In self-development and personal growth, what are we aiming for? What is "better" than we are now?
Let's explore the possibilities.
This is a question that has been asked for ages.
It seems that in many ways, the ideas like ethics and morality are very, very relative concepts that either rely on the context of the situation you're in, perhaps your upbringing, your social values, or your own core values.
For example, we have a strong and helpful social rule against murder.
However, if you're at war, you're supposed to kill. In fact, you are rewarded for killing, and in that context, you are considered to be successful only if you kill other human beings.
You can see this kind of relativistic morality across the spectrum of human society.
So who, or what, decides what is good, and what is bad?
As a human who seeks to become a "better" human, what should you be working on?
... Is it good to be smarter? Why?
... Is it good to be healthier? Why?
... More fit, or more muscular? Faster, or stronger? Why?
... More socially skilled? Says who?
Why decides these things?
I wanted to tackle this question, and share my own perspective, because I think it's actually an extremely important one.
It's hard to climb a mountain if you don't know which way is up.
If you're working on yourself, and desire to be a better person, and create a better society... you need to define what you're aiming for.
Design Driven Purpose
The basic problem here, is that we need to establish a reference point. For anything in the Universe, what makes that thing most successful, most useful, most effective in it's existence?
I'd argue that everything... material, non-material, real, or imagined... has design. As form, or set of capabilities that are implicitly part of its nature.
A hammer has a specific design, which works best when it's used for certain things, in a certain way. You grip the handle, face it forward, and you drive in nails. Or you can reverse it, and use it to pry nails out. The design is very specifically for that purpose, and the design of hammers "evolved" towards those goals.
A wrench is quite different, evolved for quite a different goal. You can use it as a hammer, sort of. But it doesn't make as good a hammer as a hammer does, because it's designed for something different. Trying to use it as a hammer will likely damage it, and the thing you're hammering, and possibly yourself as well.
At the simplest level, this is what I call design driven purpose.
It's the idea that a thing is able to accomplish its best purpose, if it works according to its design- or as the Stoics would say, according to its nature.
Human Evolution & Design
The reason I start from this point is that human design is very intriguing.
On the one hand, if you look at evolution, we share a lot in common with other animal species. We even have a reptilian brain which is designed for our individual survival.
It gives us...
- Fear of death, or, the desire to stay alive
- Our fight, flight, or freeze reflex
- Basic sensations and emotions, such as hunger, fear, pain, and desire
- The Sexual desire to reproduce- thus securing survival of our species
In brief, our reptile brain gives us the most fundamental design elements needed to maximize our chance of survival, and for the survival of our species.
At the same time, we're also mammals- and the mammal mind adds quite a bit of design elements to the mix. In evolution, mammals discovered that there is strength in numbers.
In groups, mammals can acquire more resources- like a pack of wolves taking down a moose, or a tribe of humans taking down a mammoth.
Groups can protect those resources better too- allowing some members to go get more resources, while the current stockpile is guarded.
Groups also provide better security. Mammals generally need sleep- so having a group means you can have your guard up 24/7/365 if you need to. In groups, your 2 eyes and 2 ears can become hundreds of eyes and ears- so an entire herd of gazelle can take off at the first sign of danger... and only one had to raise the alarm.
Mammals in groups also get better mating opportunities, because... there are more likely to be opportunities around. And the young are protected by the whole group as well.
Our mammal mind gives us-
- The desire to form social groups, and to contribute to - and be accepted by -those groups. This is serotonin.
- The desire to form family units, to increase the chance of offspring, and to maximize their chances of survival. This is known as pair-bonding, and is the effect of oxytocin.
- Improved language, because it improves coordination within groups.
But we're not done.
Humans also have a neo-cortex, which we refer to as the "human" mind.
It has powers that are quite unique in the animal kingdom. We can make tools. We can imagine the future, before it exists- which is foundational to our creative abilities.
We have abstract thought, and we can share that abstract thought across the group to create shared abstractions- language, law, money, government, religion... none of these are "things" but these ideas have huge significance to us.
I probably can't list all the things the human mind gives us, I'm still discovering my own. But here are a few...
- Imagination- the ability to imagine a future that does not exist, and choose one that suits us, to aim for.
- Creativity- which we apply in science and engineering, but also in arts, music, fashion, poetry, and so much more.
- Advanced problem-solving skills
- Advanced language, and the ability to learn multiple languages and sub-languages
- Morals, values, and concepts of acceptable behavior
- Complex emotions
- Advanced self-awareness, including the ability to reflect deeply on every aspect of ourselves
These 3 evolutionary layers of human psychology are commonly referred to as the Triune Brain.
Behaving in Accordance with Our Nature
Objectively, when we look at a lizard, we would say "this is a good lizard" if its thriving well. Staying alive. Finding adequate food. Mating successfully and producing healthy offspring. Compared to a lizard that falls short at these things, we'd have a pretty obvious perception as to which lizard is "more successful" at being a lizard.
When we look at a dog, we have different expectations. Not only does it need to meet all the success criteria of a lizard... but it also needs to be socially skilled. Able to bond with other dogs, and maybe even people. Able to stand on its own, and aggressively defend its family from a perceived threat. Good at raising its young to healthy adults (and not just laying eggs and running away... as a lizard would).
Our expectations of what a dog should be are different because a dog is designed for a different purpose.
So what does this say about humans?
Objectively, I think you can apply the same rationale.
All of the above aspects of our design matter.
To be a good human-
We want to be good at doing everything a reptile is designed for- surviving, finding a partner, and reproducing our species.
We also want to be good at doing everything a dog is designed for- forming healthy social groups, bonding with others, and protecting our tribe and our family.
And we want to be good at doing everything a human is designed for- creativity, curiosity, problem-solving, abstract thought, advanced communication, deep self-reflection, and so much more.
If you are barely at survival level, living at the bottom of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, there's certainly space for improvement in your life.
And if you're at the top of the pyramid, say you are a World-changing scientist like Nicola Tesla- but you are not caring for your health, or your social relationships... then there's also space for improvement in your life.
When you reflect on your life, and where you can improve, see it as three levels of design. How are you doing on each of them? Where could you be doing better? What should you be investing your time, attention, and energy into?
What would your life look like if that area were stronger?
These might be challenging thoughts for you... they were for me.
Balance in life is essential.
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I wanted to keep this article focused and short, but there's an important discussion to be had around active utilization.
I'd argue that a hammer isn't that successful if it's sitting in the toolbox all day. Its potential is simply wasted.
It purpose is to be outside of the toolbox, getting good use, hammering nails, being reliable, being productive, improving the world in some way.
We are no different. You may be a genius, or incredibly gifted in some area- but if you are not using those gifts, what is the point of having them.
Make using them, constantly, one of your central goals.
In my discussion of mammal behavior, I'm speaking in broad generalizations here- those of you who know mammals well can point out examples of intensely dominant hierarchies, where only the top males get to mate, and where e.g. the cubs are at risk from a new leadership change.
'm aware of these, but as a general principle, my point is that the mammal brain encourages social groups, because those groups have survival advantages to their members- and to the species.