The New Norm

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A couple of episodes of the recently finished season of the podcast Invisibilia so impressed me that I really, really wanted to share them with Biggie.

So we spent two days listening to the first episode of the second season: The New Norm. Sitting down at the kitchen table, not casually in the car.

Each episode is about an hour and features at least two major segments. And to listen to it with Biggie meant pausing it often to ask questions, check comprehension, make predictions, tease out implications, and so on.

For example, this particular episode begins with a teaser of the second segment, which is about opening a McDonald’s in the Soviet Union.

“Wait, do you know what the Soviet Union is?”

“It’s a country?”

“It used to be a country. It was what Russia used to be. And this was back when it was communist.”

“Okay.”

“Do you know what communism is?”

“Uh, we talked about this once. It’s where everybody … has nothing?”

“Not… exactly.”

So half an hour of listening easily turned into one and a half hours of discussion for us. And Biggie needed to take five-minute breaks every half-hour because he complained of “migraines.”

The central question of this first episode is: “Can you take an emotional norm and transform it?” which gets to a fundamental throughline of the series: “How do people change?” To me that is not just a psychological or neurological question, but a metaphysical one.

This first episode was a great way for me to talk about mental models with Biggie, this very fundamental notion that everyone has a different way of seeing the world, a consistent but limited perspective that governs how they interpret reality.

This is an important idea in developing empathy and analyzing complex human systems, but it’s also a cornerstone in understanding — and dismantling — relativism. Having different interpretations of the truth, even being absolutely limited as humans of only being able to access interpretations of the truth, doesn’t negate the actual existence of the truth. Each of us are like the storied blind men on the elephant, firm in our science without omniscience.

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We also touched upon how each perspective, with its conclusions for living, has its advantages and disadvantages. It’s worth questioning why someone thinks the way they do; what does it do for them to be so negative? Or to always blame others? How does thinking this way limit your options?

We spent a lot of time talking about the first segment and how the taciturn hyper-masculinity of the oil rig guys calloused them from the regular tragedies they were confronted with — but limited their ability to adapt to a complicated new system. They had to re-fashion their mental models to make it okay to be vulnerable, share emotions, and establish trust.

How? Interestingly, Invisibilia drew back a little when talking about the how, but we did end up talking about “faking it till making it”: adopting practices and pretending ways of being until they start making sense and becoming more natural.

Biggie was skeptical, but what was great about listening to this episode with him together was that we now share concrete examples and stories that we can refer to when we talk about related issues again. “Remember how that oil rig guy was forced to share his feelings, and he broke down crying? And all those things that he was afraid would happen didn’t happen?”

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