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Psychologist Gena Gorlin argues that internalizing the universe's tendency toward death and disorder can help us appreciate what we have and compel us to build a better future.

Gena Gorlin: The Human Progress Podcast Ep. 29 Transcript

By Chelsea Follett @Chellivia

By Gena Gorlin @Gena_I_Gorlin

The full conversation between Chelsea Follett and Gena Gorlin can be found here. The transcript is below.

Chelsea Follett: Today, joining me is Gena Gorlin, who studies and promotes morally ambitious self-creation. She’s an assistant professor of Clinical Psychology in the Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology at Yeshiva University, and a licensed psychologist practicing in New York City and online. She also provides psychological coaching to start-up founders and other ambitious people. And she writes a Substack newsletter called “Building the Builders.” But today we’re going to be mainly discussing a really fascinating piece that she wrote for Progress Forum titled, “Death Is the Default: Why Building Is Our Safest Way Forward.” Gena, how are you?

Gena Gorlin: I am well, thank you. And thanks for having me.

Chelsea Follett: Thank you for joining me. So let’s dive right into the piece. What is it about? And what made you decide to write it?

Gena Gorlin: Sure. So when I say, “Death is the default,” I of course… I’m not just talking about literal death, you know, mortality. I’m talking about the status quo. I’m talking about… Including the status quo where we die, where everything moves toward entropy and chaos, right? Where the universe is left to its own devices tends toward meaningless equilibrium and homeostasis and the path of least resistance, right? And what moved me to write it really has been this constant theme that comes up a lot of my work with founders, with people I coach, who are trying to do hard things. But also just sort of in our current world, this kind of theme of being really afraid to take risks, being afraid to try something new, right? There’s a general aversion to the idea of building more nuclear power plants, right? Of trying things in new ways, say, in the mental health field where I have lived and breathed, where teletherapy were just like seeing patients across state lines is like this big deal, and there have been all of these artificial hurdles in our way because God forbid something unanticipated goes wrong where you’re not in the same state.

Gena Gorlin: Forgetting that the default is no mental health treatment, right? The default is an unfriendly chaotic climate where we wouldn’t survive for long, if it weren’t for all of the inventions, including ones that run on a lot of fossil fuels, and therefore have their own kind of residual costs. But then I think we need to manage with new technologies, right? But if we don’t do anything, we die. [chuckle] If we don’t do anything, we either freeze to death or starve to death, or have really high rates of infant mortality. And so it’s just come up in so many different contexts, both individually kind of one-on-one, just like people being really afraid to kinda take the leap and try something new, leave a relationship that is not working, leave the comfort of their nine-to-five job and launch a start-up whatever it may be. And serve the world at large. I’m kind [chuckle] of just observing some of the same trends globally.

Chelsea Follett: So, “The Enlightenment,” you write, “has numbed us to entropy.” What do you mean by that?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah. So, I mean, I’ve thought about this a lot. So I’m an immigrant. And it’s sort of extra fraught, because I happen to be from Ukraine, which is…

Chelsea Follett: Oh my goodness.

Gena Gorlin: A kind of… Yeah, it’s odd, as you can imagine. And of course, you know, and painful and sad. But in the same ways, it is for a lot of people. I don’t have family left there, but it’s odd for my home country to suddenly be on everyone’s minds. But in any case, I was seven when we moved, and it was a developing country. It was a few years post-Soviet, but it was a different world. And I have this really vivid memory, a bunch of vivid memories, just all kind of back to back to back of just the complete shock and awe of coming into the Western world.

Gena Gorlin: I just remember, my first… What do you call them? Automatic doors. And it was just a completely weird magic. Like my dad, who knew that at this airport, is just… I think it was even… It was like the American Embassy. We were on our way here, and he said, “Okay, just put your hands down and just walk.” I was, “What? You just want me to walk into a door? Are you just completely… Everyone’s just lost their marbles?” And I started walking over, and it just opened before me. And then remembering like walking off the plane at JFK and then seeing a giant swirly lollipop, and then seeing… And then my first supermarket was just a complete mind-boggling experience. And just all of these ways that…

Gena Gorlin: Now, now I complain because they’re out of my favorite flavor of yogurt. Even I, I’m not gonna lie, it’s just so easy to just get complacent and just sort of assume this is the default, assume this is the status quo. Like, “This stuff has always been there. What? How dare they not provide me with my honey yogurt, Greek Gods, favorite kind of brand and flavor that I like to put in my oatmeal. Like it’s my God-given right, [laughter] the yogurt I want, when I want.” And it’s just… I know it’s crazy because I have seen the difference. And so for people who’ve just never experienced a different kind of life, a different kind of world, I think it’s just so easy to assume this stuff just has always been here, right? And I think the Enlightenment is responsible for a lion’s share of those changes with modern medicine and with the Industrial Revolution, with… Being able to fly to our destinations, being able to, you know? I mean, and never mind the whole technological revolution that followed, and everybody being on a micro-computer 24 hours a day.

