Have we forgotten to be social?

We measure and consume everything. We quantify and track. Numbers are key. That seems like a good thing. What could be wrong with it?

Before anything else, I should note that this post could probably be broken up into two or more, but every now and then I end up having to spit out these thoughts, rather than wait until I have perfect, coherent stories.

Think about the new trends on what we are influenced by: how many friends do we have on Facebook? How many people "Like" our photos. How many steps did we take today, how do we rank against our friends? What is worth reading? What is worth knowing about? What is worth investing time in? Crowdsourcing what is important, what "matters." What defines us is increasingly becoming a numbers game. We live curated lives, more and more. So much pressure. So much measure. What happened to the human factor: emotions?

As the world has become a better place and we have become less worried about survival, more and more people become future oriented. The Time Paradox is a great book about what future/present/past oriented look like. It turns out, future oriented people are all about numbers. Marissa Mayer talks about her typical day in terms of numbers: emails read, meetings done, etc.

You know what else is measured in numbers? Money. I've recently read a book about how irrational we become when money comes into play. In his book, Dan talks about how, when you ask a friend for help, and then pay them, you change their perception from a social norm to a market norm. They may even feel less good about helping you, and become more selfish next time. If, instead, you give them an appropriate gift for their effort [1], suddenly that encourages more support from them. Another example he gives is how, at a thanksgiving dinner prepared by your mother-in-law, instead of bringing a bottle of wine, you offer to pay her for her effort. Suddenly, you have turned all of her hard work from emotion into paid labor. That takes away all meaning. So, next time you are thinking about exchanging money, ask yourself, what is more important: money, or happiness?

An interesting problem we've had at my house recently that relates to this is friends visiting. When a friend stays over for a week or a month—do we charge them money? Might be an easy decision for a day. Or a week. But what about a month? Or six? Where do you draw the line? How do you decide what is fair? There is no perfect answer.

As a side-note, corporations are constantly appealing to our social norms, in an attempt to make us more generous. This is an interesting reason why for-profit companies may be better for society: they innovate faster. They are motivated by money to move forward. They exploit our addictions. They are not always responsible. A contrasting example is governments. Governments debate the best decisions, while corporations must move forward. Otherwise, they will run out of money, or be eliminated by the competition. The government has no competition, and, in some ways, has "unlimited" money. This is all exaggerated, but you get the idea.

One particularly interesting note is how this relates to education:

My feeling so far is that standardized testing and performance-based salaries are likely to push education from social norms to market norms. The United States already spends more money per student than any other Western society. Would it be wise to add more money? [...]

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So how can we improve the educational system? We should probably first rethink school curricula, and link them in more obvious ways to social goals (elimination of poverty and crime, elevation of human rights, etc.), technological goals (boosting energy conservation, space exploration, nanotechology, etc.), and medical goals (cures for cancer, diabetes, obesity, etc.) that we care about as a society. This way the students, teachers, and parents might see the larger point in education and become more enthusiastic and motivated about it. We should also work hard on making education a goal in itself, and stop confusing the number of hours students spend in school with the quality of the education they get. Kids can get excited about many things (baseball, for example), and it is our challenge as a society to make them want to know as much about Nobel laureates as they now know about baseball players. I am not suggesting that igniting a social passion for education is simple; but if we succeed in doing so, the value could be immense.

So let's be nice. Let's stop caring about every number. Let's be social. And focus on what matters most: kindness, gratitude, time spent with others, or time spent doing what we love. Motivation received through dedication, warmth and communication, not through money. Being personal.

And here is food for thought, and something that struck me deeply once I realized it. Somewhere within me I believe that future oriented people are going to be more successful than I am. That, in some ways, enjoying the now is a weakness. But, at the same time I want to be more present. Again, The Time Paradox gives an example of a jazz musician that is completely absorbed in the present and is successful, but cannot manage his own time—luckily, he is talented enough to afford hiring others to do it for him. Now, coming back to my dilemma, is my worry justified? Does this present-future orientation have to be a conflict? Do I have to choose between being future-oriented or present-oriented?

The book answers that: no. There is a time to be future-oriented, and one to be present-oriented. They are separate. And it is OK to be both. I am still working on internalizing that :)

Interestingly enough, Zimbardo and Boyd conclude by saying that being positive about the past is the most important. Almost as if nothing bad could come from it. Could this go back to why we miss having traditions and time to think about the past, near and far? Why history can feel so rewarding to learn?


  1. Interestingly enough, another book I am reading, Mindset, talks about how praising people for effort creates a growth mindset, whereas praising them for intelligence creates a fixed mindset. Aaron Swartz wrote more about this.

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