Hope

Senator Cory Booker has an interesting thought about optimism and the future. He believes that you can’t simply look forward to the positives of the future and that you can’t ignore the negatives of the present that may persist into the future. What you must do, according to Booker, is be honest about the negativity that you wish to change and set out to make the world better through actions and deliberate choice. Intentional actions to drive toward a better world is what Booker calls hope, and it is about more than just believing things will be better one day. For Booker, hope is believing that one can struggle against the negativity, learn, grow, and make the world a better place. He writes, “Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.”

 

The power of Booker’s hopefulness lies in its practical manifestations in the real world. On an interview of the Ezra Klein Show, and again in an interview with Tim Ferris, Booker spoke about the word “optimism” and explained that optimism falls short of Booker’s ideas of hope. He sees optimism as empty beliefs that things will get better, leaving out the important decisions and efforts of the individual to make thing better. If one simply assumes the world will move in the right direction without looking at the specific areas that need to change, then one will never have a plan or roadmap to reach that better future. A positive outlook of the future needs to have more than just blind faith that one day things be great, it needs action items that one can relentlessly pursue to improve the world. This is the hope that Booker describes as a participant driven optimism.

 

Hope for Booker is the belief that one has the power to make the world a better place through awareness and action. If you fail to see what negativity exists, if you fail to think about how you could change what you dislike and understand to be unjust, if you fail to acknowledge the pain and suffering of now, then you won’t be able to live in a way that fights against such forces. Booker continues, “It does not ignore pain, agony, or injustice. It is not a saccharine optimism that refuses to see, face, or grapple with the wretchedness of reality. You can’t have hope without despair, because hope is a response.” Hope is the ability to look at the world, visualize a way to improve it, and take steps toward a better future. Hope does not run from the negative of the world today, but looks at the negative more closely to understand where it came from and how it can be overcome.
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Lasting Imprints

“What we do or fail to do—to one another, for one another, or with one another—leaves a lasting imprint beyond what we can imagine.” Cory Booker includes this early on in his book United as he reflects on the lessons he learned from family and the connections he sees between all people. We often fall into a world where we think primarily of ourselves and we do not consider those around us. If we do consider those around us, we usually only think about those we are the closest to, our family and close friends, and we do not see how we are connected with those we have never met. Remembering that our lives are deeply connected with everyone, including those who came before us and those who will come after us, helps us remember just how important our actions are.

 

No matter what we do, our actions will always be infinitesimally small in the history and course of the entire world, but we always have an opportunity to improve someone’s day or to help establish a world that we would be proud to live in. Despite the limited impact of our actions on world affairs, the simplest gesture can still be important in the life of another person. What Booker is explaining in his quote, is that we can never predict how our actions will truly impact those around us and those who are connected to us, and we can never predict the value that our tiny action will have on the world. By believing that our tiny actions can be of value in the world and shape the planet in the direction we want, we can begin to approach the world in a more deliberate sense.

 

Booker’s quote is interesting because he directly refers to the impact of what we do not do. Do we fail to stand up for justice? Do we fail to acknowledge the value of another human being? Do we restrain ourselves from lashing out at others when we feel threatened? Thinking about what we do not do, not just the actions we perform, helps us value our decisions even more strongly. Recognizing the times when it is appropriate for us to show restraint and to honor another person builds self control in a respectful manner. Being aware of times when we want to move toward passiveness and inaction helps us confront fear and develop the courage to stand up and act during challenging times that require our effort.

 

Booker’s ideas align with Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way and a quote he shares from Leroy Percy, “A man’s job is to make the world a better place to life in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal…” We cannot predict what impact our actions will have, but we can make sure they are moving people in the right direction and helping us make a difference in the world.

 

What Booker and Holiday truly encourage is to consider our actions more deeply. To think beyond how out actions benefit us right now, and to ask ourselves, what impact do out actions have on the lives of those around us, on the lives of those beyond out community, and on the lives of future generations? When we build this sense of awareness into our actions we can begin to make the world a better place, and we can begin to also recognize the things that have helped us and allowed us to become the people we are today.

Present Minded Relationships

Self-reflection is a central theme in all of Colin Wright’s writing, and his book Some Thoughts About Relationships provides us with real life examples of how self-awareness and reflection can help us in our day to day lives. In his book, Wright describes how our relationships can be strengthened when we focus on the context around our relationships and can identify our ideas, expectations, and reactions surrounding our current relationships.  Focusing on past relationships without considering context can take us away from our current relationship, and trying to live in a relationship while constantly thinking about what we will want from our relationship in the future risks damaging our current interactions with our partner. Focusing too much on either past or future relationships makes it difficult for us to engage in a meaningful way with the people in our lives right now.