Gena Gorlin: So, yeah. So I think it’s numbed us to the fact that none of this is guaranteed, right? They could all go away. It all requires human agency and choice to maintain and build upon.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely, that’s a great point. Putting first world problems into perspective there. What is, though, the concept of entropy? How would you define it and why is the concept of entropy, you write, the first keystone in understanding the human condition?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah, yeah, so I have to credit Steven for this point. I’m sort of referencing Enlightenment Now, so, literally, this is his take on the Enlightenment and on the Enlightenment values that we can in his view can need to re-embrace and need to understand, and he really explains this point well, and it was a big eye-opener for me that we have the second law thermodynamics, which in my lay, understanding it basically it describes the fact that left to their own, devices without some kind of external energy transfer into a system, the system tends to move toward disorganization of chaos randomness. Things just kinda get evenly distributed throughout the air atmosphere, and there’s no real… Any really coherent, organized state of affairs is extremely improbable in the state of nature basically, right. So entropy is just chaos. It’s just of disorder, it’s randomness. And his point is, like, that’s the state of the world by default, that is just how things are unless we act upon them in order to make different, in order to make them go differently.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. So that relates to this next question. When you wrote, “We build or we die,” could you talk a bit about that, and the “power of agency” and what you mean by that?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah, yeah, so I think what I really want to capture and what’s been a big insight for me over the years, and I think just been coming to understand it kind of more and more recently is that a lot of the things that we attribute to human malice or folly, they’re just in confidence and they’re just… Because the building the thing is really hard. Any of the problems that we face that we inflation, poverty, racism, even it’s sort of, I think, harder to think about with something like a war because then there is real human evil and there’s real intent, but then if you think. But what are the kind of systems and incentives that have been put in place in order to why are there more wars in certain centuries than other centuries, and what did people set up politically, socially, culturally, in order to either make it easier or harder to beat each other up and to dominate each other by force versus engage in voluntary exchange, so even there’s a bunch of choices involved When we think about like, why has the American experiment, despite all of the flack and all the criticism against it, and all the real flaws, and probably why has it been so massively successful compared to every prior political experiment?

Gena Gorlin: It’s an igneous document, the Constitution. And not just the constitution, but the whole idea of the checks and balances that were set up to, in large part, to control people’s irrational tendencies and to sort of make it really hard for a tyrant for any one. Evil mean dictatorial, irrational, crazy person, to kind of change things up too quickly in a chaotic direction or to do too much harm all in one fell swoop because there are all of these different checks in place and all of that had to be built.

Gena Gorlin: And it’s imperfect, it needs a lot of work, it needs improvement, if we want it to be even more resilient that if we want it to be even fairer to every human regardless of skin color origin etcetera. But it’s already a massive achievement and we can lose it, and so the building, but it’s like the default is not… Well, now that we have it, we can just kind of coast and rest on the laurels of the founders. We know that’s not true, because here we are watching our freedoms get eroded in various areas of our lives because we’re not continuing the kind of vigilant intellectual work of thinking about what we need to build and how we need to update our institutions and sort of what are the principles we need to carry forward and what does it look like.

Gena Gorlin: Which is implementation-wise. So that’s what I mean, we have to keep building, we have to keep… Things are always changing and we’ve got to build for the environment that we find ourselves in, and for the changes that Covid being obviously a bigger example, we build, we develop vaccines, we develop distribution systems that actually get the necessary the masks and protective equipment, and hospital beds, etcetera, etcetera to the people who need them or we die, that’s a kind of very straightforward case.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. Now might be a good time to zoom out and talk about building. You keep coming back to this word of “building,” your Substack is called “Building The Builders,” this piece we are discussing is “build or die.” What do you mean by build and who is a builder in your mind?

Gena Gorlin: No, thank you for asking ’cause I’ve gotten so… It’s gotten so native to me that I forget to define it. But what I mean by “building” is applying our intelligence to the deliberate purposeful creation of value that sustains or improves human life. And that could be so many different things that could be anything from writing a poem that brings joy and that somebody wants to read and that brings you join and that helps you to then find energy for your next endeavour. That could be doing a really good day’s work at the grocery store where you’re offering really excellent customer service and you’re providing a needed, you are providing needed goods and a needed transactional role, but also you’re brightening people’s days because you’re doing it with a smile. So there’s so many different senses of build, not just the obvious ones, where like, You have a start-up or you’re literally building a architecture or. Except the last bit anyway, yeah.

Chelsea Follett: And related to that, could you give some examples of the act… Specific examples of the act of building or of builders? Looking through your Substack, I see some specific names like Frederick Douglass, but as you were just saying with that grocery store example, it doesn’t have to be world-changing, heroic change that someone is enacting in order to be a builder. Incremental progress can also be a part of that. So what are some examples of builders? Who is a builder?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll try to give a deliberately broad range because it’s so all-encompassing, it’s really… It’s the way that humans live and thrive in the world…

Chelsea Follett: So all people are builders.

Gena Gorlin: All people are builders, or at least certainly have the potential to be builders, and to the extent that they’re doing something valuable in a way where they’re awake to what they’re doing, then they’re building. So a student who’s writing a term paper and researching and putting together citations for different sources, they’re like, they’re building some knowledge, even if it’s for themselves, so that then they can kind of build on that knowledge in order for them and be able to make really good judgment calls, working as a consultant somewhere or be a teacher or whatever they might end up being. But all of the incremental steps involved building, or when you build the schedule for yourself, like when you are figuring out, “Okay, so if I sleep in until 9:30, then I don’t actually end up having enough time to get to work or I end up having to rush and I really want 10 minutes of just being able to to meditate or just being able to venture out, or have a tea, so okay, let me think.”

