Neil Tambe

I'm a Detroiter who happens to enjoy writing, national parks, orange juice, the performing arts, and fanciful socks. More than anything though, I aspire to be a good husband, father, and citizen.

What is good vs. How to become a good person

The most important ethical question I grapple with is not what is good, but rather how to become a good person, especially amidst cultural pressure. In our times, distinguishing those questions is essential.

A lot of the moral philosophy I’ve read in the past focuses on the what. What is right conduct? What is good? How does a good person behave? All this is important, but it is theoretical. The most practical I’ve seen this line of inquiry get is contemplating how to create or manage an ethical society.

I don’t often read ideas about how to turn this question inward and focus on the how for an individual person. How do I, a frail, imperfect, falliable, and mortal being become more good than I am now? The first question of what is descriptive, the second question of how is reflective. And more over, I think if one contemplates how to actually become a better, more ethical person, they must also consider what right conduct is and what a good person does. The question of how encapsulates the question of what.

This perhaps pedantic point matters a lot, I think, because of the times we live in now. Individuals hold much more power than they did even a hundred years ago because each of us now have access to much more knowledge and many more tools to inflict harm on others if we so chose (e.g., weapons, a social media megaphone, transportation, networks of people). It’s not just the ultra-rich or members of high society that can strongly impact others’ lives. As a result, we must all  become good people, because if we do not we are much more capable of causing serious harm.

The times we live in also make actually following through on our notions of right conduct harder. Why? Because we have so much more exposure to social pressures from other humans (e.g., via social media, global travel, news media, the internet) than any other time in history. We have to parse through many more messages that try to persuade us to act and think in a certain way than any of our ancestors did. Listening to our own hearts on what is right and what is wrong and actually walking that walk, is a heck of a lot harder when there’s a cacophony of thousands of other voices in your ear at all times.

In this post, I’m merely pointing out the question of how and trying to give a few reasons of why that question is important. But even though I’m tapping out on answering that question in this post, I do have some ideas.

I’ve been working on this question of how for over a year now. The first part (in very rough form) of my answer to the question of how one becomes a good person is here. If you care about the question of how to become a good person, I’m eager to hear your own reflections or have you share a guest post on this blog.

 

Asking “why” - an antidote for short sightedness

Asking “why” or “why are we doing this” seems to be a pretty good antidote to short sightedness. Why? 

Because asking why leads to a conversation that clarifies priorities, rationale, and motivation. I’ve found, at least, that if you ask someone “why?”, it’s easy to determine whether their idea is thought through, selfish, sincere, or clever. I don’t think most people actually like being short sighted, so once that’s revealed it’s easier to change course. Asking why pulls back the curtain.

As a Manager, I’m often guilty of not making “why” very clear. On the one hand, maybe it’s because I’m rushing and feel the pressure of deadlines and performance metrics. On the other hand, maybe I think why is obvious (even though it isn’t). Maybe I don’t even know “why” myself, and I’m just going through the motions. 

I don’t know how to get enterprises as a whole to ask why, yet, other than just doing it. But I’d hypothesize this: enterprises where most employees feel comfortable and actually do ask “why” are probably well run, profitable, happy places to work.  

Thinking about my life backward from the very end I'm speeding toward

When I envision it in my head, I hope my final moments alive on this Earth are surrounded by my family. As many of them as possible, and I hope that means I don’t outlive my kids and maybe not my wife either. I hope that it’s peaceful and not too painful. I hope it’s at least a few decades from now, too. At the same time, I hope that moment isn’t one whose arrival I’ve cheated and delayed at great personal cost.

And amidst that scene, when my life is waning, I think about the last few minutes - the last few breaths, even - and how I want them to feel. The regrets that I hope I don’t have and what my life looks like from a vantage point at the very end.

This is a concept Robyn and I have talked about, in a general sense. And our conclusions are pretty simple.

At the end of our life, we don’t imagine wishing we would’ve spent more time working or wishing we had made more money. Or wishing we would’ve spent less time with our kids and our family. We won’t wish we would’ve drank more alcohol, or wish we had spent less time together. We won’t wish that we had been more popular or powerful, or conclude that we had wasted too much time praying. At the end of life, we won’t ever wish that we had put less effort toward being kind and loving toward other living things.

