Generosity is More Than Action

Following on from my musings on why empathy is not enough, I wanted to spend some time addressing why generosity is not enough — at least in the common understanding of the word that refers to the act of giving stuff like money, goods, physical assistance, etc.

To be generous means showing a readiness to give more of something than is strictly necessary or expected. The something that I want to talk about is generosity of thought.

What is it?

To me there are (at least) two aspects of being generous with our thinking:

  1. Giving the benefit of the doubt to someone, even when we think they don’t deserve it.
  2. Giving the best interpretation of someone’s argument, even though to us it seems there are obvious flaws with it.

With respect to (1), the thing that pops into my mind is the fundamental attribution error. It is a term in social psychology that refers to our tendency to place greater weight on a person’s internal characteristics, rather than the external circumstances, to explain that person’s behaviour. We don’t apply this weighting to ourselves since we are more cognisant of our own situation.

For example, when someone doesn’t return our message, it’s easy to feel frustrated and conclude that they’re unreliable or trying to screw you over in some way. But maybe they’re having a busy day? Maybe they left their phone in their bag and didn’t hear the notification? There are many ways we can justify to ourselves and others why we did (or did not do) something that had nothing to do with our own incompetence or malice. I think we should extend that courtesy to others.

It doesn’t mean being naive or unduly trusting of others. It means making that courtesy the starting rebuttable proposition, rather than taking things personally or rushing to pass judgment/condemnation.

With respect to (2), I think the guiding principle for any debate — political, scientific, religious, personal taste, whatever — is how do we make it constructive. In an age of short attention spans, plentiful distractions and easy outlets for manufactured outrage, having a constructive debate is hard. Don’t contribute to the madness. Whether you agree or disagree with what you’re presented with, stop and think:

  • Where is this person coming from?
  • Why do they think this way?
  • What evidence have they put forth?
  • Is it convincing? Why or why not?
  • What assumptions are they operating under?
  • If I grant those assumptions and understand where they are coming from, does their argument now make more sense or less?

Get to know your logical fallacies. Consider the argument as a whole, rather than focusing on the person or nitpicking the individual elements. Again, this isn’t a call for being naive. It’s not a call for false balance. If we are fairly sure — after attempting to engage in honest and constructive debate — that someone is not arguing in good faith, then it is legitimate to stop taking them seriously and stop giving them attention.

Why is it hard?

The glib answer is that going with the flow is easy. Our natural tendency is to judge, to jump to conclusions and to dismiss people we don’t agree with.

At a higher level, I think generosity of thought is hard because of two fundamental human traits that complicate and undermine our interactions with one another: fear and pride.

Fear — We don’t want to face up to things that might disturb our identity and beliefs. We don’t want to get offside with our in-group by entertaining (or, heaven forbid, accepting) ideas and arguments that are proposed by an out-group.

Pride — We don’t want to appear weak, we don’t want to admit mistakes, we don’t want to get “tricked”. It feels good to think that we are on the right side, the better side. It feels good and empowering to kick others when they are down.

However, as the saying goes, nothing easy is ever worth doing. I’m writing this for myself as much as for you. Let’s not coast through life. We can make the world a better place in more ways than simply giving our resources and time.

How do we get it?

1. Generosity of thought requires humility and self-awareness to acknowledge that you are not as good as you think, and other people are not as bad as you think. You are not proud or pompous.

2. It requires being comfortable with admitting that. You are not fearful or insecure.

3. It requires empathy — the ability and willingness to step into another person’s shoes.

4. It requires an understanding that we are more alike than we are different. We all have similar dreams, hopes and fears. We have the same cognitive biases. We have the same need for belonging and approval.

Know that you are swimming against the tide. Our modern society doesn’t reward humility. It creates insecurities and then offers shallow solutions for them. It venerates competition and self-interest. It doesn’t want you to think too hard. Just go with the flow.

But let’s not do that. Let’s be generous with our thoughts. It is not strictly necessary or expected, but that’s kinda the point.