Gena Gorlin: “Do I need to set my alarm 10 minutes earlier for that, but that’s gonna be really hard, maybe I put it on the other side of the room.” Like you’re building something, you’re building a better routine for yourself. All of that is building. And on the larger scale, when you build a company, when you build a culture within an organization, when you build in a relationship or build a scalable approach to relationships or everything in between.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. Why do you say that becoming the kind of person who can and does regularly engage in building, why do you say that is a “profound achievement” given that building is something we’re doing all the time, it’s very widespread?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah. That’s a really good question. So even thinking about the really mundane and examples I just gave, like thinking through your routine and making deliberate changes so that you can achieve your goals better, like how much of the time are we actually doing that? Like even just each of us thinking about our own lives, how many times when we are aware that there’s like, “Oh, there’s a little bit of an imperfection,” and you’re like, “my day could go better if only I would get up with it earlier,” how often do we actually then think that through? And like do something about it? That’s hard.

Gena Gorlin: It means like pushing against our own inertia, it means resisting entropy, resisting the art to just sleep another 10 minutes time, and it’s because it feels really good in the moment, or and just having to then explain to people that you’re gonna be doing things differently in them, and then they’re gonna be annoyed, and then what if they don’t like what you’re doing? And then that will create social friction, and it’s really hard, and that’s just on this really kind of local example of adding 10 minutes to your morning routine, and then the way that that adds up to how do we approach our jobs. How do we approach our relationships, how often do we actually make a really intentional effort, full project of changing how we communicate with somebody, of changing or of really like instead of just going through the motions of whatever work we’ve been assigned, let’s say we’re the grocery store clerk, just being in total autopilot mode, like, Okay, yes, I’m in the scanner.

Gena Gorlin: How often do you actually really consider like, how do I want this day to go and what energy do I want to be emitting to the people, and then I’m like, “I’m choosing this job, this job is actually is bringing value to my life and it’s part of a trajectory.” I think the really hard and necessary thing is that we’re building our lives and that’s we have to have that perspective to then be thinking about how we wanna set up this routine or how we wanna be at work, or… It’s sort of like we have to have a perspective on. I’m in charge of how my life goes, and that’s really hard, and I think takes a lot of virtue and courage and discipline and all those things.

Chelsea Follett: And perhaps optimism as well, which leads to this next question.

Gena Gorlin: Yeah.

[overlapping conversation]

Chelsea Follett: You write that, “counter-intuitively, internalizing the perspective that death is the default, leads to a more fundamentally optimistic and forgiving outlook on ourselves and our fellow human beings and the world.” Why is that?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah. It’s such a paradoxical, but I think deep truth about this kind of realization that it’s actually up to us, right? Like what it means that death is the default? A, it means it’s not necessarily like we don’t have to beat ourselves up because the relationship went south or the company didn’t work, that’s the default, that’s just that would have happened without our efforts, that’s just what happens by default, that’s just the universe doing its thing, that’s A. So a lot of what I think we’ve spent time and energy beating ourselves up about, we can just accept as, “Oh, that’s just reality, that’s just the baseline.” And B, it’s actually up to me, I think there’s something extremely empowering, I think, and realizing I have the agency, I am the force in the universe that can disrupt entropy. I have that unique power vested in me for as long as I am conscious and alive and mobile or even just as long as I have my mind, even if I’m down to one pinky.

Gena Gorlin: I can still figure out a way to communicate. I can still make something happen. I can still change the course of events. Like that’s the power, that’s what it means to be human. And I can take credit for that, right? Like, and I should, and I need to, I need to celebrate those victories because they’re actually, they’re not the default. They’re up to me. I need to celebrate the achievement of a really good day at work or like a change in my routine for the better, like that’s… I’m building my life. I’m taking ownership with every little choice that I make. So that’s pretty cool. I think. [chuckle]

Chelsea Follett: It is. You also write that, what we often take for granted is just how much human ingenuity, iterative experimentation, and messy trial and error has gone into generating whatever solutions we now take as given. Could you elaborate on that?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah. There was a lovely tweet by, I think one of the Collison brothers a little while ago about sort of this adult realization that everything that you just sort of take for granted around you, like someone had to come up with and build and perfect over time. And that’s really at the heart of kind of this point I’m getting in, you know? My comment on that was like, so Montessori who has an education philosophy that I think aligns really nicely with a lot of what I’m getting at here. She’s got this approach to really instilling appreciation and gratitude and awe in young children for the incredible achievements of humankind. Which is like, even just like this beautiful brown spoon or the silverware and the place mat and the arrangement of the furniture, like all of it was so thoughtfully crafted and all of it is… It’s tailored to your literal size and to your needs.

Gena Gorlin: And then sort of telling a story of like, who had invent… Like first humans had to even learn how to extract raw materials right? From years, and they had to realize that that material has certain properties and they had to understand how to put things together that previously… I have no idea. The fact is if I ask myself, like, how would I build this chair? Like I act, there’s a lot of missing steps that I would have to go look up or ask somebody, right? Or like, how would I prepare this meal for that matter. I mean, I’m not much of a chef at all, and I marvel at the, just the way that people can just recombine ingredients to make something delicious and healthy and new. But just everything around us when you actually pause and you ponder like what series of discoveries and inventions and iterations and trial and error went into making this, right? Like for all, even the things that seem so trivial to us now, but like rest on the shoulders of many human giants, like figuring things out from scratch.

