Life in the Time of Choleric
Viktor Frankl came up with what is probably the best pop psychology line ever: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
The line reminds me of an old joke. A man goes to hell and is offered a peek behind 3 doors to choose his personal eternal punishment. In Room 1, he sees people standing on their heads on a hard concrete floor. In Room 2, he sees people people standing on their heads on a softer wooden floor. In Room 3, he sees people standing knee-deep in shit drinking foul-smelling coffee. "Well, this looks like the least terrible," he thinks, and joins them. A few minutes later a voice rings out over the PA: "Okay, coffee break is over. Back to standing on your heads."
It's been two weeks since Trump moved into the White House and launched an angry and unhappy presidency that is turning out exactly as ugly as we thought it would. At least for me personally, the space between stimulus and response feels like it's drawing to a close. My coffee break, traveling through Asia (hence the late newsletter) was pleasanter than it was for most, but coffee break is over, and it's back to standing on our heads.
But we must choose our response, as Frankl said. What sort of floor do we want, for 4-8 years of standing on our heads?
One of the benefits of travel and distance is perspective. I found my answer a Korean idea called Han, and it involves an epigenetics metaphor. Let me explain.
Life in the Time of Choleric
1/ We are living through a time of extraordinary cultural stress. The grand narratives of the world are suffused with fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD).
2/ There are always large parts of the world, afflicted by wars, insurgencies, local collapses, or natural disasters, that are very unpleasant to be in. But global cultural stress is rare.
3/ Traveling in Asia over the last two weeks, events in the US came up everywhere. Cultural stress that affects the sole global superpower is necessarily a global contagion.
4/ My family grilled me about Trump in India. In Singapore, readers and I talked about the US withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. In Korea, the TV channels were full of Trump.
5/ Though specific conversations can be positive, the subject matter itself is dominated by anger, fear, and eroding trust. And because it is global, you cannot escape it.
6/ With apologies to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, we are faced with Life in the Time of Choleric. In addition to managing the emotions and stresses of your own life, you have to handle those in the environment.
7/ At times like this, great events no longer seem distant and impersonal, a spectator sport played by powerful movers and shakers in the stratosphere. They acquire some of the intimacy of private life.
8/ Dealing with the news today is like dealing with a sick child or an angry spouse. You cannot just stoically manage your own emotions. To retain your humanity, you have to help others deal with theirs.
9/ As Thomas Barnett memorably put it on Twitter, “US rapidly becoming world's crazy ex-boyfriend - nasty calls, stream of threats interspersed with I-love-you gushes. Restraining order soon?”
10/ It doesn’t matter if you lean individualist like I do. Unless you lack all empathy, have no relationships, and have enough wealth to insulate yourself from the tumult, you are part of this mess.
11/ The global component of the cultural stress is of course highest in the US (though total stress per capita — global plus local — is of course far higher in places like Syria and Venezuela).
12/ Though the stress is more immediate here in the US, and though there are more things we who live here can and will do, you are part of the this big chapter in history no matter where you live.
13/ It is a harsh fact of global life that schoolgirls getting kidnapped by Boko Haram in Nigeria can be safely ignored by most, but small changes in US visa regimes cannot. The US is still too important in the world.
14/ To entrepreneurial, make-your-own-script types, with identities rooted in personal autonomy and individual accomplishment, and a sense of the entire world as your playground, this is a particularly trying time.
15/ If you are subscribed to this newsletter, chances are you are this type. Your first reaction to a time of choleric is not to join a protest march or spend hours a day calling politicians’ offices.
16/ Instead, you likely want to react to the conditions by protecting your personal generativity without losing your humanity. Your instinct is likely correct: you are more valuable in that mode.
17/ In more sanguine times, this is easy in theory. You just log off from Facebook and Twitter, and put your head down and do what people like Cal Newport call “deep work.”
18/ I personally don’t believe in the idea of unplugging for "productivity" even in sanguine times, but in choleric times, it is a recipe for doing tone-deaf projects nobody cares about.
19/ Unless you work in pure mathematics or physics (and perhaps even then), your work is capable of creating meaning only if it is responsive to, and consciously situated in, its social milieu.
20/ When the “truth” churns wildly every day, and we swing from fears of World War III to a sense of grand comedy with every Trump tweet, your work must be plugged in enough to be matter, protected enough to grow in the noise.