Quote(s) of the Day VII

Good ol’ Ross Gittins has come out with another great article questioning the prevailing economic orthodoxy: that government should just get out of the way and let businesses do their thing in a “free market”.

There is no question that capitalism has done great things. But those who put free-market economics on a pedestal tend to miss the bigger picture. The market is not inherently good or moral. People are not inherently rational and often do not behave in ways that seek their self-interest. The market value of goods and services produced by an economy (GDP) is at best a tangential measure of progress and arguably not that important if you’re trying to look at the overall well-being of people (which is ultimately what matters in the end, right?).

Using economic rationalism as the primary basis for policymaking leads to undervaluing of the environment, erosion of workers’ rights, rent-seeking by powerful corporations, disregard for things that do not have market value and commercialisation of things that probably should not be dispassionately traded as goods and services. Capitalism is useful, but like any other human endeavour it should be kept within appropriate bounds.

How to put the above more succinctly? Thanks Ross:

… I want to live in a market economy, but not a market society.

The Role of Luck

A friend of mine sent me this memo from Howard Marks, a noted investor and chairman of Oaktree Capital, a global asset management firm. Apparently he is well-known for his client memos in which he writes about investment and economic stuff.

This particular memo is a bit different as it discusses something that is often under-appreciated by the well-to-do: the role of luck in shaping our lives and our careers. I would say that as a general tendency, the more successful you are, the more likely you are to attribute an outsize proportion of that success to your own efforts.

I don’t think that is wrong per se. As usual, the truth is somewhere in the middle — neither are we completely self-sufficient and self-determining, nor are we drifting vessels pushed about by the vagaries of indecipherable winds.

However, I do commend Mr Marks for broaching this topic. Far too often the highly successful put self-achivement on a pedestal while overlooking or downplaying external factors. Even more problematic are those that make self-achievement the foundation of their worldview. For them, it logically follows that those who are less (or not) successful must be doing something wrong, or not doing enough things right. This has political implications.

Anyway, enough blathering from me. Check out the article for yourself, it’s very well-written with lots of good examples.


Now that we’re on the same page, I have a few random thoughts on the memo:

1. Hard work is still important, obviously. When people come from similarly ‘privileged’ backgrounds and with similar abilities (e.g., top students applying to a prestigious institution, or top candidates applying to a prestigious firm), the deciding factor will be how well-prepared they are.

2. I like how Mr Marks gives examples of moments in time when major shifts were occurring and some people were able to take advantage of it. One way to capitalise on ‘luck’ is having the ability to recognise the opportunities around you. That’s a skill that can be developed, one that betters the odds!

3. A major one from personal experience is having the courage to go for it, once you see an opportunity. “You make your own luck” is kinda true, since the people who seem to lead charmed lives tend to be way more proactive in how they live. In many ways perception is reality. It’s tough because sometimes circumstances (good and bad) outside your control will affect your level of confidence. It’s difficult but doable and certainly very beneficial to ‘train’ yourself to be more courageous.

4. Another major thing is to be humble. Recognise that many events and many people have contributed to shaping who you are and what you have achieved. Admitting that is not a sign of weakness. Rather, for me it is a good reminder that we achieve great things when we are together, and it gives me great motivation to be a positive influence on others.

5. Following on from this, it is good to have compassion for other people. Especially those who, through no fault of their own (or their ‘fault’ is due to various complex factors) do not have it as good as you. And even those who annoy us, who infuriate us, who are unseemly or repulsive to us.

I’m taking a page out of David Foster Wallace here. That dead-eyed checkout chick who can’t even be bothered to look into your eye, and who takes forever to bag your groceries. Maybe she just found out that her father has cancer. Maybe she is catatonic because she is dying inside. That unkempt, black-footed bum splayed across the payment, forcing you to step around him. Maybe he has been beaten and mistreated his whole life, and the only worthwhile thing he has ever done was to run away. Maybe he never had a chance.

Be humble. Don’t be insufferably smug. Be compassionate. Don’t make everything about you. Simple, right?

