Failure and How to Help People Avoid It

One fundamental difference between the left and right is their approach to handling failure.

I was raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, and what I’ve been taught my whole life is that people fail for reasons that are not their own fault, and so we need to help them. That’s liberal canon.

Later in life I learned there was another school of thought that said people make choices all throughout their lives, and that some make good ones and some make bad ones. And if you make the bad ones then you deserve what you get. If you don’t like your condition, change it. Go out there and work hard for what you want.

Most people seem to fall into one of these two camps, and it’s my current belief that the less educated you are the more you lean towards one side or the other.

So if you’re an uneducated liberal in the Bay Area, you likely think that all poor people are actively trying to better themselves at all times, making all the right choices, but are just being held back by the oppressive “system”.

And if you’re an uneducated conservative in…wherever, you likely think that poor people (not of your exact color and religion) are simply lazy. They could be successful if they simply tried. And because they don’t try, they deserve to be poor, suffer, etc., and we shouldn’t be wasting our resources trying to help them.

It seems obvious to me that both of these extremes should be discarded as mythical. The truth is somewhere in the middle of this spectrum.

What I find most interesting is policy questions around how to improve outcomes. I don’t just want to say that both extremes are faulty, and that the answer is somewhere in the middle. I want practical advice for how to deal with individual, real-world situations.

The role of failure

What I’ve come to realize in the last decade or so is the extraordinary motivational power of failure. It’s been the dominant force in both survival and reproduction for millions of years, and in some fundamental sense it’s a very positive thing.

It’s positive because it inspires positive action to improve one’s situation. It pushes you to pursue a better job, a bigger house for your family, more vacations, a more comfortable retirement, whatever.

The question is: what is considered failure? In the past this was very clearly defined by the surrounding community of “normal society”. If you didn’t have a job, you were a failure. If you had nothing to offer the world, you were a failure. If you couldn’t take care of yourself, you were a failure. If you couldn’t take care of your family, you were a failure.

And everyone would let you know this in various ways. The look of pity or concealed condescension when face to face, the whispers behind your back, etc. That’s how you knew you had failed, and it inspired change.

What many cultural narratives have done, however, is remove the shame of failure. They’ve taken the sting from it and made it an acceptable state. Don’t have a job? That’s fine. Don’t have anything to offer? That’s fine. Don’t give back to society in any meaningful way? That’s fine. They spend time with those who share their lack of ambition, they avoid mainstream “success” types who make them feel like…well, failures.

The problem with liberal culture seems to be accepting millions, or tens of millions, of these people into society by providing them a constant stream of benefits that allows them to survive. They then have enough to technically not die, to reproduce, and to transfer a similar philosophy of success and failure to their children.

And so it continues.

The anatomy of failure

So that section might have sounded like it came straight out of a Paul Ryan playbook. It didn’t. It’s just true. Stay with me.

There is another group of poor people who have completely different philosophical DNA. They work constantly—from one job to the next—for horrible pay, atrocious hours, and end up spending far too little time with their kids. And their kids are the main reason they’re working two or three jobs in the first place.

They were told as children that you’re nothing if you’re not providing for your family, and that you’re nothing if you’re not working. And they absolutely look down upon lazy people who don’t provide or give back. But they weren’t told to go to college. They weren’t told how important education is. And they weren’t told that soda, pasta, and other carbohydrates are not the basis of a healthy diet.

So they end up working their butts off every day of their lives, in multiple soul-crushing and low-paying jobs, just to give their kids a chance in the world. But because they don’t understand that world, they end up giving their kids obesity, diabetes, and virtually zero chance of anything other than the exact life they have. So by age 18 those kids are themselves raising a bunch of kids of their own, working 2-3 jobs, feeding them the absolute worst foods, and stressing manual labor over education.

The cycle continues.

Assessing a given individual or group.

Over the last decade I’ve come to believe that the desire for bettering oneself is either there naturally, or it’s not. But I’ve also learned that people have very different ideas of acceptable results.

So to me the fundamental questions are:

  1. What is an acceptable level of life attainment in terms of job type, income, education, etc.?
  2. How passionate will they strive to achieve that level of attainment, and how bad will they feel about themselves if they’re unable to?

Importantly, if you set the bar at “barely surviving” in the first question, then the second question doesn’t matter much in terms of modern society, because it’s easy to achieve.

And if you set the first question bar too low, i.e., at having a manual labor job, or two, or three, and raising a large family so your parents can have grandkids, and giving them all the brand name snacks from the store, and passing along your manual labor work ethic, then you’re in bad shape there as well.

It is good, however, that on the second question, most people who are part of that philosophy will basically kill themselves to ensure they can provide for their kids. Two jobs. Three jobs. Four jobs. 7 days a week. Both parents working. No problem. You do what you have to do.

It truly is admirable, until you think about the fact that this form of suffering is just being perpetuated to the next generation. And this has become dramatically more pronounced over the last twenty years, and it’s about to get far worse because of AI/automation/robots, as I talk about here.

What we need to ask ourselves is this:

What level of the first question should be an acceptable bottom, under which we initiate the timeless weapon of looking down on people? And how much should the answer to the second question matter?

