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The Attention Span. "Return of the King."

The more observant of you will have noticed that I work for a wealth manager.

Since I published my recent paper on the unfolding tipping point in society, I’m being asked:

What can wealthy or entrepreneurial people do to help AND benefit?


"The Return of the King."

[11 minute read]

“Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

- Howard Thurman

Source: Stable Diffusion AI. Prompt: "Taoist King in the style of Peter Jackson’s movie Lord of the Rings, Return of the King."

Mass cooperation and the sharing of ideas is partly how we’ve moved from carving stone tools to exploring the cosmos in the blink of a geological eye. But cooperating in ever greater numbers, leads to competing in ever greater numbers. China and India can coordinate immense populations of more than 1.4 billion people, but a nuclear war between them would threaten the lives of more than a third of our species. Many of our most serious current problems are essentially caused by limitations in cooperation. We are still going to war and still destroying our own environment. New global threats need a global mindset.

The fundamental problem is that it gets increasingly hard to cooperate as groups get larger.

Dunbar’s number describes an extremely famous, but quite robust, finding that humans find it cognitively demanding to maintain more than 150 social relationships. There’s a pretty simple reason for this: deeply understanding someone else is both incredibly mentally demanding and takes a lot of time. Even more significantly, to maintain trust and cooperation in a tribe, you have to understand how everyone relates to everyone else. It’s part of the reason why 60% of human conversation is gossip. Don’t believe me? Dunbar provides an exhausting illustration of a five-level theory of mind (apparently only 20% of people can go a level deeper):

“I believe that you wonder whether Jim expects that Jemima intends to ask Sally whether she’s in love with Fred.”

Phew. Feel free to take a minute to recover.


The Abstraction Trap.

If you want to get a group of strangers to cooperate well beyond 150 people, one obvious way is to create an abstraction or a label. This could be a nationality, membership of a company, or a religion. Jim, Jemima, Sally, and Fred simply become “Americans.” Ideally, we then don’t have to know them to trust them. “We’re all Americans, let’s cooperate to build a railroad.”

As I’ve written before (in what’s become my most popular piece ever), there’s an obvious dark side to turning people into categories or abstractions. It makes us easier to compete with and ultimately easier to kill. When we don’t have a theory of mind of somebody else, zero-sum games are often the result. “We’re all Chinese, let’s kill the Indians.” As William Blake put it: “the abstract without the particular allows the demonic.”

I call this “the abstraction trap.”


The Monarch Butterfly.

“The best rulers are those whom the people hardly know exist.”

- The Tao Te Ching

A common feature of tyrants is that they rally their people around a motivating fiction. This often tends to be zero sum, based on scarcity, fear, and conflict.

The positive-sum alternative is much more subtle. In mythology and many older civilizations this cohesive role would often have been occupied by a “king or queen” figure. The virtuous monarch preserves a cooperative process. This has sometimes been called the “King Archetype.” This archetype, or idealized model, currently seems almost entirely absent both from our societies and even our collective stories.

I think this has led to a fundamental misunderstanding of what the proper role of this “king or queen” archetype actually is.

This is where those looking to do meaningful good enter the picture.

Throughout our evolutionary history, humans have had an unusual propensity to put other males in charge of the larger group. The leader of a stable tribe typically isn’t a tyrannical alpha male. Instead it’s someone who can not only bring down the most mammoths, but they also share the meat with everyone else.

This stability means each of us can then become BOTH more specialized AND more integrated in the whole. Brett Andersen explains what this means:

A non-zero-sum game brings entities together (integrates them) and also causes them to specialize (differentiates them)…. The same thing happens when people come together into larger groups. They inevitably become more specialized (e.g., farmers, blacksmiths, soldiers, etc.). And so an increase in the scope of a non-zero-sum game is equally an increase in both integration and differentiation, i.e., complexity.

The larger the cooperating group, the greater the potential for you to discover a niche that’s matched to your skills. The five trades of a medieval village become hundreds of thousands of jobs in a modern economy. You can also positively impact more people.

The king archetype embodies this ideal of preserving the positive-sum game.

What’s a practical example?

In today’s economy, the king is analogous to a “patron.” In a nuts (but increasingly unsurprising) coincidence, while I was writing this, a kind reader sent me a paper by John Padgett on the House of Medici and the evolution of their patronage model. Before the rise of the Medicis, Florence was locked into an unstable cycle of zero-sum conflicts. Under the Medicis, a positive-sum partnership structure evolved that allowed individual businesses to specialize. The whole economy subsequently became more cooperative and complex in exactly the way Andersen describes. This laid the foundation of a stable dynasty that lasted for centuries. They also helped incubate giants of the Italian Renaissance, including all four of the Ninja Turtles: Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello, and Michelangelo.

Most interestingly, Padgett describes Cosimo de’ Medici as having a “Sphinxlike” demeanor, where his ultimate intentions were inscrutable. But this allowed the system to flow harmoniously without clumsy top-down control. There was no central motivating abstraction, just the preservation of the positive-sum game.

