Never Achieving Alone

The United States is focused on achievement and success and we use a few basic measuring sticks to compare ourselves to others and to display how successful we have become. Money is our main yardstick, tied to other measures of success such as home-ownership and the size of our homes, the number and types of vehicles we drive, and so on. When we talk about our own success and reflect back on our path we tend to look at the tough decisions and sacrifices that we made along the way. We focus on the obstacles we overcame where others faltered and we create a highlight reel in our minds that emphasizes our good qualities in the face of adversity and downplays the help we received from others or the advantages we started with. When we do this we begin to develop a false sense of what was truly necessary for us to get to where we currently are, and we begin to overestimate ourselves, our importance, and our relation to society as a whole.
In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats reflects on his life journey and the lessons he learned in a long form essay to his son. He at one point reflects on the poets and writers who were influential to him at college and includes a quick note to his son that stood out to me. Coats writes, “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”

 

We often miss how dependent our lives are on those around us. We look at the smart decisions we had to make and praise ourselves for being disciplined, for not getting in trouble, and for being more industrious than those who are not as successful as we are. Money becomes the measure of how well we have done on our own, and fancy cars and houses become the way we display our value as human beings and our self-reliance through tough times.

 

These displays and our memories however, do not reflect the realities of our lives and our interdependence on other people. We never truly do anything alone. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum and we are not born as the amazing all-stars we make our selves out to be. We are dependent on other people from the very beginning, and often times, the success we achieve can be attributed to luck, to meeting the right people, and to having the right support at the right times in our lives. We have a large role to play in along this journey, and our attitudes, decisions, and work ethic greatly influence where we will end up, but we never truly achieve something without the help of others. We do not choose our parents and we do not choose our genetic pre-dispositions to things like disease, addiction, physical height and weight, or mental focus. Each of these areas could be managed and improved through personal decisions, but it is important to recognize that many of us do not start with equal footing and we do not all face the same levels of adversity.

 

In a quote written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” Great business decisions and adventures can never be undertaken alone, and sometimes the people around you explain more of the success of your business than just your own hard work. We influence the outcome, but we never truly control where we end up. Even the best business idea and the best team focused on reaching smart goals can be taken down in an unpredicted market collapse.

 

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote, “a branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” What Aurelius is explaining is that we are connected to others and dependent on others to grow and thrive. Like a branch cut from a tree, we will wither away on our own. We may be able to become successful through smart decisions and hard work, but constantly operating in the background is a society that supports us. Cory Booker in United writes, “our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures.” One of those communal treasures is a society that still manages to support others and create opportunities for others through our connections and collective abilities. What makes us great and has allowed us to grow did not occur on our own, and it is up to us to reflect that support back onto others.

 

Ultimately, our money and wealth say nothing of our value or of the obstacles we overcame to get to the place we find ourselves. Looking back, it is easier to see our sacrifices and hard work, and harder to see the advantages we had. We are dependent on society at the same time that society depends on our best efforts. Being aware of how we benefitted and the advantages we received will help us make better decisions and live less selfishly in respect to others and our society.
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Cory Booker on Cynicism

Being Cynical is easy. Being Cynical is also dangerous and damaging. Toward the end of his book United Senator Cory Booker reflects on the cynical state of politics and society today, and what it means for individuals and for the nation to be as cynical as we are today. Booker writes, “cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change.” When we don’t take action to be involved in our city, when our knowledge of politics (or anything else) is only cursory, and when we fall into a habit of not looking beyond our own perspective, we begin to think everyone is like us, and we accept the easy cynical story. Booker, in United, challenges inaction, challenges cynicism, and challenges the idea that only bad people are involved in how government and society operates.

 

I study Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and it has forced me to focus on the realities of government, which is that there are a limited number of resources available for society, and somehow we must decide who gets what, when, and how. Any time you think about the way the world operates and begin to consider the world, the word ‘should’ undoubtedly pops up, indicating that you are making a judgement statement about your beliefs of the world. I don’t use belief in the religious sense of the word, your opinion and worldview could be shaped and reformed by objective empirical data to a large degree, but ‘should’ indicates political preference, ideology, and what you think would work best for an individual or collection of individuals in a situation. The important thing about the word “should” is that there is almost never 100% clear evidence that the suggestion following it is the only answer. When dealing with limited resources we must make political decisions, meaning that we must write down our “should” and our perspectives influence how we decide what is the most important.

