Means of life

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits made an astute observation that led to his exploration of habits and eventually the best-seller. He observed that people often had the same goals but they do not end up with the same results. This meant that goal-setting, while being an important first step, wasn’t what achievement is about.

Our culture sometimes seem to think that setting up goals is enough, that it would naturally push everyone or everything to place. That cannot be farther from reality; and having that sense of purpose for life isn’t exactly sufficient. We need to discover the means by which we fulfill our purposes and reach the goals.

What do you think are your means of life? Is it about money, resources? Financial wealth? Or relationships, connections, networks? What fuels you towards your life goals?

Demand side perspectives

The modern, capitalist, market economy is powered by demand. Demand for products, goods and services. And what drives these demand? Some would like to say, marketing, advertising. But more fundamentally, social comparison, desire for affliation/connection.

So the idea of market competition gets turned on demand itself. In other words, the seller turns to the buyer and say, “He’s got this, so you have got to get it.” This mechanism is so widespread and so completely ignored by economics that at a macro-level, it overturns more fundamental notions of allocative efficiency. The fact that demand is in itself premised upon the actions and long-term strategies of supply, makes the equilibrium in the market impossible to pin down.

There is no long term convergent points and what development has come to be is simply the ability for supply to generate more and more of its own demand.

Traffic jams

We spent more than 4 hours along a short 2km stretch of the Singapore-Malaysia second linkway last Saturday morning. It didn’t exactly feel that long as I was in good company and found it entertaining to watch how the buses, lorries, motorcycles and some defiant motorists use the left road shoulder as their fast-track lane.

It was interesting how some of the vehicles steered by really experienced drivers weaved in and out of the road shoulder and then moved to the middle lane at different points of time. The drivers were assertive but relatively patient, finding every opportunity they have to inch forward and wedge between the gaps between 2 cars in the adjacent lane.

There seem to be some kind of logic in the flows and it is questionable if there’s any kind of real queuing justice in the entire journey because there were merging and then diverging lanes. Fortunes of the vehicles could quickly change at these points. And everyone had to be on their toes.

It’s tiring to be driving in a jam because not only are you not making any progress forward but you’re competing to gain just tiny advantage and constantly watching that advantage to avoid losing it. I find this to be an analogy of living in Asia where there’s a lot of competition over very small rewards. Innovation is numerous and difficult to compare. There seem to be some invisible hand that is not just sorting and ordering of quality of ideas but who are behind those ideas. Who you are may determine if you would be penalised for using the road shoulder, and what you know might help you gain a small upper hand or two but overall, the society is held back by the cross-cancellation of the various innovative forces.

Limited life

Our lives are limited in many ways but more so by our perspectives than anything else. Time is one perspective by which we limit our lives. In some ways, it is sombering and perks us up but the urgency to accomplish things doesn’t always help. In that sense, the perspective of time as a resource otherwise wasted rather than an input to possibilities, limits us.

Then there is the dimension of money. Because money can buy more and more things, we become increasingly overwhelmed by our limited ability to generate income and wealth. The reason why get-rich-quick scheme works and why greed is pervasive is that we fear that material needs catches up with us. In the market system, money is our vote of some kind, the power we have to grab our share of possessions and material in this world. If we don’t get hold of enough money, we also lose our share of the society’s production. So then life gets caught up with that, with trying to get our share of production by trying to produce or to divert. And in the process we limit our lives to the material, even as we pursue experiences that money can buy.

Money, time and numbers/metrics were gifts to our lives, meant to be additions and blessings but instead they end up limiting our lives. Because of the way we have come to perceive them.

Earnest expectations

So I continue my 800th post no longer continuing from the streak I had nurtured over the past two years or more. It doesn’t mean anything as long as I don’t allow it to. Streaks work because it helps build habit and some kind of psychological strength. But if the streak is short, it is way harder to resume when it is broken. Maybe it has to do with having established our expectations of ourselves.

For me, the short pause in writing was during a period of genuine break from the distractions of the world and for the first time since the pandemic started, I had some kind of real rest. One that was more extended than what I had since 2019.

I realised how much more we have drifted from being human, the kind of expectations we have of ourselves and society. There were much bolder and better expectations we can have but we choose not to, rather falling back on productivity and some numerical metrics. What about being kinder, or more patient, or caring better for others? What about refusing to do anything that can cause me to feel ashamed should I have to account the deeds to my family, or a journalist, or the world?

There are better high expectations we can have of ourselves. They are waiting for us to adopt them.

Dynamic cost-benefit analysis

One of the most power tools that economics have brought to the world is cost-benefit analysis and really assessing what is the constitution of cost or benefits at various levels: individuals, firms, regional government, national government, countries.

Where it fails is the ability to properly ascribe who cares about what. The assumption around rational, selfish agents cannot possibly hold in reality. On the other hand, there is radical inconsistencies when you perform such optimisation on behalf of “government” which is staffed by human agents and with politicians have their own agenda. Over the years, these poor assumptions have made room for more colourful, richer analysis of agents, decision-making units at different levels.

Now if we move our attention to the dimension of time rather than perspective of our agents, we realise another issue. We can assess somehow the cost and benefits of today if we use our imaginations but to stretch it to the future would require even more manipulations. And the uncertainty make render the exercise less fruitful than one may expect.

Alas, we continue to use these tools expecting them to work while not having proper assessment of whether they work or not when the outcomes play out in reality. It is not the issue of calculating those figures but how we incorporate them into our judgment that matters. Yet with limited budgets and resources, most have chosen to opt for a semblance of the exercise, paying a smaller cost but getting almost none of the benefits.

Serving the user

Following my observations on Google’s mutated identity, there’s more news of the company’s “decay”. The focus here this time is something else; about the shift in the company culture that results in a bureacracy that plays it safe. There’s a common strand around the fact that Google has changed. And part of the change involves becoming removed from the needs of the user and a bit less grounded on realities.

Indeed, reality is about what the market wants when your company is small and just leading parts of a large market – usually a small part. Yet when a company grows, the insides of the company and the decisions of the management often can be more real than the user. In fact, your boss is likely going to have way more influence over your fate than the users have over the fate of the company. At least in the short term.

So should we have a cultural metric that is about how much a company revolves around serving the user? Maybe. But it is only possible from the top-down. The management have to model and lead that. Yet the management is usually selected by shareholders and at some point when the company grows big. At some point, the short term interests of the shareholders can conflict with that of the user. Moreover, the business model of Internet companies like Google is “ads” – which means users don’t even contribute directly to the revenues of the company!

Being entertained

After sharing David Foster Wallace’s speech, I looked a bit more into the things he said about the kind of themes he tend to think and write about. One of the really big theme is some kind of cultural addiction to entertainment, and in some sense, the growing feebleness of the mind – especially the part that deals with deeper thinking and autonomy.

We have in some sense, replaced that powerful autonomy that Victor Frankl described about the choice of our response to external environment/circumstances, with a kind of superficial sense of choice: which shampoo to buy, what clothes to wear, the jobs to desire, etc. We become weaker at assessing which politician deserves our vote, which friends deserve more of our attention, what character and values we want to truly establish for ourselves and kids.

The sheer noise and pervasiveness of entertainment, and the values of banal, basic type of stuff that gains our attention comes to dominate our lives. Intellectual domains becomes devolved to just what is considered professional and sophisticated at work, or some kind of aristocratic indulgences. Ordinary lives, which is often much more transcendental than we care to recognise, becomes just ordinary for the lack of exercising that deeper bits of our minds.