Experimenting with Life to Understand the World
In this article I will discuss experimenting with life and why experimenting can lead to a more accurate understanding of the world, of human nature and of ourselves. Experimenting is especially important considering our natural human tendency to imitate our surrounding and also some imitative shortcomings of our education system.
I will also share some personal experiences that led to a path of continuous, experimental discovery and an attempt to understand why the world is the way it is. As an investor, I love analyzing the world and its dynamic state.
As we are going through a major societal transformation, at the scale of maybe the Italian Renaissance, and more and more personal information is becoming publicly available, it is drastically changing our understanding of the world.
So one could call this time-period The Great Awakening!
Therefore, analyzing the world right now is even more exciting.
If we consider day-to-day life, it is mostly guided by defaults, standards and habits. These standards have developed through years of interplay between different sociological phenomena. Over the years of continuous collective imitations, these interactions have become part of our environment and were incorporated into our daily lives.
The current system structure has evolved to a stable equilibrium, with many small subsystems.
We take very few original steps that have not been taken by the group of people around us. Our everyday interactions remain a constant flow of imitations.
In addition, since others in our immediate environment are similar to us, the feedback we usually get remains one-dimensional. So our feedback is oftentimes biased.
Therefore, most of our day-to-day interactions remain one-dimensional and limited.
Consequently, our understanding of the world becomes one-dimensional. It remains confined to the viewpoints of the same socio-economic group, the same cultural group, the same intellectual group and the same professional group. So we become hyper-conditioned.
Then we adopt the goals of our immediate surrounding as our own life goals and view them as absolute. As a result our actions and experiences become even more one-dimensional.
This continuous feedback loop creates large individual blind spots, which cause environmental biases in our decisions.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger coined the term ontological alienation. It describes the fact that most of us instead of developing fully authentic personalities, only choose to become a copy from a limited number of standard personality types. Instead of having a full experience of the world, with all aspects of real life, we end up in a single narrow band of limited options we are offered by our environment.
This leads to an often over-divided society, an incomplete understanding of truth and an inability to understand each other on the political level and a divided world.
On the micro level, we become clustered in little groups that are mostly alien to each other.
These then become the subsystems.
To break out of this one-dimensional pattern and to develop a multi-dimensional understanding of the world, some of the biggest thinkers chose to seek interactions, that are outside of our natural environment and its standard behavioral patterns.
After analyzing many great thinkers in history, one common trait becomes apparent. They did not remain within the boundaries of their environment’s expected behavior and instead bounced off against the walls. This gave them many more perspectives and a much broader understanding of the world.
Rene Descartes, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Mahatma Gandhi, Mark Twain, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, among many others, chose to follow the unconventional path and experiment with life. Steve Jobs and Elon Musk also did their fair share of experimentation.
Obviously it is difficult to completely abandon the standard path, but it is possible to make a conscious decision to take breaks and experiment with life.
My initial experiments with life were not fully planned, but I started to value these experiments even more, after my experiences as a graduate student at Stanford University. And it wasn’t for reasons you would think!
Already during my high school years in Germany, I had tendencies to explore and experiment with life. I often skipped school and went roaming the downtown streets to meet different types of people. I hung out in pool and gambling halls to play poker.
I played a lot of poker in high school.
Than I started gambling a little more with life.
I was getting in trouble hanging out and breaking laws with some troubled characters.
Sometimes, I also snuck into the local university’s computer lab to play video-games with college students and program new games.
These were initial juvenile attempts to see a broader world beyond high school.
In 1999 after graduating from high school in Germany, I moved to Los Angeles and instead of going directly to college, I chose to experiment outside of the normal path for three years.
Initially, I worked for two months in a factory in downtown LA doing heavy manual labor for minimum wage. Every day, I would take the subway, switching to a bus, to arrive in a dusty complex for hours of monotone physical labour. It was horrible and I dreaded it.
But it was an interesting experience. And I like physical challenges too.
Along the way I met and interacted with people that I wouldn’t have gotten in contact with on the regular path. Seeing aspects of their daily lives exposed me to a different experience. I built relationships with a portion of society that at that time was less fortunate and struggling.
At the same time many people were riding on high fortunes. In 1999 California was gripped by the tech boom. After two of months doing heavy manual labour, I started to work for an Internet startup in email marketing. This opportunity offered great compensation for a nineteen year old with computer and programming skills, since lots of money was being thrown at the Internet.
I was making more money than I had seen before. But after about five months at this startup that operation was discontinued as eventually the tech bubble burst.
