A thought occurred to me during a drive recently that I wanted to put down for posterity reasons. I have all manner of ideas and to be frank they are a bit aloof at the moment. I have an idea of the type of difference I want to make in the world (what Simon Sinek might call my “why”) but am still working on the details of what that actually looks like (“how” and “what”). This is not a bad place to be necessarily, but it does mean I have to put some serious thought into my academic career and what I hope to do with it. Mostly because I will begin the process of making connections in various disciplines and I’ll want to make the right connections in the right disciplines if I want to move towards the difference I want to make.
If you’ve read or listened to much of anything I’ve spent my time on, you’ll know I’m interested in human conflict and cooperation. Only recently have I “narrowed” that interest to trying to create the ideal global environment for human beings to thrive. That sounds a bit broad and it is, in a way, but the devil is in the details. Working out what that global environment looks like is complicated and I have not, by any stretch, worked out the details of what that is. If anything, the project I am detailing below would be founded with the express purpose of exploring these ideals in a rather pointed manner. There are certainly organizations and academic departments I will be learning about and hopefully connecting with that have similar design aspirations. If so, it is in all likelihood that I align myself with them. If, in doing so, I find that their vision is drastically out of line with my own (a tricky estimation in itself), it would help to have an idea of what my vision actually is without so crass a description as “not that.”
I’ll draw an analogy to explain what it is because it really seems to be combination of many different ideas that I’ve had. When people ask me what I hope to do with my degree or once I finish my academic career, I often say I have a few projects I’d like to pursue. Those projects are, in no particular order – a) to found a thinktank whose sole guiding principle is combining seemingly unrelated scientific disciplines (say physics and psychology) and providing a space for projects to pursue, b) to found a separate entity that works as a “cultural liaison” between scientific disciplines that traditionally do not speak the same language and have little, if anything, good to say about each other, c) to found an actual “cultural liaison” agency that could be contracted by governments to help facilitate smooth relations with local populations impacted by expanding infrastructure, and d) to continue the work of promoting meditation practice as a strong alternative to the trap of human boredom – by combatting cellphone use.
Taken in aggregate, these seem to be somewhat related but could easily be separated projects run by separate organizations and I don’t want to discount the possibility that plenty of organizations exist that offer these things. I’m sure as I expose myself to these various environments I will learn about just such a group of organizations. Or at least I think I’m sure they exist. Regardless, whether or not they do should not affect the overall enterprise – to include the holistic view of humanity into each project. It actually seems to be a goal that nearly all sciences look for, an elegant, all-encompassing explanation of everything. Even physics, with Einstein’s immortal energy and matter equation, seeks to do something similar when marrying the standard model of physics to the quantum model. It is entirely possible that this interpretation of reality is itself impossible given the limitations of our biology, our cognitive constitution, and our mathematical tools. The enterprise I am proposing seeks to pursue all of the ideals of reality within the framework of these things.
That is to say… this is a huge undertaking!
What I am proposing is something I’m tentatively calling the Human Global Community Center. The intended aim is, frankly, to maximum human creative potential and minimize conscious suffering. I believe we have to do that by optimizing civilization. How that is to be accomplished would be a part of the Center’s mission. Once we work out how, we then work out how to get there.
If all of that sounds confusing, let me offer it from a football coach’s perspective. This will also be a bit of a lesson for some of you unfamiliar with the dynamics of pragmatic leadership.
When you inherit a group of people to lead, you inherit a whole host of responsibilities many of which are explicit, some of which are implicit, and more that are unobvious to the leader or the led. The obvious responsibilities include the success, health and development of your players. The implicit responsibilities include providing a safe environment where trust can be fostered. The unobvious (at least to some) are the traditional evolutionary roles of protector and hunter. We are the product of millions of years of base instinct and those things don’t just go away when you’re born into a world with televisions. We still look to people who can keep us safe, make us feel safe, and who can correctly identify the enemy. Coaches have to do this. You have a schedule so that helps – but the coach is responsible for picking out what is dangerous and what needs to be attacked. We can all respond to someone that is good at this and while it may seem obvious, consider how unsuccessful the vast majority of coaches in all professional sports are. The pragmatic leader is a rare breed.