21/ Getting 100% caught up in the blow-by-blow of executive orders, protests, lawsuits, court orders, tales of traumatized refugees, and global reactions, is a recipe for getting nothing done for 4-8 years.
22/ But equally, ignoring it all, unplugging from the media, and focusing on your deep work, is a recipe for producing irrelevant “work” that is simply not in tune with the times. Deep work as derp work.
23/ Worse, you risk losing your sense of humanity. It is especially tempting for individualists to believe this is all just hilarious noise and overwrought fears, and that everything will be fine.
24/ But real people are already being hurt in very real ways, and the risk that the scale, scope of depth of pain that might be visited upon large groups of unfortunates is increasing.
25/ The million dollar question of life in the time of choleric then, is this: how do you process the environment into a humane force that shapes your work powerfully without tearing it apart?
26/ The obvious answer consists of two parts: optimizing your information environment and budgeting your social action. This is what I see most thoughtful people doing.
27/ Optimizing your information environment means curating your social graph by blocking some voices, amplifying others, choosing your news sources, verifying news and arguments before sharing.
28/ Budgeting your social action means carefully deciding how much energy, time and money to devote to political action, and picking modes that are high leverage for you.
29/ Many are doing exactly this: adopting (and often announcing) new personal “policies” for social media use and calling out their friends for “bad” informational behaviors.
30/ Action is more local. In the US, many are deciding (for instance) to donate a certain amount regularly to the ACLU or make 3 phone calls a day to their congressperson.
31/ Outside the US, individuals are making key decisions like whether to apply for graduate school in the US or target the US market with their product or (for instance) look East to Asian markets.
32/ Valuable though this general response pattern is, as a baseline, it is something of a low-EQ response because it ignores the biggest component: collective emotional self-regulation.
33/ As FDR famously said, we have nothing to fear but fear itself. Your most important decision is not what you choose to believe or do, but what you choose to feel.
34/ Optimizing your information environment and budgeting your social action help you manage FUD, but do nothing to create a more positive emotional environment for yourself or others.
35/ When the emotional texture of events in the environment is not neutral, your optimal emotional response is not neutral either. Some emotions are vastly better base responses than others.
36/ The right answer to “what should I feel” is not “nothing.” But it is also not whatever knee-jerk emotional response is most natural for your personality.
37/ My natural emotional response to stress, for instance, is finding the humor in the situation. But it is not always the most useful response (though it often is). For many, it is outrage or fear.
38/ In the masculinized, imagined hyper-rationality of the tech world, emotions are seen as a bug, not a feature. To be blocked, suppressed, or anesthetized into a preternatural false calm.
39/ All emotional responses are seen as weak: outrage, pity, forced hilarity, sadness, helplessness, anger, and worst of all, empathetic mirroring of someone else’s emotions, which is seen as emotional surrender.
40/ Yet the right emotional response makes all your behaviors -- consuming, producing and sharing information, picking the right "deep work", and the right social actions to participate in -- way more effective.
41/ The emotion you choose to feel is not yours alone. It will be the emotion that others will empathically mirror or reject. It will be the emotion that battles other emotions you mirror through your empathy.
42/ Emotions, unlike thoughts, are naturally contagious. An idea requires a tweet or a blog post to spread. But an emotion spreads naturally through all behavior, whether or not you intend it to.
43/ If you feel anger but don't consciously express it (with a Facebook post for instance), it will still leak out in how you interact with your Starbucks barista or through yelling at your cat.
44/ The broader collective emotional landscape you help shape will shape history itself, the historical memory retained by future generations, and even heritable temperaments and attitudes.
45/ An example of this effect is what Koreans call Han, which is something like a national emotional response, passed on across generations, continuously shaping the Korean national grand narrative.
46/ According to Wikipedia, Han is the “”feeling of unresolved resentment against injustices suffered, a sense of helplessness because of the overwhelming odds against one, a feeling of acute pain in one's guts and bowels, making the whole body writhe and squirm, and an obstinate urge to take revenge and to right the wrong—all these combined."
47/ Even a cursory exposure to Korean culture — the music, the movies, the people, the corporate culture of chaebols, the entrepreneurial style — reveals that Han is a very real thing.
48/ Euny Hong’s book The Birth of Korean Cool is a great introduction. According to Koreans themselves, Han is at the root of everything from the famous Korean hot temper to their entrepreneurial drive.
