People are animals

Dear J,

I made that sign as a reminder to myself, because I often think too highly of people. When I proudly showed Mama, she scoffed and said, “You know, ‘people’ includes you too.” I replied, “I know! That’s what makes this sign awesome!” I didn’t make it to insult people. There’s no profit in that. And I’m neither a pessimist nor an optimist. I am a realist. Whenever you get confused about why someone acts or doesn’t act a certain way, it’s probably because you’re giving people too much credit. Refer to the sign. And it should instantly become clear.

This will be more true the more you learn. It’s the “Curse of Knowledge” — a cognitive bias where better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.

I used to drink every day to give myself a temporary lobotomy to get in touch with my inner lizard, so I could relate to other people’s inner lizard too. But it started to get out of hand, and to stop myself from becoming an alcoholic, I now drink tea. This forced me to find other ways of keeping myself anchored and from drifting into the clouds.

The more I study people and what motivates their behavior, the more I discover we’re closer to apes than the humans we think we are. Anytime you think someone should do something because “it’s the right thing to do,” chances are, you’ll be wrong.

We often behave in unexpected, irrational ways. But, the valuable insight here is we are irrational in predictable ways. This is researched and cataloged in a field called Behavioral Economics. (Dan Ariely is leading this field.)

I’ll give you a few examples to show you what I mean about being “Predictably Irrational”, as Dan Ariely calls it:

1) If you’re at the beach and you ask your friend to buy you a beer, how much you’re willing to pay will change if your friend says he’s buying from the local store, vs from a hotel – even though the beer itself and the satisfaction you get from it doesn’t change.

2) A bad locksmith who takes 1 hour to unlock a door and breaks the lock in the process gets a higher tip than a good locksmith who unlocks it in 5 minutes without breaking a sweat or the lock — because people assign a higher value to watching someone bleeding, sweating and crying than the utility they got out of the job.

3) When asking people to pick the more attractive of two ordinary people A and B, you can make people prefer one or the other simply by adding a third option – an uglier version of A or B. Even though A and B don’t change, an ugly version of A will make people pick A, and vice versa. So if you want to appear more attractive, have a wingman who’s an uglier version of yourself.

All this has made me sad too. The more in tune I get with the reality of humanity, the more discouraged I am about helping anyone.

People don’t want what’s good for them. They want instant improvement with no effort. They’re too lazy to think and too busy to learn.

But you know what separates humans from animals? IF we want to, we can learn and adapt to surpass our limits.

I don’t know how I know this, but Disgust is one of “the six basic human emotions” (along with happiness, sadness, anger, fear and surprise) that any healthy adult “can experience and recognize.” However, disgust is the only one, among living creatures, that’s unique to humans, and the only one that has to be learned. (I just looked it up and this is from Rachel Herz’s research.)

This may surprise you: Kids don’t know how to be disgusted — parents teach children to be disgusted.

So while we humans have a great capacity to learn, it’s up to you to decide what you want to feed your brain. It’s up to you to feed it with good things or bad things.

Here’s an example of a bad thing: Religion. Christopher Hitchens argues: Religion is the most powerful force for making ordinarily good people do wicked things. Such as, genital mutilation. Because they believe a higher power ordered them to. There are many good effects of Religion, and certainly programs like Alcoholics Anonymous use it to great effect to implant a device to give people direction and meaning, as a crutch to support them while they kick the addiction their life is rooted in. But it is a crutch. Once you are well, you must reevaluate and ask yourself if you really need it.

Speaking of learning, this might be fun. Maybe not. I wanted to show you two odd places I’ve been drawing inspiration from. The first is rap.

I’m a big fan of Eminem, even though I’m not a fan of rap or Hip Hop. He’s one of the most cerebral and technical writers around. Yes, I said writer, not rapper. He has as much to teach about writing as anyone. He has an unusual mastery of rhythm and rhyme. For example, if you read his lyrics before hearing him deliver it, you may not think it rhymes. But when you hear it, you’ll often see 3 to 5 layers of patterns and structures weaved into the 16 beats. And on top of that, he’s a visual storyteller. His tight verses paint pictures and emotions with very few words. In a way that reminds me of great writers like Shakespeare.

Here are Eminem and Shakespeare writing about Love:

You ever love somebody so much, you could barely breathe when you with ’em?
You meet, and neither one of you even know it hit ’em
Got that warm fuzzy feeling, yeah, them chills, used to get ’em
Now you’re gettin’ fuckin’ sick of lookin’ at ’em

You swore you’d never hit ’em, never do nothing to hurt ’em
Now you’re in each others face spewing venom in your words when you spit ’em
You push, pull each others hair, scratch, claw, bit ’em
Throw ’em down, pin ’em, so lost in the moments when you’re in ’em

Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,
And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
Nor hath love’s mind of any judgement taste;
Wings and no eyes figure unheedy haste.
And therefore is love said to be a child
Because in choice he is so oft beguiled.

