Believe In Others | #193
In praise of Tyler Cowen
August 20th, 2022: Greetings from NYC. We are down in the city for a couple of days and enjoying the summer. I hope yours is going well too!
Believe In Others!
In Tyler Cowen’s latest book Talent, he reiterates something he’s been saying for years: one of the most important things you can do is raise the ambitions of other people.
Here’s what he and his co-author Daniel Gross write:
Raising the aspirations of other people is one of the most beneficial things you can do with your time. At critical moments, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something more important and ambitious than what they might have in mind. It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, can be enormous.
Over the past five years, I’ve been the beneficiary of a number of people who not only supported me but did exactly this - they inspired me to raise my level of ambition not just in terms of money or status, but the kind of life I want to live.
There are two things that are interesting about these kinds of people.
First, they have had an outsized impact on my life, often with very little effort. A small comment or supportive gesture that takes no more than 15 seconds of energy can be magically transformed into a felt sense of confidence and courage that can last for months, if not years.
The second thing that stands out is how rare these people seem to be.
Which makes me wonder. What makes people want to believe in others? Especially when they are literally strangers on the internet. Is it a genetic trait? Do some people desire to encourage other people? Or is it a learned capacity?
Getting Over Yourself
I think the biggest barrier to becoming a person like this is that you need to reach a stage of life where you’ve gotten over yourself. Unfortunately, I think modern culture and the stories we tell ourselves about how life should go keep us in ego protection mode for far too long. The pressure to be impressive and to prove to others that you have your shit together, supercharged by the embedded scarcity and fear in our world convinces far too many people to pretend to have things figured out.
Not only does it not generate people that are wired to believe in others, but it also generates the opposite: people that resent those that seem to be thriving. I’ve heard this so many times from people on unconventional paths. People go from having literally no one commenting on their life when on the default path to many people poking holes in their new unconventional direction.
The interesting thing is how noticeable this is after leaving a conventional path. Even if it is only a few comments, the skepticism is so consistent that you sometimes think you really are doing something wrong. Over time you realize that it’s about other people, all of whom are saying the same thing: suffer like me and I’ll leave you alone but veer off course and I’ll make you pay for my discomfort. This was bizarre to experience but also made me curious. Eventually, I realized most people weren’t judging me, they were projecting their own insecurities and fears onto my life choices.
I’m reading an amazing book right now that offers a helpful reframe. It’s called Life is in the Transitions by Bruce Feiler (recommended by Aida Alston in our conversation about this). Feiler argues that most people think of life as a smooth linear path. If you ask most 21-year-olds, including me at the time, you’d probably get them telling you this is how life will go. After all, this is what almost every company recruiting college graduates tells you.
Despite our hopes that the linear path is real, Feiler’s extensive research into people’s found that the reality was much different. Instead of being defined by a line, people’s lives are shaped by a steady stream of “disruptors.” Most people have about three dozen disruptors in their lives, meaning on average people face things that send them in new directions every 12-18 months.
Start taking an inventory of your life and you’ll see that your life is full of disruptors. Graduating from school, starting a new job, getting fired, moving locations, starting a new relationship, ending a relationship, health challenges and, and so on. Live long enough and they are inevitable.
The danger, especially in today’s cultural zeitgeist, is to turn ourselves into victims. But for me, Feiler’s perspective is freeing. The more interesting perspective for me is something closer to:
Almost everyone is getting thrown off course almost all the time and we should just stop pretending like we are living a smooth existence.
A false belief in my own life as a smooth path toward adulthood set me up to get rocked when I had a bunch of disruptions in a two-year stretch at the age of 25: losing my grandfather, starting grad school, starting dating someone, ending grad school, getting dumped, starting a new job and then losing my health.
Feiler calls this kind of thing a “lifequake” - when a series of disruptors force you in a new direction whether you want it or not.
Believing in Others
I don’t think I really felt the absolute life-changing force of someone believing in me until I became self-employed. The incredible vulnerability of not knowing what I was doing combined with people who were either silent or critical of me made me desperate for supporters. And when those people showed up it was life-changing. It’s made me want to devote my life in a similar way to believing and supporting others.
But was I always wired like this or was it a product of the experiences I’ve had? I can never really know. What I do know is that far too many people are deeply insecure about their life paths and have far too few supporters in their lives.
For some reason, we seem to be locked in a silent conspiracy to affirm the choices of those who fit in and to make those veering off course feel bad. This seems insane, especially in a country like the United States. We should be celebrating entrepreneurs, weirdos, and creatives. The tech world does this to some degree but it’s a relatively small portion of the world. We need more people pushing out toward new frontiers and taking new paths, even if they fail.
From the side of someone taking an unconventional path, the absolute worst thing in the world is when people question what I am doing or worse, project their own insecurities onto my path. I know it shouldn’t bother me but it does. It makes me feel terrible and makes me want to run away into the woods to find a cave to hide away in for a few months. These people will never understand me.
In the time it takes to criticize someone or tell them what you would be worried about, you can ask questions. What are you excited about? What support do you need? What would raise the odds of helping you survive and succeed? What kind of people do you wish you had supporting you? Can I gift you anything that would help you?1
Or simply, I think what you are doing is cool, keep going.
This can be life-changing to someone. Yet so few people do it.
This is why people like Tyler Cowen are so inspiring. He has taken a weird path, reached a level of status and success, and now puts a ton of effort into supporting hundreds, if not thousands, follow bold paths through his program Emergent Ventures.
Why doesn’t everyone have a Tyler Cowen-type person in their family or community? It’s a damn shame.
The good news is that you know all this now and realize that even if someone seems confident, they probably aren’t. Even people on the default path need encouragement and supporters.
I’ve talked to countless people of all life stages, income levels, ethnic backgrounds, and life conditions and it’s pretty clear - everyone is a bit uneasy and everyone could use a little more support.
As Cowen says,
It costs you relatively little to do this, but the benefit to them, and to the broader world, can be enormous.
Thanks For Reading
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