I wasn’t sure what to do next and through some randomness and looking for more physical challenges, I joined the U.S. Army for two years.
After going through boot camp in Missouri, I was stationed in Texas.
The Army was an unusual environment. I was surrounded by people from all over the U.S., mostly from low socio-economic backgrounds.
Some of them had gotten in trouble with the law and for some of them the Army was a ticket to a better life. I developed friendships and got exposed to many different perspectives.
After the Army, just about three years after high school, I returned to Los Angeles and initially attended Santa Monica College for one year. This college was unlike many elite colleges. It had an interesting student demographic, with many recent immigrants from all over the world. At Santa Monica College I got exposed to a broad range of cultures and people.
Subsequently, I transferred to UCLA. Yet I made an effort not to stay confined to college life and soaked up the multitude of experiences that LA had to offer.
Los Angeles has a lot to offer and my life is usually pretty wild.
After graduating from UCLA, I attended engineering graduate school at Stanford, and had high expectations because of Stanford’s reputation.
At Stanford, I was surrounded by many, very intelligent and driven students. They were great people, but I realized that many Stanford students lacked diversity of experiences outside of the standard success path.
This issue is not confined to Stanford, but is present in most specialized, educational institutions, since they all push a single perspective. And at Stanford this phenomenon was more amplified.
Steve Jobs used to say that higher education comes at the expense of experience.
At Stanford the prescribed path, that is highly competitive for top universities, had made many of the students’ experiences one-dimensional and hence limited their understanding of the world. Many talented people had worked so hard to be at an elite university, that they had neglected other parts of life. Was this really the best approach?
This wasn’t the students’ fault but an outcome of a competitive game that the current education system had created by emphasizing wrong criteria.
The system took groups of talented people and forced them to confine their pursuits to a single perspective, that is focused on conventional learning, standard test scores and some other application fillers. It thereby neglected many real life experiences. From this point forward these Stanford students were bound to continue following the elite path to become future leaders and it was concerning that many of them had all these blind spots.
Also for a high profile university as Stanford, I would have wished for a classroom method that emphasizes more knowledge discovery and less “knowledge quick reproduction”.
What is the point of admitting all these talented individuals, if we are going to just focus on how well they repeat what they see in class. Instead we could teach them to think freely and discover knowledge for themselves.
I am somewhat biased when it comes to teaching methods, since my high-school physics teacher was all about knowledge discovery. As a class we discovered physics together, with experiments, discussions, our own theories and by voting on them. The most meaningful learning experience of my life was tied to this method, that I discuss in another article about education.
The discovery method teaches one how to understand something by observation, but the standard approach, focused on reproduction, just reenforces our natural tendencies to imitate. This aids ontological alienation and creates more copies of limited types. In Stanford’s case the outcome was many copies of the type “elite private school graduate”.
In a sense Stanford itself was bit of a bubble, so during my second year of grad school I decided to live in San Francisco instead. San Francisco is very interesting.
But I don’t want to single out Stanford in any way. We find this one-dimensional perspective in most specialized institutions and most other social structures. Every human institution has a self-congratulatory story that it spreads to keep together its members. These stories are highly biased and full of myths. In the process the members adopt these stories to shape their own identities and thereby limit their own exposure to the world.
Years later during my MBA at UCLA, many of the business students also had just one set way of thinking. There it was again, Heidegger’s ontological alienation. Making copies of the same type. Here we had many copies of the standard business school person, “the competitive, economic success driven networker”.
Unfortunately, our education system teaches us how to copy and become standard copies.
Our attempt to educate the next generation of leaders should not emphasize test scores, knowledge reproduction or following a standard resume filling career path. We should look at education more broadly and try to develop more multi-dimensional thinkers like Dostoevsky, Gandhi, Jobs and Rousseau.
Our current president Barrack Obama was not only shaped by the lectures at Harvard Law School. He was shaped by his childhood in war torn Indonesia and racially charged Hawaii. He was shaped by his time in Los Angeles, while at Occidental College, and by his experiences in New York/Harlem, when he was at Columbia University. He got his education working in the inner cities of Chicago. What made him so special was the broad range of his experiences and not the standard path.
As we are going through a pretty crazy election year, our country is highly divided and polarized. It is possible that our current polarization is a partial outcome of ontological alienation, since it shapes us voters, as well as, the candidates.
Our system has created groups of voters that can only think one way and candidates that can only see the world from a limited perspective.
