Structural Stupidity

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to have better conversations, mainly spurred on by a book I’m reading: “I Never Thought Of It That Way,” by Monica Guzman.

Here’s an off-the-top-of-my-head collection of “Truths” I think I’ve collected in the past few months. As always, subject to change…

  • A conversation is an exchange of ideas, and a productive one requires that both parties are interested in exchanging ideas in both directions.
  • An argument, in contrast, is when each side wants to be right, and wants to prove the other side wrong.
  • Critical elements for a real conversation are mutual trust and respect.
  • Social media is a terrible place to have real conversations. Best to disengage altogether. Social media encourages “structural stupidity.”

Here’s a Braver Angels podcast in which “structural stupidity” is discussed.


I posted the following piece (minus a few edits) on Facebook in 2012. Facebook reminded me of it today. It seems I was ahead of my time 10 years ago — or at least foreshadowing this web site.

. . .

There are lots of things about Affordable Care to dislike — among them, the ramrod tactics and legislative slight-of-hand used to get it through. The argument that any expansion of government bureaucracy  can lead to lower overall costs should make even the most staunch liberal blush. 

But then, I don’t believe any conservative argument that “the market” can provide “affordable healthcare for all,” either. Markets care about stockholders — period.  Nor do I even believe that conservatives generally agree in that supposedly universal goal.

I don’t know if heading down this path will be a positive in the long run. Neither does anyone else. 

What I do know is that Obama has done something significant that he said he would do. I know that his opponents won’t congratulate him on being effective, yet they would have wasted no time in labeling him as ineffective and weak if the ruling had gone differently. Probably still will anyway. One more reason I wouldn’t want that job (for those of you wondering).

Imagine that, by some miracle, both parties agree to some small extent a few years from now that the Affordable Care Act turned out to be a winner in some minor way.  Will Republicans still be calling it Obamacare?

I feel very strongly that we, as a nation, must somehow kick our cultural addiction to being on the winning team, especially on the most important issues.  We must learn to respect people who thoughtfully change their opinions, rather than labeling them as flip-floppers. We must learn to listen. We must stop letting politicians double-talk. In fact, we must stop forcing them to. We must somehow demand and help create a system in which “reaching across the aisle” doesn’t get your hand stabbed.

News flash: being wrong feels exactly like being right — until you’re found out, or you learn something, or both. So stop taking sides and listen. Winning isn’t everything. In the end, it isn’t anything. Neither is losing. Work for the truth, and assume you don’t already have it in the bag.

Be the Idiot

It’s my own personal observation, and source of sadness, that so much of today’s conversations are about convincing someone (including ourselves?) that we are NOT idiots.

I’ve been in some sort of engineering profession for most of my life. However, I was a high school teacher for four years. During those years, I learned a few things about myself — one of which was that I like working with peers.

As a high school teacher, you don’t work with peers, for the most part. Most of every day is spent either by yourself, preparing lessons and grading papers, or in front of a classroom of students. In either case, you are expected, and paid, to be the smartest person in the room; the expert.

While being the smartest person in the room is satisfying and gratifying, I find that it gets old very quickly. I prefer NOT to be the smartest person in the room. I like being around people that are smarter than I am. That’s what makes me extend myself and learn.

That in mind, this video came across my feed this morning. I’m a fan of Simon Sinek.

Love + Work

I just finished a book by Marcus Buckingham, titled “Love + Work.” I didn’t really want to read it. I kinda had to, because my wife “thought I would like it.”

I started by speed-reading it — which usually means I read the first paragraph of each chapter, the first line of each paragraph, and then the last paragraph of each chapter. If something stands out or looks interesting, I slow down and dig in.

But I quickly slowed down and backed up to start pretty much over. OK, so I skimmed some of the stories, but still, I have to admit that the book caught my attention.

You see, I was brought up to look at all the things I need to improve upon about myself, and improve them. This makes for a well-rounded person. Perhaps it also makes for someone who has a lot of tools for resiliency; someone who is at least somewhat prepared for just about anything.

It makes sense that my parents would raise me this way. They grew up in Nazi Germany, and ended their short childhoods as refugees during the war, emigrating to the United States in their late teens.

The problem with this approach to life — of always focusing on the things you don’t do well — is that it’s unlikely you’ll ever be really awesome at anything.

For that, you need to focus on the things that you love. Hence, this book.

The author talks about looking for the three indicators of “Love” — that is, activities you love. They are (I’m quizzing myself now): Instinct (things you do instinctively); Flow (things that cause you to lose track of time), and; Mastery (things that you pick up relatively easily).

This isn’t another “Follow Your Bliss” book. There are plenty of times in the book where the author acknowledges the fuzzy edges of rules, or puts idealistic concepts into perspective. For instance, this book is the first time I’ve ever seen in print the concept that I came up with independently about 20 years ago — that even the best jobs are made up out of only 20% things you like. The other 80% is stuff you do so that you can do the 20%.

So why am I posting on this particular blog about this particular book? Because of a quote in the epilogue: “One of the biggest changes you can make in the world is how you choose to see and understand others.”

The end.

Who are you really?

I had to share.

