While The Waters Will Come is a mind-blowing and necessary read on many levels, one of the key insights for me was only tangentially related to the author’s key point. It was about the time spans humanity has experienced and the implications of shortening cycles of change.

First, some context. Jeff Goodell makes the case that climate change is a fact, and the waters will rise. It’s not a matter of if they’ll rise, but rather how much and how fast they’ll rise. To make the case, Goodell does a nice job of describing the geologic cycles that have driven sea levels throughout earth’s history. Specifically:

One hundred and twenty thousand years ago, during the last interglacial period, when the temperature of the Earth was very much like it is today, sea levels were twenty to thirty feet higher. Then, twenty thousand years ago, during the peak of the last ice age, sea levels were four hundred feet lower.

One of the mind blowing stories Goodell shares is about the Yidinji, one of the aboriginal people of northern Australia. Goodell describes how a linguist, Nicholas Reid, was fascinated by something he had read about Yidinji myths in a book: “It is, however, worth noting that a theme running through all the coastal Yidinji myths is that the coastline was once where the barrier reef now stands, but the sea then rose and the shore retreated to its current position.”

Aboriginal tribes have existed in the area for around 65,000 years, and, in fact, about 10,000 years ago, the sea levels were just about where the myths indicate. Reid teamed up with a marine geologist, Patrick Nunn, to systematically document the myths and attempt to tie them to actual geological data. Their goal was to validate the myths, which they did—an amazing accomplishment.

As Reid described to Goodell:

If you are talking about ten thousand years, you are really talking about three hundred to four hundred generations. The idea that you can transmit anything over four hundred generations is extraordinary.

Also interesting is how the Yidinji ensured the stories remained accurate:

…Reid believes a key feature of Australian Aboriginal storytelling culture—a “cross-generational cross-checking” process—could explain the stories’ endurance through the millennia. In this process, a father will pass down the story to his sons—and the son’s nephews and nieces will be responsible for ensuring that their uncle knows those stories correctly.

I found myself thinking about this a lot—a group of people telling stories for three hundred to four hundred generations. Think about it: three hundred to four hundred cycles of parent-child living their lives in largely similar environments, doing largely the same things their ancestors had done, and telling stories that remained largely the same.

I contrast this with the environment we live in today. The world I live in is so dramatically different than the one my parents lived in when they were teens in Pakistan in the 1960s and even when they were in their twenties as young immigrants to the US in the 1970s. And both of those environments were quite different than those their parents and grandparents experienced in the early 1900s and late 1800s of India.

I once read that the high rate of teen death due to automobile accidents was due to the fact that teenagers have the physical ability to drive but not the necessary judgment. The teenage brain is literally not developed enough to assess risk properly. Humanity as a whole seems to be behaving like an adolescent. Our capabilities have exceeded our ability to develop the necessary judgment and wisdom to handle those capabilities properly. We tend to think of things in one generation because that’s what any one of us experience. But what if we, in fact, need many generations to develop the wisdom and judgment necessary to handle our advancements?

While it may seem like the question is largely focused on technology change, it’s not. Consider that we live in ways that are dramatically different than we’ve lived in the past. Our social structures are relatively new. We live in much smaller family units and operate much more as individuals than we ever have in the past, certainly in the modern western world. From the perspective of the time frames above—10,000 years, 300 to 400 generations—we’ve only just started this new mode of living.

As I considered this dynamic, I recalled this chart I had seen once in passing and yet found myself thinking about a lot:


The chart has a long title but can be summarized as “Deaths of Despair by Birth Cohort,” and it’s taken from a Brooking Institution paper, “Mortality and Morbidity in the 21st Century” by Anne Case and Angus Deaton. In short, what it’s saying is that Americans are killing themselves with drugs, alcohol, and suicide at dramatically higher rates and at younger ages than they have in the past.

Andrew Sullivan reflected on this in his poignant article about the opioid crisis, “The Poison We Pick” (emphasis mine):

More than 2 million Americans are now hooked on some kind of opioid, and drug overdoses — from heroin and fentanyl in particular — claimed more American lives last year than were lost in the entire Vietnam War. Overdose deaths are higher than in the peak year of AIDS and far higher than fatalities from car crashes. The poppy, through its many offshoots, has now been responsible for a decline in life spans in America for two years in a row, a decline that isn’t happening in any other developed nation. According to the best estimates, opioids will kill another 52,000 Americans this year alone — and up to half a million in the next decade.

We look at this number and have become almost numb to it. But of all the many social indicators flashing red in contemporary America, this is surely the brightest. Most of the ways we come to terms with this wave of mass death — by casting the pharmaceutical companies as the villains, or doctors as enablers, or blaming the Obama or Trump administrations or our policies of drug prohibition or our own collapse in morality and self-control or the economic stress the country is enduring — miss a deeper American story. It is a story of pain and the search for an end to it. It is a story of how the most ancient painkiller known to humanity has emerged to numb the agonies of the world’s most highly evolved liberal democracy. Just as LSD helps explain the 1960s, cocaine the 1980s, and crack the 1990s, so opium defines this new era. I say era, because this trend will, in all probability, last a very long time. The scale and darkness of this phenomenon is a sign of a civilization in a more acute crisis than we knew, a nation overwhelmed by a warp-speed, postindustrial world, a culture yearning to give up, indifferent to life and death, enraptured by withdrawal and nothingness. America, having pioneered the modern way of life, is now in the midst of trying to escape it.