I think a lot, but I’m just thinking through this.

Appropriate action

So assuming we have some answers to that question, what should society do to fix itself?

Here are some things that don’t work:

  • Telling people who have low standards, and no willingness to strive for anything, that it’s ok because they’re disadvantaged in some way. That’s not good because it shuts down their impetus to strive. It gives them an out.
  • Telling people who are actually striving and facing obstacles that there isn’t real resistance in the world, in different forms, for different groups. Things are harder for women. They are harder for people of color. Acknowledging this and working to improve it does not have to directly lead to excuses for not striving, and it shouldn’t.
  • Taking an entire benefit-dependent group of people who forgot how to strive years or decades ago, and suddenly forcing them off of those benefits. This will lead to massive hardship and crime. There has to be some sort of transition.

Two options?

I see two major paths for helping both groups of people: those who have stopped striving altogether, and those who are striving mightily but building lives of hardship for both themselves and their kids.

  1. Do nothing, and cut off the benefits. Build more jails; you’ll need them. This will basically destroy the groups who have stopped striving. They’ll move to streets, take to crime as a means of getting by, and mostly end up in jail. Some, though, will have their survival mechanism kick in, and they’ll enter the workforce doing menial jobs that the robots can’t do yet.
  2. Have very honest conversations with both groups (especially the hard workers striving for the wrong things) that what they’re doing is harming their children’s chances to live a good life. Find ways to convey to them that having no education in the world that’s coming is a sentence of suffering, near-slavery, and/or jail. And that not eating healthy will lead directly to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

In short, we have to tell those who don’t understand the world that they are doing this to their kids, and that it’s not ok.

But hold on. That’s the opposite of liberal. Liberals love to say nothing, avert their eyes, mumble something about “not judging”, and then go and buy a latte somewhere.

Well, fuck that. I’m tired of liberal policies that hurt more than they help.

If you care about your fellow humans, it’s time to speak truth. Giving your kids a manual labor work ethic and diabetes is not being a good parent, even if you’re a great person trying your best. The world has become too dangerous and unforgiving to allow us to give this a pass any longer.

Many conservatives say, “Fuck em’, if they’re too stupid to demand that their kids eat right and get a solid education then they deserve to suffer. Let them die, but I’m not paying for it.”

Most liberals say, “Well, they just have a different perspective! You don’t live their lives. You don’t know their struggles, or their culture, or their world view. You can’t judge. And you’re a horrible person for having the audacity to try to “fix” them.”

I say fuck you to both of them.

I will not abandon my fellow humans who work their asses off to do the right thing for their families. They’re your family. And they’re my family. All tens of millions of them. So yes, it’s my business. It’s everyone’s business.

And I also won’t sit by quietly and let them poison and sabotage themselves, generation after generation, walking their kids right into the waiting woodchipper of this new economy. It’s fucking inhuman to say nothing. To do nothing. To not try to help them.

And why? Why do you say nothing? Because you respect their choices? Fuck that. Fuck you. You don’t respect shit.

You say nothing because you’re a coward who fears the judgement by the liberal mob. And to avoid scrutiny, to avoid labeling, to avoid unpleasant conversations, you’ll remain silent and let millions be devoured by lions right in front of us.

Order your latte. Get your car washed. Enjoy the Alpha life. And refuse to say anything. You are the problem, not the solution, and I declare you the enemy.

Well-off conservatives have this wrong because they don’t realize the goodness and heart of millions of hard-working and struggling people. They assume that if you’re not succeeding it’s because you don’t deserve to, and it’s cold, callous, and wrong.

Well-off liberals have it wrong because they’re unwilling to help their brothers and sisters by passionately coaching them to avoid a painful lifecycle that provided a livable life thirty years ago, but no longer. They know the truth, but they won’t share it because it might be “uncomfortable”.

Both sides are lost, and it pains me.

There is only one hope of raising a family without unbelievable struggle in the world that’s approaching, and that’s to have a solid education and agile mentality that allows you to adapt to situations. Manual labor doesn’t get you there. Hard work doesn’t get you there. Taking handouts doesn’t get you there.

You have to fight, and you have to have the right information to prepare you. Rich people share this knowledge with each other all the time, in the country clubs and private schools across the country.

Whether you’re conservative or liberal, if you have this information, and you’ve used it to propel your loved ones into the top 10%, but you refuse to offer this knowledge to those who are struggling, then you deserve the worst shame of all.

Speak truth. Help each other. And fuck anyone who shouts you down.

Notes

  1. There are other groups of poor people who actually understand the importance of education, get a decent one, have a strong work ethic, and work their whole lives without making it out of the rat race. There are many different reasons for this, but often they’re simply not sharp enough to grasp underlying concepts, adapt to changing situations, don’t have the required social fluency to create relationships, or some combination thereof. And some tiny group have all the right components but also have rotten luck.
  2. Image from Tiny Buddha.

__

I do a weekly show called Unsupervised Learning, where I collect the most interesting stories in infosec, technology, and humans, and talk about why they matter. You can subscribe here.

Source: http://feeds.danielmiessler.com

Leave a Reply