 

Cynicism fails to recognize what is happening when the word “should” is introduced into discussion. It assumes there is an easy answer, and assumes that resources are not constrained and that we do not have to make difficult decisions that undoubtably give some people more resources or access to resources than others. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we are looking at a shell of any given situation and seeing what we want to see. We look for the negative and criticize what is in front of us. Being cynical is not about finding the errors and problems in a given situation and looking for a solution. Instead it is about propping ourselves up and placing ourselves on the right side of a moral divide, in much the same way that we use outrage to feel better about ourselves.

 

Booker is critical of cynicism, arguing that it takes our power away from us when we need to take more action on our own. Rather than recognize that we can band together to improve the world, cynicism looks at the status quo and assumes that we cannot make a difference. It is the result of what Tyler Cowen calls the “Complacent Class” that does not want to put in the effort and focus needed to make a change in the world. Cynicism allows “should” statements to exist in isolation within the brain, never challenged by new facts, and never actually introduced to the world. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we accept complacency when the world needs action and initiative. Cynicism is self-perpetuating, and fighting it off is a struggle, but if we want to grow individually, and if we want to see the world improve, we must understand that our world view will always be incomplete, that other people will have different motivations and will make mistakes, and that it is only by our actions that we can change the world for the better, even if our actions will be infinitesimally small in the course of history.

Taking More Than Our Share

The desire to use the environment to maximize our personal benefit at the expense of other people’s use of the environment is known as the tragedy of the commons. Senator Cory Booker focuses on the idea behind the tragedy of the commons in his book United and examines what has taken place in his home state New Jersey. Summing up the idea, Booker wrote, “The impulse to take more than you share seems rational, but in reality the consequences can be catastrophic. The unchecked cumulative effect of selfish actions is the loss of the commons—which is, in turn, an immeasurable opportunity lost for generations to come.”

Two big challenges when thinking about our environment have to do with the time scale of the environment and the size of the environment. Our individual actions seem so insignificant in such large and open landscapes as mountain ranges and oceans, but when our actions are combined with the behaviors of millions and billions of people, the human impact is immense. Our environment also experiences changes on time scales in the thousands and millions of years, a time span so large it is difficult for humans to understand. Geological processes take a long time and occur at steady rates of small change. When we combine the vastness of nature with the time scale of geological change, our human minds end up failing to accurately understand, estimate, and predict the dangers of our actions, and that in part leads to the tragedy of the commons.

Our actions now, because the environment operates on such slow time scales, will have lasting impacts on the planet. This means that when we think of our decisions and our use of natural resources today, we must have in mind not just our own benefit, or the benefits of our children, but true impact of our decisions for generations to come. Humans can understand cycles, changes, and impacts that take place on a two to three generation scales, thinking about how our grandparents impact our lives, but it is hard to think more than 100 years down the road and to think about generations that could be impacted by our decisions 500 to 1,000 years from now. The land we use today and the things we put in our oceans today, could shape the lives and futures for people far out from where we are today.

Ultimately, when I think of Booker’s quote I don’t think of a blind conservation of all resources or thwarting capitalism to avoid damaging our planet. Instead, I try to think about my relation to nature. Do I try to take as much as I can in any given situation, even if it is not going to help me? There have been plenty of times that I have eaten more than I needed, only to regret my decisions as I waddled back to my car with a stomach ache. I have had an opportunity to have something for free, and I have taken far more than I needed or could even use, only to have the rest of what I took clutter my house and take up space.

From what I have seen, I don’t have to be a hippie or focus so much on conservationism that I lose all faith in capitalism to protect the planet. I can host a community clean-up and offer prizes for those who participate. I can drive in a more economic way, using less gas, saving my brakes and tires, and prolonging the life of my vehicle, saving money but still doing something that participates in the economy and uses resources. I can focus on recycling, and try to make purchases that limit my plastic use, and none of these decisions take away from my participating in capitalism or make me a stand-offish hippie. They are just small actions, but I know that when combined with the small actions of millions of others, make a large difference.

The Role of Individual Responsibility

A question that we all answer when we vote and  think about politics is a question about the role of individual responsibility in our lives, communities, and country. How much individual responsibility should we accept in achieving financial success, in taking care of our elderly, and in providing aid to those who need it the most? How much of our current situation is a result of our individual responsibilities and decisions?