When my Papa went ahead, the part of me that wanted to be a king died with him. King of a company, king of my neighborhood, king of my peers, or even just king of my own backyard. For my whole life, I had wanted to be the king of something, but once he passed, I just didn’t care anymore.

Being the last person by my father’s side, in his final moments, changed everything. I stopped thinking of my life from beginning to the end, and I instead started thinking about it from the end - the very end - to the beginning. And when I did that, being a king didn’t matter much anymore.

And I feel such tension now with parts of American culture. I don’t care about being the big fish in the pond like I used to (and I used to). But I feel like the culture around me signals that competition, fame, talent, status, and wealth is the point. That I should care about those things.

I don’t want to be that person anymore because to be honest, that final moment doesn’t feel far away anymore. My father was older than 60, but he was a young man. And the final moment doesn’t just feel closer than it used to, it feels like it’s coming faster. Like I’m speeding toward it. Like we’re all speeding toward it, faster and faster.

And I don’t know what my conclusion is here. Maybe I don’t have one yet. I guess I hope writing and sharing this, reveals that I can’t be the only one feeling this tearing between the way I want to anchor my life, versus the way I see the brazen and competitive parts of American culture telling me to. Because at the end, the very very end, I want to leave this Earth without wondering whether I had missed the point, wishing I had changed something sooner.

Full measures and filler time

Some of my time is spent in a full measure of something. Perhaps a full measure of relaxing or exercise. Or a full measure of learning or solving a problem. A full measure of true emotional connection with another person or of service to someone else. Or prayer, or silliness, or stillness, or focus. 

Then there’s the filler. The time that’s neither here nor there. That’s not really fully spent on anything. The time that has an identity crisis and doesn’t know what it’s for. The time used to avoid boredom or fear.

I don’t think the important point here is to avoid filler time. A more important takeaway is to not impose it on others.

How many times have you waited at work for a meeting to start or at a store for someone to help you? How many times have you had wasted time because your work assignment was unclear or was not contributing to anything important? How many times have you had small talk only because nobody took the risk of asking a real question?  How many times have you received an indecipherable mass email that doesn’t even say anything real?

All that imposes filler time on someone else. And if others impose filler time on me, I probably impose it on others. That’s not cool, and maybe even immoral. 

Intergenerational Love and Long-term thinking

Let’s say I have a son named Bo (which I do). But if you don’t have children of your own let’s say Bo is a nephew, an endearing child from the neighborhood, or just a kid you happened to meet that you care about. 

Now that we’ve met Bo, we can make another assumption fairly safely: Bo will have children of his own or meet another kid someday, similar to how we met Bo. Let’s call that child Lily.

I care about Bo. I love Bo. Bo’s future happiness, health, peace, freedom, and prosperity matter to me. But we also know Bo’s future happiness and peace is tied up with Lily’s. If Lily’s future isn’t bright, Bo will be unhappy. If Bo is unhappy, because we love Bo, we are unhappy. 

But Lily will also have a kid she cares about someday too, presumably. Let’s call him Miles. In the same way as before, if Miles’ future isn’t bright, we are unhappy. And so on.  

Because of this love I have for Bo (and the love I have for Lily, Miles, and others, transitively), I’m more willing to make sacrifices for them now. Intergenerational love makes my thinking more long-term than it would be otherwise.

In other words, kids are important, because they extend the time horizon by which we make decisions, perhaps by several generations. 

But love is the key here. If there isn’t love across generations, none of this transitivity and recursive thinking ever happens. If I don’t love Bo, in this example, I will never love Lily, Miles, or anyone after. My thinking won’t be as long-term.

Cohesive, loving, families aren’t just nice to have, in a way, perhaps the future of our species depends a little bit on the love they create and how that love makes us sacrifice now for the benefit of future generations.  

When is a meaningful life even possible?

Perhaps there’s a better question than, “what gives life meaning?” That question is very hard, and we should expect no consensus answer. People and their contexts are too individually different. 

Maybe this question is better - what makes meaning possible? What is necessary and sufficient for meaning to even exist?

The first common thread I’ve found for all “meaning” and “meaningful experiences” in my life is intimacy. Everything with meaning in my life I have, I have deep entanglements with.