Our society has changed a lot in the past couple generations, and clearly something isn’t working.

True Dialogue

In the chapter “Reason” in her book The Case for God, Karen Armstrong describes the approach to wisdom offered by Socrates:

In our society, rational discourse is often aggressive, since participants are not usually battling with themselves but are doing their best to demonstrate the invalidity of their opponent’s viewpoint. This was the kind of debate that was going on in the Athenian assemblies, and Socrates did not like it. He told the ambitious young aristocrat Meno that if he was one of the “clever and disputatious debaters” currently in vogue, he would simply state his case and challenge Meno to refute it. But this was not appropriate in a discussion between people who “are friends, as you and I are, and want to to discuss with each other.” In true dialogue the interlocutors “must answer in a manner more gentle and more proper to discussion.” In a Socratic dialogue, therefore, the “winner” did not try to force an unwilling opponent to accept his point of view. It was a joint effort. You expressed yourself clearly as a gift to your partner, whose beautifully expressed argument would, in turn, touch you at a profound level. In the dialogues recorded by Plato, the conversation halts, digresses to another subject, and returns to the original idea in a way that prevents it from becoming dogmatic. It was essential that at each stage of the debate, Socrates and his interlocutors maintained a disciplined, openhearted accord.

I really loved this, as I do see this all too often. Discussions where each party is simply waiting their turn to speak in order to convince them of the rightness of their argument are not fun nor productive. In contrast, the discussions I’ve had where two or more people are genuinely and jointly trying to understand something have been breathtaking and memorable.

Mentorship Formula

I’ve found myself thinking about—and increasingly using—this approach from Chip and Dan Heath’s book The Power of Moments.

It’s a formula for mentorship: high standards + assurance + direction + support.

It’s summarized in the book with two sentences: I have high expectations for you, and I know you can meet them. So try this new challenge, and if you fail, I’ll help you recover.

Public Perception

This passage from Jane Mayer’s article in The New Yorker about Robert Mercer is fascinating:

Cambridge Analytica is not the only data-driven political project that the Mercers have backed. In 2013, at a conservative conference in Palm Beach, an oil tycoon named William Lee Hanley, who had commissioned some polls from Patrick Caddell, asked him to show the data to Mercer and Bannon, who were at the event. The data showed mounting anger toward wealthy élites, who many Americans believed had corrupted the government so that it served only their interests. There was a hunger for a populist Presidential candidate who would run against the major political parties and the ruling class. The data “showed that someone could just walk into this election and sweep it,” Caddell told me. When Mercer saw the numbers, he asked for the polling to be repeated. Caddell got the same results. “It was stunning,” he said. “The country was on the verge of an uprising against its leaders. I just fell over!”

Until Election Day in 2016, Mercer and Hanley—two of the richest men in America—paid Caddell to keep collecting polling data that enabled them to exploit the public’s resentment of élites such as themselves. Caddell’s original goal was to persuade his sponsors to back an independent candidate, but they never did. In 2014, Caddell and two partners went public with what they called the Candidate Smith project, which promoted data suggesting that the public wanted a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” figure—an outsider—as President. During the next year or so, Caddell’s poll numbers tilted more and more away from the establishment. Caddell’s partner Bob Perkins, an advertising executive and a former finance director of the Republican Party, told me, “By then, it was clear there wouldn’t be a third-party candidate. But we thought that a Republican who harnessed the angst had a real chance.” At one point, Caddell tested all the declared Presidential candidates, including Trump, as a possible Mr. Smith. “People didn’t think Trump had the temperament to be President,” Caddell said. “He clearly wasn’t the best Smith, but he was the only Smith. He was the only one with the resources and the name recognition.” As Bernie Sanders’s campaign showed, the populist rebellion wasn’t partisan. Caddell worried, though, that there were dark undertones in the numbers: Americans were increasingly yearning for a “strong man” to fix the country.

Caddell circulated his research to anyone who would listen, and that included people inside the Trump campaign. “Pat Caddell is like an Old Testament prophet,” Bannon said. “He’s been talking about alienation of the voters for twenty-five years, and people didn’t pay attention—but he’s a brilliant guy, and he nailed it.” The political consultant and strategist Roger Stone, who is a longtime Trump confidant, was fascinated by the research, and he forwarded a memo about it to Trump. Caddell said that he spoke with Trump about “some of the data,” but noted, “With Trump, it’s all instinct—he is not exactly a deep-dive thinker.”

Robert Mercer, too, was kept informed. Perkins said, “He just loves the numbers. Most people say, ‘Tell me what you think—don’t show me the numbers.’ But he’s, like, ‘Give me the numbers!’ ”

Agree or not, the group’s deep understanding of public perception and belief in data (“When Mercer saw the numbers, he asked for the polling to be repeated”) is incredibly impressive.