Philosophical ramblings: Creativity, Authenticity, Stoicism, and Wealth and Happiness

There is nothing wrong with selling out or being a hack, per say. Most creative-type people are never going to be in a position to sell out. And those who do can take their profits and reinvest them in causes they care about but are unpopular. People seem to think that making money is as easy as just parroting what is popular. Hardly. If something is popular it means there is also going to be more competition. For example, self-help or dieting books on Amazon. These are very popular niches but also extremely competitive.

Even writers who hold themselves up as independently-minded tend to gravitate to the same half dozen or so topics or viewpoints. It doesn’t make the writing bad, just predictable, which is fine because because when you visit a website or read an author you are expecting a certain style or viewpoint. Steve Sailer, for example, tends to blog a lot about the intersection of race and crime. Bryan Caplan blogs a lot about immigration and education. Gladwell writes a lot about ‘conventional wisdom being wrong’ (which an entire genre unto itself).

The obsession with authenticity and ‘not caring what others think’ has always struck me as impractical or forced. It’s like when I write a blog post, I would prefer it if more people than not like the post. When a musician or director spends money and time producing an album or a movie, does he or she not want it to succeed? I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request. People who are successful, or at least successful by what we would consider to be metrics of success, are generally able to get others to go along with their vision, belief, idea, or goal. A successful scientist will generally have more citations compared to an unsuccessful scientist. Of course, the highly cited scientist may be wrong, but he’s more successful by that objective measure.

That’s why I’m skeptical of the advice to ‘be yourself’. Being yourself is great if you’re Elon Musk…if you suck at life, not so much. Maybe you need to get a new ‘self’. A problem is survivorship bias. CEOs whose companies go bankrupt don’t give TED talks. Socrates, Galileo, or that guy who invented handwashing were unpopular and vindicated, but persistence and steadfastness only pays off if you are actually right. It’s entirely possible you are wrong.

Someone may cite examples of famous, rich people who are unhappy or have messy personal lives, and then conclude money does not buy happiness. This reasoning is fallacious, which is why it’s unconvincing, even one cannot easily articulate way. Misfortune and wealth are mutually exclusive events, in invoking the conjunction fallacy. Plenty of non-rich people also have divorces or depression (antidepressants would not be a $16 billion/year industry if it was just rich, famous people who have depression). This would only apply if you knew the rich person had suffered misfortune, or if you can show that wealth and happiness are strongly negatively correlated. Without this data, it’s not unreasonable to assume that rich people have better lives. Whenever someone says money doesn’t matter, ask them to take them up on their offer. They will always refuse. These high minded principles sound great in theory, but don’t work in practice.

Rather than lifehacks such as persuasion techniques, which are useless, a systems-based approach is better. Instead of asking “How can I persuade someone of something,” the better question is “What sort of things are people inclined to believe?” or “What type of person is persuasive?” This is why the appeal to authority is so effective.

For the same reason, I’m not a fan of stoicism either. Many books have been written, and an entire self-help industry has been built around stoicism. It sounds good in theory–detaching oneself from the outcome–but it’s not something that works in practice. People like it when things go well, and dislike it when things do not go well, and I don’t see any way to override this. A philosophy is popular not because it works, but because people wish it was true, or it sounds plausible, or because it speaks to positive qualities of whoever believes it even if it doesn’t actually work (social desirability bias). It’s like diet and exercise as a weight loss solution: sounds good in theory, but hard to do.

It’s same for the research on happiness (yes, people study this stuff) , which I think is made needlessly overcomplicated. Happiness is getting the promotion, things going your way, making money, etc…quantifiable accomplishments that are valued in the eyes of others and confer status. I don’t know why people have to act like happiness is a complicated or deeply philosophical thing, when it’s not. I think the depressing reality is most people are not that good at anything, and thus cannot feel the satisfaction that comes from achievement.

Regarding the above point, the evidence suggests a positive correlation between wealth and happiness, which does not diminish beyond some arbitrary threshold, such as $75,000:

…Killingsworth collected 1.7 million data points from more than 33,000 participants who provided in-the-moment snapshots of their feelings during daily life.

In a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Killingsworth confirms that money does influence happiness and, contrary to previous influential research on the subject suggesting that this plateaus above $75,000, there was no dollar value at which it stopped mattering to an individual’s well-being.

A lot of mental energy is wasted trying to prove why something which seems obvious or true, is not in fact true, because to confront what is actually true is too painful to bear or inconvenient. We want to believe authenticity is always good, because that is easier than personal change (sunk cost fallacy) or having to admit that you’re inadequate or inferior. Yes, maybe some people are better than others. It’s like giving high-IQ people handicaps or pretending that rich people are unhappy.


  1. What you’re saying is true in many ways but you better watch your vices. I believe every man is entitled to one vice (pride, lust, greed, sloth, gluttony, etc.) If you start adding more than one the gods will punish you for hubris. You could say that successful people are able to control their vices and they have more talent than less successful people. The ones that screw up, like Epstein, allow more than one vice into their lives. Intelligence, in and of itself, isn’t the answer. Intelligent people are simply more aware of this phenomena, whether consciously, or not.

  2. Or, to quote Shakespeare:

    Through tattered clothes small vices do appear,
    Robes and furred gowns hide all.

  3. Asceticism resets your pleasure receptors. Too much of a good thing and you get used to it. Its not as good as the first time or the first few times.

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