My relationship with my wife, family, and close friends is intimate. It’s deeper and more honest than superficial conversation. When I have meaning at work, it’s because I’ve been able to develop intimacy - relationships, understanding, and personal honest exchanges with my team or with our customers. With God, I have only had meaning when I have surrendered and spoken with him through prayer and listened for his guidance.

I only use these examples because family, work and faith are common sources of meaning for people I have met. There are certainly others.

I’m not suggesting that intimacy is necessary an sufficient for having meaning. I am suggesting, however, that it is necessary. Intimacy precedes meaning.

Intimacy is simple, but difficult. It takes two entities simultaneously being honest and true to themselves, while also accepting, listening to, and embracing that sincerity from their partner. That in itself can be incredibly difficult, but to have intimacy it must be done over and over again - intimacy takes time.

But here’s the bigger point. Because we can very strongly influence whether others can have intimacy in a domain, we can really affect whether other people are able to have meaning at all. Let’s take the instance of managers at work.

A moral manager treats people well, helps them deepen intimacy in their skills, relationships with colleagues, and interactions with customers. Immoral managers can destroy intimacy by making people react to fear, never explain why their work matters, and underresource projects so that no depth can be achieved because everyone has to rush. At work, managers have a lot of ability to affect intimacy, which ultimately affects whether their employees can find meaning in their work.

If intimacy precedes meaning, we have some culpability in whether or not others are able to have both.

 

 

Fatherhood is normal

Men our age are choosing to be present, participating fathers. 

We are taking time off work at birth. We are going to Doctor appointments. We are babysitting while our wives have a night out. We are reading about sleep training. We are choosing jobs that let us work from home or with flexible schedules. We are reading bedtime stories.  We are asking questions about parental leave policies.

And encouragingly, we are talking about all this with other fathers we know.

I don’t mean to write this as a celebration of engaged fathers, a retort to disparaging narratives about fathers, or as a pat on the back for any of us. I’m also not suggesting that any of us are or should be the stereotypical “super dad”, that’s not real anyway.

I merely write this to suggest that being a present, participating father is normal. People like us do stuff like this.

I’m not 100% sure, but I think norms were different when we were sons. And If so, I think norms have changed for the better.

Becoming normal is a big deal. 

Being clear about freedom

Freedom is something I care about deeply. I’d even say it’s one of the core motivations of my life - I hope that my works make the world more free and that I am able to experience freedom myself. 

But when I say freedom, what do I mean for myself and others?

  • That I am free from working in bondage or serfdom?
  • That I am free to move about my daily daily life without hassle?
  • That I am free to speak my mind without being jailed? 
  • That I can about my day free from moments where others offend me?
  • That I am free to walk around without shoes or clothes?
  • That I am free to act without all but the most basic laws and government regulations?
  • That I am free from distraction and persuasion to the point where I have control of the content of my own thoughts?
  • That I am free to worship without persecution? 
  • That I am free to drive as fast as I want? 
  • That I am free to indulge in hedonistic pleasures of any sort? 
  • That I am free to transact goods and services in markets without restrictions or tariffs? 

Being clear about freedom matters, because it’s not possible to design systems without clear priorities. And if that’s too hard, we can always defer to Tagore.

 

The Little Quits and Moral Indifference

When I’m on a challenging run, it’s so easy to give up in a hundred different ways. I might pass by our house on a loop 1/2 mile before my goal distance and just think that it’s okay to end early. I might say, I am not going to walk until the stop sign but start walking 1/2 block before I get there. The easiest way to give up is thinking, “I’ll go running tomorrow” and never getting out the door in the first place.

And as I was running today, I realized how many other small, relatively inconsequential moments there are to give up on what I know I probably should do. And it’s not just when running. There’s probably an opportunity to have one of the little quits on most of the decisions I make in a day.

Do I really have to take the trash out right now? Nah. Do I have a second to check the news between meetings instead of staying focused? Sure. I haven’t talked to so and so for years, do I need to call them to console them on their grandmother’s passing? Nah, I can probably just post on their facebook wall. Can I cheat on my diet for the second time this week? Yeah, and to justify it I won’t cheat once for all of next week…I pinky swear.

And so on and so on. There are so many opportunities for little quits. And I’m fairly embarrassed to admit that upon actual reflection I make so many little quits. So many.