Chelsea Follett: So this mindset can clearly help people make progress. But you also write that one of the hardest parts can be figuring out the nature of the problem you’re trying to address before you can actually tackle it. Could you talk a little bit more about that in terms of human progress?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah. I mean, there are problems that I don’t even think we currently understand very well, where I think that that is… So the going challenge, that is the problem to solve. And it might be the hardest of all the problems. Once we get that right, the rest, it will never be easy. It’ll never be the default, right? But for, so just to take an example, I’m a psychologist and I have been trained in the treatment of mental health disorders and providing various kinds of therapy now also coaching. But here’s the thing, within my field, there’s no actual agreement on what we’re trying to accomplish when we do therapy. There’s a whole bunch of different views on like, we are trying to reduce symptoms. We’re trying to reduce suffering. No, that’s not the point. The point is we’re trying to improve quality of life. We’re trying to improve people’s wellbeing. No, I mean, sure that’s nice by itself, but someone needs to actually be grounded in reality. So we need to be helping them to, especially like if someone is psychotic, they may tell us that their quality of life is amazing, but meanwhile, they’re going out in the street and they might actually get themselves killed. So are we gonna take their word for it? Right?

Gena Gorlin: So like, what are we trying to improve? What are we trying to achieve to effect? We don’t agree with each other on that. Like there’s tons of disagreement and controversy within the field on like what are the important outcomes which even affects what do we measure? Like how do we know if we’re successful at a given therapeutic intervention? And we often don’t agree with our patients and patients don’t agree within themselves or with each other. Like, what’s really important to me? Is it important to me, is longevity the thing I wanna optimize on, or do I wanna life filled with exhilaration and stimulation in which case, like maybe I’m willing to risk a few extra years of life for the sake of getting to go on this incredible thrill ride or getting to mount climb, be the first free solo climber to scale whatever that mountain was, like the guy that they made the documentary about that I sort of can’t help but sympathize with, but also it seems insane. Right? So that’s a really familiar to me example where we don’t understand the problem, right? Like what are we trying to solve for? What does it mean to live well? What does it mean to have wellbeing? And like, that’s a question for which there’s tons of philosophical work that is still ongoing, but that started millennia ago, and it’s sort of still not a settle question.

Gena Gorlin: It’s really hard to answer and people argue about it, and it’s not just like a… Could flip a coin, pick a side it’s arbitrary willy-nilly, there are real reasons why you might think it’s important to have a life where there aren’t major contradictions and things are kind of flowing in a consistent direction versus suffering and pain suck. And we’ve got the utilitarian approach of we wanna kind of the greatest good for the greatest number, but then how do you measure that? And does everyone’s good matter equally? Does Putin’s good matter as much as, I don’t know… I don’t know who else’s good, [chuckle] whatever, I may have feelings. But the point is, we haven’t figured out the problem. And I think that there are lots of areas, like education is notoriously like that. Like what is education actually trying to accomplish? And then to answer that we already need a lot of iteration and sort of experience, but in so doing we don’t know toward what we’re iterating and so we have to take into account that we’re gonna have to keep moving the goal posts as we understand that that wasn’t the right goal. So it’s hard to define the problem, especially in the human realm. [chuckle]

Chelsea Follett: Yeah. So we don’t always understand the problems we’re up against. We do know that the default is entropy and we’re up against that. But you also say that entropy is not evil, even though it’s something we’re fighting against. What do you mean by that?

Gena Gorlin: I mean, like is a thunderstorm evil? No, it just is, right? And I could say the same for any sort of random weather event. Is it evil that sometimes… Or avalanches, or is COVID evil? I mean, if we come up with a conspiracy theory where it was carefully designed in order to cause maximum havoc, and there’s a temptation to do that, and I don’t know the answers to where… I definitely have zero expertise on whatever’s now known about whatever the origins of COVID, but the point is, we want an explanation that imbues intentionality on these things. But the fact is that diseases exist. That little microbes are gonna try to replicate themselves. Like nobody… I don’t think that ultimately I’m mad at COVID. I could be, but I don’t think it would be rational because I don’t think that it’s got malicious intent. It’s just doing the thing that little, however many cellular organisms do to reproduce themselves or just by the nature of what they are, and they’re not agential. [chuckle] Right? Like entropy is what happens in the absence of agency and the absence of will, whereas evil implies a will, right? Implies ill intent, which, in many cases, is actually just not the explanation for stuff going wrong.

Chelsea Follett: Agreed. You speak of the uniquely human aspect to overcoming nature’s defaults, writing dysfunction, ineptitude, hunger, and death are not a personal affront or a divine punishment for wrongdoing, they’re defaults. Operational excellence, competence, abundance, and flourishing are always and everywhere achievements, the distinctly human mode of overriding nature’s defaults. This is a really interesting view of humanity. Can you talk a little bit more about what you meant by that?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah. At the heart of this article and a lot of the work I’m doing is I want to share my reverence for human greatness and for humans at our best. And I think that it’s such a key insight, a kind of key awareness, like a felt awareness, a felt understanding, and it’s a feeling, there’s a kind of deep appreciation and really an awe, an admiration in realizing like, “Wow! Someone had to figure all of this out.” Right? All of it had to be built. The fact that at my job, I have this 9-5 schedule where there are all these different steps that I go through and I put things into an Excel… Like someone had to come up with Excel, that wasn’t always there. Someone had to figure out, someone had to figure out how to talk to computers and then figure out how to… Like, and if you think about all the little ways it’s customized to sort of the human mind and to the… It’s like, okay, it’s actually, it’s intuitive for me to figure out where to find an old file that like, that wasn’t always there.

Gena Gorlin: Windows weren’t always there. DOS, remember DOS? Like some of us are old enough, like where we would like type some sort of command and there was just nothing to tell us how to find anything? Like just to be able to appreciate all of this was work and ingenuity and creativity, and like people went wrong a bunch of times before figuring it out and they’re still gonna keep improving upon it and we can contribute to that. And what it looks like to contribute to that is A, to like appreciate and try to really understand what’s already been built. And to really, I think a big part of this is like studying history, which I don’t think we do by default, especially kind of with our current educational system and priorities. But I think it’s so important to actually learn about how these things came to be and what were all the human struggles and the heroic battles against both nature and irrational human elements to kind of get to this point. And that’s why I cite people like Frederick Douglas, like Kati Kariko, who just thankless slaved away, not literally, having just referenced Frederick Douglas.