Thinking About Gender Equality

This is a topic that I am approaching with much trepidation, but is on my mind at the moment after listening to an interesting talk by feminist writer/commentator Chloe Angyal regarding rom-coms and what it can teach us about life and especially sexual dynamics. In a nutshell: recent rom-coms have featured a lot of male nudity (bear with me here), and this speaks to a broader cultural shift in which men are increasingly vulnerable and women are increasingly in control.*


Jason Segel is not just nude. He is nakedly vulnerable.

Of course, any talk of the “End of Men” must be taken with a grain of salt, given the overwhelming presence of men in representative government (consider the recent kerfuffle over Tony Abbott’s cabinet) and other positions of influence, such as Fortune 500 CEOs and university faculty members. Indeed, the “gender gap” between men and women in terms of pay and representation in a multitude of industries is a key concern for feminists.

After Chloe’s talk, a friend of mine told me that he believed in equal representation — that there should be just as many women as men in positions of power (this is the definition of gender quality I will be using for the rest of this post). I disagreed with the practicality of this notion and murmured something about biological differences, but couldn’t come up with anything on the spot. Now that I’ve spent some more time thinking, I want to critically examine this idea of gender equality.

By the way, I want to preface all this by saying that of course I recognise the many injustices faced by women historically and presently, and I fully support efforts to rectify them. However, that’s different to the utopian view of gender equality. In my opinion it is not only impractical, but also undesirable.

Biological reality

Let’s start with some incontrovertible truths.

  1. Women are fertile and can attract the most desirable men within a finite window of time.
  2. Women are physically and psychologically equipped to be the best nurturers of their children.**

This biological reality is not pertinent early on. All throughout school, university and even the start of working life, equality of representation is possible because the biological imperative to meet a desirable partner and have children is not as keenly felt. Indeed, in traditionally prestigious fields like law and medicine, at many institutions there are now more women studying them than men.

As (Western) women gained more financial independence and as fertility treatment advanced in leaps and bounds, the biological imperative has been pushed back more and more. However, it still exists. Women who want to have children know they cannot put it off forever. Most mothers feel a maternal pull towards their children and are loath to spend extended periods of time away from them.

This is completely natural and understandable. And this is why parental leave is justifiably recognised as a crucial moderating force in the workplace — it allows women to fulfil their biological imperative without completely shafting their employment prospects. However, parental leave alone is not going to make things equal.

Two questions arise: How far should we (as a society) go to realise this goal? And what are the practical implications for women?

Decisions, decisions

Here is another incontrovertible truth: life is about tradeoffs. If you want to get good at anything, you have to spend time and effort that could go toward other things. Working overseas sounds really tempting, until you realise that it entails being separated from friends and family for long stretches of time. You know where I am going with this.

Women can’t have it all. They have to make life choices based on their life priorities.

This totally happens IRL. Not.

Many women make family their priority, so they subordinate career progression. This is one of the big reasons for the very stark statistics that we see. But what’s the alternative?

To achieve equal representation in government, company boards, etc, it means that a lot more women than is the case today must prioritise their own career advancement over bearing children. Now, some women willingly (as far as we can publicly tell…) remain childless and achieve great things. Others seemingly achieve incredible success while raising children at the same time. But this invariably happens through a combination of internal will and external support that do not apply to 99.99+% of the female population — they are the exceptions that prove the rule. I would wager that far more common are women who would love to pursue a successful career, but make the sometimes painful decision to “opt out” because they cannot prioritise it above motherhood.

The bottom line

The question of priorities is a deeply personal one. I admire women who make child-rearing their priority. Our society is much better for it. I also admire strong women who contribute to the political and corporate world in ways that men cannot. Either way, both are making sacrifices and tradeoffs.

Ultimately, my own view (ie, a moral and political one) comes down to what I consider to be more valuable on balance. I think that it is better for society that more children are raised by their mothers (ideally in a two-parent home) — especially in their formative early years — than to have a society where more women prioritise their career above all else, delay or give up having children, or otherwise be a guilty/stressed part-time mother.

