Ethan Casey, in a speech on why we should bother trying to change the world, quotes Paul Rogat Loeb:
“Sometimes we achieve the impossible sooner than we expect. Knowing that can stiffen our resolve. But relying on quick victories can also tempt us to place too much emphasis on outcomes; it can cause us to become unduly impatient, brittle, with our will easily broken by setbacks. A deeper, more farseeing hope, by contrast, combines realism with resilience, acknowledging suffering and despair without giving in to them. By letting go of impatient hope we can persist no matter how hard it gets.”
On the face of it, it is a bit of a puzzle why the “idealists” who seem to be guided by noble motives are often very impatient. I judge people by their patience. We are more likely to be patient when we genuinely care about something. The most creative thinkers, scientists and artists do not think too much about the “certain something” that they might achieve at some point in their life. They go on for very long because they do not really doubt that they will get what they want.
We are perhaps more patient when we are confident of getting what we want. Anyone who has been around for a while knows that the passive aggressive people are very patient. They seem to be very confident of things working out in their favor, as it often happens. This is true of the creative writers, scientists and artists too, but for entirely different reasons.
We are also more patient when we are trying to create something meaningful. A great writer does not rush to publish his work. A dime-a-dozen reporter does.
This is true, even of relationships. As Robert Greene points out:
“If you’re trying to seduce a woman for instance, taking the man’s point of view that they are obviously different and the main problem that a man would have in a seductive situation is he is too impatient. The only thing he is thinking about is sex. He is not willing to spend two months courting a woman knowing that in the end the sex will be a million times better if he just calms himself down. He can go home and take care of himself on his own if he needs to. Just spend those couple months, whatever is needed to court her, to make her feel like she is an individual, like she is worth it, and you know it’s going to pay off. On the other side a lot of times a woman all she thinks about is the relationship. Is this going to? My boyfriend, you know, is he going to be committed? They’re thinking about that after one week and it frightens the man away. The woman has to calm down. The woman has to be more patient. She has to let the man trust her more and not feel like she is coming at this with this need for a relationship right away. Both sides have to learn patience, but for different reasons.”
If this is true, why are men and women so impatient? Perhaps they are not too interested in a deep relationship. The man wants sex, and the woman wants the man to channel more resources toward her. But, this does not sound “too nice”. So, they claim to be searching for “love” while being hard-nosed traders, in practice.
What if this is true of the idealists too? What if the “idealists” are impatient because they care too little about what activism might accomplish? The people who desperately want to change the world are impatient because it is hard to genuinely care about putting down atrocities. There’s only so much you can do. This seems to be the case.
The young people are the most idealistic, as Robin Hanson points out, despite idealism being not too effective when you are young because you attract allies and partners when you are young. The young men and women in their 20s, or even 30s do not have much influence over policy. If they are truly idealistic and passionate about changing the world, they would’ve been better off investing money, or acquiring skills that’d help them change the world when they’re older.
As Robin Argues:
“Humans have long lives. We are unusually dependent on our parents when young, and we then slowly gain competence over a lifetime, usually reaching peak productivity in our forties and fifties. Most of the time we are aware of this. For example, we count on our peak earning years by taking out loans as young students, and later saving for retirement. And we prefer leaders at those peak ages.
But when people get idealistic, they tend to forget this. Young idealists often ask me and others what they can do to most help the world. Which is a fine question. But such folks tend to be impatient – they want to know how to most help the world in the next few years, not over their lifetime. So when they consider joining an idealistic project, they focus more on whether the project will succeed than on what skills and contacts they would acquire.
Yet young folks shouldn’t expect to have their biggest influence when young. Yes young folks have higher variance, and so sometimes get very lucky, but they should expect to prepare and learn while young, and then have their biggest influence in their peak years. Why such a short term focus? Especially since idealism should if anything induce a far view. Yes young folks are often short-sighted, but why be more so about altruism than about school, relationships, etc.?
This seems related to the puzzle of why people don’t leverage the power of compound interest to donate to help the future needy, instead of today’s needy. Some argue that the future won’t have any needy, or that helping today’s needy automatically helps future needy, at a rate growing faster than investment rates of return. I’m pretty skeptical about both of these claims.
One plausible explanation is that a habit of extra youthful altruism evolved as a way to signal one’s attractiveness to potential associates. People tend more to form associations when young, associations that they tend more to rely on when old. And potential associates like to see altruism, because it correlates with generosity and cooperation (as near-far theory predicts). But if you save money to help the future needy, or if you invest now in skills useful in future idealistic projects, that is less clearly a signal of altruism, because you might later change your mind and use that money or those skills for other purposes.
So to signal your youthful idealism to potential associates, you must spend the money and time now, even if such spending is less effective toward the idealistic cause. But hey, at least the cause gets something.”