This post is not science. It’s not rigorous. It is a simple belief, both self-evident and load-bearing. Itself the proof of its premise because believing it is my own generative force.
Stated as I see it:
The closest thing we have to a perpetual motion machine is inspiration.
- Inspiration creates its own energy for action.
- Action creates information.
- Information generates inspiration.
A finance-dork way of saying this is inspiration is the cheapest source of capital.
One of the ideas economist Tyler Cowen is recognized for comes from his short post, The high-return activity of raising others’ aspirations, where he writes:
At critical moments in time, you can raise the aspirations of other people significantly, especially when they are relatively young, simply by suggesting they do something better or more 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, may be enormous.
This is in fact one of the most valuable things you can do with your time and with your life.
I’m interested in education and how people learn. There’s nothing more invigorating than the moment of empowerment in a child’s eye when they realize “they can”. As a parent, my proudest moments are the goofy smiles on the boys’ faces when they found themselves able to do what they didn’t think they could. Swim their first lap, add in their head, not panic when they got stuck on a zipline (my 7-year-old was calmer than I would have been).
Learning is the receipt you get for courage.
Courage is virtue. It takes courage to see clearly. To empathize. To put aside your preconceptions. To not give into malformed ideas about yourself or others without a challenge. To face your insecurities. To step outside your comfort zone.
I’m as fallible as the next person but I try to live in a way that takes what Cowen says seriously. It’s something I try to keep top of mind especially when I can feel my patience fray. That’s when I need to recruit that belief the most. This is part of being charitable. Giving people credit for wanting to be better. Sometimes a jerk is just a jerk. But sometimes a jerk is someone who wants to be better but doesn’t know how. They are scared but don’t know it. Behind that defense mechanism is an insecure soul that once crawled on all fours, just like you. I don’t want to let go of the rope until the last second when it’s clear they want to take me over the cliff with them. Sometimes I do. I can’t live up to my own ideals.
But I and all of us must continue to try. Noah Smith, a writer and professor, explains why (emphasis mine):
I think our society has moved a huge amount in the direction of meritocracy — of being open to talent. I think we’re really good at that at this point. But I think our pursuit of meritocracy has caused us to neglect a few important things. One is ambition; the people whose talent we discover are the people who come to us, who shove their talent in our faces, because their parents instilled drive and ambition and confidence in them. But there are a lot of talented people out there whose abilities never get discovered because no one ever told them they should aim high, or because they didn’t have parents to push them, or because they simply lacked confidence. My brother-in-law grew up poor in a trailer park, no one in his family had ever been to college. But my sister instilled him with a little more ambition, and he just graduated from a top law school. Without the luck of meeting my sister, he might still be in a trailer park! So our system is so focused on setting up these tournaments for ambitious people that we fail to go out and nurture the ambition of people who have undiscovered talent...A successful society rests on a broad foundation of human capital; it does not place all its hopes on a thin sliver of genius. I see too many people in Silicon Valley — both liberals and conservatives — tacitly accept the notion that only a few people have real potential. And maybe that’s because venture-funded software is such a winner-take-all market. I don’t know. But that’s not the attitude that will bring this country a broad industrial renaissance or social revitalization.
Scientist Michael Nielsen offers an idea anyone can borrow. Nielson contends that if you give specific compliments to people instead of generic platitudes you are capable of doing far more good than you think. It kicks off a spiral of inspiration in its target. It can validate what they think they are good at, a source of energy that pays off 10-fold as they lean even harder into their gifts. And if that recipient didn’t realize they had some special gift in the first place? You just hit’em with a defibrillator. They just gasped to life.
And maybe. For the first time.
I leave you with his essay. It hit hard because my love language is compliments and since I’m not special I assume it is for many people. It’s a simple thing you can do for others. It takes being present. A dash of vulnerability. And a few words.
On Volitional Philanthropy (a short essay!)
by Michael Nielsen
T. E. Lawrence, the English soldier, diplomat and writer, possessed what one of his biographers called a capacity for enablement: he enabled others to make use of abilities they had always possessed but, until their acquaintance with him, had failed to realize. People would come into contact with Lawrence, sometimes for just a few minutes, and their lives would change, often dramatically, as they activated talents they did not know they had.
Most of us have had similar experiences. A wise friend or acquaintance will look deeply into us, and see some latent aspiration, perhaps more clearly than we do ourselves. And they will see that we are capable of taking action to achieve that aspiration, and hold up a mirror showing us that capability in crystalline form. The usual self-doubts are silenced, and we realize with conviction: “yes, I can do this”.
This is an instance of volitional philanthropy: helping expand the range of ways people can act on the world.
I am fascinated by institutions which scale up this act of volitional philanthropy.
Y Combinator is known as a startup incubator. When friends began participating in early batches, I noticed they often came back changed. Even if their company failed, they were more themselves, more confident, more capable of acting on the world. This was a gift of the program to participants . And so I think of Y Combinator as volitional philanthropists.
For a year I worked as a Research Fellow at the Recurse Center. It’s a three-month long “writer’s retreat for programmers”. It’s unstructured: participants are not told what to do. Rather, they must pick projects for themselves, and structure their own path. This is challenging. But the floundering around and difficulty in picking a path is essential for growing one’s sense of choice, and of responsibility for choice. And so creating that space is, again, a form of volitional philanthropy.
There are institutions which think they’re in the volitional philanthropy game, but which are not. Many educators believe they are. In non-compulsory education that’s often true. But compulsory education is built around fundamental denials of volition: the student is denied choice about where they are, what they are doing, and who they are doing it with. With these choices denied, compulsory education shrinks and constrains a student’s sense of volition, no matter how progressive it may appear in other ways.
There is something paradoxical in the notion of helping someone develop their volition. By its nature, volition is not something which can be given; it must be taken. Nor do I think “rah-rah” encouragement helps much, since it does nothing to permanently expand the recipient’s sense of self. Rather, I suspect the key lies in a kind of listening-for-enablement, as a way of helping people discover what they perhaps do not already know is in themselves. And then explaining honestly and realistically (and with an understanding that one may be in error) what it is one sees. It is interesting to ask both how to develop that ability in ourselves, and in institutions which can scale it up.
 It is a median effect. I know people who start companies who become first consumed and then eventually diminished by the role. But most people I’ve known have been enlarged.
Note, by the way, that I work at Y Combinator Research, which perhaps colours my impression. On the other hand, I’ve used YC as an example of volitional philanthropy since (I think) 2010, years before I started working for YCR.