You may not agree with my weighting, but this is what it comes down to. There’s a lot more work to be done in changing workplace practices and societal attitudes and so forth,*** but there’s only so far they can go. Being a politician or a captain of industry or a professor, etc, is unforgiving, relentless work. They can become more female-friendly, but they will never be fully compatible with a woman’s biological imperative. That’s just the way it is unfortunately.

The gender gap is as much a manifestation of biological realities and personal choices as it is about oppressive, misogynistic social structures. Gender equality is not going to occur in a vacuum. I think it is important for advocates to recognise and wrestle with this, not just giving full-throated support to a nice notion in the abstract that actually comes with significant real-world implications.


* Chloe also rightly points out that rom-coms almost never feature same-sex relationships. They’re not addressed in this post either; I leave them out not out of malice but rather ignorance — I don’t think that I’m qualified to write about them.

** Take this sentence at face value. I am not trying to insinuate anything else (eg, that fathers are less or not important).

*** For some great examples, check out Anne-Marie Slaughter’s thought-provoking article in The Atlantic.

May I Have Your Attention Please?

Change generally creeps up on you. I’m not talking about the case where you visit/live in a place and then come back ten years later. I’m talking about change that happens on a quiet, day-to-day basis. It’s only when you stop and reflect that you think to yourself: “whoa“.

That’s how I feel about the state of technology today. The confluence of computing power, ubiquitous internet connectivity and mass production means that just about anyone in a developed country can get their hands on a portable powerhouse. In fact, smartphones are now the norm — you are weird if you don’t have one.

I’m less interested in the technology per se. What is more interesting (and troubling) to me are the political, sociological and psychological ramifications of uber-(cyber)-connectedness. Privacy is a BIG FREAKING DEAL that I will explore in later posts.

For now I want to talk about an interpersonal element: attentiveness. I am inspired by the NYTimes article entitled ‘How Not To Be Alone‘, adapted from a commencement speech given by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Technology has done a great job of facilitating communication when face-to-face contact is impossible or unfeasible. Over time, however, as Foer writes: “we began to prefer the diminished substitutes” — from phones to answering machines to emails to texting, each one more compact and emotionally detached.

I am reminded of the work Sherry Turkle has done in bringing to light the isolating effects of technology. Even as people are more ‘connected’ than ever before, they are also more likely to report more loneliness and less intimacy with others.

This is a big problem. The more we are engrossed with our devices, the less we are engrossed with our surroundings. If you ever catch public transport during peak hour, take a look at the people around you. Here’s my prediction: 20% will be trying to sleep/dozing off, 70% will be buried in a screen of some sort, and 10% will be doing something else. It really is quite striking.

The problem is also compounding. Neurons that fire together, wire together — that’s a pithy psychological parlance meaning that the more we do something, the more we are likely to keep doing it. Less attention on our surroundings means less opportunity and ability to go deep. Deeper relationships. Deeper reflections on society and the world and your place in it. Deeper understanding of self. This is what is at stake.

I love this quote by Simone Weil that was cited in Foer’s article:

Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.

The starkest example of this comes from developmental psychology. In a study of mother-infant interaction, the researchers found that for every standard deviation of maternal remoteness (ie, disengagement, lack of attention) shown at two months, the infant was 15 times more likely to develop an insecure attachment at 18 months. Maternal remoteness had by far the most devastating impact, outperforming maternal depression (3x) and maternal intrusiveness (4.5x).

Would-be parents, take note.

So I’ve laid out a bunch of not-so-nice things. What now? Here are some things that you can do to fight the tide of inattention (I am as guilty as anyone and need to preach this to myself regularly):

  • Keep your phone in your pocket/handbag in social situations (including at the dinner table…) — ESPECIALLY goes if you’re in the middle of a conversation. NO you don’t need to check that SMS/Whatsapp/FB/Twitter/whatever alert. Even if you are not directly participating in the conversation stream, you can still listen. Observe. Think. It is not a signal for you to retreat into your own little digitised world. I am not even talking about etiquette here, this is about breaking entrenched habits and building better ones.
  • Institute regular downtime (no phone/computer/etc for X hours/days every Y days/weeks/months) — Can you handle it?
  • Make eye contact and smile — People are not just walking flesh bags. They are not just atomised units moving in space, inconvenient obstacles for you to manoeuvre through. They are living, breathing, loving, fearing, expecting, hoping beings. The best way to recognise that: look to their eyes.

