In Search of Fulfillment

From raging Twitter debates between oversized personalities, to physics discoveries making headlines, to web 2.0 and tech visionaries being lauded for their genius, to wealth inequality widening to widths never before imagined, to Instagram selfie ‘culture’, more than ever we’re in an era of the celebration of the ‘self’, where individual differences are manifested acutely both economically and socially, where ‘meaning’ ‘purpose’ and ‘fulfillment’ is through individualism and not the ‘collective’.

But we’re also in an autopilot nation and economy, where everything is predictable or inevitable up until the moment it happens – just a continuum where the past and present adjoin in a loop.

Perhaps fulfillment is through ownership – ownership of wealth (financial independence), ideas (intellectualism), and maybe positive affirmations (social status), which is related to the former two. Post-scarcity doesn’t provide any of those. A hypothetical society where everyone has what they need, where food and entertainment are free and abundant, may not bring the purpose and fulfillment many seek. Consider the Kennedy Clan. No Kennedy will ever be forced to make ends meet and they have an abundance of leisure time, but no one ‘owns’ anything – rather they are a part of a ‘collective’. Considering the rise of entitlement spending and the shrinking labor pool, the future of America may (and already is) resembling this. Europe has already gone down that road, but the quality is not very good.

Some argue that religion brings salvation and purpose, but the problem is that the barriers to entry for salvation, unlike intellectualism and affirmation, are low and one only need to be a decent, moral person to be ‘saved’, not highly intelligent, popular, exceptional, or prescient. Organized religion is analogous to the rapidly fading factory or union job – good returns for being mediocre and just ‘showing up’, but because the barriers to entry are so low, I suspect religion does not bring fulfillment, as I describe in response to the epidemic of white males committing suicide:

My guess the root cause is fulfillment, emptiness. In the past, God filled that role, but the developed world is becoming more secular. Society demands a lot from white men – money and social status – things that are harder to obtain than just being a decent, moral person. Church is easy. You go every week and God gives you salvation, but attendance is falling, people realizing what atheists have suspected all along: it doesn’t work. This is not a knock on religion, but science is supplanting religion. No, salvation cannot be attained by believing in a deity. You have to make a lot of money and be well-known.

That definitely seems to be the case in our post-2008 hyper-competitive, winner-take-all society and economy where promotion is based on difficult to obtain quantifiable results and rarefied talent, not altruism, which could be considered our ‘new’ religion in America today where only smart people can be ‘saved’ and or are worthy of salvation. Post-2008 economic reality seems to conflict with the egalitarian nature of religion, making ‘old’ religion less relevant compared to this ‘new’ one. In the past, theology was used to explain reality when science couldn’t suffice, but we see in front of our eyes right now that society is rewarding (in terms of higher wages and prestige) people who produce results and create economic value, not those who are ‘people-pleasers’, and hence in putting two and two together, we ‘learn’ the path to salvation is to emulate these successful people. Also, religion played a much bigger role in social status hundreds of years ago wheres today it’s wealth, intellectualism, or social media followers, which tend to be harder to obtain.

Wealth inequality is a bigger discussion point than ever, as manifested through headlines – and parents, who see these headlines about wealth inequality and how the ‘middle class’ is shrinking, are spending thousands of dollars on enrichment educational programs to give their kids an edge in today’s hyper-competitive economic environment. Instead of Sunday School, it’s Summer School programs and elite schools.

Social status is another pathway to fulfillment. Scott’s landmark article I Can Tolerate Anything Except The Outgroup, posted on September 30, 2014, put him on the map, making him an overnight esoteric celebrity (if he wasn’t already) as expert on internet subcultures, and in the processes generating a tsunami of traffic to his website as the article went viral, getting over 10,000 Facebook shares and hundreds of comments. The lengthy article, divided into twelve sub-sections each chocked-full of anecdotes and detail, was probably one of the most important ‘sub culture’ articles of the year, blowing everyone’s minds away. Maybe it would even qualify as the ‘Great American Article‘ by capturing the polarized, contentious political state of America (particularly online) at the time, the war between feuding ideological ‘clans’ and ‘tribes’. That’s how ‘epic’ is was and still is. I could go on about the significance of the article, and it would still be an understatement.

This passage stood out:

When a friend of mine heard Eich got fired, she didn’t see anything wrong with it. “I can tolerate anything except intolerance,” she said.

“Intolerance” is starting to look like another one of those words like “white” and “American”.

“I can tolerate anything except the outgroup.” Doesn’t sound quite so noble now, does it?

Unfortunately writing tends to not pay well relative to the skill and talent involved, which for Outgroup was immense – at most, probably only the top 1-.5% of population is capable of composing such a galvanizing essay. Scott has a donation button on his site and some links to various advertisements that generate an undisclosed income. Upon the article going viral, I estimate he saw a bump in those figures – hard to know, but I imagine not much, since the esoteric subject matter isn’t one that readily converts into sales, unlike, say, golf clubs or investment plans. So why bother if the pay isn’t great. Part of the reason has to do with signaling and social status from other like-mined peers that comes from performing difficult feats of intellectualism, even if such feats don’t pay well. The gains in status are valuable, even if such value cannot be as easily quantified in an economic sense. Popularity, even if it’s only as an esoteric celebrity, means feeling good, endorphin flowing, etc. If people pay money for entertainment and drugs that are supposed to elicit these feelings, then it must be worth something. For example, wealthy alumni trade money for status in having buildings named after them or through philanthropy, creating a legacy that will outlive their lives.

In The Writer and The Coder, the writer aims for social status, which is worth some sort of monetary value, whereas the coder, whose skills are also rare relative to the general population, derives a more direct, quantifiable monetary return but also a boost in social status, too. Writing a personal polemic about your student loan debt or about being homeless likely won’t make the debt go away or immediately put a roof over your head, but it will boost your social status should the article go viral as others empathize with your problem. As explained above, there is a value to this even if it isn’t pecuniary.

In the case of being homeless, the article I linked to went massively viral. FDR sums it up eloquently:

Whether or not people people pursue intellectual feats for status is debatable – maybe they also do it for enjoyment, as a hobby, or for knowledge and understanding, with status as icing on the cake.

Richard Feynman famously remarked, ‘What Do You Care What Other People Think?’ People apparently care a lot about what others think, and for good reason, if ‘good’ opinions means more status and hence more happiness. All too often we’re told to ‘be yourself’, but what if ‘yourself’ isn’t that good? But ultimately, I think we – as people – want to be a ‘part’ of the system: a participant or ‘player’ rather than observer; an ‘owner’ or stakeholder rather than a renter. This cannot be solved with economic solutions.