49/ Han is not cultural essentialism or stereotyping, but an example of what I like to call an epimemetic effect, by analogy to epigenetics. It is something Koreans choose to keep alive culturally.
50/ Epigenetics is the study of the heritability of traits through mechanisms other than genome modification. It is one of the most important and interesting of the emerging sciences today.
51/ Environmental stress can create epigenetic effects related to anxiety, addiction, fear conditioning, and predisposition to certain diseases. Darwin was more right, but Lamarck was not entirely wrong.
52/ By analogy, epimemetics, I propose, is the study of the heritability of cultural traits through mechanisms other than explicit cultural memory propagated through stories, art, history, etc.
53/ You don't need to know the details of Korean history -- the war leading to partition, the Japanese occupation, "comfort women", the historical conflicts with China -- to grok Han.
54/ Han is, in a sense, the specifics of history fossilized into a fuel energizing the culture itself. It retains very little of the historical specificity that gave rise to it, but is still uniquely Korean.
55/ Han is the emotional raga of Korea. In music, a raga is a construct in-between a scale and a melody. In collective psychology, Han is somewhere between a national temperament and a grand narrative.
56/ Other groups with strong identities have their own emotional ragas; energizing spirits distilled from their own most intense patterns of historical memory that forge a unique group identity.
57/ Black Americans have one based on the memory of slavery. Jews have one based on memories of the Holocaust. Punjabis in both India and Pakistan have one based on the Partition. The Chinese have one based on the trauma of Mao's Great Leap Forward.
58/ Not all historical experiences can create such identity shaping emotional ragas that give birth to a people. To be honest, I don't think I am personally part of one. My formative years were not emotionally stressful enough.
59/ There are weaker analogues, such as the bond within a generational cohort that fought a big war together, or the optimism characteristic of those who got rich off the first Internet boom.
60/ But a full-blown emotional raga is the product of intense, all-subsuming cultural stress. If you are under 30, the next few years will likely burn an emotional raga into your soul.
61/ If you have kids or build institutions, this emotional raga will get passed on to them. Epimemetics, is powerful because of its heritability. Choosing emotions today will have long-term consequences.
62/ From the outside, being part of a shared emotional raga can seem like a confining strait-jacket that only limits who or what you can be as an individual; an identity you cannot escape.
63/ But from the inside, it can be a liberating, energizing experience that actually enables life scripts and patterns of meaning-making that you would not individually have been capable of generating.
64/ But this will only be the case if you choose the right emotional response today. In reading about and observing Han, I was struck by how healthy a collective response it is, to extreme provocation.
65/ To me, the essence of Han is an English word Koreans use in a special way: fighting. You'll see characters on Korean dramas boost each other's spirits by exclaiming, "Fighting!" with a fist pump.
66/ The right collective emotional response to strong cultural stress is not something that can be planned. It has to spread as a contagion and corner the market of emotional responses, beating out weaker ones.
67/ It has to blend the right fragments of explicit narrative memory -- events and deeds worth remembering through history and art -- with the right sort of energizing individual reactions and aesthetic focus.
68/ Han has powered the rise of South Korea from third-world destitution to an economic powerhouse. But it has also perhaps turned North Korea into the basket-case it is.
69/ North versus South Korea is not the perfect A/B test of ideologies some imagine it is. The North has its bizarre Juche cult, the South just impeached President Park Geun-Hye in a drama that involved another cult.
70/ The intertwined fates of both North and South Korea, you could argue, represent the yin-yang of dark and light that is inevitable in any emotional response to broad societal stress. Two sides of the Han coin.
71/ Inevitably, any emotional raga that emerges from the tumult of today's America will have its positive and dark sides. It will create both sources of energy and long-lived demons.
72/ But that is fine. It is better to expose and deal with deep societal fault lines openly, and name our angels and demons, than to live in denial and wishful thinking.
73/ We cannot avoid creating demons in dealing with cultural stress. But the more self-aware we are, the higher the chances that we will also create newer, better angels of our collective natures -- and deep reserves of energy.
74/ So as a future alumnus of the next 4-8 years of Trumpy Times, reflect and choose your emotional response thoughtfully, and then live that emotion socially and visibly in everything you do. Don't keep it to yourself.
75/ The right words to describe the emotional raga taking shape today will only be obvious with hindsight in 2025, but for now, let us appropriate a bit of Korean Han, and use a single word to denote it, "fighting!"
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