I’ll end on some thoughtful words by Foer:

Most of the time, most people are not crying in public, but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy. There is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs. There are as many ways to do this as there are kinds of loneliness, but all of them require attentiveness, all of them require the hard work of emotional computation and corporeal compassion. All of them require the human processing of the only animal who risks “getting it wrong” and whose dreams provide shelters and vaccines and words to crying strangers.

Story of an Unknown Soldier

Today is ANZAC Day in Australia. Services are being held throughout the day and around the world, commemorating not just the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign but every Australian who served and died, in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

For most of us (at least among my immediate circle of family and friends) it is just another public holiday, a day when we can chill out and not have to go to work. I’d be willing to bet we don’t really think about ‘ANZAC Day’ at all. But we should. Let’s talk about war for a moment.

War is folly — all those millions of lives, lost in struggles borne out of the dark side of human nature: fear, greed and pride.

War is glory — the gleaming weapons, the selfless heroes, the tumultuous battles, the bittersweet victories.

War is history — an epic relic of the past, thrown into even sharper relief by the modern ‘wars’ we distantly experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The two truly grand wars began 99 and 74 years ago, respectively. With each passing year, the rank of survivors diminishes. The last combat veteran of World War I died on 5 May 2011. Our connection to the past weakens and the mythology grows. It is ironic that even as society today trumpets the ANZAC values of mateship, courage and sacrifice (or, for those of my generation, as we absent-mindedly assent to them), we’ve never been further from living out these values than today. Individualism. Self-gratification. FOMO. Happiness. Find yourself. Be yourself. Indulge yourself.

This is me. This is us.

Let’s wind the clock back 99 years. You are a soldier on the Gallipoli peninsula. No, you are a boy, barely out of school. You’re not sure what you signed up for, but you had a sense that it was really important. The Empire is at war and your King needs you! The first blush of facial hair sprouts on your downy cheeks, now caked in dried mud. You are not strong but you can run really fast. It is a real boon as you ferry communications across the warren of trenches, head hunched over to avoid being sighted by the snipers. But this time it’s different. Your company has orders to take the Turkish outpost at the top of the hill. The faintest traces of sunrise peek out from the horizon. It’s almost time to move.

Your thoughts drift through the dense fog of fatigue, settling once more on your sweetheart back in Australia. You were together six months when the call came. You have not heard from her in just as long, and you wonder if the letters hastily scribbled on crumpled diary pages have made their way home. The gnawing feeling at the pit of your stomach from the prolonged separation is being replaced now by a breathless anticipation, rising in your chest. You look to your left and to your right. Brothers in arms, grim and on edge. The bugle sounds.

Summoning up all of your will you pull yourself up over the trench wall. Your mind screams at you to stop. A hand squeezes your shoulder and you turn to see the sergeant flashing you a wan smile. You know that he is also petrified, but you are grateful for the gesture. Momentarily calmed, you follow in his footsteps, defying the heaviness of your limbs and bayonet. Distant sounds of machine gun fire ring in the air, but they are drowned out by a cacophony of internal noises — the rasping of your breath, the pounding of your heart and the ringing of your ears. All around, you see your comrades falling, as if met by some invisible force.

You quicken your pace. You won’t let the team down. You won’t let the King down. You will not give up. Something hits you in the chest and your breath whooshes out. Another impact, this time accompanied by a burning sensation. Your legs give out but the momentum carries you forward. You crash to the ground, cursing your own clumsiness. The mud is cold. You try to push yourself up, but an overwhelming exhaustion descends upon you. The mud is inviting. You close your eyes and let your mind drift away to another place, far away from this foreign soil, your resting place.

This is the story of an unknown soldier. He died, so that we can know the true value of peace. Think about that this ANZAC Day, and think about this:

What are you willing to die for? What are you willing to live for?