So whether by luck or judgement, the Medicis created a dynamic system, not a dogmatic tyranny.

For those of us looking to make a generational impact with our wealth, it’s notable that we’re still talking about the impact of Cosimo de’ Medici 600 years later.

Patronage systems still exist today, they’re just pretty unusual. Rohit Krishnan has written a great article on modern patronage. He notes that the Thiel Fellowship has invested around $20 million in total over ten years. Their (controversial) model is to pay promising youngsters $100,000 to drop out of college. Krishnan notes that it has been wildly financially successful in relation to that relatively modest investment. Past fellows include Vitalik Buterin (founder of Ethereum), Dylan Field (founder of Figma), and Austin Russell (founder of Luminar).

But we can’t all offer our patrons the same kind of venture capital payoff. Sometimes the output is more creative and subtle, but no less beneficial. Morgan Housel is employed by Collaborative Fund. The freedom to follow his interests within that structure has led to him becoming one of the finest writers in finance today. His book The Psychology of Money has sold over 2 million copies and I believe it has helped an untold number of people manage their finances. His relentless pursuit of his own unique niche has had massive benefits for the world at large. This is what it means to be both more specialized and more integrated.

But these inspiring examples are largely notable for how rare they are. They are also not that scalable!


Tools for the Tao

Individual “creativity” can help convert zero-sum games into positive sum games. This is a deep idea that I’m only just starting to understand.

We become more evolved and integrated by pursuing our own specific niche, following our bliss. A stable environment helps create the ideal evolutionary combination where what only you can do meets what the world needs. We also tend to become less zero-sum as we become more specialized to our own unique skills. There is only one Morgan Housel, he only competes with himself and everyone benefits from the continuous evolution of his uniqueness.

But our competitive modern economic structure means most of us don’t have the freedom, or “slack,” to follow our interests. The steep sacrifice required keeps us stuck at a local peak. My own personal obsession is the tragic loss of human potential from mid-career workers stagnating in their jobs. Midlife should be the period where we pivot our hard-earned skillsets towards individual creativity. When we turn our talents toward the benefit of the world.

A much more scalable business model than patronage are creative tools, delivered over the Internet. This is the powerful bull case for online writing or video platforms, generative Artificial Intelligence, or Decentralized Autonomous Organizations (DAOs) focused on creative output. Beyond the nonsense, Ponzis and speculative hype, this was the original promise of Web3.

The model with the most personal interest to me is a “curiosity engine.” Too many of the Web 2.0 algorithms hijack and redirect your attention for profit. But if we can construct models that facilitate and accelerate the following of our own bliss, we’ll all evolve into our niches faster. That’s the “king as a corporation.” The Internet then morphs from a weapon of mass distraction to a crucible of creation. We’re just waiting for the King or Queen that can help us build it.

“The King archetype… looks upon the world with a firm but kindly eye. It sees others in all their weakness and in all their talent and worth. It honors them and promotes them. It guides them and nurtures them toward their own fullness of being. It is not envious, because it is secure, as the King, in its own worth. It rewards and encourages creativity in us and in others.”

- Moore and Gillette, King, Warrior, Magician, Lover.


Related Reading & Listening

  • Read. The Social Context of Innovation (12 minute read).

  • Why read. A short and digestible account of Padgett’s paper on the Medici. What’s fascinating is that this stable system seems to have been emergent; it happened somewhat spontaneously.

    • These partnerships formed the basis for financial capitalism by protecting business owners from financial ruin in the case of a business failure. It also allowed companies to simultaneously become more generalist and more specialized: the overarching company could cover many markets, while the various partners could specialize in their market within the company.

    • In the 1380s, a new form of business organization emerged in Florence – the partnership system. For the first time, rather than companies being exclusively run by a single person or family, businesses emerged with multiple legal owners or partners from different families.
  • Listen. Ed Slingerland on Infinite Loops (1 hour 10 minute listen).

  • Why listen. As you can tell, Taoism has become central to my worldview. Ed Slingerland’s book “Trying Not to Try” was the first time I started to actually understand the confusing paradoxes.

    • “Trying Not To Try’ is about this concept pronounced wu-wei in Mandarin. So literally no doing or no action or no trying. It's sometimes translated as non-action, which I think is misleading because it typically refers to a state where I translate it as effortless action. So it's a state where you lose a sense of yourself as an agent, you don't notice the passing of time, you're completely self-conscious and yet you're completely successful. Everything you do, you're physically skilled in the world. And crucially for the early Chinese, you're very skillful in the social world. So you are charismatic, people trust you, everything kind of works out.

    • “The fact that there are certain goals in life that you can only attain through not trying. So things like happiness or trust or love or creativity, creative insights. The problem with our society I think is that we really focus on striving and trying and if you're not doing well, try harder. So I do think it's helpful for us to realize that in certain domains of life, the way to succeed is to stop pushing so hard and to somehow figure out how to let go. That's kind of the big take home.


Behold the return of my occasional melodic dance music recommendations. This set from Daniella Bjarnhof is one of my favorites of the year so far.


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