Okay, hard to compare. But there is a similar attunement with raw feelings, a devotion to his own craft, and a deliberate chiseling and bending of words to paint emotions.

Now here’s something Eminem does that Shakespeare doesn’t – use his voice like an instrument:

First, pay attention to the beat and rhythm of the song. Then watch how Eminem enters and uses his words like the hi-hat and snare:

There’s never been this, much of a menace in this game as this
And it’s the, most sinister duo in the business
Once again its the, illest and realest killas
The most villainous Dre protege, Shady apprentice
Drop them zeros and get with these heroes
Do you want losers or winners, this music is in us, and it’s
Not over ’till we say it’s finished and G-Unit spinners
Will keep spinnin’, this is Hip Hop when it’s in it’s
Truest form, the greatest, Hate us or love us
Make voodoo dolls of us and keep stickin’ those pins in us
Thick as his skin is or as short as his wick is
The trick is to be able to walk big as his dick is

I love dissecting a piece of art — any art, I’m not snobby — then discovering later (like in an interview like this) how he took great care in crafting that very thing I noticed… that most people probably missed.

It makes me feel less lonely, and slightly less crazy.

Mastery is when in addition to doing what you can do well, you can adapt it to any situation, not just having it work in one “ideal” situation, or only the situation you trained for. That is how you spot someone who has achieved a Mastery of their art — when they start to appear as if they have no style. When they transcend forms and become formless. Like water.

The other person I’ve been fascinated with is Dave Chappelle. It’s educational to observe how a stand-up comedian can capture and hold attention doing nothing on stage but stand there and talk.

One thing you might not know about Dave Chappelle is he studied acting. He didn’t study acting before becoming a comedian. While he was building himself up as a comedian, he decided to study acting to be a better comedian.

Both Eminem and Chappelle are humble students. They proudly identify themselves as the ever-hungry student, never too proud to learn.

In the same way, to get better at anything, it’s really no secret. You just gotta put in the time. You wanna get better at writing? You sit down and write. You write even when you don’t want to. You’ll hear Em and Chappelle both talk about how they’re constantly writing, learning, writing. Then occasionally learning about something or someone that blows their mind (like Em with Treach), getting depressed knowing that what they thought was good was trash, and then scraping themselves off the floor, going back to the drawing board and stepping up their game.

Work at your craft, especially when you’re not in the mood. This is tough. But make a deal with yourself: do one little thing you don’t like, even when you don’t want to. You’ll often surprise yourself doing that, because you’ll later discover that one little thing becomes a building block for the next time. On the other hand, if you wait for the right time, it will never come, and you’ll never get going. Winning is a habit, and working when you don’t feel like working is a habit of winners.

It’s 2pm on a Saturday. You’re asleep at nap time now – I put you to bed earlier. Mama left before your nap to teach a class. She packed her laptop, speakers, slides, videos. She really cares about this and it brings her great joy. And that’s why she does it even though she’s pregnant, and it’s Saturday and she could be taking a nap or playing the Final Fantasy game she got beta access to.

We went to the fire station today! It is your first time and we realized it was ours too. Mama had the bright idea to call them up, and they agreed to give us a tour. Mama insisted that we baked them a cake, so we showed up with her famous Tres Leches. You were a little cautious in the beginning, but as soon as you saw the trucks, you leapt out of my arms and climbed up the steps and up into the driver’s seat.



Oh man. I almost forgot to include your weekly stories. Let’s see…

You don’t cry when we drop you off at school anymore, ever since you moved to Starfish. Last time I dropped you off, you didn’t even look up when I said bye and kissed you. You just kept on playing with Ryan and Jacob. And when I pick you up, you’re always still engrossed in Teacher Gina’s reading time.

You found my armpit hair the other day. It was warm enough that I was wearing a sleeveless shirt, and you pointed and said, “THIS”. Huh? “THIS!” Oh, armpit hair. “From daddy’s head!” Uh… yes.

You’ve woken up at 2 am a couple of times. I asked Mama if you had a scary dream, and she said no, you were excited. One night you told her about planes and airports, and another night you told her about going to the Zoo.

Oh this is the best story. You knocked your mom off her feet the other day, Mr Casanova. She was playing with you, telling you “I love you.” When all of a sudden, you turn around, grab her chin and stare straight into her eyes and say, “Smile for me, sweet baby face… make the whole world shine. Let me see your baby face – tell me you are mine.”

We’ve been reading you the book Baby Face every night:

That's my boy.

That’s my boy.