More Empathy and Child-Rearing, with Some Help from Franz Kafka


Conor charging, July 2018, Lochsa Falls — Mike Beiser photo

A meme came scooting across my Facebook feed the other day, about a famous (and apparently true) story about Franz Kafka and his friendship with a young girl who had lost her doll.  The meme was a little intellectually simplified (or depauperated) depending on your perspective.  But I had to find out if it was actually true, so I rooted around using The Google and found this post by Paul Auster, from his book Brooklyn Follies Auster’s a true heavy-hitter, and I’ve read several of his pieces in Granta.  If Paul’s writing about it, I’m going to guess it’s actually true.

The short version is this:  Kafka is dying of tuberculosis.  He meets a young nine-year-old girl in a park he walks in daily with his lover, Dora Diamant, who has lost her doll.  Kafka connects with the little girl, and though they hunt for the doll, they cannot find her.  So Kafka asserts that the doll has just gone on a journey to the little girl.  And then proceeds, over a number of days, to create a fictional travelogue of the doll to ease the pain of loss the little girl is feeling.  The last letter he delivers, three weeks later, has Kafka marrying off the doll and having her start a new life in another part of the world.  I highly recommend reading the story.  I’m no Paul Auster!

What’s interesting about this is that Kafka is applying the techniques I talked about in the previous post on raising children, to this little girl who is a stranger to him.  What he is doing could also be labeled gaslighting — one could argue that he’s creating a psychological distortion inside the little girl’s brain of the reality that her doll has been lost.  By creating an alternate history, he is making a choice in her development.  Spare her the trauma of loss, through an elaborate, thoughtful deception.  But also prevent her growth of learning how to grieve for things one loves.

For me, I think this example shows  that one cannot truly understand superficial/surface-level actions without interpreting the fundamental connection that exists between two people at the time of the action.  You cannot completely get there without analyzing intent.  Kafka was an interesting guy — but he was no psychopath.  During the period of the letters, the evidence is pretty clear he was deeply connected to the young girl’s emotions, and was not manipulating her for his own egocentric benefit.  I’ve written about this on this blog on-and-off, but the most important idea is the not-so-simple one about Mario Kart.  With even the most simple of things, you can’t understand the game without understanding what’s under the game.  Which often looks very different from what you’re seeing on the surface.

I’ve called psychopathy ‘collapsed ego-centricism’ in the past.  All Authoritarian Red v-Meme and nothing else.  I think that definition holds up.  As parents, we are always in the business of creating alternate worlds for our children. Those worlds are necessarily not total and complete.  And they may indeed be a distortion.  But if we are connected with our kids, we can do our best to know when we can allow the fiction to roll, and when we have to tell our children that what they’re experiencing is a magic trick.  Sort of.

I’m reminded of a famous Zen saying:

“If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.”

The real answer, as we go forward as parents, is developing and acting on our own self-awareness.  We must constantly look inward into our own hearts, while looking outward to the long-term benefit of the young people in our life.  And since this often includes managing our own fears,  it is easier said than done.  But if there is a key, it is staying connected.  Empathy is our one real hope.

PS: The Wikipedia entries for both Franz Kafka and Dora Diamant are well worth reading on their own.  I linked to the picture search for Dora because I think it’s useful to project through these pictures to what their complex lives must have been like.  

Empathy and Child-Rearing — Lessons from my life, and the movie The Incredibles

Conor Grim Reaper Lochsa

Focus — Conor at the top of Grim Reaper, a rapid on the Lochsa River, Idaho — photo Mike Beiser

Though it’s been a long road, as a predominantly single parent, I’ve managed to launch both my boys off into the world of adulthood.  My youngest son, Conor, just turned 18 a week ago.

I didn’t do it alone — I had some help along the way, from stepmother Alicia, of course, as well as a host of stand-in grandparents, and aunts and uncles.  I was never gifted with a healthy family, and have viewed myself as an orphan for most of my adult life, fairly, I think.  Let’s put it this way — I didn’t learn all the lessons I discuss on this blog by being surrounded by a welcoming sea of empathy.  It’s been an exercise in contrasts.  ‘Nuf said.