There are also opportunities to quit on hugely consequential decisions. Big quits are things like…

Should I fire this person? Nah…maybe I’ll just give them one more chance. Should I get out of this dysfunctional relationship? Nah…maybe they’ll change next time. Do I need to change jobs? Nah…maybe I’ll give it another 6 months. Do we need to abandon this strategy for our company? Nah…maybe if we give it more time things will get better.

What’s interesting is that we probably don’t make big quits fast enough. For example, my father in law advised me once that in his career, every time he had to let someone go he’d wished he had done it sooner.

Little quits really don’t matter much, individually. The problem is for every big decision there are probably several hundred little ones. So as it turns out, over the course of a lifetime little quits may matter more (in aggregate) than the big ones.

But here’s the important point, and it’s kind of a few logical steps out from little and big quits but stay with me.

For a long time - probably for 20 years now, at least - I’ve struggled with the question of the nature of humans. Are we born good or are we born evil? Are most people good, or are most people wicked? Am I good or am I wicked?

On my run today, and thinking of how many times I’ve made little quits - even just on runs - over my lifetime I realized that I’ve been asking the wrong questions.

This whole time, I should’ve been asking about indifference. Are people good, evil, or just indifferent? Do people care about whether they are good or evil? If I really looked at my decisions and my behavior, am I good, evil, or indifferent?

The fact that I make so many little quits, suggest to me that the enemy of good may not only be evil. Indifference may also be the enemy. Why? Because little quits - and the fact I make so many of them - are lazy. They aren’t evil - little quits are too inconsequential for that - but they are demonstrations of the fact that I think it’s okay to let myself off the hook on the little stuff. It’s a signal that the past of least resistance is okay.

But the thing is, it’s not really okay. In aggregate, little quits are not evil. But in aggregate, they aren’t good either.

I am interested in becoming a good person and living in a community of good people. Maybe you are too. If you are, maybe our challenge isn’t ridding ourselves of wickedness. Maybe the real challenge is ridding ourselves of the little quits and the indifference that they represent.

A different game

Saying the internet has made the world more economically competitive is now a cliché. Duh. No kidding.

What’s slightly less cliché is pointing out it has made many other, formerly not so competitive, things much more competitive, too. The status of job title, more competitive. How pious and religiously aligned we are, more competitive. How we vacation, more competitive.

How many house projects we are able to do compared to our neighbor, more competitive. How angelic and intelligent our kids are, more competitive. How finely tuned our political sensibilities are, more competitive. How charitable and socially conscious we are, more competitive. Demonstrating the quality of our friendships and family relationships, more competitive. Signaling how difficult and woeful our struggles are, more competitive. Even mastery of esoteric hobbies - like parkour, dog training, and unicycle juggling - is more competitive.

I can’t speak for anyone else, but this perpetual competition for all dimensions of social status grinds on me. No wonder it’s so easy to feel like a loser, stressed, or worse.

I think the only way out of this is to play a different game than king of the hill. Or perhaps more accurately no game at all. Maybe just sharing the best we have to offer, in our own niche, and getting better at it. Maybe just building upon who we were yesterday.

 


 

Sticks nor Carrots

What if I (or we) could do something - a chore, a goal, an assignment, even a pleasurable hobby - without the need for incentives?

Instead of sticks or carrots, what if I (or we) didn’t need sticks nor carrots?

That would take knowing what was right and wrong, yes, but also what the right requires of us.

This isn’t my idea. It’s in the divine dialogue between Krishna and Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita. They don’t talk about sticks and carrots,  per se, but the idea of duty-driven action (as opppsed to result-driven action) is just as compelling today. 

Delayed gratification, problem avoidance

I saw this link on Tyler Cowen’s blog. It is a study which suggests that an ability to delay gratification is a very strong indicator of income - more than age, integrity, or height.

This also got me to thinking about problem avoidance, but I wasn’t able to find any studies about problem avoidance and income. My guess is that solving problems quickly instead of avoiding them is also a strong indicator of income. 

It seems to me that there is a two-order effect at play. If you delay gratification, you invest for harder to achieve, but better rewards. This leads to good results.

But also, if you are able to delay gratification, you also know that you are capable of delaying gratification. That builds confidence for future decisions. It’s a ratchet with positive effects.  