Gena Gorlin: But labored with a very kind of low paying low status academic job where she was always dependent on another principal investigator in someone else’s lab and other people just would’ve quit. They just would’ve given up. They would’ve felt so unappreciated by which, and she was, but she just kept at it because she had, she’s like, “I’m onto something here. This RNA thing, this could be huge and I’m just gonna keep chipping away at it. And I’m gonna just do one experiment after, another because like, oh, I think we could get like, could you imagine? We can make your body think this is the actual virus, how cool and important would that, like, let’s just keep working at it.” And then she delivered us from what could have been a much worse if we could imagine, a much more enduring and even deadlier pandemic by developing this technology. Like to be able to appreciate the story behind that shot that we all went to get.

Chelsea Follett: That’s a great point, that we’re not only going up against entropy, but also human irrationality and our own biases. And you speak about the status quo bias in the piece. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Gena Gorlin: Sure. Yeah. So whether it’s… We could separately debate whether this feature of human thinking is innate, whether it’s learned, whether it differs culture by culture, but the fact is just sort of observationally, most people tend to prefer to keep things as they are versus changing things, all else being equal. Right? So like when you ask somebody, “Okay, so imagine that you had the option to stay in your current house or trade in your current house for this like awesomer house where if you… ” And you give them access to all the information they need in order to realize this would be a huge savings for me, this would give me access to more of the stuff that I want. This would actually massively improve my life in the long run, but I would have to move, they will choose staying in their current house. And they’re just lots and lots of experiments like this that have been done, that whether they’re sort of hypothetical thought experiments where people are actually given certain options where they just like, they think that the current thing is safer, they think the current thing is easier. They don’t… And there’s part of what they’re indexing on is the initial resistance, they have to put up against inertia, right? Because it is, because change does require pushing against entropy and that’s work. Right? And that can feel like a huge hurdle, but what we’re not modeling is the subsequent future where actually things are way better for us on the other side.

Chelsea Follett: You also write about how innovating, change and so forth, can be socially risky, and yet it’s still safer to build than not. What do you mean by that?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah. I mean, so the fact is most people have a status quo bias. Most people will tend to prefer what they know and what’s familiar and the way things are, have already being done to trying something new. And so you live in a world of people, so yeah, if you say, “You know what? I think we should change up how we do our HR, people management or how we do this reporting. I think we should get rid of this weekly standup, and we should try doing slack updates, et cetera.” You know, whatever it is, big or small. People are gonna resist. People are gonna… And you don’t know in advance who’s gonna be prickly, and who’s gonna take it personally and who’s gonna think that you’re just completely, you’re rocking the boat in ways that just feel completely kind of unacceptable. Like we’ve always done it this way for a reason, and maybe they’re really wedded to it, or maybe there’s like other ulterior motive. You just, you never know, but you know you’re gonna face some sort of resistance. And even if nobody has particular objections, like the default is still that they’re just not gonna do it because change is hard. [chuckle] Right?

Gena Gorlin: It takes agential energy. And so you’re gonna have to wrangle people. You’re gonna have to sort of own it and nobody’s gonna own it by default. And I’ve seen this and struggled with it myself so many times where like, we all have this great meeting where we all decide together we’re gonna do this great new project or we’re gonna have this great initiative where now every time one of us has a really great conversation with a client, we’re gonna write up a little blurb about it, we’re gonna send it out to each other. Awesome. Let’s do it. We’re gonna make this. And then like a month goes by, a few months ago by and nobody’s doing it and you’re thinking, “But guys, we all agreed that this is a good idea.” “Oh yeah. That was a great idea. Oh well, but you know, something came up and I didn’t really think of it at the time because there was all these… ” It’s just, it’s not the default. Right? So living in a world of people means wrangling, right? It’s like, if you want to make a change, probably the change won’t just involve you, and so you’re gonna also be taking on the social work, the social cost, the kind of, the human personnel management involved in wrangling change [chuckle] and dealing with whatever friction arises, dealing with whatever social fallout there might be.

Chelsea Follett: Absolutely. You say the whole notion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs as it’s commonly understood and invoked today, suggests that we cannot afford the luxury, which you put in quotes, of exercising our creative and intellectual powers when our basic needs are threatened, And going against convention and taking those social risks can also threaten those needs. But you say, “As if exercising these powers weren’t precisely what has allowed us to face down such threats throughout human history.” That’s a really powerful point. Could you expand on that?

Gena Gorlin: Yeah. Yeah. This became very real to me with COVID when people’s basic needs or again, of course, in a context where we all have Zoom and we all have Facebook and we all still have comfy air conditioned apartments, but people lost their jobs. People didn’t know how they were gonna pay rent. People didn’t know where their next paycheck was gonna come from. People were really afraid of getting sick or got sick or had family members who were seriously in danger. And a lot of the default assumptions about how do I sort of make a living, especially people who are performing artists for whom I just have felt such tremendous sympathy. And just as someone who kind of depends on the spiritual nourishment of Broadway and jazz and swing dancing and just all the kind of artistic output that exists around me, it hurt. And it hurt on behalf of all the musicians I knew who… They didn’t know if they were ever gonna have work again and…

Gena Gorlin: And so it’s… So there was this feeling and there was this picture going, there was a meme going around of like Maslow’s Hierarchy and at the bottom was toilet paper and Wi-Fi [chuckle] something like that, and the joke was, “Guys, let’s not get too highfalutin right now about what’s the meaning of life? Or our self… ” We just need to survive, we just need to get through this horrible crisis, and my thing was, now more than ever, you need to think about the meaning of life. Now more than ever, you need to be rallying those internal resources like, “Who do I wanna be? Do I wanna be the person who kinda just sits this out and just kinda lets my skills go to waste and just ends up begging for scraps and isn’t able to fend for herself, or do I wanna be someone who rises to the occasion?”

