Staying Sane In An Insane World 

How would you explain the events of 2016 to someone from the year 2050 who time traveled to visit us? Many adjectives come quickly to mind: turmoil, danger, violence, drama, unrest, uncertainty. But if you think deeper about trying to explain what it all means, you’d realize this challenge is impossible. We couldn’t tell someone from the future about 2016 because we can’t understand 2016 yet: we don’t know what happens next! We don’t have the context to make sense of these events. If we were alive in 1776, 1914, 1968 or 2001 we’d have a similiar problem. We can describe the significance of those years now only because we know what happens after.

It must be said that we are a stubborn and frustrating species. Too often we wait for terrible things to happen before we’re willing to change our minds, or change anything at all. It’s not a rule, as history doesn’t depend on rules, but unrest and disorder are sometimes necessary to wake us up and motivate us to grow. And to remind us we share our fates with each other. In the end, the best we could tell our friend from 2050 is “something is happening!” We truly are living in an interesting time.

Contrary to the title of this essay, I don’t think the world is insane. Instead it’s more that we’re designed to live at the scale of tribes, not cities and nations (See Freud’s Civilization and It’s Discontents, where he suggests we traded sanity away to get more security and stability). It’s not the world’s fault, in a sense, but our own.

When I get past my own emotions and rantings,  I conclude three things about this year so far:

  1. We’re addicted to news and news is shallow. Neil Postman said “information is a form of garbage” meaning that at a certain volume more information does not help you. The speed and quantity of news, which we presume to be an asset, does not help us gain perspective, understanding or meaning, the three things we want most. The news business thrives on fear, more so that fact. Most forms of news are not helpful, but they are plentiful and addictive.
  2. Our brains are poor at calibrating to a national or planetary scale. We’re easily misled by dramatic (but possibly unrepresentative) news. And we’re quick to use one narrow string of events to define our feeling of “how the world is”. Combined with cognitive bias, we’re prone to strong emotions based on irrational assumptions.
  3. Big problems we’ve ignored are now un-ignorable. The violence, racism, classism, anger and fear that have fueled the worst events these past months did not suddenly appear. Instead it’s the consequence of years, or decades, of problems we haven’t solved, or perhaps have largely ignored. Technology may have made these problems far more visible, but they were likely there all along.
  4. The world, on average, is getting better. Many people refer to statistics that show that by many measures the world has been a steadily improving place. This is good and hopeful news: if you need a boost of positiveness, then look at these charts.

But the trap of that last point is the flaw of averages: simply because the total average, of say violent crime in america, has gone down for a decade, doesn’t mean there aren’t sizable pockets where crime is going up. Averages can be misleading. For example, on average the universe is a very dead and boring place, but that average makes it seem like Paris or Las Vegas don’t exist. But they do! Statistics tend to oversimplify – they’re useful but rarely definitive.

My advice is simple. We are emotional creatures, so find a healthy way to vent the negative energy that you feel. Go to the gym, or for a hike, and let your feelings out through exercise, which we all know we need more of. Scream at the sky and challenge the wind. But don’t target your rage at people, certainly not at strangers: the golden rule is a good guide here.

Another safe place to express yourself is a private journal, where any idea on your mind can be expressed safely and without judgement (Social media isn’t quite the same, because you are expressing yourself with the knowledge that someone is observing you). Or talk to friends who care about how you feel (and if you don’t have friends who care about your feelings, your real problem might be you need to find better friends).

But then, once you’ve expressed those emotions… slow down. Be curious. Seek thoughtful points of view that differ from your own: it’s the only way to provoke your own thinking to improve (instead of just responding and sharpening your preconceptions). Talking to people who agree with you on everything will teach you nothing.

I’ve read so much these last few months seeking answers. I don’t look to the news for meaning, because that’s not what it’s good for: instead I try to read deeper. Here are five essays, with varying views, that helped me to feel I understand what’s going on (or clarifying what I don’t understand). I don’t necessarily endorse their positions but to my point above, they help in the pursuit of understanding:


14 Responses to “Staying Sane In An Insane World ”

  1. Ravi

    When reading your excellent blog post, I asked myself the question – “How can I see the world more clearly? I learned that I won’t see the world more clearly by watching MSNBC, FOXNEWS, Twitter, or Facebook.

    I’ve observed many people including me listen to sound bites, interpret them through their own filters then jump to a solution based on their own personal interpretation. As a result, I’m re-reading one of my favorite books by Gerald Weinberg – “Are your lights on? How to figure out what the problem really is?”

    I think to understand this election cycle especially with the Trump phenomenon, I need to better understand the perspectives of people who feel that they have been slighted or left behind by both parties. You’ve provided several great references that I’m currently reviewing.

    Scott, I think we will need to add another filter to explain what is going on here. Both campaigns have hired expert consultants that understand persuasion and are using tactics that make it very difficult to understand how we’re being manipulated. For instance, when I think about Donald Trump or Hilary, I think about “racist” and “crooked”, respectively. It’s the first thing that pops in my head. Trump is using simplicity as a tool of persuasion. He is speaking at a sixth grade level on purpose. Both parties are using narratives and stories to talk directly to people’s subconscious!

