A Tale of Two Kinds of Modern Youth
Lex Fridman has his shit together. Woke kids most certainly don't. Who will win the battle for sanity?
Lex Fridman is a Russian-born American scientist with an extremely popular podcast that features A-list guests like Elon Musk, Eric Weinstein, and Joe Rogan. At just 35 years of age, he is extremely accomplished, holding a PhD in Electrical and Computer engineering and working as a research scientist and lecturer at MIT, where he focuses on subjects like artificial intelligence and deep learning. He is also a martial artist and amateur musician.
Having listened to a couple of his podcasts, and to any number of related podcasts and videos, the YouTube algorithm coughed up a video of his I’d never seen until a few days ago. In it, Fridman answers viewer requests to do a “day in the life” video that breaks down his impressive (and daunting) daily routine:
After watching the video, I am extremely impressed and inspired by Fridman’s work ethic and mental toughness. Unlike the pseudo-alphas of the “Manosphere,” Fridman’s description of his daily activities is characterized by humility and quiet confidence. He’s not preaching to anyone else about what he’s doing. In fact, he finds it distracting to have to stop what he’s doing long enough to make the video. For Fridman, clearly, it’s all about the quality of the work he puts in — 12 hours of it daily, not counting his reading, exercise, and musical activities — and not about imprinting his view of how to do things on his audience.
After watching the video above, I also showed it to my family. I don’t expect my children to do much with it, at least not yet, but I want to store it in their databanks, so to speak, as a point of reference for How To Get Things Done. For myself, it’s a resource I expect to go back to again and again as I try to impose structure on the chaos of my days.
I grew up in a very disorganized, even chaotic environment. There weren’t really any schedules, nor training in good daily habits, but a lot of personal autonomy instead. Everyone in my family sort of did their own thing outside of family dinners and religious obligations. I’ve always enjoyed that freedom, and the ability to float freely where the muses move me, but I’ve also come to realize that my lack of learned structure and entrenched good habits are a huge impediment when I’m “not feeling it,” as has often been the case. Trying to get back on track since leaving the business I spent seven years building has taken me far longer than I thought it would, and while there are multiple reasons for that, Fridman’s video — and his philosophy that showing up to put in the grind, even when you’re not feeling like you’re accomplishing anything, since breakthroughs often come at unexpected times — have helped me to realize I’m going to continue floundering if I don’t impose some structured work habits, no matter how much they chafe. I don’t need to reach Fridman levels of productivity to realize significant improvement, either. If I could do a third of what he’s doing in a given day — just one four-hour block of uninterrupted, deep work — I’d be moving mountains compared to the aimless wandering in search of ideas and inspiration that has become my status quo. Sitting here staring at my screen (or worse, scrolling through social media) hoping for magic to happen just isn’t working. It’s time for a big change.
If you’re feeling like you also need a kick in the pants, I can’t recommend his video strongly enough. It’s got everything you need to help you come up with ideas to flesh out your own daily routine, adapted to your own needs and situation.
Perhaps it’s because Fridman’s ethos of self-discipline, focus, and mental toughness have been on my mind that the contrast with woke culture has been looking especially stark this week. The American philosopher and author Peter Boghossian released several videos of of his “street epistemology” sessions at American Universities, where he attempts to engage in thought exercises with the wokeified Leftists that seem to be a stable in college student bodies in the 21st century. The one I watched took place at Portland State University, where he taught for a decade before resigning because the college had become, in his words, a “social justice factory” where free speech was being limited.
In comments to physicist Lawrence Krauss, who included the video in his own Substack earlier this week, Boghossian explained the exercise he was attempting to perform:
The purpose of our tour was to engage students in a what I term a “Reverse Q&A.” Unlike a traditional Q&A in which students ask the professor a question, in a reverse question and answer I asked students questions. Here’s how it works: I’d write a statement on a whiteboard, for example, “The Colorado State University Police Department Should Be Abolished,” or “America is a racist,” or “There are only two genders.” I put five lines on the ground, with “Neutral” in the middle and “Strongly Agree” and “Strongly Disagree” on opposite ends. Students began by standing on the neutral line, and I’d then read the statement and ask students to walk to a line that accurately aligns with their confidence in the statement. Then I asked students why they believe what they believe and what it would take them to move one line in either direction. (For more on this epistemological exercise, see The Dartmouth Review’s article about our event.)
This exercise is just one example of “Street Epistemology,” which takes epistemology out of the university and brings it to the streets. (This particular epistemological exercise is more visual and contains physical motion, unlike the way Street Epistemology is usually practiced. For more examples of Street Epistemology, see hereand here and here.) The purpose of the Reverse Q&A is to help participants calibrate their beliefs and figure out if the reasons they have for believing justify their confidence—and the strength of their confidence could be seen by standing on a particular line.
