Mental gymnastics through which it becomes virtuous to destroy the world

For a long time, I have been puzzled, for when I look around me, most of what I see is hard-working, earnest people who try to make the world a better place (or, at least, not trying to make it worse). Yet, at the same time, I cannot shake a sense of regress.

  • More and more people are physically and mentally ill, even though so many of us work on products and services that are supposed to increase the quality of our lives.
  • We’re progressing at an ever-slowing pace in areas like pharmaceutics and construction (see Eroom’s law), even with knowledge and technology unfathomable just 100 years ago.
  • There are millions of people working hard – and most with good intentions, I like to believe – on things that have deteriorated so much it’s insane. Consider the media industry: we still receive the most important news like we did 20 years ago, but now we get 100x more of the meaningless stuff on top. Or consider most products (toys, clothes, furniture): the stuff from a hundred years ago was durable, ornamented works-of-art you could pass through generations. The stuff produced now is unremarkable, dime-a-dozen junk that you’d be surprised if it lasted a few years.

How are these two observations to be reconciled? What could explain that most people want to, and work to, improve the world, yet it seems in many areas, the opposite is happening?

I believe there are certain mental gymnastics at play, through which it becomes virtuous to destroy the world. Most people wouldn’t willingly destroy the fabric of society - we call these people criminals and hooligans, and they are the minority. Rather, it must be considered good, virtuous even, to engage in such activities that promote a worse world than we could have. I beg that we become aware of these mental gymnastics and replace them with principles of a different kind.

Principle #1: Not “maximum positive impact” but “most reliable positive impact”

I believe a main issue with accidentally destroying the world when we’re trying to do good is how we mentally calculate the usefulness of our work. Instead of certainty, we go for grandiosity.

Imagine an ambitious person who wants to have an impact on the world. They will probably have a grandiose vision to change the lives of millions. There’s nothing wrong with the intent, but the problem is that there are actually extremely few people who can achieve anything like that. There is, however, a plethora of people who try, and in doing so, ignore not only their well-being but also that of their family.

Most workaholics who miss their child’s birthday and take their spouses for granted aren’t inventing electricity. If they worked 20% less, the world would not be a much worse place to be in. More people work bullshit jobs than they’d care to admit. By contrast, if they were a 20% more attentive parent/spouse, the world would be a better place.

“Shoot for the Moon. Even if you miss, you'll land among the stars”, one might think. But it doesn’t quite work like that.

  • Almost helping 10,000 children learn coding with your grandiose company (that failed) is different from actually helping 100 children learn coding one-by-one. 
  • A revolutionary new social app that promotes exercise and mental health sounds like a lot of impact (too bad people don’t use it), whereas coaching a local youth football club actually supports their physical and mental health.
  • How likely are you to introduce a new law in your country to ban fast fashion? And how likely can you get 10-100 people to stop buying fast fashion by personally talking to them / sharing your thoughts online? 

When you aim for grandiosity, not only are your chances of no impact higher, so are your chances of negative impact. If a new CEO or VP wants to prove themselves, they do something big - like a rebrand or restructuring - which often just makes things worse. If you push your children to become an Olympian or top-of-class because you think that’s maximum impact for them, you may inadvertently make their life worse, not better, as many Tiger parents come to realize. History is full of ambitious people with backfired efforts to create a utopia or the perfect society.

Do we think ourselves too ambitious and clever to ignore the low-hanging fruit? Many want to get rich fast (but never do) and few focus on getting rich slowly (and often do) – perhaps there’s a similar mechanism here. We want impact fast and become blind to the obvious and certain ways we could have a big impact, albeit a small piece at a time.

Principle #2: Focus mostly on your immediate circle

Sometimes it is difficult to assess if your work is positive to society, and by how much. For this reason, another principle: stay within your circle.

Consider the effort you put into your own life. You start to eat better, work out more, declutter your home. There is probably a 0.01% chance that the things you sincerely believe to be helpful will turn out to be net negative.

Now consider you move a step outward and you want to improve the people and places immediately around you. You are extra nice to the cashier in the store, you check in on your friends, invite your parents for dinner, pick up trash from the street nearby. Again, you can be quite confident that the things you sincerely believe to be helpful will not be negative in value.

But the farther you move from your circle, the higher the chances you’ll accidentally start destroying the world. As the scale increases, so do the factors you cannot take into account, and the interdependencies hidden from our sight. Often well-meaning interventions have unforeseen consequences; just consider the difference between quitting alcohol on an individual level vs banning alcohol in an entire country.

Applying this principle:

  • I should dedicate most of my energy and effort to the inner circle. Why work on the weekend on a company issue when I could work on a family issue?
  • What’s the best way I could help the overworked healthcare system in my country? Probably not by debating who deserves care or the structuring of the system, but by taking care of my own health to the best of my abilities.
  • I could try to change people’s opinions or be political online, thinking it virtuous to “teach others” and stand by my (political) group. In the end, though, I will hardly change anyone’s opinion, but rather produce outrage and noise. It’s probably better to focus on improving my experience online: mute or block people I don’t want to see more of, focus on enhancing my views vs those of other people.
  • Similarly, I could write to gain an audience and “do more of what seems to be popular”. But that’s a quick slope to writing about things I don’t have personal experience of (for example, consider people giving startup advice but have never founded a startup themselves). It’s not virtuous to produce information – many times, that info is negative in value, misleading. If I stay within my circle and write for my own use, I will less likely clutter the world with useless words.