    Statistics and data can be twisted to tell any story. For instance, the average person doesn’t understand the difference between average and median. If 9 of my closest friends are at the bar drinking with Bill Gates, our average income is 100 million dollars while our median income is 100K. Good luck trying to explain that to the “average” person.

    There is a lot of A/B testing going on here with both campaigns to see what is sticking. They are using social platforms and data to adapt very quickly.

    1. Scott Berkun

      > “my favorite books by Gerald Weinberg – “Are your lights on?”

      This is one my favorite books as well! I’ve reread it so many times. Thanks for mentioning it – made my day.

      I don’t think there is any one thing to do that makes any of this easier. We’re too invested emotionally and technologically to instantly sort out what to think. But as you suggest by saying “add another filter” I’m convinced we all need more time away from all this, spending positive time with people we care about. Only then can we come back to this mess and have a better chance of sorting it out.

      1. Ravi


        Epictetus said: “The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”

  2. Sean Crawford

    I felt a shock of recognition when I read the headline Trump as Tribune. Of course!

    You may recall how, during the virtuous Republic, the Romans who fought on foot refused to fight unless the “one per cent” instituted the respected office of Tribune to look out for the poor. The horse owning people, both liberal and conservative, saw the light and agreed to have Tribunes. Rome remained unified.

    It was many generations before Rome became a hopeless third world empire. But their republican years still remain as a shining example of a first world people with no need for “bread and circuses.”

    (The original Star Trek episode of that title takes place when Rome was on the cusp of going from people feeling personal agency to feeling helpless. The “circus” was the cynical TV show with electrical boos and hisses)

    1. Scott Berkun

      >You may recall how, during the virtuous Republic

      I do not recall, but I’m pleased you think my history knowledge is such that I might :)

      The Roman Empire is fascinating history for us, but I don’t think many Americans have learned much from what they did and didn’t do well. Same for the Greeks. The amazing thing about our culture is the belief we can do anything, and the horror of our culture is our lack of respect for understanding all of the good reasons why other cultures have failed and succeeded. We’re brave but ignorant and this election season reflects the worst elements of those factors.

  3. Sean Crawford

    As for being poor, lots of people were wondering why the poor didn’t just leave before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. This wondering made sf writer John Scalzi angry and he wrote one of his most linked-to blog posts:

    Canada, of course, is much richer, with a higher-than-US per capita phone ownership, and an ability to shoulder high quality socialized medicine. So my humble piece on society’s blind spot does not compare to Scalzi’s, but if you are curious you can find mine by typing Poverty and the Hunger Games.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks for the links – I’ll check them out.

      I confess I used to have little empathy for people who lived on flood plains – I remember thinking “what do you expect to happen?” But then in a discussion with someone they expressed to me the reason they’re there is they can’t afford to be elsewhere. Proof I can learn!

  4. Clay Hebert

    Thanks for another gem, Scott. I’ll be sending this to lots of smart friends who are perplexed as to how we arrived here…but are not panicking or threatening to move to Canada.

    Have you read Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature?

    Or Kurzweil’s recent quote (which I loved)…

    “People think the world is getting worse. I go around the world giving talks, and that’s the perception. What’s actually happening is our information about what’s wrong in the world is getting better. A century ago, there would be a battle that wiped out the next village, you’d never even hear about it. Now there’s an incident halfway around the globe and we not only hear about it, we experience it.”

    Thanks for writing what has to be one of the most cogent and helpful 1,000-word posts this year.

    Keep it up.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks Clay.

      I’m familiar with The Better Angels and its premise, but haven’t read it yet. I’m more curious about why such a strong misperception exists (which your quote hints at, but as I understand is not the focus of the book). That gap fascinates me and I have a post I’m working on about it.

      1. Clay Hebert

        Sorry – Kurzweil’s quote wasn’t from Pinker’s book, although they both address the same issue.

        Here are the two Kurzweil links, which were recent.

        Also (loosely related) from the NYT yesterday…only 9% of Americans voted for Trump OR Hillary in the primaries. It’s technically correct, although I find their methodology a bit misleading, as they include children, non-citizens and ineligible felons who aren’t allowed to vote in the full count of “Americans”.

        Hope this helps your research. I look forward to your post.

  5. Nancy M Ruff

    Great post, Scott. You helped me out with “news is shallow.” I’ve been running a personal (most Twitter) fight against the death of journalism, and I think in my mind I was equating that with “news.” But it’s not true. News is what is happening at any given time. Journalism – by my own biased definition – is much more. I’ve just been so sad as all the sources I used to devour for smart insight and in-depth investigation have jumped on the click-bait, free blogger bandwagon.


  6. Ravi

    I finished reading “Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis” by J.D. Vance and now have a better understanding of the “rust belt” and the culture of that region. I now understand why Trump was successful with that geographical group – people care about their tribe.

    The only thing I can say for sure is that I don’t understand the reality or the movie playing in the heads of a large portion of the electorate. Reality isn’t what I thought it was a year ago.

    I will be doing my best to be more inclusive with my views, good to all of our people, and help unify our country.

    1. Scott Berkun

      Thanks for reporting back on this. I read that interview with Vance, but haven’t read the book.


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