 

In his book, he writes, “The ‘you’ of this moment should judge relationships based on who you are now and what you want today, not standards made up by someone else, standards developed by you at a very different time in your life, or standards that you think may apply to you at some point in the future. Allow your happiness to be now-centric and enjoy it.”

 

Wright is not encouraging us to live a wild lifestyle based purely on hedonistic desires, but rather encourages us to be present in our relationships and to be aware of what we and our partner want, expect, and enjoy. His quote is powerful because it addresses many of the hang-ups that people face in relationships when they are not honest with themselves or their partner.

 

Seeking a relationship to mirror that of your parents or to avoid the troubles of your parents can put a lot of pressure on you to build a relationship that fits a preconceived notion of what a happiness is, how you should act, and how your partner should act. Approaching a relationship in this way is an act of giving up control of your own relationship and self, and places unrealistic burdens and demands on both you and your partner as you try to live an idealized life meant to impress others rather than bring about growth and fulfillment for you and your significant other.

 

Similarly, focusing on past relationships or future expectations can be dangerous as it may lead you to try to change yourself or your partner to fit environments in which you do not actually live. Asking your partner to fit into a mold built by past relationships may be unrealistic since your relationship with your current partner is between you and them, and not you and your past self or a past individual. Asking your partner to fit your future expectations is equally challenging since you can never truly predict what you will want and need in your future life. Living outside the present forces you and your partner to constantly live in a balance where fictional ideas of relationships impact who you at the expense of what you actually feel, want, and experience.

A Rational Relationship

Some Thoughts About Relationships is an exploration of how we live, behave, and interact with others. Author Colin Wright looks at what it means to build friendships and relationships with people in the modern age, and offers timeless advice and perspectives on connecting. He kicks off his book by bringing the idea of rationality into relationships, something most people probably argue is not possible. He writes,

 

“Being rational in relationships means that you acknowledge cause and effect, the possibility of iterative improvement, and the potential to pull apart and assess problems to find solutions.”

 

Not many of us in our marriages, friendships, business partnerships, or other relationships truly take the time to think about our relationships in a rational manner. It is hard to reflect on a relationship in general, and finding the time and ability to sit down with another person to evaluate a relationship and seek growth seems like a rarity. Wright’s suggestion is to build self-awareness into the relationship and to be able to stand back and look at reactions and decisions within the relationship to try to find better ways to move forward. This process involves self-reflection and awareness from both members of a relationship, and a willingness to accept emotions but not let emotions be the main driver of a relationship.
Another idea presented by Wright in the quote above that I think is rare in today’s world of relationships is a focus on iterative improvements. I recently took a course at the University of Nevada, Reno focused on government budgeting, and one of the key concepts in the class was the incremental nature of the government budget. Incrementalism was first described as a theory to explain growth and progress within government policy by Charles Lindblom in a journal article The Science of Muddling Through, and its role in budgeting was described in detail by Aaron Wildavsky in his book Politics of the Budgetary Process. What Lindblom and Wildavsky argued in their reviews of government, is that improvement is possible in small steps, and that growth is possible when we think about where we have been, what is available to us, and where we want to go in the future. This is understandable for budgeting, but probably not something we do in our relationships. Wright seems to suggest that we should think more deeply about our relationships and where we think we need to grow in our relationships to allow ourselves to take small steps toward improvement and growth. Wild jumps and changes in our relationships in this manner will likely seem improbable if we are looking to actually improve our relationships, just as wild changes and adjustments in government budgeting are too confusing and risky to be implemented. Rationally reflecting on our relationships can help us find avenues for growth and iteration to help us determine where to focus our time and energy with that other person.

Immediate Reactions

Author Colin Wright discusses the ways in which our unconscious brain picks up on small cues and differences about people that we meet before we are able to form complete judgements of others as human beings. These small cues and differences shape the way we think about other people and influence our behavior, often times without us ever realizing.  In his book, Come Back Frayed, Wright explains this phenomenon by writing the following:

 

“It’s remarkable how our peculiarities can set us apart so dramatically and rapidly. Even before we truly recognize each other as humans, as complete people with depth and density, we recognize things about strangers that help us categorize the world. These biases, and sometimes prejudices, color the world around us with tones that guide our actions and opinions.”

 

Before we have met someone we are already preparing ourselves for what we expect our interactions with them to be like. These biases are huge because they prevent us from treating everyone as openly and fairly as we would like, and they exist within ourselves and within the other person at the same time. The way we frame the other person and the types of expectations we bring to a  conversation shape the actions and behaviors that we will have. If we instantly feel negative feelings at the sight of another, it is unlikely that our interactions with them will be positive.

 

Wright would encourage us to become more self-aware and to develop processes of self-recognition so that we can acknowledge those moments when we have immediate reactions to another person. We can develop skills to notice when the tribal part of our brain labels someone as an outsider, and drives us to act in ways that push the other person away. Becoming self-aware helps us see the ways in which these small cues influence much of the way we interact with the world, and gives us the power to better control the world around us.