What if we had a broader approach to education? Our education could make an effort to counteract what Heidegger calls ontological alienation by emphasizing multi-dimensionality of experiences, so we end up with less standard copies and more independent personalities.
This would also lead to more original and valuable ideas.
We could reconsider the standard educational path and introduce a year of broad, practical experiences before college. College exams could then emphasize knowledge discovery and not knowledge reproduction. And during our professional journey we could also introduce years for “experimenting with life”.
After my realizations in graduate school, I continued to make even a bigger effort to experiment with life.
By experimenting I don’t mean skydiving, going to Coachella, Burning Man or a two week vacation in South East Asia. These are just limited interactions that everyone does.
- What I mean - are deep interactions in environments that are not similar to ours. These interactions help us understand how people outside of our socio-cultural and economic group think and live.
- What I mean - are interactions that do not fit the standard patterns that are provided by our narrow environment. These interactions help us understand how these standard patterns have developed and discover other ways of thinking.
- What I mean - are interactions that are against our natural urges. These interactions help us understand what is behind our urges and explore situations that our natural urges limit us from.
After graduating from Stanford, I moved to a surf community south of Los Angeles and immersed myself into surfing, which brought me much closer to nature. Over time surfing became a passion. I chose to pursue different careers first in rocket engineering, then in entrepreneurship and later in investing, to understand many different paths that people take in adult life.
I also took several breaks during my professional journey to experiment. I spent a year living in South America and made significant effort to live several months at a time in different places around the world (including in Australia, Europe, Indonesia, Dominican Republic, etc.).
I also conducted many smaller experiments. Many of these experiments were motivated by readings about Mahatma Gandhi and Sigmund Freud. I read how both of them had discovered some of their findings about society and human nature by experimenting. They experimented with life and on themselves by going against their natural impulses.
So I began experimenting on myself, by trying to counter my natural impulses, to see where it would take me and how it would make me feel. For example, for a year I did not buy any clothes, gadgets or anything that was not essential for pure survival. I experimented with many other things that I can discuss in detail in other articles. Recently, I did an experiment binge-reading books on different aspects of society for an entire year, which I discuss in an article titled Intellectual Development Year.
All these experiments were a pretty interesting life education, that one could not get from years of studying. I have always been really interested in society. I wanted to understand how and why the current sociological structures and patterns had emerged, and why the world is the way it is. With time I became fascinated trying to understand and predict how society functions, changes and evolves, and how public opinion is built.
How public opinion is built is a key aspect that is not always objective. We are mostly unaware of this phenomenon, but today our main exposure to the world around us is through TV and other forms of mass media. This creates the “illusion of knowing” what the world around us is like and how it functions. But in reality the world around us is nothing like it is portrayed in TV and media.
I can personally attest to this when it comes to our military, our elite, educational institutions, our government agencies or the world of business-entrepreneurship.
This misrepresentation is primarily because all media outlets are businesses and need to create compelling content that resonates with the audience. So naturally everything is presented more fascinating, romantic, mystical, simplified and stereotyped for the target audience. This is even the case for most documentaries. I discuss the distorting dynamics of the media industry in an article about mass media.
Sometimes public opinion can be completely misinformed, which is one of the shortcomings of democracy. Beyond that democracy is the best system we have so far. But we have to keep in mind that majority opinion and truth are not the same thing.
Mahatma Gandhi’s auto-biography is titled “My Experiments with Truth”. Real truth is difficult to find and one has to experiment to discover it. Experimenting with life is very powerful. It can help us experience a more complete world around us and develop a multi-dimensional perspective on it.
Having a multi-dimensional perspective on life can help us make connections between things that we otherwise cannot detect. It can help us to be more creative and also help us create our own knowledge. It can help us understand how everything in the world is connected and help us connect with people from a much wider range of backgrounds.
It can also help us better understand human nature, by experiencing human interactions in many drastically different settings.
In addition to gaining a multi-dimensional life exposure, acting against one’s natural impulses can also lead to deeper self-understanding. It can put us in situations without the support structure we are accustomed to and can lead to new realizations. It can lead to situations, which expose our insecurities and thereby help us understand what is behind most of our natural impulses.
The path we take is a personal choice and it is impossible to say ahead of time where the path will lead to. It is easy to follow the default option, to drink coffee every morning and have a beer on Saturday and in-between just follow the rules of the group around us. Or we can shape our own direction and have a much fuller experience, that could lead to new realizations and interesting decisions along the way.
Since I am a dyslexic, I am prone to spelling and grammar mistakes. Hopefully it does not distract from the substance of the article.
Thank you for reading this article