Friday, December 24, 2010

Well, this explains a lot

I have long wondered how I came to have a value system that was so contrary to that around me.  The easy explanation was that I was subjected to some cultural signals that ran seriously athwart the prevailing consumerist gospel that swept USA after WW II--most notably the disgust at displays of wealth taught by those Mennonites.

But the Mennonites were clearly not responsible for my greatest difference between me and my culture--my distaste for intellectual specialization.  Of course there are GOOD reasons why folks specialize--the best being that to be really superb at something, it helps to devote large blocks of time and considerable effort to learning one thing.  But since I was born with a nearly unlimited curiosity, I did not like the idea of knowing only one thing at all.  I wanted to know a LOT about everything!

Then somewhere along the way, I discovered that the really interesting stuff is found where intellectual specialties intersect--for example between biology and chemistry.  The reason I was so intellectually attracted to town planning is because it involved so many of these intellectual intersections--such as those between demographics, transportation, housing, environmental design, sanitation, etc.  And of course, one important measure of the success of these arrangements was called economics.

Unfortunately, the subject of economics had been atomized into tiny sub-specialties in the post WW II period too.  The big economic thinking that would be relevant to town planning was now just a tiny room filled with folks who called themselves heterodox economists.  So here I am, a self-described heterodox economic thinker who got this way because I dislike learning about only one thing.

However, it turns out my "tribe" has a similar value set to mine--at least according to one recent study.  So even though my Swedish ancestors came to North American in the late 19th century, enough cultural signals filtered down so that I agree with most of this.  I am pretty sure that the most important cultural signal was the idea that it was virtuous to be well-read.

General knowledge tops for Swedish status: study
Published: 18 Dec 10 15:19 CET 
Swedes consider having broad general knowledge, being skilled at one's job and being a good parent as the most important qualities for status, a newsurvey has revealed.
In addition, kindness became one of the desired traits for the first time in analysis firm United Minds' annual survey on status.
"You can forget about earning status by showing off expensive tastes. Neither a volatile love life nor pricey gadgets count. Instead, one should invest in soft values such as being kind, well read, good at one's job and handy," United Minds CEO Marie Söderqvist said in a statement on Friday.
Söderqvist is also the author of a book titled "Status - the road to happiness."
Separately, buying organic products came in 34th, while driving an eco-car fell to 42nd, compared with its peak at 29th in 2007.
The survey also examined what Chinese people determined was important for status. They believed kindness was most important, followed by being confident and assertive, having a clear outlook on life and a long and stable marriage.
The Chinese also valued people who built their own fortunes, while similar to Swedes, they were not very impressed with pricey gadgets.
"Environmental awareness has really taken hold in China. We noticed that it gives someone higher status than among Swedes. As a Swede, it is perhaps a bit surprising, but it is clear that China has come a long way as a technology and innovation country," said Söderqvist.  more


  1. Thought you might find this interesting, re: specialists vs. generalists:

    I'm definitely a generalist, though I certainly don't claim to be a genius as the above article discusses. But I started out in engineering and physics (college), I've read a fair bit of history (not nearly enough though), have been teaching myself economics (heterodox mostly), have taught myself object-oriented programming and am designing my own computer game, and want to start reading up on philosophy soon. I'd love to start writing some fiction soon too, probably short stories in a science fiction setting. If I ever have the time...

    I can't say exactly where this came from though. My own parents, while very intelligent, are not all that curious about things outside their own immediate existence. None of my extended family or childhood/college friends were either. I just seemed to pick up a signal somehow that got me interested in all sorts of things sometime during college. Weird how it happened like it.

  2. Veblen writes about the "instinct of idle curiosity." He claimed everyone had at least some of this human characteristic. I have found that the variation of this "instinct" varies widely between individuals.

    And no, I have no idea why this is and don't even have a theory. People who lack curiosity actually confuse me--I have NO idea how a life must look from the point of view of the incurious.