Gena Gorlin: “And what are the risks I’m willing to take? What is my personal risk profile? Would I rather go and be a food delivery person and at least be offering this bit of comfort and solace to people who right now can’t go out of their homes and make at least some cash that I can then put toward continuing my voice lessons or continuing with my craft, whatever that may be, or do I just wanna be miserable and lose hope? When is it more important than that?” And the ways that people innovate, they figured out ways to have virtual concerts, and now a lot of those formats will exist and we will have access to so much more art in so many different forms because of COVID and the ways that forced people to innovate and be creative. So that’s what I mean, in a crisis more than ever, we need to leverage those highest creative intellectual powers, which is how we survive.

Chelsea Follett: What lessons do you think we can take from the pandemic regarding resilience, human resilience?

Gena Gorlin: There were interesting findings regarding mental health trends during the pandemic, such that… So you would expect, for example, health anxiety, OCD, the kinds of pathological tendencies toward exaggerated perceptions of threat, exaggerated worry would skyrocket, but they didn’t, it was actually really interesting to see that people who sort of routinely worry about these things and routinely kind of that are over-estimating the threat of disease, plague, whatever, actually if anything, they had more measured ways of coping with the pandemic, and if anything, they were sort of able to… I think in some ways, it kind of normalized for them like, “Aha, now everyone’s worried about what I’ve been worried about.” And I think in some ways, it actually sort of took some of that pressure off, and they were able to cope, they were resilient a lot, I mean they, obviously I don’t want to paint with a broad brush stroke, plenty of people struggled and continue to struggle and many through absolutely no fault of their own.

Gena Gorlin: It’s a really hard time that we’ve all been through, but it’s also brought out incredible heights of resilience, of heroism and creativity, innovation in people including people who didn’t think of themselves that way before the pandemic, and I think rose to the occasion. I think it was actually a kind of impetus for people who now they didn’t have to imagine a catastrophe, it’s true like, there’s a real catastrophe happening and like, “Oh, this is a real catastrophe and I’m not helpless. There’s actually a lot that I can do and I can probably educate people about how to mind their hygiene, ’cause I’ve been doing it all along, and now people are actually interested in what I have to offer, and maybe I can actually write some useful tweets or blog posts about this and be there for people who are struggling.” So I think it was the opposite of… Yeah, I think it was an invitation to agency for a lot of people.

Chelsea Follett: We’ve touched on this already a bit, but you also write, “We need to shed our complacent post-enlightenment assumption that human health, happiness, freedom, employment, education and flourishing are automatic to be expected defaults and recognize them instead for the hard won human achievements that they are.” That’s another really compelling sentence in your work. Would you expand upon it?

Gena Gorlin: Thank you. Yeah, I think I see a lot of this, and sometimes I succumb to it, this sort of begrudging the moaning of all of the inequities and all of the violence and all of them… Our culture right now is rife with sort of like whatever side of the political isle you are on, you’ve got grievances, and those grievances loom large and loud, and it all feels like, “Okay, well, someone is doing this to us, if only they would just cut it out, if only they would stop treating us unfairly, and if only they would stop hoarding all that wealth so that we could have our share, then the things would just sort of resolve and we could all live… ” Why… It’s like the John Lennon song, World… What is the… Imagine there’s no countries, etcetera, etcetera.

Gena Gorlin: It’s this really nice dream of like, “Why can’t we all just get along?” Forgetting, none of us know how to do that. [laughter] That’s not the default, it’s really hard to figure out how to… Thinking of parents who have siblings who have more than one child and have to basically be household managers, and sort of figure out like, “How do I both attend to the feistiness of my two-year-old toddler who really needs to know that I love her and that I’m paying attention and the very particular kind of obsessiveness sort of like particular, very different needs of my 4-year-old who needs me to solve this very practical problem for her, but also needs me to know that I don’t just love the 2-year-old because the 4-year-old has sometimes felt neglected, and how do I feed them both while also ensuring that I’m not doing some sort of terrible emotional damage by sending the wrong signals to one or the other or both and how do I not let them tear each other apart in the process?” It’s so… And that’s just two little people that we have basically total autonomy over, how do you do it with a whole society? [chuckle] If we actually think about the nature of the problem, it’s a really hard problem. And the fact that we’ve come this far, the fact that we have these whole large institutions.

Gena Gorlin: If we think about all of the things we now do together in unison and harmony where we can trust that we can make an online transaction and trust that we’ll receive the item and that it’s in good faith, and that it will come in nice packaging and that nobody’s gonna tear it open somewhere along the way, there’s a whole chain of multiple delivery people and vehicles that would have to convey it from one end to the other, and we figured out how to coordinate all of that so that have everybody’s winning all along the way. So basically… And so everyone gets to make choices about what they wanna do with their time and in their lives, and hopefully also even getting paid to do it. What a massive, incredible achievement and yeah, we’re about to be in a huge recession and now a bunch of us will get laid off, and now a bunch of us won’t be able to take that for granted anymore, and that’s a good reminder that none of this is automatic, none of it’s the default, it’s not guaranteed. And so I think really just we worrying around like, “How?” That we’ve figured out any of this at all is amazing. And we should celebrate that and we should keep building and keep problem-solving, because none of it’s the default.

