On Saving the World and Other Delusions

1.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who suffered a crisis of faith of sorts. His startup, which initially had an extremely ambitious, world-altering business plan, had to retrench and start to find a more modest product-market fit. He was upset, not so much because of decreased prospects for a big dollar exit, but because, as he put it, “if I’m not trying to save the world, what’s the point of all this?”

It’s a standard narrative in the startup world: “the world is broken; I have a really ambitious plan to fix it.” But what I told him was that this is a totally crazy way of measuring both impact and a meaningful life. Most of the people who make a big impact in the world are doing paperwork, publishing research, working with the constraints of the system. They’re closer to a paper-pushing bureaucrat than a bold maverick. Sometimes the papers you’re pushing are exit visas for Jews.

The nerd’s sense of measuring everything here is a big handicap when it comes to assessing life meaningfulness. Our instincts for impact evolved in a world where only a few dozen people had real agency in your world; you were part of what we’d perceive as a small ingroup by default, and it wouldn’t be too crazy to think you could be one of the most respected and influential people in the known world. Today, it’s more difficult but still possible to achieve that feeling – but crucially, you have to carefully cultivate insensitivity to scope. You could become the manager of a small business, or a local leader in the Mormon church. Despite all the social disruptions of mobility and super-Dunbar living, that could probably still feel pretty similar from the inside to being a tribal elder.

But then nerds have to come in and ruin everything by measuring in terms of real world impact. And by that metric, nobody measures up to our brain’s expectation of impactfulness. Measured in terms of a civilization of billions, even the most successful career is going to feel like a drop in the bucket, and narrative-based dreams of world-changing are cartoonish. In theory, this quantitative thinking should also provide compensating solace, by saying “Yeah, well at least you did 10x what the average person is able to accomplish,” yet in practice I haven’t seen that many people deeply satisfied by that. It’s “save the world” or bust, without a sense of moderation.

It’s also not at all clear that saving the world is the best way to measure your life. Almost all societies in the past had a complex bucket of metrics involving personal virtue, material success, and success of the family – with “impact on the state of the world” being an also-ran at best. I suspect something in that vein is the most sustainable thing for humans, and that the startup bluster is maybe economically adaptive (as a way to overcome risk aversion and to project confidence) but also deeply insane given how human brains work. And the undermining of traditional notions of life success proportionally increases the importance of saving the world.

2.

One of the odd things I’ve noticed in our depictions of great leaders is that a big part of their influence comes from being able to get people to buy into a vision, and thereby get people to do things that they would otherwise never do. An ordinary leader can assemble a bunch of people doing their normal jobs at market wages, but if you can extract an effort or flexibility surplus in service of your vision, that makes it possible to attack a whole different class of coordination problems. Messianic leaders have been a staple throughout history, of course, but it seems that both the supply and the demand for such leaders is at an all-time high. Reading a self-improvement book published in the 1800s, it struck me how much of the leadership advice was personal, almost feudal: to make people follow you, be a publicly virtuous, reliable guy, someone people would be proud to work for. By contrast, for the vision-based leader, the pathos of the vision precedes the ethos of his claim to leadership ability.

I think this demand is related to our dysfunctional sense of meaningfulness. An undermining of traditional sources of meaningfulness leads people to seek meaning in their work, and this produces both a demand and an incentive for narrative-supplying entrepreneurs to fill that gap in exchange for super-market loyalty and dedication. This is potentially a fair bargain – the question, of course, is whether the entrepreneurs end up delivering, or whether they’re just providing the leverage to inflate a meaningfulness bubble that never gets paid off.

3.

There’s a phenomenon in psychiatry where people with two different psychiatric disorders – narcissistic personality disorder and borderline personality disorder – are frequently found in pairs. Commonly, you’d have a narcissist and borderline as close friends, or a (usually) male narcissist in a relationship with a (usually) female borderline. Narcissism is exactly what it sounds like: someone who for whatever reason has a deeply held need to be admired and considers his life story the most important thing in the world. Borderline personality disorder is best defined as a lack of a sense of identity; they tend to have huge emotional swings and identify themselves with a rapid succession of people in their lives. The narcissist needs others to validate his self-narrative; the borderline needs someone to give her a narrative to live. And so, it may not be surprising that relationships between a narcissist and borderline are pretty frequent, and, if not exactly stable, at least as stable as can be expected for people with personality disorders.

You can see where this is going. The need for, and premium on, vision-based leadership sort of looks like a widespread, subclinical version of borderline personality disorder – maybe we could rebrand it as “chronic questlessness.” Of course I’m not suggesting that people are crazy in the Beautiful Mind sense. Psychiatric disorders in general and personality disorders in particular are more a gradient than a Boolean diagnosis; they’re almost always exaggerations of heuristics that normal people use all the time. The threshold for diagnosis is nothing more than “okay, you’ve got some weird stuff going on; does it interfere with your functioning?” So what I’m suggesting can be translated to saying that there’s a broad-based, subtle shift in heuristics resulting in a lot of people seeking outside opinion on what they should value.

4.

For a long time I regarded the save-the-world thing as a basically harmless motivating delusion, the nerd equivalent of the coach’s pre-game pep talk where he tells your team that, against all odds and in the face of all objective evidence to the contrary, you are a bunch of winners and are going to take home the division trophy. But seeing my friend having his motivational system semi-permanently warped was something of a wake-up call, and got me thinking about how to avoid being sucked into that attractor. It’s tough because the tools of quantitative analysis that underpin this change-the-world heuristic are valid and indeed valuable. But these observations suggest that we should be wary of how easy it is to smuggle in the assumption that our benchmark should be a totally unrealistic amount of efficacy. And at the same times they argue for keeping a diversified life-meaning portfolio – you should include things like family success, physical and emotional quality of life, human relationships, and even relative social status as part of how you measure your life.

This piece was reposted from our previous blog.