 

If we fail to gain perspective over our instant reactions to other people, then we will never allow people who are different from us to truly participate in society. Our actions will be colored by the reactionary perceptions of our brain, and we will never develop the empathy needed to improve the world for all of those around us. Accepting  that we judge others before ever meeting them, and before we ever consider who they are as human beings, give us the ability to overcome biases, and to help society become more connected and unified regardless of race, ideology, age, or gender.

Put on Autopilot

“Many of our daily habits are put on autopilot, which conserves valuable thought-fueling energy that needn’t be wasted on familiar movements, experiences, and interactions.” Author Colin Wright writes in his book Come Back Frayed. Wright uses this quote to explain the way we build routines in our lives and the danger that automating our actions can have when we forget to experience and focus on the present moment. The quote above introduces the idea of autopilot, giving us a perspective of autopilot’s usefulness in terms of conserving energy and decision making power, but Wright continues to explain what can go wrong when we let too much of our lives be controlled without our conscious thought:

 

“As a result of this routine-building predisposition, we barely notice the drive to work, and sometimes find ourselves looking up from the steering wheel, already at the office parking lot and unable to recall the specifics of how we got there. … This automation goes far beyond commuting. We listen to the same, familiar music, have the same conversations with well-known, comfortable friends, loop through the same meal-time, bed time, and after-work habits that we’ve been repeating for months, years, perhaps decades. It’s no surprise that time compresses under these circumstances. … At some point it’s not the parking lot that we notice when we look up from the steering wheel, but life. We’re here, experiencing this point in time, but unsure of how we got here. Where did all those years go? Why doesn’t anything from the time between now and back then stand out?”

 

The danger of autopilot is that we put off being an active participant in our lives, and as a result, we fail to build a real history for ourselves. The problem that Wright explains is not with our routines and habits, but it is with our failure to be mindful and present in familiar moments. The more we can be present in even the simplest actions, the more we can become aware of the world around us and engage in a meaningful way to shape the direction of our life. Time will likely still go by too fast and some points will feel compressed, but by being more present in our actions we open new opportunities for ourselves to connect with others, grow, learn, and produce something meaningful with our time.

 

Wright travels frequently and actively believes in changing his surroundings by changing his physical location on the planet. This keeps his habits and routines constantly in flux, and forces him to be aware of his thoughts, actions, and decisions. It is hard to build a similar lifestyle, but we can build habits in our lives that put us in new positions and unfamiliar surroundings, rather than just building habits that replicate the same experience day after day. Creating situations that are not routine forces our brain to be active and present to process the world around us, and these moments may be the defining points in life that help us understand and delineate our growth through time.

Deliberate Growth

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we often look at our selves, our abilities, and the situations in which we find ourselves.  We tend to think that who we are is set in stone and shaped by forces beyond our control: I am naturally good at writing, I was not born with a good singing voice, I like to go to the gym, I don’t know how to do computer programming. In some way with all the examples above, we are looking at the things we do and do not do as if they are given parts of life, and not conscious choices that we make. When we look at who we are, what we excel at, where we struggle, what we like to do, and what things are not part of who we are, we begin to narrow our lives and place ourselves in a box. We define ourselves not by our ability to grow and change, but rather by who or what we perceive ourselves to be during a point in time. Holiday challenges this thinking, “We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body).”

 

His quote on its own speaks to the importance of mental and physical fortitude, but the section in which he includes the quote speaks to more than just the idea of mental and physical strength. The focus of Holiday in the quote above is on the word craft. We do not simply have mental strength by chance, and we do not simply have physical strength without working out. As Holiday explains, we must put in the effort, work, and focus to build our lives to match the quote above, to have a sound mind in a sound body.

 

Deliberate action and focus are the only things that will lead us to the growth we wish to see. We will have to put in real effort and work to develop the person we want to be, and if we do not strive to improve ourselves, we will only atrophy, and wither away as a result of the limitations we accept. Holiday continues, “Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.” Looking at the qualities we want to develop, and preparing ourselves for the challenging road to acquire those qualities is a must if we want to find growth. From Holiday’s perspective, self-reflection and awareness are key, as a greater understanding of self and vision for growth will build and shape who we are and the actions we take, opening opportunity and improving experiences.

 

Holiday’s advice in forging ahead on our path is similar to the advice of Richard Wiseman, who wrote in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, encouraged journaling and reflection on the challenges we expect to face along our journey. By explaining how we will plan for obstacles in life, we can develop our sound mind, propelling us beyond our challenges. Thinking ahead and reflecting on not just our success but our failures and difficulties can help us build the strength necessary to develop our steel backbone.