Chelsea Follett: And you’re doing a lot of work to help people try to figure all of this out, right? I have some questions from some other things I’ve seen on your Substack. But first I want to give you the opportunity to describe what your Substack is all about and why people should check it out?

Gena Gorlin: Thank you. Yeah, so a lot of what we’ve been talking about is sort of a mindset, like how to adopt the mindset of a builder, kind of what are the things that you want to have in mind? What are the things you want to be able to take ownership of? Things that you wanna be able to kind of understand and realize, these are not defaults? The kind of psychological profile and perspective that all that adds up to, it’s not easy to build. Again, most of us we come in, we’ve got our status quo biases, we’ve got our sort of just like risk aversion and our fear of change, and also our particular insecurities and uncertainty is really scary and really hard to manage and often, whatever the status quo is, at least gonna feel easier and safer and will be easier.

Gena Gorlin: And it’s not ultimately safer in the long run, and it takes a certain kind of character, it takes a certain practiced approach, so I think you’ve gotta be able to face a bunch of fears before you aren’t overwhelmed every time in the face of them, for example, and you’ve got to do that incrementally, and there’s a science and an art, which I’ve studied and trained in to sort of exposing ourselves to things we fear in a way that doesn’t completely overwhelm us, but does actually help us to move the needle on kind of what we’re able to face without feeling really overwhelmed or feeling kind of paralyzed. Or feeling that we have to run away, and what’s the kind of optimal level of challenge?

Gena Gorlin: A lot of thinking has gone into figuring that out, and the same goes for how do we think about our own sort of long-term goals and medium, when do we wanna be future-oriented, and when do we wanna be thinking more about the present? And there’s all kinds of opinions about that and how should we be motivated? Should we be motivated by… Should we be trying to sort of give ourselves stickers and rewards or is that a cheap kind of shortcut to motivation? Should we be trying to find the intrinsic motivation of what we’re doing and how do we do that? Should we be meditating a lot? Should we be keeping in journal? There’s so much advice out there, and some of it’s contradictory, none of it works for everyone, and so just what I’ve been trying to do is figure out, given my interest in builders and in building and that sort of like my holy mission is to inspire and empower more building in the world, and I’m a psychologist, what I’m building are the builders. I’m trying to figure… I’m trying to kind of put together the toolkit for building ourselves into the kinds of people who can build what we wanna build on the scale that we wanna build it.

Chelsea Follett: Relating to some of those points on motivation, I see that you have an entire post sort of critiquing the idea of intrinsic motivation. I would love to hear you explain that.

Gena Gorlin: Sure. Yeah, so in psychology, there’s this distinction, and obviously it’s not just in psychology, it’s sort of permeated the culture now, where you’ve got extrinsic motivators like money or stickers or grades or somebody’s praise or you name it, or punishments on the other side, so external motivators could be rewards or punishments, but it’s like something external to the thing you’re doing that you’re trying to get or avoid depending which it is, and then there’s this magical kind of ideal motivation, which is this intrinsic motivation where you just loved what you’re doing and it’s just rewarding and joyful itself and you’re doing it for its own sake, and you’re in a state of flow. It’s like that magical state of flow, and there are some people who chase that flow experience to the point of almost an addiction, but I think for all of us, I think there’s something really enticing in that concept and we want to experience our lives as much as possible, like enjoyable. We wanna enjoy what we’re doing, there’s something really intuitive in that.

Gena Gorlin: But I think the idea of intrinsic motivation, even though it’s actually been really improved upon kind of within my field, the people who came up with this distinction in psychology, Deci and Ryan, whom I love and I’ve drawn a lot of inspiration from them and from their work, they’ve actually really added a lot of nuance to the original theory where now… So their theory is called Self-Determination Theory, and what they really now distinguish between and basically, they’ve identified that there’s this continuum of motivations where what you can vary on is how self-determined the motivation is, to what extent is it sort of flowing from your own needs, your own interests, your own values, you’re choosing it for the sake of goals that you care about, and so you sort of know why you’re doing it and it’s coming from within versus to what extent is it sort of…

Gena Gorlin: You feel like the cause of your own action is outside of you, something else is imposing it on you, something apart from your own kind of needs and goals and values is making you act and I think that’s a really useful distinction, but interestingly, they still kept intrinsic motivation as this separate thing at the very top of their continuum, it’s like the most self-determined you get is when you don’t have to even worry about reasons ’cause it’s just intrinsic, and I think that’s a kind of cop-out because there are always reasons and all the activities that we do and the way we experience what we’re doing, it’s always connected to our conception of what is it gonna affect? And what are we building? What consequences is this actually gonna have for my life, for the people I care about, for my future, for the things that sort of matter to me? What am I putting out into the world and how is this gonna set me up later for other goals that I care about? What skills am I building? So even kind of the things we think of as the stereotypically intrinsic kind of activities, like we are playing a game or we’re just enjoying a conversation with colleagues where it’s like, where it’s just so intellectually stimulating and we’re just sort of in it for its own sake, yeah.

