Being other

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Posted by: stak
Posted on: 2010-04-03 14:13:19

I was watching Barefoot Ted's talk at Google and one of the phrases he used got stuck in my mind (see video starting 50:25): can you handle being "other"? ("Other" in this context, if you don't want to watch the video, refers to doing something outside socially-acceptable norms.) I was thinking about what it meant and what it implied, and to me personally, there's a lot of richness to that one question.

Most people, by definition, aren't "other". They're "normal", they live according to society's rules, and they go about their lives without really questioning most of what they do or understanding why they do it. People who are "other" usually fall into two categories: one that actually gets a kick out of being labeled "other", and the other that has consciously chosen to become "other" because of some significant benefit it provides. To put in terms of the barefoot running example: there are people who will run barefoot just to freak out others by being "weird", and there are people (like Barefoot Ted) who run barefoot despite being labeled "weird" because it's actually good for you. It's important to distinguish between the two groups, and the stuff I'm talking about refers to people in the second group.

So why is being "other" important? Well recently I've been finding out more and more that things I take for granted because they're "normal" are really incredibly bad. In fact, a staggering amount of the lifestyle choices we make (in "developed" countries) at least are staggeringly bad for our health and/or happiness. We walk wrong. We eat wrong. We over-sanitize. We even poop wrong! It's no wonder that half a million to a million Americans die every year due to "lifestyle disease".

And the thing is, this didn't use to happen. A few hundred years ago "normal" was good. People had healthy lifestyles, for the most part. Sure they had shorter lives, but mostly because medicine back then wasn't as good as it is now. So how did this happen? There isn't really a single thing we can point to and say "Aha! That's where it all started going wrong!" If you've watched the Jamie Oliver TED talk, you can sort of see the progression though. He claims that people aren't taught at home or in school how to cook, so they end up making bad food choices. The question that follows is: why aren't they taught how to cook? Because their parents and teachers didn't think it was worth teaching. Why? Because they themselves didn't realize the benefits of proper nutrition over the convenience of fast food. Why? Well, until we started doing things wrong there was no reason to realize that we were doing things right to begin with.

So there it is: the human race was going along, doing things the same way that they had been for ages with proper nutritional meals. Then somebody came along and invented more convenient but less healthy food. We switched over to it, not realizing just how bad it was for us. I'm sure it was generally realized that it wasn't quite as healthy but the convenience factor overrode that by a wide margin. Then things start going real bad and everybody became obese. And now we scramble to try and fix it, after having learnt from the mistake and with newfound knowledge about the importance of nutrition. Fair enough. It seems like a pretty natural cycle, and I'm sure human history and evolution is full of cycles like this, where we make a mistake and then add to our store of knowledge about why it was wrong.

There's two things that come out of this, though. The first is that there is a lesson to be learnt from the "other" category. The very existence of the "other" category means that there's something they've discovered that is not general knowledge. By being open-minded and thinking about what they are saying, it's possible that you too can learn about the mistakes we've made as a species and can get back on the recovery curve faster. Once the "other" category spreads their knowledge back into the general population, they stop being "other". Being "other" is something like a transient state that exists only while something is wrong.

The second thing is that it's possible to realize the cycle is happening early on and try to prevent it. I know I keep harping on the same topics over and over, but I believe that driving is in the "omg this is awesome, let's all do it" phases of this cycle. It's been shown that driving is a significant cause of stress and promotes lack of exercise (not to mention that driving-related accidents are a leading cause of death). It's just all-around bad for you. People already know this, but... boy, it sure is convenient! Starting to sound familiar yet?

My dad came to visit recently, and one of the things he kept telling me was that I should get a car and how it's "essential for day-to-day life". He's no different than those parents in Huntington, West Virginia, who sacrificed health for convenience without even realizing it, and are now pushing the same choice onto their children. In this case, I have no problem being "other" by ignoring my dad and choosing more healthy forms of locomotion.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to find a way to be "other" if you're not already. The point is to explore the choices we make every day, and to realize that we could already be wrong in a lot of ways that we don't realize. If you're completely stuck on ideas, this is a good one to start with.

Posted by Anon at 2010-04-03 17:46:54
The Daily Apple article is all I hear about these days. Does that it's now mainstream instead of "other"?
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Posted by stak at 2010-04-04 13:34:20
Will the average person you ask on the street say grains are bad for you?
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Posted by daveagp at 2010-04-03 18:04:01
This post could win an award:
- most interesting
- best links to Wu-Tang Clan and pooping-related webpages
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Human verification: Sum of fifty and thirty-one =
Posted by kroshka_moo at 2010-04-05 17:08:00
> who run barefoot despite being labeled "weird" because it's actually good for you

And there are lots of categories of "other" who do something because they *think* it's better for them! Sticking to homeopathy and eschewing conventional doctors is an example. So they haven't necessarily discovered 'knowledge'. A different idea, yes.
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Posted by stak at 2010-04-05 18:43:32
True. In my experience though, once you start digging, it's not all that hard to figure out which groups of people are basing their "knowledge" on research and scientific data, and which groups are basing it on coincidence and anecdotes. There are some cases where even that isn't very clear, in which case I usually stick to the status quo but keep an eye out for research indicating one way or the other.

My main point is that encountering an "other" point of view should generally result in a "needs more investigation" reaction rather than a "weirdo!" or "gotta do it!" reaction.
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Posted by anonymous at 2010-04-06 10:48:41
fair enough :)
you just didn't explicitly mention the distinction so I thought I'd make a note of that :)
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Posted by stak at 2010-07-26 17:47:26
Related article by Paul Graham: The Acceleration of Addictiveness
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