One of my negative habits that I’m trying to leave behind is the habit of turning on my TV when I eat. We have one right above the little table where we often eat informally. I tend to flip to Netflix and watch whatever series I’m watching that my wife isn’t interested in. Currently, that list includes Blacklist (I’m on season 7), and Russian Doll (season 2). There’s also a long history of various SciFi stuff (most of which I never “finished because most of it is awful), and various Arthurian and Viking genre programs.

Overall, I seem to have a thing for violence and vulgarity. And then I wonder why I’m in a shitty mood.

So, I’ve switched my habits to watching TED talks. Those aren’t always uplifting, but they seldom involve beheadings or torture or gunfights.

Today, I stumbled across this one, and I’m so glad I did. In the intellectual space of “understanding on purpose,” what could possibly be more important than knowing who we are, and who other people are?

If you haven’t seen this one yet, you’re in for a treat. It’s very entertaining, and I found it quite insightful.

Agree to Agree

Just a quick thought…

I understand “agreeing to disagree” — really I do. Often, that’s where we get in a conversation. Maybe even most of the time.

But “we agree to disagree” doesn’t have to be the default position, does it? Furthermore, is that really a “conversation?”

When I read “ideas are exchanged,” I interpret that as being a two-way transaction. I suppose that’s an assumption, and not necessarily so. Perhaps sometimes the intent of a “conversation” is to convince the other person that they are wrong, and we are right. A one-way exchange. That’s a valid purpose. But I think it’s limited.

If I’m able to convince someone that I’m right and they’re wrong, then what have I really gained? Perhaps I really am right, and then convincing someone of it is a positive thing — just as positive as me learning I’m wrong. But I’m selfish in that I usually want to learn something. And that means either learning that I’m wrong about something, or at least learning that my understanding is somehow incomplete.

So, I think I try to make most of my conversations, and most of the conversations that I facilitate, start out with at least some level of “agreeing to agree.” The purpose of the conversation is — at least initially — to find common ground. From there, we can branch out.

The Predator?

I’m going a bit out on a limb with this post. Way out, actually. I’m taking a writing class* (several, actually), and this day’s exercise was to write a poem, inspired by a number of carefully chosen prompts. To be clear — I’m not a poet. I generally don’t really “get” poetry, unless it’s performed for me.

Anyway, my classmates and I were each guided to choose a person, some characteristics about them, and some human condition. I chose someone I’ve followed on the internet for some time whom I admire for their honesty, intellectual prowess, and courage.** The human condition was (of course) “understanding.”

If this doesn’t mean anything to you, don’t worry. It probably won’t mean much to me in about a week, either. But it was a fun exercise. Besides… I do believe that a good argument — a good discussion — is a form of poetry in its own right.

He paces,

lost and found in his element; joyous and gladless.

Tools sharp, he is hyperaware — vulnerable and immune.

His prey is entranced, willing; no need to hurry or pounce.

He becomes the bars that imprison him.

They freeze; now brittle, transparent,

melting away in the warmth of the embrace.

* The class is called “The Creative Habit,” offered through Stanford University, led by Malena Watrous

** I’m not saying who.

A Gift From a Friend

A friend of mine sent me this just a few minutes ago, and I haven’t even responded yet to thank him. I just feel that this message needs to go out.

I believe in God, but I am not a religious man. I have lots of suspicion around, resentment of, even hatred for many things associated with “religion.” For me, most of that stuff has, most of the time, gotten between me and God, not led me towards God.

The friend that sent this to me is a deeply religious man, and this has often put us at odds over the years we’ve known each other — though almost never enough so to keep us from keeping touch (thank God — literally). But this video is where he and I intersect. I am deeply grateful for the gift, but also for the realization that this web site seems somehow to be at the nexus of the things we argue about so often — not only he and I, but so many of us, on almost every topic.

Note: the link above starts at about 2:11 into the whole video. If you’re interested in the rest, in which JP makes a case for religion, then check out the first part. I reluctantly and humbly agree that religion has an important place in our lives and in our society (despite my misgivings), and JP says it well.

So. Next time you’re in a confrontation… ask yourself… Who’s the enemy here?

(Thanks, Jeff)

Contempt Prior to Investigation

My wife was reading a book last night about EMDR. This was the quote at the top of the chapter — probably because EMDR is often met with a lot of skepticism, at least at first. I’m sure she took the time to read the quote to me because she knew it would resonate with me. It does. A lot of what UnderstandingOnPurpose is about stems from “contempt prior to investigation” — that tendency for all of us to have pre-decided what to think before actually listening to something someone has to say.

In fact, if you know who Herbert Spencer is, and you’re aware of his connection to Social Darwinism, you may have contempt for this quote, prior to considering it. If so, use this experience as a learning tool, and perhaps imagine the quote coming from someone you know and admire.

Since this quote was written in the late 1800’s and people “talked different” back then, Here’s a 2022 translation:

If you have contempt for some idea before having investigated it, then you have already invalidated any new information, proven the idea wrong, and assured that you will remain ignorant.

I’ll take that a step further. It’s not just the idea that we can have contempt for. It’s anyone proposing the idea. And once we’ve held a person in contempt for one idea, we hold all others coming from them with the same contempt.