And though, like any parent, I worry about both of them, realistically both my sons are on their way to adulthood, and doing fine.  Oldest son Braden (he’s 20) is launching his own start-up company in the crypto-blockchain space.  He’s the CTO of, which may actually be functional here in a week or two.  He’s making his mark in the digital identity space, and I have reasonable confidence  he’ll make it.  Younger son Conor is headed off to Willamette College in the fall.  Both boys exemplify hustle, and both, on their own, are far along the way to financial independence.  Though either of them might end up back on the couch in the rec. room, I sincerely doubt it.

I have an awesome relationship with both boys.  I am truly blessed.

Since I’ve raised so many kids in my life (I was in nominally in charge of my first family at the age of 9 — I was a terrible 9-year-old parent)  — and of course, the thousands of students I’ve raised in the Industrial Design Clinic — I’ve been thinking about writing a book on parenting.  Many of the principles of sound parenting are the same as evolving a company, and  not surprisingly, follow the Spiral, and growth of agency, reflection, and personal responsibility, and both their key dynamic and their end result — empathy.

This is easier said than done.  Being a parent is the hardest job most people will ever have, and the advice out there is simply horrendous.  Most of it involves teaching, preaching, and telling.  I can tell you there are consequences — none particularly good — that come from beating stuff into people’s head, once you move past about the age of 5.  The short answer to success, however, is relatively simple.  Here it is:

Create safe environments for your children to function in, with functional adults, and don’t interfere.  You work on creating the situations.  Let the children navigate both the situations, and the individuals involved.  The independent relational generation will take care of the rest.

Back in this post, I discussed how the brain gained usable knowledge.  The short version is facts and scaffolding go in on the left, and through experience, become knit together in the hippocampus to form autobiographical experiences, laced with binding emotion, on the right.  This process, though modified and interpreted by me somewhat, (I own all errors of interpretation!) is really applying Dr. Daniel Siegel’s trauma model to the process of education.

What does that translate to as far as your kids?   I start out with a three-step Guiding Principles ladder that I started teaching my kids at the earliest age possible.

  1. Pay Attention (age 3-7)
  2. You are (appropriately) responsible for yourself (age 4-9)
  3. You are responsible for others (age 7-adult)

Naturally, everything maps back to these guiding principles.  It never hurts to emphasize these a little early, but expecting a seven year old to do much more than hold the hand of their buddy is not particularly realistic.  ‘Pay Attention’ is the first step — being aware of the world around you.  It is the nexus of being data-driven and empathetic.

Now here is the big one, stated previously, for you as the parent.  Following the italicized paragraph above, which says that you’re responsible for creating the environment the child primarily functions in (don’t forget that part!)

DON’T TELL THEM WHAT TO DO (unless you absolutely have to — and you usually don’t absolutely have to!)

Let the sidebars and the constraints the child naturally runs into be the thing that redirects the behavior.

And here is the other big thing that you do as a parent.

DISCUSS THE CONSEQUENCES OF DIFFERENT ACTIONS WITH THEM (in the context of that safe space you’ve created.)

I spent a good hunk of my leisure time with my boys running whitewater.  Whenever we would look at a rapid, I would ask them “well, where do you think you should go?”  Inevitably (the whitewater wasn’t that hard) it would end up with ‘down the right’ or something.  If it was a reasonable option, I’d say ‘OK’.  If it wasn’t the path I’d take, I’d say “Well, I think I’m gonna go down the left.”  If they elected to go right, and they did great, I would congratulate them on a job well done.  And if they blew the line, well, the river would dole out the ass-kicking.  Not me.