Gena Gorlin: Hopefully, if things are working right, we enjoy it more when we’re actually getting something done, and part of what we’re enjoying is that we’re getting something done, and we know that, “Oh, this is actually giving us more clarity, we’re gonna actually be able to use what we’ve talked about to improve our processes down the line or to offer our customers something better.” Versus, “We’re just like shooting the shit, we’re just chatting, and it’s really fun, but it’s actually wasting time that could be put towards something that matters to all of us.” That’s not as fun. Well, especially if you realize it. If you don’t realize it, that’s worse and that’s gonna cost you later, even if it’s really fun in the moment, and so is that the intrinsic motivation we want? No. We don’t wanna be deluded into thinking something really great is going on when actually we’re kind of shooting ourselves in the foot for later, so I just don’t think it’s ever helpful to think in terms of intrinsic motivation, I think we wanna think in terms of like, “Why are we doing this and what’s our understanding of sort of the causes and effects that we’re operating on?”

Chelsea Follett: Okay, so that’s not helpful. For my last question, I’m going to ask you to elaborate on what is helpful because at HumanProgress.org, we’re always interested in cultivating discussions on the factors that go into creating progress. We tend to focus more on policies and institutions, but as a psychologist, I’m curious what your insights are on the kinds of mindsets that the people watching or listening to this podcast can cultivate to contribute to progress in whatever manner?

Gena Gorlin: Absolutely, thank you for asking, because that question is sort of my baby. [chuckle] Yeah, so I’ve tried to summarize a lot of it under this kind of tagline of the builder’s mindset, and I refer readers, if anyone’s interested in sort of checking out a summary of what I mean, it’s called The Builder’s Mindset: A Way Out Of The Drill Sergeant Zen Master Dichotomy, I think this was called, but if you just look up, it’s on my Substack. So I think there’s a kind of distinctive mindset that we can think about first just in the context of anything we’re doing that’s work, but then we can think like how it applies to basically everything where we could either on the one hand, we could care about the process, but not try to get… Try not to get too attached to outcomes, like, “We’re all about the intrinsic motivation, the flow, the present moment, but let’s not get too attached, because we can’t control the outcomes.”

Gena Gorlin: That’s sort of what I’m calling the Zen Master, or on the other hand, there’s just a common approach of pushing ourselves really hard and yelling at ourselves and being really hard on ourselves and being really worried about failure in a way that sometimes motivates us in the short term, but at the cost of misery and burnout, and also tends to push us toward conventional standards and goals versus like, “But what do I wanna build?” And so I think what’s unique, I think there’s a third way, and that’s sort of what I’m trying to describe that the third kind of mindset that really just isn’t either of the other two, even though we tend to think like We have to oscillate between these two, a builder mindset is one where we recognize that our basic power is to build. So what that means is we use our reasoning mind to set goals, we make choices about what we want, what do we wanna see in the world?

Gena Gorlin: Again, whether that’s at the level of just like, “I want to be able to enjoy a more leisurely commute to work, and for that I need to make X, Y, Z changes.” Or whether that’s, “I want a more beautiful world and I’m going to invent an iPhone in order to put something beautiful and functional in everyone’s hands.” So at whatever level it is, that was a Steve Jobs reference of… [chuckle] Anyway, but the point is that we commit ourselves to outcomes that we can actually really envision and where we can see the work involved, where we at least have some conception of the work involved, and we wanna do the work. So like a really short-hand phrase for this, which I guess is an old Spanish proverb, from what I understand actually. Ayn Rand quotes it and I sort of saw it in an essay of hers, but it’s… Sorry it’s, “Take what you want and pay for it.” She’s like, “That’s it. Take what you want and pay for it.” And if you just think of it like if we cash that out with all that that of we just have that one line in our heads all the time, how many problems does that sort of cut through in terms of, “I hate that I have to sit down and write this essay and it’s looming over me,” And it’s, hang on it’s like, “Okay, do I actually want to have written this thing? Do I care about it? What is its value to me?”

Gena Gorlin: Maybe I don’t all things considered, if I’m really honest with myself, maybe it’s not worth it, and then, “Okay, so what’s the cost of that? I have to tell people I promised to send this to that I’m changing priorities and I’m not gonna do it, and they won’t pay me for it, and I won’t have as much choice, but I’ll buy myself time to do these other things I actually wanna do, okay.” Or, “No, I really want to have put this into words, I want this to be out there. Okay then, am I willing to do the work? Alright, let me buckle down.” Or like, “When am I gonna be in the right mindset to do the work? I’m gonna have more energy in the morning, let me by budget my energy.” It’s just such a different way of thinking about it than either like, “Thou shall write this essay.” And you have the kind of mean drill sergeant over your head, or, “They’re just coming whatever, take it or leave it. It’s all good. Don’t… Just be chill.” Neither of those… It’s like, “What do I want? And am I willing to work for it?” And it’s actually really up to me, and it’s not about my moral character ultimately, that’s just those means to an end, it’s not about how I judge myself, it’s about like, “What do I wanna experience in life? What do I want to bring into the world? What do I wanna build?” And so everything can be anchored to that, so that’s just a not very… An account of…

Chelsea Follett: That’s a great… No, that was perfect. That was a great note to end on. All of the policies and institutions that create freedom to let people make progress, still require the people within those systems to actually act and create, and that mentality you’ve described can certainly only help. So thank you so much for sharing your insights, this has been a pleasure.

Gena Gorlin: Thank you so much, this has been really fun, and I really appreciate the chance to share some of this work. Thank you.

Chelsea Follett is the managing editor of HumanProgress.org and a policy analyst in the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.

Gena Gorlin is an Assistant Professor of clinical psychology at Yeshiva University and a licensed psychologist practicing in New York City and online.

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