Setting an example too good

Jeff Kaufman points to a kind of conflict: as he optimizes his life better for improving the world, his life looks less like other people’s lives, so makes a less good example showing that other people could also optimize their lives to make the world better. This seems similar to problems that come up often, regarding whether one should really do the (otherwise) best thing, if it will discourage onlookers from wanting to do the best thing.

These conflicts seem to be a combination of at least two different kinds of problems. Likely more, but I’ll talk about two.

One of them seems like it must be a general problem for people wanting others to follow them in doing a new thing. Since people are not doing the thing, it is weird. If you do the thing a little, you show onlookers that people like them can do it. When you do it a lot, they start to suspect you are just a freak. This might even put them off trying, since they probably aren’t the kind of person who could really succeed.

For instance, if you can kind of juggle, it suggests to an observer that they too could learn to kind of juggle. However if you can juggle fifty burning chairs, they begin to think that you are inherently weird. They also think that they are not cut out for the juggling world, since as far as they know they are not a freak.

This is a problem that both you and the observer would like to resolve – if it is really not very hard to become a good juggler, both of you would like the observer to know that.

The other kind of problem is less cooperative. Instead of observers thinking they can’t reach the extremes you have attained, they may just not want to. It looks weird, after all. You suspect that if they became half as weird as you, they would then want to be as weird as you, so want them to ‘take the gateway drug’. They may also suspect they would behave in this way, and don’t want to, and so would like to avoid becoming weird at all. At this point, you may be tempted to pretend that they would only ever get half as weird as you, because you know they would be happy to be half as weird, as long as it didn’t lead to extreme weirdness. So you may hide your weirdness. In which case you have another fairly general problem: that of wanting to deceive observers.

While there are many partial solutions to the second problem, it is a socially destructive zero sum game that I’m not sure should be encouraged. The first problem seems more tractable and useful to solve.

One way to lessen the first problem is to direct attention to a stream of people between amateur and very successful. If the person who can juggle very impressively tends to hang out with some friends at various intermediate juggling levels, it seems more plausible that these are just a spectrum of skills that people can move through in their adult lives, rather than a discrete cluster of freaks way above the rest. Another way to lessen this effect is to just explicitly claim or demonstrate that the extremal person was in fact relatively recently much like other people, or has endured few costs in their journey – this is the idea behind before/after images, and is also achieved by Jeff’s post. Another kind of solution is drawing attention to yourself before you become very extremal, so that observers can observe your progress, not just the result.

2 responses to “Setting an example too good

  1. You’re replying analytically to a posting that is nothing but signaling that Kaufman and wife are so single-mindedly altruistic that they are willing to sacrifice, for the sake of doing “good,” even their economic status. The result is a contrived problem, since we ape high-status folks (which is why the churches aren’t influenced by an “argument” like Kaufman’s when it iconizes saints).

  2. See
    Also, Tim Ferris’ life. Lots of people get enthusiastic about his advice, but practically no-one does what he tries to appeal to them to do.
    Churches arguably do much less good than they could partially by iconizing saints rather than (a-la Reader’s Digest) relatively normal people behaving somewhat better than is typical for such people.


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