A while ago David Brooks came across a collection of autobiographies written by the Yale class of 1942 for their 1950 reunion. He was fascinated by their stories, and I was fascinated by his discoveries. It feels as if you have the privilege of being a very close confidant for all these people. Being the professional journalist par excellence he did not stop at just enjoying the reading experience. He tried to extract common themes and find patterns from which he can analyse and use in his other role as a social scientist. For instance, he finds the common regret shared by many of the respondents, the one of working for their entire life at the same company. Another interesting observation is that many other people would have loved to take risks and take a different road in life. He found joys and tragedies, he found satisfaction and bitterness.
While thinking about all these stories he found in the collection of autobiographies, David Brooks got this idea: what about if I ask my readers to send me their life stories? So he asked his readers who are over 70 years old to send him “life reports” in which they would write the story of their life divided into five categories (career, family, faith, community and self-knowledge) and give themselves a grade.
What an idea! During this time he published the readers’ content on his NYT column, David Brooks managed to “skip” his duties for a while by publishing the life reports on his column instead of his own writing. I am sure he didn’t stay idle. He received thousands of stories in response to his call and he needed to do some serious reading and evaluation of all that “user-generated content”.
This is an interesting social experiment. The content is interesting and a researcher would have enough material there to stay busy for a year.
But I think this experiment is more than interesting. David Brooks may just have made an experiment that could lead to a novel form of crowd writing. He has content sent by individuals who don’t know each other but responded to the same call. They don’t collaborate to write a shared text, but they contribute to generate a big picture around a central theme. The result is a fascinating read. Several aspects are worth noting here:
Why did they respond? One of the readers said “I believe that my life story is well worth noting and sharing” (Noah Inbody, November 11, 2011). This is such a powerful statement. My life is well worth noting and sharing! Don’t we all have a story that we want to share? This is about identity; this is about what really drives people in social networks to contribute. David Klement said “Thank you for asking. Not many do. After a certain age, probably mid-60s, I have felt like the invisible man. Having a hearing loss which limits my ability to understand – and participate in – certain group conversations leaves me further on the fringe than most my age“. Communication is probably one of the most important desires that motivate us in a social setting. It is selfish and altruistic in the same time. Yes, it is about the secret desire for achieving fame, but it is also about reaching out. Each personal account was offered openly to anyone else to have a look at it and if possible, offer a valuable idea. Each person who authored a life report agreed to have their name published so they are verifiable, and while they have the opportunity to have their name published in one of the most prestigious papers in the world, the genuine emotion that transcends their writing is undeniable.
Freedom of Expression
The initial request was for each author to divide their lives into five categories and grade themselves. That didn’t work. After the first week everybody ignored that request and just sent their story the way they saw it. The reports are clearly emotional. Putting a structure on them would have made them look like they were doing a job. That’s work. Who wants it that way? David Brooks was smart enough to go with the flow and adjust to the public tune.
The reports are so authentic and so well written. Have a look at this fragment from Gilda Zein‘s report (she lost her husband): “The loneliness will never disappear. The intensity ebbs as the years go by. To take care of the cold, empty nights, I have substituted an electric mattress warmer and a large pillow to hug and push into, to take the place of my beloved. As the years go by, I have come to understand that death is a part of life. … Who am I? I am that until I am not“. There is so much talent hidden out there that we don’t know. There is so much potential embedded in our society that yearns to be exposed. This experiment triggered a creative response which otherwise could have stayed there dormant in the minds of these people perhaps never to come out. How much are we missing, no, let me put this in affirmative terms, how much creativity can the social collaboration tools unleash? The term “collaboration tools” cause a grimace of my face. We need a better term to describe a way in which people genuinely participate as someone they really are, not as someone who plays a role restricted by artificial social or business norms.
Better Social Policies
This can lead to ways in which the policy makers can do something to improve our society. Maybe many contributions like these may reveal aspects of our society that we have never had the chance to discuss openly. There might be some brilliant research studies lost somewhere deep into specialised academic journals only a handful of people read, but because of the seclusion in their ivory towers nothing happens, they cause no action, they are of no consequence. Crowd writing can trigger a snowball effect and cause a huge public reaction which governing bodies cannot ignore.
The contribution of the participants would have not taken place if it wasn’t for David Brooks to initiate it. The participants trusted him and The New York Times and felt attracted to the idea of sharing. The issue of trust and perception of quality is important. The brand power matters. I very much doubt that if I issue a similar request people will rush to send me their stories. Actually I am certain that would not happen. You would not get a similar response on large social networks either because of perceived lack of potential recognition or because of lack of engagement quality. At New York Times the prize is valuable. David Brooks is a well-known journalist, political and social commentator. The contributors felt they are engaged in a conversation with a person who knows and being mentioned by him in a prestigious publication and read by its large audience is something worth trying.
Arguably, this may become a hybrid model for the traditional media. We have to remember that David Brooks reviewed the life reports before deciding which ones are worth mentioning. This is typical to traditional media where a few in privileged positions make decisions for the many, but the fact is that curation is becoming fast a critical component needed to make sense in the deluge of content that is made available on the Internet each second. Maybe publications like The New York Times could open the gates to the public to contribute on selected topics and have a team of experts weaving in their expert content and skills engaging with the public to promote the best quality material. This model can borrow a few lessons from the new media by letting the public add their views on what is quality and what is not. As an example, the books review system at Amazon works extremely well and it has become the de facto benchmark for book reviews.
