The setup

After an election that lasted over a year, and another year into a soap-opera administration, I finally figured out how to deal with politics.

After focusing on the area I've noticed a pattern. Some big news will break, like the appointment of special counsel Mueller or the pardoning of Arpaio, news that matters and it engrosses my attention for a while, making me frustrated or excited. Sometimes I just saw a passing headline and sometimes I would delve into a story for hours.

But now my perspective has shifted, and now I don't think that they actually do matter, not to me or to you.

Two concepts drive this perspective:

  1. The circle of control: this is the idea that you should only focus on things within your control. For example: focus on your mood and not the weather as you can change your mood but you can only affect the former with a significant amount of chemtrails. (sarcasm).

  2. The circle of competence: focus on areas you are familiar and skilled with, only dabble with those that are familiar, and only observe those that aren't. Expand your circle as you get older but don’t exit your circle. Example: don't day trade unless you’ve spent 5+ years in the field, or just don’t day trade.

The first concept does the majority of the work for me. Can I affect change on national politics ? Mmm not really. Maybe very very slightly, if anything, but even that will be fleeting. I could protest, or write a Facebook post, or like some tweets. What's the ROI on that time ? Next to nothing. This is sometimes known as slactivism, but almost all online political dialogue belongs in the low ROI bucket; the people you are talking to are either already convinced or incapable of being conviced.

The second concept is a bit less intuitive. You are not a politician, or an investigative journalist, or a constitutional lawyer. Why are you concerned about how the perceived bias of the 9th circuit court is affecting their reading of the bill of rights ? Because it feels good to be a partisan. It doesn't make you a better person, or professional, or parent. You can observe to learn if you want, but observe only, no judgements. That's the rule of the circle of competence. Unless of course you are a constitutional lawyer. But you aren't.

How many countless productive hours have been squandered since the start of the 2016 election because people were sidetracked with politics ? How many hours of sleep ? How much wonderful stuff is the world missing out on because people were/are too distracted ?

Surface politics and philosophy

Here's my rundown of what surface politics is:

  • partisan rhetoric of the day
  • punditry or opinion based shows on any platform
  • guffaw's, slip ups, or outrages
  • social media jokes
  • press releases
  • political books
  • arguing with people about any of the above

These things distracts us from the real meat of what politics is supposed to be about, it's about how we act and govern and behave inside society. We should be focusing on which solutions to pursue and how best to enact them, not anything from the above list. Who is more valuable to society: a research assistant or anyone at all on facebook/twitter ? I think the whole Sean Spicer "hiding in the bushes" thing is a great example of this, it's funny and is an interesting snapshot of where national politics are, but in the end it's entirely meaningless.

Surface politics don't fit into concept #1 (you aren't going to affect politics in DC) or #2 (you are not a professional politician in DC). Only the people walking the bleak marbled halls of D.C. really know what's happening in D.C. You shouldn't bother getting gossip or partisan talking points from second or third level pundits.

This affects your relationships too. Talk to people about philosophy and principles and abstract concepts, mainly ones you are knowledgable about, not the brouhaha of the day. On the latter people take sides and you will be pitted against them. But talk to someone about the ethics of gene manipulation, universal basic income, or the future of self driving cars and you are less likely to become agitated. A tell sign of partisans and politicians is that they don’t have set principles but simply operate on whats best given the current-day-climate, a good way for you to break out of that is to discuss principles and ethics.

"The deeper people's knowledge of a topic, the more calmly they talk about it."

Don't talk about the downsides of Obamacare vs Trumpcare, politically charged topics where people have already taken sides. Instead talk about how an ideal health care system would work, including edge cases and experimental programs.


Now this doesn't mean you can't effect political change, you can, you just have to do it within the framework. So what is inside your circle of control and competence that has a good ROI ? That's for you to figure out, but I'll give you a simple example.

A rather idiotic bill came to the floor of the Arizona house recently, I emailed both of my immediate district reps and one of them (one within the party that had brought the bill forward) responded favorably within an hour. The bill was killed before it reached the house floor, in part due to concerned citizens such as myself. Better ROI than a Facebook post right ? Although this is not a great example as it was not within my circle of competence and barely within my circle of control.

An even better use of my time and energy could be put towards using my day-job skills to create a project explaining what net neutrality is and why people should be concerned about it. Or I could do pro-bono technical freelancing for non-profit companies in the areas I wan't to impact.

The biggest life lesson I've learned over the past year is to never get stuck on a problem. You have to attack it from a different angle, or if all else fails just move on, but never get bogged down by it. This framework fits well with that mantra. Getting depressed about climate change is one thing, getting excited about a solution you can personally kick off is another.

So next time you see some crazy political news just remember, it's surface politics, and you're better than that.