To save the world, save first your own life, then move outward one step at a time.

(P.S. There's something deeply flawed in how much we know about current events, lives of celebrities, TV series trivia… but so little about our own body and mind, human tradition, our immediate environment, how things we use work, the history of buildings you pass by every day. Overall, our focus should be more on the immediate circle.)

Principle #3: Improve real things, not numbers

The easiest way to fool someone into thinking they’re creating progress? Attach a number to it. As long as the number goes up, most people believe they are doing a good thing, regardless of what the number represents or leaves out. 

The worrisome thing: once we stray further from our immediate circle, we must attach numbers to things. If I want to educate one child, I can see with my own eyes if we’re progressing. But if I am to educate 10,000 children, I can no longer see each child one-by-one – so what do I do? I create a number: a standardized test score, or a grade point average.

But here an issue emerges: I no longer optimize for the child’s educational development, as I would with one child. I optimize for the GPA, because that’s the only way to do things at scale. We improve that which can be measured, and deteriorate that which cannot. 

You cannot measure the beauty of an object, strength of a relationship or quality of someone’s life. The most important things evade measurement, yet, as a society, we have become unable to work on something if it cannot be measured. A lot of regress starts to make sense when we apply this lens:

  • Why does it seem like cities, buildings, streetlamps, gardens etc were prettier in the past? Rather than thinking “how do I produce a really nice streetlamp?”, we think “how do I produce 10,000 streetlamps at a low cost?”. When we need to measure, we don’t think of the real thing, we think of the numbers.
  • Why can I hit my 10,000-steps-a-day target and have a decent sleep score, yet feel unhealthy? Because I’m not improving the real thing (how I feel), I’m improving the numbers! If I’m obsessed with how much I can deadlift or the circumference of my biceps, I am a slave to one dimension of health and thereby unhealthy, for humans are made for variation and record numbers are made via repetition.  (Related post on exercise and another on variation)
  • Why do smart behavioral and data scientists design addictive mobile games for children (=destroy the world) if they are so smart? Because they are given a virtuous-sounding mission – “entertainment” – and a number to focus on, so they lose sight of the real thing. The same way, statespeople tear open forests and people’s homes when you call it “developing” the area and attach some impressive number to it. (Here's Scotland cutting down 16 million trees to develop wind farms...)

This is yet another reason why, if you want to improve the world, it’s good to stay in your circle. No one cares about the numbers. My children aren’t going to ask for a quarterly report. No one enters my garden with a measuring tape. The local organization isn’t setting OKRs for me – they’re just happy someone is volunteering a pair of hands. You can just improve real things. Imagine that!

When you stay in your circle, you can see with your own eyes where your work hours went. Outside of your circle, you need to trust that somewhere, somehow, the green numbers translate to a better world. But if you cannot visibly see the positive impact, how confident are you that there is one? 

Your life becomes infinitely better when you focus >90% of your attention on what you can physically see with your own eyes, in the real world, and as little as you can on bits and info on a screen, depicting events far away.

Improvement can be as simple as redirection

If we consider why there is regress in some areas despite most people thinking they’re improving things, perhaps the answer is that we aren’t just putting enough conscious consideration to what we’re actually working on. Maximum impact vs reliable impact? Inner circle or outer circle? Real things or mere numbers?

(These are all interconnected: if I’m lured into maximum impact thinking, I go out of my circle to get scale, thus optimize for numbers instead of real things. If I go for reliable impact, I more likely stay within my circle and have no need for abstracted measurement.)

The whole point of this post isn’t to discourage people from working hard or trying to improve the world – both things I believe in dearly. The point is that we must pay closer attention to what we’re putting effort into. A better life may not require more energy, just a reassessment of how you use it:

  • Before you try to change the lives of millions, improve your own. 
  • Instead of thinking how to help millions, some day, help one person, today.
  • Every day do something that has a 100% chance of improving the world.
  • Optimize for what you can see in real life, not green arrows on a screen.
  • If your body, mind, family or home is decaying, that’s a sign of misdirected attention.
  • Think local. 
  • Ignore all news about celebrities, events in other countries, and anything that doesn’t bear a direct influence in your life.
  • Don’t aim to look virtuous – just do good things, even if others will never know.
  • Trust your gut. If you feel like you’re doing meaningless work, you probably are. When you do meaningful things, you’ll know.
  • Instead of “maximum impact”, aim for the most reliable impact & a minimum chance that your work is accidentally bad for the world.
  • Fulfill your duties with care; that's almost always the most virtuous thing you can do with your life.

Read next:

Get each new post to your email:

RSS feed
Follow me on Twitter for more content.