Nice Guys Finish First

David Brooks’ op-ed ’Nice Guys Finish First’ reviews a sampling of books and essays that are adding color and nuance to existing ideas around evolution and “survival of the fittest”. He highlights a trend towards acknowledging the survival advantages of cooperation, and how human beings might be wired for it.

The science of a given age tends to reflect the societal norms and structures of that age. This is true both in terms of which scientific inquiries are pursued, and the conclusions and narratives that are constructed around their results.

Darwinian theory, for example, was very much a product of its time, echoing the social theories of contemporaries such as Malthus, and the concerns of a second generation industrial middle class trying to justify its inherited opulence in the midst of staggering urban misery.

Business and economic theory have long been colored by the problematic rhetoric of “survival of the fittest” (and not incidentally, by poor understanding and application of Darwin’s actual theory).

We have lived these last past decades in the era of neo-liberal economics, which championed free, unregulated markets (while some of its staunchest advocates engaged in market rigging and cronyism) under this very banner.

The attitudes of early industrialist (who funded pseudo-science validating their treatment of labor), and to varying extents those that followed, mirror Darwin’s theory in its most reductionist articulation. Howard Rheingold sums up nicely the existing paradigm around competition and survival in business in his 2005 TED talk:

Biology is war in which only the fiercest survive. Businesses and nations succeed only by defeating, destroying and dominating competition.

There seems to be a movement in business thinking analogous to the one in evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and related fields, towards a paradigm in which cooperation can be a winning strategy.

Thinkers and doers the likes of John Seely Brown are talking about ecosystem strategy, knowledge sharing, co-creation etc… concepts which seem at odds at some level, with “survival of the fittest” as understood in the past. The emerging paradigm might be better stated as “survival of the most knowledge-networked”.

Silicon Valley seems to validate, in some regards, this school of thought. The phenomenon of tech companies investing in employees who they know will leave, and in educational institutions that don’t always yield direct returns in terms of R&D licensing, may be analogous to a broader conversation taking place in our society about investing in the infrastructure, literal and social, that allows us to thrive collectively.

Mercenary culture, such as we’ve seen play out on Wall Street and elsewhere in American life, corrodes the shared fiber (if you’ll excuse the pun) that allows for knowledge to flow and work to get done and maximum collective value to be realized.

This is all background to my main point here, which is that it’s really cool to see the co-evolution of societal norms and science, in a pretty clear way, in our time.


He’s kind of crude at times, but his umbrage with the suburban paradigm is appropriate, I think. I wrote a couple years back on Brazen Careerist that the suburbs were an “abomination”, which came across as a little harsh. Charles Harohn, puts it more diplomatically in his piece “The American Suburbs are a Giant Ponzi Scheme”, writing:

We need to end our investments in the suburban pattern of development, along with the multitude of direct and indirect subsidies that make it all possible. Further, we need to intentionally return to our traditional pattern of development, one based on creating neighborhoods of value, scaled to actual people. When we do this, we will inevitably rediscover our traditional values of prudence and thrift as well as the value of community and place.

The Great Recession's lost generation - May. 17, 2011

It seems like this article and many commenters are missing the point. We shouldn’t be thinking of academic fields or majors as direct corollaries to jobs or professions (with few exceptions). Rather, an academic course of study should engender useful skills, models, modes of thought (broadly construed) which allow an individual to engage with and navigate the zeitgeist in a way that produces value.

The Theater major’s study of Stanislavski’s System may make them a great actor, but could also make them an effective Interface Designer with deep UX insights (because it encourages them to ask the right questions about user motivation, objectives etc…). The Computer Science major’s mastery of a software development concepts may lead them to a career anonymously (or famously) hacking code, or they might make a career of translating the paradigm of the ‘platform’ into systems and practices for building political movements or enabling institutional transparency.

When I was in High School, Dan Pink told me (and a crowd of my peers) that the jobs we would work as adults, likely hadn’t been invented yet. It was a terrifying thought at the time because, how do you prepare for a job that hasn’t been invented yet? Looking back, that claim articulated immense opportunity even as it acknowledged the perils of our age. The peril lies in the fact that it’s not only hard to find a job because of a down economy, but because many categories of productive endeavor are being transformed by the disruptive forces of technology, globalization, changing cultural/generational paradigms etc… 

The opportunity lies in realizing that we live in an age of bricolage - the boundaries between disciplines are of necessity falling down, and the skills and subject matters that constituted the old jobs and professions are being reconstituted in new and remarkable ways. Those who are able to separate the impact they want to make on the world and the sorts of endeavors that bring them personal and professional satisfaction (what sort of work tasks, work settings, customers/constituents/colleagues, subject matter, recognition, compensation), from the jobs and professions (and even academic fields) of yesteryear, will win big.

Just two cents from a recent college grad living and working at the intersections.


I often joke that my parents conspired to leave me and my siblings with delusions of grandeur. They gave us grand names and made clear the expectation that we would live up to them. They also had us vocalize lofty affirmations.

Every night for the first twelve or so years of my life, my mother would recite prayers (surahs from the Quran) and affirmations with me. I found the practice tiresome at the time, but I complied, repeating sheepishly after my mother:

I am Askia Tariq I am, I am one who commands his rightful place and brings for light out of darkness. I am loving and I am loved I am. I am giving I am, I am helpful I am, I am kind I am. I am respectful and I am respected I am. I am intelligent I am, I am courageous I am, I am able I am, I am powerful I am.

It was these affirmations, I think, that left me with a sense, even in the darker, more uncertain moments of my childhood, that I was meant for some great purpose; that I was to leave the world emphatically more just than I’d found it, and more colorful as well.

On my lowest, most desperate days, and on some more ordinary ones as well, I’ve found myself, eyes closed, head bowed, whispering these affirmations. Perhaps you’ve been there as well? Lying in bed at 7am, alarm blaring in the background, trying to collect yourself, trying to mount the courage to face the day, trying to access a certainty now elusive.

It’s increasingly difficult to get back to that place of renewal my mother used to guide me to. I feel like I’ve been party to so much staleness and mediocrity, my own and others’. I struggle these days to be lifted by good words spoken softly into myself.

On changing the world and not

Dear technology startup: It sends a chill down my spine when you say you’ll change the world. Hitler changed the world. The Koch brothers are having a “scalable impact”. I need you to be more specific. What is the magnitude of the change? Is it tectonic or incremental? What are its moral dimensions? Will the world be more or less just as a result? Build cool stuff, by all means, but don’t delude yourself. Lies of effusion are some of the most insidious.

Frank Chimero puts it brilliantly:

Revolutionary, disruptive, magical, wizards, and on and on—contemporary digital culture has co-opted the language of revolution and magic without the muscle, ethics, conviction, or imagination of either. And it’s not that those things aren’t possible, we just aren’t living up to their meaning and instead saturating ourselves with hyperbole. These are words you have to earn, and slinging them around strips the words of their powerful meaning. Can you take a real revolution seriously if you are bombarded with messaging that says your phone is revolutionary?

When will the public cease to insult the teacher’s calling with empty flattery? When will men who would never for a moment encourage their own sons to enter the work of the public schools cease to tell us that education is the greatest and noblest of all human callings?
—  William C. Bagley