Why does this matter?  Every time you correct your child, as opposed to creating a situation which delivers either correct behavior, or lessons learned from failure, you run the risk of also creating a diminution of agency, and what is called narcissistic injury.  Put simply, narcissistic injury is an Authoritarian v-Meme blow to the egocentric self.  It actually breeds more narcissism, because instead of allowing the child to appropriately aggregate their experiences, and reflect on the consequences, the child is placed into a situation where they instead focus on your control of their actions.  This insertion of your parental authority into their ego is a boundary violation and a separation of child from a natural growth path.

That doesn’t mean for a red second I haven’t told my children as I’ve raised them ‘No’. But it’s a tool to be used sparingly.  And needless to say, I would never taunt my child after a failure.  Your job is NOT to establish the authority of your knowledge.  It is to help the child understand how to make a better decision the next time around.

One of my favorite movies that shows inherently the peril of ignoring this is the first Incredibles movie.  In that movie, the antagonist, Buddy, initially admires Mr. Incredible and wants to emulate him.  It’s insinuated that Mr. Incredible has been patient with Buddy, but early in the movie (on Mr. Incredible’s wedding day to Elastigirl) Buddy, who has named himself Incrediboy, interferes with Mr. Incredible’s crime-fighting efforts, and has to be sent home in shame with the police.

Buddy is a genius, and never truly recovers from the psychic wound this trauma delivers.  The end result is that it transforms his path from being a good guy and fighting crime to being an empathy-disordered psychopath.  He turns himself into a super-villain named Syndrome, with one goal of killing off Mr. Incredible.  In the end, he is undone by a number of factors, but none more primary than his own narcissism.  Needless to say, that’s not the relationship you want to have with your kid.

Some parents might interpret this advice as creating only positive situations for children to learn with, or interfering in relationships with potentially difficult (but still safe– that matters!) adults.  I strongly believe that once an adult is inside your safe zone, you should let your children interact with them as the child sees fit.  I do make a point of advising the adult that if they spoil the child, I won’t be stepping in to deliver discipline, or otherwise interfere.  The result is that my children both have a rich set of relationships with a truly diverse network of adults. Your child is going to have to learn to deal with people who think differently from them, or even you.  So many of the ‘bubble’ problems we’re seeing in adults nowadays could be prevented if more adults adopted this attitude.

In the end, it is all about empathy development.  Remember the Guiding Principles, and create the situations.  You’ll be amazed at how much easier it is than policing.


The Lighter Dark Side of Humor and Empathy — Anthony Jeselnik


Yours Truly on the third day of summer, Upper Lochsa River, Idaho, Mary Nielsen photo.  For perspective, that’s a 95 gallon boat, basically submerged.

After an exciting weekend with one of my original passions — whitewater kayaking with my son, Conor, who I’m super-proud to say ran the Lochsa River, our Class III-IV backyard world-class gem — I came back and needed a little brain-down-time.  I found this special by Anthony Jeselnik on Netflix.  Jeselnik is specifically a super-dark-humor comedian, so whether you enjoy this or not is really going to depend on whether you like this kind of thing.  His special, ‘Thoughts and Prayers’, is at this link on Netflix.  And since this blog will stay up, it means that ‘this special is now available on Netflix for a limited time.’  Here’s a clip on Youtube of one of the funnier pieces:

Jeselnik is taking mental models of what Grandma is supposed to do and giving you a multi-level take on the truth.  I’m not going to say more, because I want you to listen to the clip.  But the short version is that Jeselnik is one of the few comedians that blurs the meta-line on the v-Meme stack successfully.

Humor has always been interesting to me — especially because what people laugh at is often a key indicator of psychosocial development.  Slapstick is low empathy AND meta-linear — the helpless sap steps on a banana peel, and knocks his head.  That’s as linear a cause-and-effect algorithm as one can come up with.  And if that person isn’t in your Out-Group, your own developed empathy will prevent you from laughing.

It’s not to say that slapstick can’t ascend to a high art. There are extremely sophisticated versions that can amaze.  The Three Stooges were strange geniuses in their own right.  But for the most part, slapstick is boring.  And especially, I’ve found that cruel slapstick (Jackass, anyone?) is a stimulant for the empathy disordered.  They get into watching someone else get hurt.