It’s the opposite ratchet for problem avoidance. Not only does avoiding problems make them harder to solve, you’ll also know that you failed to address that problem promptly the next time around. That breeds a cycle of doubt, and more problem avoidance. Then the problems pile up and you’re in an overwhelming amount of problem debt.

It seems to me that delayed gratification  and problem avoidance are two sides of the same very important coin. 

How do you do it? This requires a much longer explanation but I’ve come to think that forgiveness, constant exploration, and listening all play a big part. 

100% Literacy

I often wonder (and have done a little, little research) on what it would take to have 100% literacy. It’s a worthy goal, I think.

Because there are so many reasons why literacy matters - economic prosperity, engaging in day to day society, voting, driving, etc. And all that’s relevant.  

I happen to care for a different reason. I don’t think it’s possible to live in a free society if every citizen of that society doesn’t behave with some basic decency and sense of morality. As far as I can tell, it’s damn near impossible to become a more moral, more decent, person without literacy.

I know dreams are just dreams without plans and action. I guess I find it strange that it’s not a dream I’ve heard talked about much.

 

This one couch

When I was a teenager and collegian, the world was barely big enough for my dreams. I distinctly remember thinking a think where I aspired to be mentioned in a history book (in high school, no less - how arrogant). I wanted to be a global citizen. And I hoped that in my lifetime, our species would be travel to other planets, other stars...making my world, our world, bigger on the journey.

And then my world became one country and I wanted to be in DC. Then I graduated, and my world became one city, one state. I wanted to make a positive difference here, in the place where I was from.

And then somewhere along the line my world got much smaller. At our wedding, our whole world was in one room eating dinner and dancing. All I needed was there.

And then it got even smaller. My whole world fits under one roof when the whole family gets together (whether in Gwalior, Sanibel, Rochester, Novi, Birmingham, New York, or at one of several towns near London).

And now, smaller. My whole world is one couch.

And not just any couch, this one couch. The one I am sitting on now. The one where we brought Riley and Bo home to. The one Robyn and I bought together. The one where our friends and family gather around, play games on, conversate and relax on, drink beers around, and nap on. 

This is the couch I never realized I was dreaming of.

I've gone from the planet being my world, to this one couch. And that has been a blessing I never ever expected to be grateful for.

And I still have dreams for this neighborhood, city, state, country, world, and even this galaxy. But my world...my world is this couch.

The Honesty Paradox

I find this paradox related to honesty to be interesting.

If I am honest with myself, I admit that I am very susceptible to lying to myself. However, if I admit that I am very susceptible to lying to myself then I have even more reason to think I am an honest person (because I have truthfully admitted my own fallibility).

It's a paradox. How it works for liars is a bit different.

If I lie to myself, I believe that I am very likely to be honest with myself. That belief however, makes it easier and easier to lie to myself because I apply less scrutiny to what I say (because I believe myself to be an honest person).

That's very much not a paradox. That's a feedback loop which almost certainly leads to one outcome - lies.

 

Why do we want what we want for our kids?

As I’ve become a father I’ve started to give my intentions more scrutiny. In particular, I’ve been trying to be honest about my intentions for our kids, which they’re too young to form on their own - for now.  

Why do we want the things we want for our kids? And by we I mean “we.” Why do we want good schools, which lead to a good college, which lead to a good job? Why do we want dance lessons, high test scores, and a spot on the varsity team? 

For their futures, obviously. But still, why?

As I’ve reflected, I’ve felt myself being pulled by two motivations.

On the one hand, I want my kids to be good people, with strong character and with behavior grounded in thoughtful morals.

On the other hand, I feel pulled by wanting my kids to have respect, status, and power.

(For the record, I also want my kids to be able to thrive without me, but that’s a given. And, I think that can happen through goodness or through power.)

And both power and goodness are reasonable motivations for wanting our kids to have “the best” in life. But the conclusion I’ve come to for myself is that goodness matters more and it matters first. And my overriding principle as a father is to do whatever I can to shape my kids into good people.  