We never truly ask these questions out loud, and when we do discuss them, we don’t pull out a piece of paper or a calculator to weigh all the possible decisions and factors that have combined to shape our life. Surely our actions, attitudes, and decisions play a big role in determining our own success, but how much assistance did we receive from family? Did we have a natural disaster destroy our home? Were we the victim of random violence, and did we have a healthy support system around us as we recovered from that violence? There is certainly a role for individual responsibility in our lives, but there are so many variables between along our path to success that measuring the role of personal responsibility is complex and ever shifting, especially since there are different measures of success like financial success, health, and happiness.

In his book United, Senator Cory Booker looks at the question of personal responsibility and asks the difficult questions that I laid out above. As someone who played college football and graduated from Stanford and Yale, Booker certainly understands the importance of personal responsibility, but at the same time he is acutely aware of the support and assistance he received from family members and people in his community along the way. In regards to how we answer the question about personal responsibility as a community he writes,

“Our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures. These American ideals, despite a history that too often exhibits evidence to the contrary, can and must coexist. The idea that each of us has an absolute right to get all we can get has led to the devastation of our commons. It has violated the Justinian ideal as well as the American dream; it has diminished us all and impoverished our children.”

The first two lines from Booker’s quote really strike me. We often hold our own success as our own personal triumph and acceptance of responsibility, and from that vantage point it is easy to say that those who have not found the same level of success have simply failed to accept responsibility in their own lives. When we are succeeding it is easy to favor the free market and act as though government assistance or community involvement is not a necessary ingredient in growth and success. However, as soon as we perceive that someone is cheating us, that the system is somehow not working properly, we demand government intervention and we question why those with more are not doing their part to help those with less. When we look at our reactions to government through this lens we see that there is no inherent ideology favoring more or less government action, there are just differences in where we sit in terms of success, and what we perceive in terms of fairness or whether we are being cheated.
Booker’s quote continues to talk about personal responsibility in terms of how we help or hurt the environment and community in which we live. If our personal responsibility is to simply amass as much as we can and become as financially well off as possible, then those around us and our community will suffer as we put our own needs above others. If however, we decide that a major part of our personal responsibility is to use our advantages, our wealth, and our success to aid those around us, then we can do and be more for ourselves and for our community. Seeing the health of our cities, counties, and country as a reflection of our actions is important, but we often only see the health of ourselves and our families as our responsibility. It is important to see not just personal success and failure as our responsibility, but communal success and failure as our responsibility. In the world today we close ourselves from our community by escaping reality with television and suburban life, and we justify our decision to do so by adopting a narrow view of personal responsibility where our responsibility is primarily on ensuring our own financial success, and not ensuring the health of our community.

Preservation of Our Environment

Taking care of our shared spaces and maintaining our environment is not something we do a great job of. Fields, rivers, lakes, and outdoor areas are everyone’s shared responsibility, and because of that, they are no one’s individual responsibility. We will maintain our own lawns or pay people to do our home landscaping, but when it comes to our public outdoor spaces, we often fail to maintain and preserve the land we share. These spaces are expensive to maintain, the threats of invasive species are hard to understand, and it is not clear who should be the person that spends the time and energy taking care of our public places. In political science this dilemma is known as the Tragedy of the Commons, and Cory Booker addresses it in his book United.

 

Booker writes, “We are all dependent on nature, so we all have a stake in the preservation of our environment.” Taking care of our planet is important because it is the only one we have, and it is what sustains our individual lives, our societies, and the only life we know of in the universe. At the same time, taking care of the planet is unclear with ecosystems connected and dependent on each other in complex ways, with connections we are not always able to understand. Scientific research is expanding, but still not at a point where perfect models of natural processes such as rainfall, erosion, or phosphorous cycling are possible. But we depend on what we know about nature, and must continue to push forward and be cautious with how we use nature so that we can maintain what we have for not just our generation’s use, but for the use of future generations.

 

The truth is that we must use nature. We need to extract minerals, metals, and plant based materials from the earth. The physical structures that protect us and allow us to thrive come from what we pull out of the earth. Our medicines are dependent on plants and compounds that plants create, and our smartphones rely on rare elements mined form across the planet. Our dependence and demand for what the earth has to provide is very real and feels much larger than any one individual, making our personal responsibility feel tiny in comparison. Nevertheless, it is important that we use what the earth has to provide in a rational and reasonable manner, recycling what we can, eliminating waste when possible, and constantly striving to take things from the planet in the least disruptive manner. This responsibility is difficult and expensive, which is why the commons are ignored leading to the tragedy they face. We must understand that pollution, imbalanced extraction, and continued consumption do have costs that are greater than their immediate benefits, even if we only see the benefits now and can’t understand the costs of the future.