More evolved, empathetic humor involves connecting to you and your life events, often with the pathos and vulnerability exhibited by the comedian.  It often involves real multi-solution thinking — what’s really going on with a particular character and their life.  Authenticity is the grounding connector here, and by relating directly to the ambiguity of the comedian’s various predicaments, we gain hopeful insight into why we do things, good or bad.  Or how they can be both at the same time.  I’m a Mike Birbiglia fan, FWIW.  Here’s a clip of his work.

But Jeselnik’s humor is different.  Jeselnik’s performance character delivers empathy-disordered humor, aimed at attacking the empathy disordered.  Jeselnik is a true Vampire Hunter, and says as much.  This clip, discussing what he does as his performance character, from a real perspective, is after he’s gone through a whole 40 minutes of content that is, at times, very funny, yet leaves one feeling more than a little uneasy about the fact that you’re probably  laughing.  In this piece, he attacks the inherent narcissism in the statement ‘Thoughts and Prayers’.

But that’s not how he ends his special.  The clip below is that.

Is it a cautionary tale about how those that hunt the Undead turn into them, regardless of their best intentions?  Or has he just stacked the meta-deck one more level?  You can listen and decide for yourself.

Contrasting a Model of Hierarchical Complexity with Evolution vs. Sophistication and Empathy

Braden glowing rock

Egypt I, Grand Staircase/Escalante NM, Utah, May 2018 — Braden taking a look

I was recently prompted to read by my friend, Hanzi Freinacht, about the theory called a Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC), developed by Michael Commons , in the ’80s, and expounded on and patented for use in Artificial Intelligence (AI).  It’s billed as an information-theoretic (meaning things end up in bits and bytes) methodology for measuring complexity of thoughts and actions.  As such, it ends up being divorced from culture, social structure, and human behavior, which makes it appealing as an uber-algorithmic be-all, end-all way of describing how humans act.  Efforts have been made (relatively successfully, I might add!) to map these to various developmental stage theorists, such as Jean Piaget.  That’s all well and good.

The way that all scoring schemes have to work, though, is through what I call an integral, or perhaps integrative approach, and I don’t mean in either the typical socio-psychological senses.  I mean it in the math sense, and what THAT means is that, if you remember your first-year calculus, the definition of a definite integral is that you take some function (a drawn-out wiggly line) and over some range, collapse it down to a number.  For those that are now indulging in an age-induced headache, that’s the whole “area under a curve” thing.

definite integral

You might remember counting the little squares or something.  The bottom line is that you take a complex sequence of information, and come up with a measure/scalar value for A.  From:

Needless to say, Commons’ scheme is FAR more complex than that, with lots of bits in different locations that represent different types of things — namely that complexity builds on complexity, and in order to hop up different levels — very meta-meta-linear!, you first have to demonstrate mastery of a lower level.  For example, you have to know how to add and subtract real numbers before you can figure out how to add and subtract real variables.  For those that this stuff is some kind of mental Adderall, I highly recommend surfing through the Wikipedia table on MHC (the link is the reference given on Wikipedia.  Not surprisingly, it’s algorithmic, and as such, poses as objective.  And it pops right out of the scientists’ social structure.  Agency appears explicitly not at all.

As such, people are using this for calibrating AI (that’s what the patent’s all about) and that’s all fine as well.  But when you collapse the generative dynamics out of the picture, you lose intent, empathetic development, and most importantly, individual agency.

I’ve done a lot of pondering on the complexity of knowledge myself.  For example, you may have highly empathetically evolved, reflective societies or cultures, like some aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, that in the end do a pretty miserable job of providing for the lower-level v-Meme needs of their core constituencies.  Zen monks may do an excellent job of understanding deeper mysteries, of the universe, but they might not do so hot on growing tomatoes.  For me, a better view of complexity gets laid out on a 2-D plot, shown below;

Evolution vs Sophistication

Evolution vs. Sophistication

Where something like MHC would come in is distilling a location in this 2-D space, (for you math people, might be more like a vector) into a single (scalar) value  (kind of like a meta-vector magnitude. )  All my math friends can fuss at me in the comments.