So now you know what a coach’s responsibilities are. Breaking from the analogy briefly, this is the moment my project is currently in. We know what we have to do in a very general sense. But you can’t press a button that “makes the environment safe.” This requires research and, quite frankly, failure.
So the coach has to spend his time communicating with his team and his assistants. He has to scold someone and then observe their reaction. He has to coddle someone else and observe their reaction. He does this a lot until he notices what tends to work and what does not. Bad coaches, you may have noted, come in all flavors. They can be rigid disciplinarians (it worked for “x,” so it should work for me – if it doesn’t, it’s your fault), they can be quite liberal with participation (everyone learns every position and develops all skills even if it means we tend to lose as nobody is specialized), they can have a specialized focus (defense wins championships), they can have any number of foci. These approaches are frankly short-sighted and miss what all great coaches possess – pragmatism. What works for one group does not work for another. Great coaches have developed gameplans and strategies that take their unique personnel into account. They are masters of re-arranging the jigsaw puzzle depending on the first few pieces they are given.
This is not a speedy process. There will be failures, setbacks, painful lessons, unlucky breaks. For a good organization, none of these are back-breaking (the most successful organizations stuck with their coaches in sub-optimal years – in football, think of teams like the Patriots or Steelers, the latter of which has had only three coaches in over 40 years). In fact, they are the most useful lessons because we learn from our mistakes. The one person least likely to make that catastrophic mistake is the one who just did – especially if their past behavior suggests they are constantly looking for solutions to problems and are quite good at doing it.
What do these processes look like? For a professional coach there are a myriad of considerations (I actually recommend reading Phil Jackson’s books – like Sacred Hoops or The Last Season – for a good idea of the constellation of ideas). Players need food, diet, training, personal time, education, rest, comradery, motivation, structure, trust, and expectations to exhaust what I can currently think of – I’m sure there are more. Further, each player needs a different combination of these things and you cannot watch all of them at once. In the case of a football team, there are 55 players – you have to depend on your staff to keep an eye on them and you have to subsequently keep an eye on your staff. Your staff also needs to be trained and kept up-to-date on what your methods and plans are. Perhaps this brief glimpse has helped someone unfamiliar with coaching a better appreciation for it. To take the analogy even further – if you have children, please consider how different each of them are. What worked with one kid sometimes doesn’t work with the other. What interests one does not interest the other. A football team is 55 children with a team of 10 or so children keeping an eye on them. Pragmatism (not totalitarianism) is the only way to achieve real, sustainable results. “Pick and choose your battles.”
To once again break from the analogy, this is what I imagine my project (the Human Global Community Center) would spend most of its time on – figuring out how best to run the team. In many ways, this work is already being farmed out by a number of scientific disciplines and the Center would merely be looking for where the research is, where it is going, and how it applies to the grand scheme. I have no reason to think this enterprise can be achieved in my lifetime but believe it worth working towards regardless. That said, I am also optimistic that a great deal of scientific disciplines have covered a great deal of ground and we could be significantly further along than my still-naïve brain can judge.
So as the new head coach would soon realize with his daunting task of running a large group of people towards the ultimate goal, there are a multitude of considerations and disciplines to incorporate in order to achieve a winning (successful) tradition. At that, what the hell does a successful tradition even look like? A coach has an obvious path and a very rigid structure to achieve it. My project starts with a unique disadvantage – human beings don’t necessarily agree on what game they’re even playing. Collect all the things? Maximize pleasure? Minimize pain? Maximize creativity? Maximize equality? (Wait… what?)
For a small taster, I imagine the center incorporating some of the following disciplines at the very least and here are a few reasons why:
- A History department. History as a discipline is enormously useful at cutting through human bullshit to work out what is true, what is propaganda, and what sources are reliable. They are experts at teasing out the truth from written documents. Imperative if we are to understand our tendencies within the confines of civilization.