Humble Teachers

Senator Corey Booker gives us an insight into the people he sees as mentors and role models in a brief paragraph in his book United. Throughout his book, Booker talks about the people who have made an impact in his life, and almost all of them were citizens trying to make a difference in their local community. These individuals were impactful not because they wanted power, control, or notoriety, but because they truly cared about their community and the people around them. Regarding the people Booker learned the most from, he writes, “you reap what you sow; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; cause and effect. Humble people teach us this and more. They are great masters, the best of whom I have found are not on television, not at a university, and not elected to any office. They do not preach sermons, give lectures, or dispense orders. They do. Without fanfare, they do the best they can, with what they have, where they are.”

 

Booker’s message is one I think needs to be shared more broadly with people and youth in society. It is often easy to look at problems, think that someone should do something, and then sit back and make excuses for why we are not the people to try to make a difference. We don’t have much time. The problem is not really our responsibility. We don’t know who to talk to about the problem. And we don’t know what our first step would ever be.

 

Instead of focusing on the problems in tackling the problem, if we shared a community wide message of each of us doing the best that we can where we are, we could begin to make a difference. The perspective we usually take is that the issue is too big and our actions are too small to matter. This perspective can be shifted to say that we can start, we can try to do a little bit with what we know, and we can take action based on good intentions. Our efforts may not be perfect, but at least we can begin to move the ball and build momentum. Focusing locally can help us find new directions for improvement and can help us start to tackle the challenges that impact not just us, but everyone. We don’t need to do something with the intent of being noticed and appreciated. We can take action because we know it will make the world a better place.

 

If we look around and try to find people who are already doing this we can learn and find new ways that we can get involved and make a difference. These individuals can lead and mentor through their actions, and their focus and thought process can be absorbed to help us become better people and make positive impacts on our communities. Booker learned this by living with people in low income high rise communities and by working with local people trying to make a difference for the people where they lived. Great knowledge can be gained from professors and lecturers, but a certain wisdom can only be achieved by being active and surrounding oneself with people who truly care about making the world better.

Profound Connections

“Profound connections exist between all; interdependency so manifest that perceived separation is a delusion.” Senator Cory Booker writes to start one of the chapters in his book United. Throughout his book, Senator Booker examines the way society is organized, the relation between personal responsibility and to social responsability, and how truly dependent we are on everyone else. We do not exist in a vacuum and no matter how much one may try, we cannot live isolated lives away from other people. We depend on those around us, often much more than we realize.

 

The idea that we are connected drives Booker’s political ideas and shapes the way he approaches the people he represents, the neighborhoods he has lived in and represented, and who he has looked to as role models and mentors. Throughout his book however, he tries to show that recognizing and understanding the power of our connections is important not just for politicians, and not just for professors or people on television, but for everyone, every day. The collective understanding of how much we need each other and the ability to empathize with those around us who face challenges is diminishing as we become absorbed by social media which shows us what we want to see and allows us to share the highlights of our lives, creating misrepresentative online versions of ourselves. In an age of technology and hyper connectivity, we have become less aware of how truly connected we have always been, and how dependent on others our lives have always been.

 

Booker’s quote is important because it runs against our tribal nature. Human beings seem to be able to associate with only a few hundred people at most, a mental hangover from our tribal ancestry. We are constantly, whether we recognize it or not, looking for those who are like us, finding groups that think like us, act like us, and believe the things we believe. We create random borders and develop identities for those living within those borders. Without realizing it, we assign good qualities and traits to the group within our border and negative qualities and traits to the group beyond our border.

 

If instead we bring awareness and reflection to this “us versus them” mental process, we can begin to see how dependent we are not just on the people within our border, but on the people beyond our borders. We can begin to see that we all share one planet, and share more as humans than typically recognized. The connections that run through humanity don’t stop at the gate of a neighborhood, at a freeway exit, at a national boarder, or even on the shores of a continent. We are deeply connected by the entire planet and by years of evolution. Tribalism in our ancestry has geared us to ignore these connections, but just below the surface our connections exist, and the more we search the more we see that we are all united.