Of course, MHC collapsing that down to a value — that’s its purpose, after all.  So a society could value everyone’s opinion very highly, yet be far less complex than a low-empathy one that used sophisticated authorities and algorithms.  Chinese society is a great example of this — they got stuck with narcissistic authoritarianism about 2500 years ago — and made a very sophisticated society indeed.  But because of their lack of empathetic evolution (look up a deconstruction of the 36 Stratagems here — it’s also on Wikipedia) increasing sophistication led to diminishing returns, and they were easily captured by higher v-Meme, yet psychopathic foreign powers. Those powers took advantage of chemical substances that addressed the pathologies of the depression/low performance that the Authoritarian v-Meme counts on to establish control.  I’m referring to smoking opium, of course. At the same time, that fundamental culture, when mixed in with a little bit of Performance/Goal-Oriented v-Meme evolution stuff (Deng Xiaoping’s ‘black cat, white cat, doesn’t matter as long as it catches mice’) will, in the span of only about 40 years, made 76% of Chinese members of the middle class.

And, of course, we have our own issues in contemporary society with neurobiological hacks (sugar anyone?) that may yet bring us down.  Do the big comparison — in the US, now, only 50% fall under that measure of being in the middle class. More empathy and evolved individuality? Maybe.  More prosperity?  We’re on the backside.

Regarding evolution/sophistication — what would that mean as far as MHC?  MHC might record increasing complexity with an increase in bits, but what do bits in various places actually mean?  It’s a good question, and I’d argue that you could look at a very complex society with a lot of sophistication, and a lot more bits, yet still not understand why it might not be doing well, because the dynamic of creation of those bits would be poorly understood.

The nice thing about empathy and Conway’s Law is we have some deeper insight into the larger ‘Why’ of information creation, and can more positively construct social systems that give us the goods.

When it comes to AI, there’s also nothing wrong with coming up with an MHC score for predicting the potential development time for a particular AI algorithm.  But MHC still leverages the reinforcement/supervised/unsupervised learning paradigm that dominates thinking in AI.  Contrast that to the insight that knowledge structures give.  Algorithms of increasing complexity?  We’ve got that (well, sorta.)  Making the jump to developing strategies that capture individual experiences and the outcomes of independent agency, as well as complex heuristics?  Eh, not so much.  When I can call Apple Help and get the natural language processor to understand how I say the serial number off my Airport router, then I’ll start becoming more interested.

BTW, a tip of the hat to my friend, Hanzi Freinacht, high up in the Swiss Alps, writing books like The Listening Society, that got me started thinking about this.  Hanzi, there must be something in that goat’s milk you drink that makes you so smart in such an isolated environment.  😉

PS:  Thought some folks would find it funny that I’ve been calling a ‘definite integral’ a ‘direct integral‘ for some time now.  Please don’t send me back to Calc I!  Or make me plow through that Wikipedia post!



Quickie Post — The Silk Road

Cordoba ArchInside the Mezquita, the Mosque-converted-to-Cathedral, Cordoba, Spain, 2008

Every now and then, I see a video that is both beautiful, and reminds me that the brain/mind is capable of such a broad expanse of interpretation, that my mind reels.  The video below is one of those pieces of media.  See:

One of the points I’ve made on this blog is that the mind is capable of many interpretations, and that is this video’s strong point.  The idea of one reality, though one may exist and may be validated, is still illusory to most of our fellow travelers on this Blue Planet.  You, as a Western resident of a likely democratic, rational (or at least modestly so) republic, can project your beliefs and desires on the many beautiful people featured in this video.

But you would be mistaken, at least 50% of the time, on what they’re actually thinking.  There will be commonalities — but there will also be magical differences that are creations that only they have access to.  One of the interesting things, pertinent only in this small context, about the countries along this route is that they are the only countries in the world that actually do not read this blog.  None.  I’m up to around 30K hits, from literally everywhere on this planet, except the countries along this route.