I am skeptical of the motivation of wanting kids to have the best opportunities so they can have respect, status, and power. Why? Because it starts a cycle that ends devastatingly. Because a desire for respect, status, and power begets more power - and an even stronger desire for more after that. And at some point, that power will exceed my (or my kids) capacity to wield it responsibly. And when that happens I (or my kids) will descend into madness.  

Because power corrupts, goodness has to come first for me - as a father and for myself. 

And when I think of it that way, why would I ever want to put my kid on a path to having an addiction to respect, status, and power when I know the endgame is ugly? I honestly think that it’s because having high-status kids might satisfiy my own desire for respect, status, and power. Which is an even more selfish motivation.

The point is this, I think very carefully about why I want what I want for our kids. The problem is, it’s a hard question to be honest about.  

Confidence

I realized this week that a lot of my stress, at work at least, is self-imposed. When faced with a challenge, I automatically start preparing (and agonizing) over what I’ll say when I have to own up to not meeting expectations. 

Upon further inquiry, I think it’s because I lack confidence. But why? Why is it that in some parts of my life I feel like a hapless subjugate and in others I feel like I’ve got it on lock? 

Does it depend on context? Does it depend on the people around me and whether they are kind or cruel? Is it all in my head?  Is confidence all a performance anyway?

Im not even sure what question to ask. What’s frustrating is that I’ve worked really hard in my life on hard stuff, and I’m not an idiot (mostly). How am I in this frame of mind? 

 

Thank you for the struggle

I’ll have to thank Bo and Riley (and any other kids of ours) someday for making me try so hard, but making me want to try even harder. Not in an abnormal way, they’re just being themselves. And they need us to love them and make sacrifices for them...especially now.

Sleeplessness, teething, digestive issues, tantrums, barking, eating, escaping the fence. Something or another is always happening, and sometimes many at once. And, I’m no pro, but experienced enough to know it will get much harder. 

These hard days are equally if not more joyful. The struggle is worthwhile. I’m thankful for that.

But I’m also thankful, at least in retrospect, for the struggle. The struggle and the sacrifice it requires helps me understand my truest self (and fall even more in love with my wife). It helps me get closer to what Hindus call the Atman, or soul, as it’s known in the West. The struggle and sacrifice can be an act of purification, assuming I surrender to it.

For so many reasons, I love our boys.  

 

What I want to be when I grow up

When I grow up, I want to be a person who can consistently put the needs of others above - or at least In line with - my own.

I feel like this is really hard, more than enough, and that everything else will fall into place if I can do this.  

A prayer for gravity

Human life starts with the sun. At least when looking at fundamentals, the sun is a good place to start. It is the ultimate source of all the energy and is the nourisher of life on this planet. It is it’s light that powers the photosynthesis that makes the plants we eat. It is the indirect origin of oil, gas, and wind. It warms our plant so we, humans, can inhabit it. 

But even before our planet could have life, we needed a planet. Earth, our pale blue dot, the only home we know, is made up of elements like oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, calcium, and iron. These elements would not exist without our stars operating as cosmic factories that chrurn out elements through the fusion reactions in their cores.

So, to have life and a plant to sustain it, we need energy and the elements which make up complex molecules. We have the sun and other stars to thank for that.  

And that’s when the profound beauty and mystery hits me, because without gravity we have no stars, no sun. It is gravity that gets a mind bending number of hydrogen atoms to approach each other. And then over 10 million years a star is born. 

Without the Earth, we have no life. Without the stars we have no Earth. Without gravity we have no stars. Gravity is literally the force that binds life together.  

But we even see a sort of gravity in human societies.

Our civilization’s great achievements come from density, a sort of socially manifested gravity. When we bring people and energy together we can have irrigation and agriculture. We can work together and build specialized skills to forge alloys and useful tools. We can create cities that create the prosperity, space, and time that leads to art, science, spiritual traditions, and cultural endeavors. 

Gravity - when interpreted as something that creates social density - is also an idea that binds life together, figuratively speaking. 

When I took a breath early this morning I had one of those out-of-body moments where I was just in awe that a human breath could even exist in this universe. And in those moments, I raise my head and hands to God for thanks and his continued blessing. 

But today, I also lift a prayer for gravity. A force that if we understood its origins, may also mean we’d understand the divine mysteries of the universe itself. A prayer for the unseen, unsung, hero that quietly binds together all life on our planet. Thank you God, for gravity.