Count the cost: social justice

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Costs are not fun. Instead of counting them we tend to ignore them, to our own detriment. Thomas Sowell, in his book The Quest for Cosmic Justice, presents the case for counting costs in the arena of social justice. American’s today are obsessed with justice, objectively a good thing, but it’s important to be clear about what we mean by ‘justice.’ Sowell notes that instead of the traditional concept, we’ve become more and more enamored with a cosmic, god-like, concept of justice. Traditional justice is the right to a fair trial, it’s a process, it follows a set of rules, and it’s divorced from outcomes. A prime example of traditional justice exists in sports: everyone is measured by the same set of rules while the outcome is up for grabs. It doesn’t matter where a player has come from, what advantages or disadvantages they’ve benefited from or had to overcome, justice in the game is only concerned with whether or not players are fairly and equally evaluated according to the rules. That’s traditional justice. Cosmic justice, on the other hand, is unsatisfied with disparate outcomes. The fact is that some people, through no merit of their own, benefit from growing up in healthy and/or wealthy families with great access to education and opportunities while others, through no fault of their own, are inhibited by growing up in dysfunctional and/or poor families with limited access to education and opportunities. The term ‘privilege’ has been popularized in reference to this. Instead of creating a fair set of rules universally applicable, cosmic justice is concerned with promoting equal outcomes. Most of us would agree that the fact that some people are born into bad situations is not ideal and seems unfair, so the pursuit of cosmic justice feels right. The important question is not about fairness though, the question which must be considered is, what’s the cost?

The costs of traditional justice are straightforward. We pay taxes to fund judges, courthouses, law enforcement, prisons, etc. Our taxes fund the system of law. We elect rulers and authorities who (ideally) structure fair laws to the benefit of the people. It’s scalable and achievable, albeit imperfectly. The costs of cosmic justice are much more nebulous and far-reaching. One example can be seen in the concept of reparations, forcing people today to pay for injustices done in the past, even generations in the past. It’s not fair that people were subject to slavery and served other people, for free, often for fear of their own lives. It’s not fair that families were separated from each other. It’s not fair that people were denigrated, stripped of their dignity and freedom, treated like livestock, even hunted like animals. The whole thing reeks of evil and we feel a desire to fix it. It seems like reparations could be helpful for righting past wrongs, or the least it’s better to do something than nothing. In order to execute this urge to right past wrongs, a whole other set of questions must be answered: Who gets paid? Who has to pay? How much? For how long? At what point or amount will the reparations be sufficient to remedy the incredible injustice of slavery? Who will decide all of this? Who has the insight and understanding to fairly distribute the reparations? Reparations, and social justice more broadly, is not merely a question of morality (an incredibly divisive question on its own), it’s a question of reality. The cost of social justice is beyond the scope of humanity to conjure, let alone pay. We can’t understand the depth of the injustices we seek to remedy, and if we could we would still never be able to apply an appropriate amount of money to achieve ultimate justice. Money has nothing to do with justice! The fact is that injustice exists in our world. The question is, as Sowell states, “What lies within our knowledge and control, given that we are only human, with all the severe limitations which that implies?” (P21) Social justice is not something humanity is equipped to adjudicate, we are not God.

The key to a good routine

Change is hard. As posted recently (here), it takes some attention to adjust our default behaviors. We don’t just change because we intend to. One helpful way to attack personal change is to address our routines.

Routine is defined as ‘a sequence of actions regularly followed; a fixed program,’ per Google. A routine is kind of like a large scale habit, like several habits stacked on top of each other. We’ve all got them, some are helpful, some not so much so, and most of them we probably fell into with little or no intention. But the great thing about routines is that you can mold them.

This month, my family and I embarked on a brand new routine. Routines can be very sticky, but including the whole family has made it significantly more so. Kids, especially young kids, will notoriously derail attempts at a new routine, so I’ve given up resisting and made them part of it. The routine revolves around their school schedule, which is great because school happens regardless of how my wife and I are feeling or how well or not well we slept (one of the primary derailing factors of children). The start of the school day is a cornerstone that we’ve built our new routine around. We’ve got a series of actions we take leading up to getting the kids ready and out the door, and a set of actions we take after the kids are dropped off. It happens every weekday, and we’ve settled into the regularity of it as a family. James Clear talks about habit stacking, using one of your existing habits as a cue for a new habit. The school bell is not a habit, but it functions in a similar way, it’s a regular thing that we can build additional habits around, an anchor.

Reading books will change your life

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If you hope to instill any change in your life this year, let me recommend a reading habit.