But you can still enjoy, with fascination, the wonderful diversity of thought in this crazy world.  Namaste…  it’s still one of my life goals to do this trip.

Postscript:  For those that enjoy that kind of thing, my Taiwanese wife insists that I was once a trader on the Silk Road, and she was a small bird flying along beside me.  My current dog, Mac, was my camel.  And my deceased dachshund — well, she was my prostitute.  Who knows?  The various loyalties fall in line more than would make anyone comfortable.  🙂

And maybe, more than anything else, I find it useful to consider the fact that everything I write may be wrong.



There are No Such Things as ‘Generations’ — or are there?

In the rigging

Up on the mainsail yard, unfurling the mainsail without a harness, standing in my bare feet on the wires.  Because you can’t fall off if ya don’t let go…  Whitsunday Islands, 2006

I have to confess to some level of frustration about the whole ‘generations’ thing.  We live in a stew of these terms — Boomers, Greatest, Millennials, and so on.  They’re so NOT true as an individual discriminator, nor particularly valid.  But at the same time, they do prepare you for understanding larger changes in how larger societies evolve, and can give perspective on expectations in language and behavior.  A recent Slate article by David Costanza that came across my desk sums up the exasperated part of my perspective:

Generations and generational differences are intriguing and inherently appealing concepts. As such, the media will keep on reporting on them, academics will publish, pundits will talk, and consultants will sell to whoever is buying. But the science says that, despite their popularity, generations simply aren’t a thing. And until we recognize this, we will continue to waste time and resources while failing to understand how people really are, and are not, different.

I highly recommend you read the piece if it’s an area of interest.  I work with young people all the time, and the performance I see from them is so striking, especially from the normative expectation.  I’ve been doing it now for 30 years (this is my 30th year at WSU) and if I notice any difference in how I run my Industrial Design Clinic (IDC), it’s all in how I approach their personal development.  That’s the one thing I actually have some ability to affect.  And I do it through modification of the social structure that they’re used to in the classroom.  I’ll help you decode the ‘why’ of this below.

Naturally, the tools they have at their disposal have changed, and I’ve integrated those capabilities into the IDC.  But the students are still at the same place developmentally as all students I’ve had, with a different set of cultural sidebars than 30 years ago, and with every individual student laboring against their own traumas and internal fights.  They are certainly no more or less lazy.  They ARE egocentric, because that’s where their development has placed them internally, but no more or less than any group of students I’ve taught down through the years.  I find that I am less able to instantaneously emotionally connect with them, of course — they’re 21-24, and I’m now 55.  But I can pretty much guess what they’re going to do almost all of the time.  That’s what happens when you focus on evolving conscious empathy, and you happen to be me!

But for the record, let’s back up and understand young people in the late teens and early 20s.  In our Grand Theory of Everything, we sorted out that people’s behavior and thought profile consisted of the following equation:

Structure + Culture + Personal Development + Trauma Acceleration/Deceleration = Behavior

That’s a simplification of the larger equation (which, while I put in linear form, for the regular humans, of course contains nonlinear interactions for my mathematician friends out there) below.

Culture + Social Structure/Externally Promoted Empathetic Development + Individual Experience (Trauma Included) + Independently Generated Empathetic Development (level of mindfulness) + Epigenetic Influences + Genetic Disposition = Individual Behavior

Let’s scratch the Trauma stuff for the moment, and stick to the simpler version for understanding young people — especially those in the category of newly employable.  Here’s the larger developmental roadmap ( the Personal Development piece) that humans follow in our society.


My age categories that map to the progressive, nested v-Memes are as follows:

Survival — 0-4 years

Tribal/Magical — 3-8 years

Authority-Based — 5-16 years

Legalistic/Absolutistic — 9-20 years

—————————-  Trust Boundary (above relationships are most externally defined, below, independently generated) ———————————————–

Performance/Goal-Based — 20-35 (with a major solidification of maturity around 26, the age where declining neuroplasticity sets in.)

