How I currently define my Personal Monopoly
If you’ve been reading my writing here on Being Human for awhile, you’d have noticed I sometimes say I write about being human from the perspective of faith, behavioural psychology and technology.
The easy answer to why those three is I just find them interesting. But when I think about why that is, I think there’s something deeper, as well: they speak to different aspects of who we all are. And especially, for me, who I am.
Basically, the three areas are what I think of as my personal monopoly? The idea isn’t new, but that specific name for it is coined by David Perell, and here’s how he defines it in his ultimate guide to writing online:
A Personal Monopoly is the unique intersection of your knowledge, personality, and skills that nobody else can compete with.David Perell
You know how a getting a PhD is basically about making a unique and useful contribution to the body of knowledge in your chosen field? In a sense that’s how I think of a personal monopoly: as a sort of self-directed PhD. It’s the unique set of areas in which you can make a unique contribution to knowledge: I have spent a good bit of time thinking about what mine is and I think it’s the combination of these three areas.
If you’ve been reading me for awhile, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on whether this sounds like what you’ve seen so far, and why you read my work. (And if you’re new, I’m curious to know if this resonates with you!)
But let’s take a closer look at the three areas.
How does faith help us be human?
Each of us has a meta-story: a story that helps us make sense of all our other stories.
For some that’s a religious faith (in my case, Christianity). But for others it’s a movement or a combination of both.
Whichever it is, the important thing is stories are great for helping us make sense of what’s happening and figuring out what to do. I often like to compare them to facts with the metaphor of maps and photographs. A photograph gives you a lot of detail, but no direction. A map on the other hand, is short on detail and long precisely on direction. You might even say that science is great at giving us photographs of reality, but if we want a map we need stories.
And we do need maps, because we humans are unique among living beings in our intense interest in answering this question of where we should go, of what should be. It is, in fact, the question that drives all of our endeavours: “How should things be?” is at the root of all business, all art, all relationships. It is the question that fires our imagination, gives us something to hope in and causes us to despair when things seem too overwhelming.
We are not merely emotional beings, nor logical, but teleological—people actively in search of something.
The place we unconsciously strive toward is what ancient philosophers of habit called our telos—our goal, our end. But the telos we live toward is not something we primarily know or believe or think about; rather, our telos is what we want, what we long for, what we crave.James KA Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit
And so like any good map, stories help you figure out where you are, and how to get to where you’re headed. I’ve found Christianity to be a great map (although it’s historically often been used to go some crazy places), and so that’s the perspective I often explore from—and the one I feel comfortable being critical about.
How does psychology help us be human?
My interest in psychology—and especially behavioural psychology—dates back to childhood, and my deep curiousity about why people (including me) acted the way they did. (I wrote more about that here.) But to really dig into how psychology helps us be human, it might help to first consider the role of science in general.
Science at its purest is about observation and description: noticing what’s happening, and trying to understand why by changing specific variables and seeing what happens next. Like I said earlier, science is in a way always trying to get better photographs, or portraits of reality. It’s mostly trying to answer the question, What is there? But the question of, What should be there? isn’t one science is really interested in. That would be like expecting a photograph to tell you what isn’t there: its job is to describe, not prescribe. We might say, broadly, that What is there? is more of a scientific questions, while What should be there? is more a philosophical question.
Psychology, it turns out, stands somewhere in the middle of both. Especially when you get to psychiatry (which I trained in), and clinical psychology and psychotherapy (which were part of that training). Because while you might say psychology, at its most basic, is focused on what is there with regards to the human mind, in psychiatry, clinical psychology and psychotherapy there’s a shift toward treatment, toward what should be there. You might say it’s almost a spiritual science.
And I find that deeply fascinating.
(You can check out an essay I wrote on how therapists as the new priests).
How does technology help us be human?
In a word, by increasing the possibilities of what it means to be human.
That’s why I love tech, not for what it is but for what it makes possible. And like salt, tech is often at its best when it’s invisible.
I was reminded of this when speaking to a friend recently who was complaining about how he hated the a lot of the tech solutions that had cropped up during the last two months of lockdown. During our convo I realised his aversion to tech came from his being more focused on what tech prevents. I on the other hand have always been more focused on what tech can make possible. So where my friend hated the online concerts that musicians were doing because they felt nothing like real concerts with a live audience, I was excited about the new possibilities being discovered for sharing music with people. To me, if the initial attempts felt a bit clunky, that’s only the price of admission into new possibilities.
To be clear, I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other. We need both kinds of people: those who see possibilities and those who see trade offs. We need the people who see the future and the ones who see the future will cost. One group help us fly, the other keep us grounded. We need both, and it helps when each group sees the value of the other.
That said, there’s one important way technology helps us be human that I think grounded types like my friend often miss, and that’s accessibility: the ways in which technology extends our capabilities, allowing us to not only do more, but be more. And dislike of new possibilities sometimes comes from our lack of awareness about the inaccessibility of old ways for some people. To use the music example, while my friend might dislike concerts delivered live over YouTube, imagine how exciting it is for people who previously couldn’t go either for physical or financial reasons.
As the diagram below shows, accessibility isn’t just for people with disabilities, but for everyone.
So there’s my take on being human in just over 1200 words. Or to summarise it in just over 30:
My practice of Christianity points me in a path for being human.
My training in psychiatry paints me a portrait of being human.
My interest in tech presents new possibilities for being human.
And my writing lets me share all of that with you.
Thank you for coming on this journey with me.
My thanks to Adam Tank, Jen Vermet and Lev Naginsky for reading through the first drafts of this and offering helpful feedback.