Books are amazing things. They’re a portal into a different way of seeing the world. Often the most important things holding us back from doing or being something we want to do or be are our own thought ruts. The way things and situations occur to us is foundational to the way we will interact with them. An example: the gym occurs to me as an intimidating place and every time I set foot inside I feel uncomfortable, so the chance that I’ll consistently go to the gym is close to zero. The gym isn’t inherently intimidating or not intimidating, it’s obvious that many people there are quite comfortable (here’s to you guy flexing in the mirror). But how can you build a habit of going to the gym? You’ve got a serious mental racket running in the back of your mind. Well, the answer is to change how the gym situation occurs to you, or to put it more normally, think about the gym differently.

This is where books come in, books can change the way we think. Books offer a different perspective, a new point of view. They force us to think critically and differently than we would by default. They let us interact with new ideas and thoughts that have been all the way thought through (or least most of the way thought through). They’re great for learning, sure, but more importantly, they open up our minds. A book might not make the gym suddenly seem less intimidating, but it could begin dislodging some of your bad thought ruts, it could start shifting how you occur to yourself. Start a reading habit this year. Start small and don’t stop. It might just change your life.

Why Do New Year Resolutions Never Work?

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It’s January, the time of year when we aspire to be or accomplish something new. You don’t have to wait for January to decide to improve yourself, but it’s as good a time as any, and definitely the most popular time. We’re two weeks in now, the gyms are packed, we’re paying closer attention to our budgets, our pantries are full of healthier foods, you know how it goes. These are all good things, but unfortunately, studies show that about 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by mid-February. Maybe your resolution is already floundering.

James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits, says people don’t rise to the level of their goals, they fall to the level of their systems. I think he’s exactly right. We’re good at setting goals and making resolutions, but we’re bad at making lasting changes. And it’s not because we don’t want it enough or because we make disingenuous resolutions, it’s because humans operate by default and we fail to address our default habits. Goals don’t change behavior regardless of how SMART they are or whether or not they qualify as BHAG. We need new systems, new defaults, and new habits, maybe not another resolution.

So how do we change our systems? James Clear talks about becoming 1% better each day by doing something small. It could be one pushup per day if you want to build a workout habit. It could be one call per day if you want to build a networking habit. You mold your identity by consistently doing the things the type of person you aspire to be does. Each time you do something, no matter how small, your new identity is reinforced. If I’m an athletic person, I workout. Weight loss and muscle gains simply follow. If I’m a successful salesperson, I network. Income is simply a result. My default habits would never change by simply thinking about my weight loss goal or even by putting down my income goals on paper (I, like most of us, have tried). Change requires action, no matter how small. A helpful quote I’ve come across (attributed to several different authors including Millar Fuller and Jerry Sternin) summarizes this idea nicely: “It’s easier to act your way into a new way thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting.” Alan Deutschman, in his book Change or Die, says, “It’s obvious that what we believe and what we feel influences how we act. That’s common sense. But the equation works in the other direction as well: How we act influences what we believe and what we feel. That’s one of the most counterintuitive yet powerful principles of modern psychology (p78).” He adds, “You have to do things a new way before you can think in a new way (p79).”

It’s interesting to think about the purpose of all of this. We set goals at the beginning of each year because we want to accomplish things, for sure. But I think the more significant reason we spend all of this time on goals is that we aspire to be better persons. The most basic thing we’re after is a change in our identity. I won’t stray into the mire of philosophical implications here, but I think that’s a clarifying thought. The accomplishment we’re after is a change in identity, not another New Year’s resolution. Our identity changes when our default behaviors and habits change. Act different in order to think different. Start small, start simple, do something laughably easy, and then don’t ever stop.

Affirmation is not the path to growth

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We live in an age of affirmation. It’s on church signs, it’s enforced in the court of public opinion (Twitter), it’s even taught to children in school. Everyone is great just the way they are (unless they’re not affirming). That’s obviously not all bad, but if affirmation is the highest good we’re missing something.

We tend to think of affirmation as a virtue on a spectrum. Affirmation occupies one side of the hypothetical spectrum and pure evil hatred exists on the other. If that’s true then anything less than affirmation is bad, or at least tainted. But that’s not a real spectrum. Affirmation and hate are not opposites, love and hate are opposites. And love and affirmation are two very different things. We tend to think that the loving thing to do for people is to affirm them, but that’s not true either. Love seeks what’s best for people.

Affirmation can be crippling if we begin to believe that we’re just right the way we are. If we’re affirmed as we are, why make an effort to change? Why take responsibility if it’s not your fault? Why take some initiative if you have no control over what happens to you? Instead of affirmation, you may benefit from a loving nudge towards something better.

Growth happens when we’re challenged, pushed, when we realize that we might not be great just the way we are, when we see a new world of potential. It doesn’t happen by affirmation but by relationships, by tough conversations and experiences, by a new way of seeing or understanding, by coaching.

We all want affirmation, but most of us would benefit from some growth.