Communitarian — 35-50 years

—————————-  Second Tier — Self Awareness and personal monitoring and feedback matter ——————————————-

Global Systemic — 50-death

Global Holistic — 55-death

Just to reiterate — v-Memes are nested.  You don’t lose the lower development as you move up.  You just gain the capabilities of the higher v-Memes.  Also, once we move past Authority-Based, we start losing adults in development, though they can “jump up” when self-awareness hits in later life, though they will not be nearly as sophisticated in execution of lower, First Tier v-Memes.

A quick look at the numbers above shows that most new employees really don’t have a lot of independent, relational development, and hence display poor rational empathetic skills.  This is truly a function of age, and it means that means they tend to be egocentric, can’t really make their mind up based on their own experiences, and will likely follow the crowd.  As weird as this may seem, what this means is that the second term — Culture — including mostly the one they were raised in will dictate how they act.  As I’ve said many times, Culture exists as a sidebar, with elements from all the different v-Memes, but encoded in time-averaged beliefs that people operate by.  30 years ago, interracial dating was only starting to not be taboo.  Now, few bat an eye in the younger generation.  It is an accepted behavior.  Discrimination against LGBQT was normalized only 30 years ago.  Now, it is not permissible.

If one considers WHAT v-Meme a certain cultural behavior originates from, one can guess by examining history, and with some accuracy and certainty, be correct dependent on the society you’re looking at.  For example, lifting discrimination against LGBQT in Western society was definitely aligned with the evolution of the Communitarian v-Meme — treating all people in an egalitarian fashion.  (I do want to note that many Tribal societies were way ahead of Western culture in treatment of certain protected groups, so you’ve got to be careful ascribing one v-Meme to one set of surface-level behaviors.)  But once a certain set of behaviors became encoded in larger cultural beliefs, young people could be reasonably expected to also share those, even if their origination came from a higher level of independent development than, at first glance, where they are at.

Finally, the Social Structure component — our Social Physics part of the equation — will play heavily on how young people act.  And as the systems that we place young people in have become increasingly Authoritarian, we shouldn’t expect anything less than delays in independent relational behavior.  Any trip to a modern high school for anyone in their 40s or 50s is guaranteed to shock.  Students are buzzed in and out of locked doors for simply attending classes.  The days of aimless wandering the halls with the hall pass because you were a good, trusted student are mostly gone.  It is having an effect.

So what does that mean as far as understanding the profile of a typical 22 year old?  Compared to my ‘generation’, they are far more passive and obedient than we ever were — a function of the social structure.  They are far more open-minded toward different groups than I was — a direct effect of cultural sidebars.  And finally, they still have the same innate capacity to be developed and gain a broader set of empathetic, goal-based behaviors.  Though they may thrash more at the beginning (I see this all the time) with the expectation that the Authority will tell them what to do — they like that, and it IS a low-responsibility behavior — if placed in an environment where the social structure forces relational development, they will evolve and catch up with Performance/Goal-Based behavior.  Because they have neuroplasticity on their side.

And that’s how societies as a whole move forward.  It’s not guaranteed, but the quote by Theodore Parker, an 19th century Transcendentalist (Martin Luther King borrowed it from him!)

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

And of course, what is interesting is that what Parker was noting was that in his time, developmental empathy was still filling out the Legalistic/Absolutistic v-Meme.  So “justice” was all he really had.  The subsequent paragraph gives more clues:

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

The arc of the organized world inherently will bend upward, to greater connectivity and empathy.  And if there are differences we observe in our young people, if we are self-aware ourselves, and not shocked by the same egocentricity we possessed when we were that age, we will see that, with the right circumstances, these young people will also push our society forward.  We only have to let it happen.

So — are there measurable generations?  The ten-year thing just drives me nuts, so No.  Society exists on a continuum of belief adoption, where culture and social constraints seen as permanent give way to new modes of thinking.  And Yes — young people’s belief structures are definitely different from mine when I was their age.  Like all things, it’s complicated.  But understandable.  And because we are all in a global society now, we simply can’t run the control experiment.  We have to proceed with the social dynamics we can create.  What I’ve written above is my shot at it.  And it’s all about empathy.

