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#77: Finding the Best and Worst in Ourselves

#77: Finding the Best and Worst in Ourselves

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1. A global stress test – In engineering, there’s a thing called a “hydrostatic stress test,” where they take pipes or fuel tanks or ship parts or whatever and they pump tons of water into them. The intense pressure from the water then exposes leaks and weaknesses in the structure, showing the engineers where the vulnerabilities are. 

I believe that COVID-19 has been a kind of hydrostatic stress test for each place and each person around the world. Each system’s weakness has been revealed. Countries overburdened with regulations have been punished for their overregulation. Countries that have a penchant for authoritarian and/or incompetent leaders have had those leaders exposed. And countries that have factious, distrustful cultures have paid the price for their factious, distrustful cultures. 

This stress test has occurred within our individual lives, as well. Couples that had been burying their problems for years quickly had them exposed. Weak and opportunistic friendships got washed out. Fragile careers were broken. Miserable lifestyles replaced. Bad TV shows deleted. 

But the stress test of hardship doesn’t just expose weakness, it also reinforces strength. Good relationships become better. Important decisions get made. Priorities get straightened out. 

In the past year, I’ve seen myself at both my best and my worst. I’ve also seen my country at its best and at its worst. Of course, political parties will argue over who gets credit for what, but neither had anything to do with it. Americans have always been a bunch of rambunctious, overly political, slightly paranoid, conspiracy theory whack jobs. And COVID exposed that in us. 

But say what you want, when there’s a job to do, nobody gets it done quite like Americans do. The United States has been as impressive in vaccination as we were embarrassing during the outbreak. 

Speaking of which: get vaccinated as soon as possible. Ignore the noise and nonsense. There are a lot of hacks out there making a quick buck spreading bad data about the vaccines. Follow the science. Get vaccinated.

2. The “new normal” has been greatly exaggerated – After dedicating many newsletters to COVID over the past year, I both hope and expect this to be the last email I ever write about it. Partly because I’m sick of it and I’m sure you’re sick of it. But partly because, for most people in the world, this whole global episode is nearly over.

So I leave you all with my final COVID take: the predictions of how much the world will be changed because of COVID—i.e., a “new normal”—have been greatly exaggerated. Things will soon feel more or less like they did in 2019. And many of these grand predictions that seemed so profound a few months ago will seem silly in hindsight. 

Cities will not die. People will move back to them because the pleasure and economic benefits of being around many other people have not changed. 

Restaurant, entertainment, and hospitality industries will come back, as they have after every pandemic over the last 3,000 years. 

Governments and politics have not changed—or, at least, if they have, it’s not because of COVID. Democratic governments have not become more authoritarian. Authoritarian governments have not become more democratic. 

People will have to get COVID vaccines frequently and it will be totally fine—just as they get flu vaccines, measles vaccines, hepatitis vaccines, etc., and it’s totally fine. Vaccine passports already exist and have existed for decades. They’re so normal you forgot you already had them. 

Okay, maybe the remote work thing will stick a little bit. It’s probably overdue. But I would still bet that it is being overestimated. If you want to get ahead at your job and in your career, you will want to be face-to-face with your boss, with the client, with your team, as much as possible. Physical presence will become a professional advantage, therefore smart people will continue to seek it out. Not to mention all the extraverts in the world who are dying to get back into an office every day. 

Instead, the things that have changed are the things that you and I hear almost nothing about. The funding and astounding progress made in biotech (mRNA vaccines alone will likely save tens of millions of lives in the coming decades). The supply chains that have been reconfigured, the trade relationships rearranged, the economic destinies shifted, the government debt inflated, the currencies devalued. 

These are the actual world-changing events—yet they are so big and abstract, we can hardly see them. They are like the water we swim in. The tides shift us dozens of miles, yet we will look around and feel as though we are in the same place.

3. Lessons learned – Last week, I did something stupid. I casually asked readers whether they preferred shorter or longer emails, completely forgetting that this newsletter goes out to enough people to fill a mid-sized city.

From what I can tell, around 3,500 responses came in. My team and I gave up at around 2,500. I’m an idiot and should have created a link to a poll for you all to fill out. 

For what it’s worth, roughly ⅔ of you said you preferred longer emails, ⅓ of you asked for shorter. The “longer” crowd was more loquacious and passionate, arguing that because I challenge my readers to elongate their attention span, I should “walk the fucking walk, Manson” — or something like that. Some even went as far as to challenge my manhood… and did so with caps lock on. 

Honestly, I’m not even sure how useful the data is. In my haste, my question suffered from what is known as “selection bias.” People who prefer long emails were more likely to read my full email, therefore, they were more likely to respond to the question. People who prefer shorter emails may not have read long enough to get to the question, therefore I would have never heard from them. 

This problem happens all the time in psychological research, by the way. It’s why you should never trust a headline that says something like, “Study on Facebook users shows social media makes people narcissistic” or “Phone survey shows that three out of four people hate their phone company.” 

Why? 

Because when you conduct research by posting a personality test on Facebook, you’re not just testing people on Facebook, you’re testing people who love taking personality tests (i.e., narcissists). Or when conducting a phone survey, you’re not just researching people with phones, but people who actually answer their phones or are bored enough to take a survey. 

Anyway, how I asked the question probably invalidated a lot of its results. Regardless, I appreciate everyone who responded. I’m just going to keep on doing my thing. Writing about whatever shit strikes me as fanciful. And whether that ends up being ten pages or two, I don’t give a fuck. 

Until next week,
Mark