prosperity and quality of life for the most people.
This is one of those situations where I was never not a capitalist, I’ve simply become much more of one. The first and most significant cause of this is probably simply owning a successful business myself, i.e., being responsible for a number of employees, and experiencing, first hand, many of the stupid regulations and policies that governments enact.
In theory, government regulation is great. Humans have a tendency to be selfish and greedy and we need some centralized system to check businesses and industries when they get out of line. This is something I have always believed and I still do.
The problem is that effective regulation is far easier said than done. Most regulations are not regulations as much as they are unnecessary headaches for business owners and free money for corporate lawyers who help you navigate the bullshit. They put a drag on commerce and in most cases, fail to deter the bad behavior they are meant to.
And did it actually change anything? Do you ever see that pop-up and think to yourself, “Oh gee, this website is tracking my activity I better leave!” No. Everyone just clicks “Accept” and moves on. It has zero effect on actual privacy and user behavior.
But the clincher for me has been the pandemic. Look, I know governments are inefficient and kind of suck at things, but holy moly, watching government after government fail miserably in their response to COVID-19 has been nothing short of stunning and upsetting.
Meanwhile, the saviors of 2020 were quietly—guess who? That’s right—big businesses.
Amazon hired over 150,000 new employees in the span of a few months. Wal-Mart hired similar numbers. Both companies managed their supply chains immaculately to prevent shortages of food or consumer goods for lockdowns. This was the biggest labor mobilization in the US since World War II and it literally went unreported.
What’s even crazier is that grocery store chains like HEB started stocking extra food in supplies in January. That’s right, while the governments of the world and the WHO couldn’t decide if the virus was dangerous or not, your local grocery store chain was already quietly prepping behind the scenes because they knew the lockdowns were likely to come.
And this doesn’t even get to the pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer and Moderna. Moderna invented their vaccine in a single weekend. Pfizer refused government funding because they said it would limit the speed in which they could scale production. And guess what? They were right.
The investment legend Charlie Munger is fond of saying that in the long run, incentives are the only thing that matter. Everything else is just preaching. Humans are not complicated. We are simple, selfish creatures.
Sure, when we’re with friends and family and feeling charitable, we can access a part of our consciousness where we feel an expanse of love and generosity that lasts for brief periods of time. But our default state is that of simple selfishness—what will be good for me in the near future? What will be good for my kids? What will protect my family?
Capitalism is the only system that leverages this inherent self-absorption of human nature in a way that benefits everyone. Sure, it still has its excesses and corruption, but so does every human system. To steal the Churchill maxim, “Capitalism is the worst economic system, except for all the others.”
Nothing Works Without Trust
The world looks like an embattled arena through distrustful eyes. Living with a widespread distrust of companies, institutions and the people in them generates a zero-sum view of the world. If he’s winning, that means I’m losing. And if I’m losing, then I’ve got to fight to get ahead, at any cost.
The more I learn and understand about human relationships and society, the more I appreciate how nothing works without trust.
Without trust, interpersonal relationships fail. If I don’t trust what my brother says to me, or that my friends care about me, or that my wife is going where she said she was going, then my relationships become weapons held against me. Distrust reduces everything to a zero-sum game where if you’re not a winner, you’re a loser. And in a zero-sum world, nothing is worse than being the loser.
This applies to society as well. If I don’t trust the bank to send me my money or my employer to cover my benefits or my government’s regulations to actually punish someone mishandling my retirement account, the same result occurs — everything becomes a threat, and the world becomes zero sum. Life becomes “screw over lest ye get screwed over,” and the cycle begins.
If political scientists and social psychologists agree on one thing, it’s trust. Without trust, nothing else works.
Trust creates an upward spiral. The more two people trust each other, the better the relationship becomes, the more they will trust each other further, the better the relationship becomes, etc. The more people within a society trust each other, the more safe and secure they feel, the better institutions function, the more they will continue to trust each other, etc.
Distrust creates a downward spiral. The more two people distrust each other, the more selfish and disingenuous they will behave with each other. The worse the relationship will get and the more they will distrust each other. The more people within a society distrust each other, the more selfish their decisions, the worse the institutions and industry will perform, the more corruption it will create, which will lead to more distrust, etc.
High trust societies, like high trust relationships, must be earned. There is no shortcut — in fact, any attempt to take a shortcut to a high-trust relationship only undermines trust. Low trust societies, like low trust relationships, can only be tolerated as long as each person believes they are somehow personally gaining from the arrangement.
I believe trust is the unspoken major issue of our day. The internet has scaled distrust in a way no one expected. As a result, paranoia, corruption and conspiracy theories are proliferating. People are choosing to be isolated and alone. Loneliness has set in.
When you come to the conclusion that trust matters more than anything else, it calls upon you to do two things:
- Trust others, even when you are entirely aware that you may be punished for it. Trust can only be built if people are willing to trust and be hurt as a result. Be that person.
- Maintain the utmost integrity. Do not lie, cheat or steal from others. Do not take advantage of others. Do not manipulate others. Become the person who deserves other people’s trust.
This is the great struggle of our time. And nothing demonstrated the stakes more than the pandemic. High trust societies generally handled the crisis well. Low trust societies did not. High trust societies understood the threats and adjusted their behavior — making the proper sacrifices accordingly. Low trust societies had people who questioned basic scientific facts and behaved selfishly and petulantly, causing moral hazard for all.
Obviously, this doesn’t mean to trust everyone in every situation. You still have to be discerning of who is trustworthy and who is not. But I believe it’s important to work towards making trust your default, especially when it comes from someone credible, rather than the opposite.
We are living in a world in a downward spiral of trust. And not only does that have repercussions for our institutions, but it has repercussions for ourselves. Trust yourself. Trust others. Trust people.
And don’t trust them because you think they will never hurt you. Trust them completely understanding that inevitably they will.