It’s hard to unpack everything I’ve written about on the blog for those that are unfamiliar.  But you can start HERE and HERE.

The 36 Stratagems — or How Low Empathy is no Real Strategy in Today’s World

Conor Zion

Conor, Spring 2018, Zion National Park

Having a bit of fun a couple of weeks ago, I came upon a classical Chinese strategy quote (can’t remember where) that I shared with my wife, who is a Taiwanese native.  It comes from a body of quotes, called the 36 Stratagemsa classic old Chinese compilation of clever pictorial word-plays that would fit well inside any MBA handbook out there.  Things like Kill with a Borrowed Knife (借刀殺人/借刀杀人, Jiè dāo shā rén)

  • Attack using the strength of another (in a situation where using one’s own strength is not favourable). Trick an ally into attacking him, bribe an official to turn traitor, or use the enemy’s own strength against him. The idea here is to cause damage to the enemy by getting a third party to do the deed.

are typical.  You can do your own Googling and find the various MBA types who have written about the genius of the various stratagems and how they’ll make you a “better” business person.  I don’t need to facilitate.  They’re basically all about falsely displaying empathy, and then screwing over a potential opponent.

What people will likely overlook, though, is the fact that these extremely refined strategies are all deeply seated in the Authoritarian v-Meme, and display psychopathic Chinese Authoritarian behavior at its finest.  They’re all designed around the theme that trust can’t be real, you can’t even really have friends, and that inevitably you’ll end up in conflict with your adversaries, which means you’re back to: ‘I win, you lose; You win, I lose; We both fall away exhausted — potential resolution solution set.  That’s the way Authoritarians resolve things.  There can be no true coming-together, because rational synergies are never in play.  And developed empathy? Bitch — please!

No one can question that the Chinese national political In-group/Out-group dynamics are the most refined in the world.  This has historically been made easier by population homogeneity, geographic isolation (they don’t call it ‘The Middle Kingdom’ for nothing) and the challenges of maintaining order for long time with tens of millions of citizens (the middle Tang Dynasty had over 50M people, and who even knows if you can believe census efforts from 1000 years ago?)  Once the Tang Dynasty was over, with its Confucian governmental influences, China went into its ‘stuck’ period, where one can argue they’ve only recently emerged with the ascendance of Deng Xiao Peng.  My Chinese history friends — feel free to correct me.  I’m no expert on all the back-and-forth of the following dynasties.

The 36 Stratagems are well worth a read.  My wife and I had a good laugh over them comparing them to university politics in general, but more to the point of how unsophisticated ersatz Modern Authoritarians are. Anyone from the Ming Dynasty would have beat them in a red second.

But they also show how when you enshrine in your culture the idea of loyalty only to designated In-Groups, regardless how clever you are in tricking your supposed opponents, you really screw yourself with regards to innovation.  Though I do believe this is changing, China still justifiably suffers from an ‘IP copy’ culture reputation.  Because when you can’t trust and integrate diversity, as well as give your people the space to generate their own relationships, your creativity may become very sophisticated indeed — one trip to China and the standard circuit around the shrines and temples will convince you of that.  But new ideas?   That’s just not the way the social physics shake out.  And everyone, sooner or later, gets pretty bummed out.  And THAT leaves you open to things like a small group of outsiders taking over your country, which is pretty easy when you have an opium epidemic.  Hmmm…

You might think about these types of mergings of culture and social structure facilitate  how any given organization or culture adopts to rapid change.  Not so much.  And yeah — you can create environments that make your bosses think empathy is a bad thing, and that the bosses need to weep in the C-Suite, feeling victimized that they have to make ‘tough decisions’ that screw over their lessers.  But over long time, it’s still a losing game.  Hundreds of millions of people have already participated in that experiment.  Feel free to draw whatever conclusions you want with the Russia-Facebook connection.