Learning Life Skills
Then there is this thing called LIFE. We think too often in terms of activities, tasks, job and money. But when you look at the entire package, the whole thing is wow, so different. We don’t get to think about that until is too late. The serenity of an old person is because life suddenly has value in a social context in which people have meaningful relationships with other people. We need more of this. Is it possible to bring this message down a few generations so that we get to understand or at least get a glimpse of this when we are 20? Maybe young parents could get classes by the time they are 30, so that they can see their life unravelling in slow motion and get to understand there is no need to hurry and miss the good things in life.
This experiment must continue.
This book has strengthen a perception of mine that even great journalists have a problem when they try to write non-fiction books. The Social Animal has a noble goal but the delivery is painfully dragging its ideas through a long winding story of two people who live an unhappy life. This is already a contentious point. For reasons that are not clear to me, the book is meant to describe the life of two people “who lead wonderfully fulfilling lives”. How can this be, when these two people live their lives absorbed in demanding jobs, with different ideals and that consider divorce at the age of fifty amidst desperation, bouts of alcoholism, a case of adultery, loneliness and realisation that they don’t fit each other? It is only because of a moral inner struggle that they decide to stay together, giving a strong impression that this is because there is no other practical option.
The main idea of The Social Animal is to follow two threads that are intertwined throughout the book: a story of two people that met, fell in love and decided to live together and a scientific exploration of the current status of research in human development, society, social behaviour, psychology, mind, genetics, biology and professional development that explain the way we make decisions and behave. It is a great idea, but difficult to implement.
The fundamental concept is that we make decisions at two levels: conscious awareness and subconscious. The first is the rational aspect of our behaviour, the logical thinking, the dry calculation, the methodical process by which we arrive at conclusions. David Brooks refers to this as the French Enlightenment thinking framework, “le rationalisme” personified by Voltaire and Descartes. The second level is the realm of deep unconscious, the unknown laboratory of human emotions, where feelings are born and fight against the rational thoughts from level 1 to ultimately determine how we make our decisions. This way of thinking is favoured by the British Enlightenment which affirms that in the end this is how we really decide. David Brooks has a plethora of examples of research studies that support this claim.
It may be that this is how we make decisions, with “epistemological modesty”, but it is rather hard to make sense of this book, other than just to say “hey, did you know that researchers discovered that… so and so?”. This is simply because I could not find “the hidden sources of love, character and achievement” as stated in the subtitle. I could see that hard work is necessary ingredient of success, that genetic inheritance is another asset that is good to have on your side and that being born in the richer part of society opens the door to more opportunities; but this is something that is hardly new.
There are a few interesting ideas here but they are lost in a long series of scientific explanations and popular statistics, but they lose traction because they are so disjointed, diluting any message that the book might have.
Here is one intriguing observation: we live today in a world where the cognitive load is so large it makes it more and more difficult for people from poorer parts of the society to traverse through education system to the richer side. The knowledge required is too high. David Brooks is not talking about the logical knowledge, but the emotional one which is the cultural fabric of society. This cannot be taught in a logical fashion in schools and in time it causes an increasing inequity that will lead to social tensions difficult to resolve.
The ramifications stemming from the idea that the subconscious in fact is quite rational are vast. You can choose your patch and rest assured you have in there plenty of interesting work for many many years. You could look at this from a computing perspective and think of the human brain as a sophisticated system with massive parallel processes that makes decisions in the background. Or look at this from a cognitive science perspective and try to understand the working model of the mind based on these “underground” processes. Then if you are an educator ask yourself how much of of our children formation is influenced by the education system and which parts are mostly influenced by other sources. I thought the subconscious intelligence is an important attribute defines us as a “social animal” in ways much more significant than the standard IQ. Unfortunately David Brooks did not insist on this topic. The brush he used was too broad in his attempt to cover all aspects of our lives.
Overall, I found that reading was an uneven experience as if I was traveling across the country often by a boring bus and occasionally by an exciting Ferrari. I must say, that despite this review, I love David Brooks posts in The New York Times and I look forward to read his writing.
Brilliant article by David Brooks from The New York Times, March 7 2011.
David Brooks says that in essence there are two sides of our mind: rational and emotional. The first one is mainly driven by our conscious while the second is seeded deeply into our subconscious.
There is much more to us than mere logical reason. Efforts to improve our humanity fail because they are limited to treating the rational issues, failing to see the importance of emotions. This is why, David Brooks says, The British Enlightenment was more accurate than the French Enlightenment by focusing on the social aspects in our lives as a really defining trait, as opposed to the rational, logic aspect.
Interesting comment on the increasing importance of social aspect, making old skills becoming less relevant. The industrial era created suitable measurements of skills such as IQ, school degrees and professional skills. Today, there are other skills that are becoming vital and they are more subtle and refuse to me measured by rigid methods, but by outcomes that become evident in time. David lists the following skills as an example:
Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.
Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.
Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.
Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.
Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.
This is indeed a glimpse of a new humanity. This needs a different form of government, new policy makers, new principles for education and environmental design and decision making in general. The way elections are conducted today is an anachronism because the conversation is always limited to managing performance using the old measures and the notion of broad social needs are ignored. The focus of the discussion is superficial and the solutions are outdated. We need a new system focused on social values not narrow profits and where the participation is more direct and broader from a social perspective.