- A Psychology department. Isn’t this obvious? What isn’t obvious is its application. I would want a great deal of overlap between my psychologists and all other departments. Using just the one example above, the psychology department would be able to aid the historians in understanding actual motivations of people. Which brings me to the next…
- A Biology department. Probably the least understood aspect of human behavior are the biological imperatives that steer it. The biology team would butt heads with the psychology team – mostly because of the problem of consciousness and what – if any – effect it has on the seeming binary choices we are offered throughout life. Oh that leads us to…
- A Neuroscience department. In many ways, neuroscience is the combination of the above two. You could rather glibly called neuroscience “biological psychology.” There is a tendency to focus on brain chemicals and their effects on human physiology and decision-making on the individual level. This, in my estimation, is often focused on at the cost of incorporating important understandings from both psychology and biology.
- A Sociology department. Are you aware that urban sprawl tends to happen in patterns? Sociologists watch what humans tend to do in large groups – almost as if behaving as a hive mind. There’s a lot to be desired from what “conclusions” they draw with very little correlative connection and this would be the important caveat to this department. It is only so relevant as it is able to incorporate its theories into some contextual consistency with the other departments. At this point it is becoming obvious why a single entity that constantly asks these various departments to coexist and constantly interact must be present.
- A Political Science department. Now that we are beginning to understand the human animal on a fine level of detail, we need to put actionable policy in place. Political science deals with the nature of what you might call “applied sociology.” It is no good trying to implement ideas if they have been tried before and failed. Political Science reports what has and has not worked – the other departments seek to understand why and then organize updated policies.
- A Philosophy department. Perhaps the least obvious, the philosophy department is far more useful for what it applies in abstract organization. I believe the philosophy department’s main ambition would be to provide the other departments with the framework and tools to break a problem apart and put it back together. I like to think of philosophers as the mechanics of abstract thought. Being able to provide a set of tools for solving problems is on the most accessible shelf of the philosophical tool shed.
- An Economics department. I think the most obvious. It simply is not a good idea to build the perfect world if the foundation for it is unsustainable economically. I have my own beliefs that a capitalist system is the system we should operate within and economists would be useful for navigating that system. Oddly enough, I think the economists would need to spend a great deal of their time with the psychologists and biologists to understand the nature of human decision-making.
- A Social Mathematics department. By default, this would be a math department, but we would be seeking to apply this math to real-world distribution. If you’re curious about this, its what the Santa Fe Institute’s Complexity Explorer is working on.
That’s as far as I’m willing to go right now but the list above begs the obvious question – don’t we already have these things at universities? Well yes, of course we do. But these are specialized departments with very little encouragement for engagement with unrelated disciplines. It has taken pioneers to draft up crazy combinations of sciences through personal interest for there to be any movement on this front. Fields like evolutionary psychology, computational biology, psychological anthropology owe their existence to curious individuals and not institutions hell-bent on answering the tough questions of reality by incorporating multiple disciplines in a coordinated fashion.
This coordination ticks every box on my list of things to work on.
If I may put a neat little bow on this – I’m a middle-child and the literature on middle children is fascinating. They have a tendency to be excellent negotiators and this is of very little surprise to anyone as they frequently have to navigate a strange dynamic between an older sibling and a younger sibling with a large conscious gap – that is, you’re talking between two different people with completely different worldviews and you have to reconcile those at some point and fit in with one or the other or both or neither. This develops an unique set of skills. For my own development, I also straddled the social line between “nerd” and “jock,” in high school that had mostly geeky friends during the dawning years of the internet while also playing a lot of organized sports. In many ways I became a social chameleon passing between two utterly different worlds, taking the good and bad of each with me. When I became interested in the world in-between – in this case, coaching basketball, I developed the pragmatic approach of finding common ground and achieving what needed to be achieved that left everyone in as equitable a position as possible. For some of us, winning is no good if it means you have to take advantage of someone or achieve your means unethically. In deciding to do things “the right way,” I developed a set of skills that I deem to be both pragmatic and principled. In fact, the ultimate example of that seeming-contradiction was my career in retail. I was eventually promoted due to my pragmatic approach – and achieved results due to my principled approach. It was the degradation of principles that led me to be fired which I still to this day take as a compliment. In an environment where you were told to choose pragmatism over principles, I lost out because of my commitment to my principles.
I don’t know where I’ll be when the school journey ends but I know what general direction I will always be heading. And this project, the Human Global Community Center, is where my moral compass will be directing me.