If you can find the stomach to witness some really brain-bending indoctrination into bizarre, emotion-driven postmodern psychobabble, this video is an incredible example of why it’s so hard for any reasonable person to have real dialog with radical progressives in this country — an ideology that seems to have taken uncanny hold of our youth:
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What stands out most about the group of people who confront Boghossian for daring to propose consideration of the proposition, “There are only two genders,” is their inculcated fragility. They speak in a buzzword-laden jargon that misuses words like “harm,” prioritizes “lived experience” over facts, and asserts that people who are “triggered” or “activated” by concepts they don’t like are enduring real suffering that excuses them from functioning in day to day activities like going to class. They simply cannot engage in real conversation or consider ideas outside their own personal pantheon of relativized, personal “truths.”
Compare this to Fridman’s “four hours of deep work, no distractions, no exceptions” ethos, and the difference couldn’t be more clear. The young men and women at Portland State (yes, I subscribe to the objectively factual reality that there are only two sexes) have had the very idea of discipline and mental toughness stripped from their conceptual frameworks. Seeing their behavior provokes so many questions about the environments they grew up and were educated in. What exactly does it take to so thoroughly ruin a person’s ability to accurately perceive and act within the real world?
It’s hard not to think about how utterly helpless they’d be without social structures and systems to protect and back their nonsense. If the shit were to hit the fan and society really broke down, how long could they possibly survive if they think mere words and ideas are so frightening and harmful? Would their human instincts for self-preservation even be able to kick in, or are they so fully suppressed that they’d simply make easy prey for the actual harsh realities of human existence?
How do we make sense of the comparison between the young people in Boghossian’s video and the young man Lex Fridman is? How do we understand what went right for him and what went wrong for them?
It’s not an easy question to answer.
For those who don’t know the backstory, Jordan Peterson’s rise to prominence is tied to the same issue:
University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson had enough of what he saw as a campus culture where "social justice warrior, left-wing radical political activists" ran rampant.
In September  he released a video lecture series taking aim at political correctness.
He zeroed in on Canadian human rights legislation that prohibits discrimination based on gender identity or expression.
Dr Peterson was especially frustrated with being asked to use alternative pronouns as requested by trans students or staff, like the singular 'they' or 'ze' and 'zir', used by some as alternatives to 'she' or 'he'.
In his opposition, he set off a political and cultural firestorm that shows no signs of abating.
Here’s his own confrontation with a trans student (and her supporters) at the University of Toronto back in 2016. (Are you noticing how that year keeps coming up as a demarcation point?)
Peterson’s response to the angry young woman who is assailing him in the video is, for the most part, measured. But he expresses an exasperation many of us have felt when he says, “You’re so full of rhetoric, it’s impossible to listen to you. I’m more than happy to listen to you… I mean it’s very hard to listen to you. It’s very hard to attend to you. You rattle on with your ideological speech and I can’t even hear it.”
You’re getting talked at. Talked down to. In Boghossian’s case, when he attempts to do what is asked in order to remove all objections to the philosophical game he’s trying to engage students in, either by changing his wording, offering to write a trigger warning on his sign, etc., he gets some of his more honest interlocutors to admit that it isn’t enough. They’re simply not interested in hearing a perspective that isn’t their own, and their aim is to confront and remove it.
Peterson attempts to reason with his interrogator, explaining why he opposes government-mandated use of preferred pronouns: “It’s important that people are able to use their own words. Because that’s how we think. And if the government starts legislating how we think…” but she interrupts him, making it impossible for him to finish.
How did we arrive here? How did we get to a place where this is the kind of (non) discourse we’re forced to have? How and when did reality, biology, facts, and logic all become completely optional? It’s surreal. It’s borderline Lovecraftian.
We all, I’m willing to guess, have pet theories on how this occurred. We’ll point to certain standard villains or villainous ideologies taken from the mental libraries connected to our own perspectives, beliefs, and frameworks. But do we really know? If we did, wouldn’t we have a path to fix this?
I don’t know about you, but I sometimes find myself wondering if the present state of the human race was simply an inevitability. If all the advancements in technology and culture and knowledge and the improvements in living standards have brought us to a place where we are weak and depressed and confused. But I also don’t see how advocating for a return to a life filled with more of the kind of work and suffering that broke bodies down and led folks to die young is an answer, either. The “R E T V R N” LARPers don’t really think enough about just how much life stunk on ice without many of the significant medical, hygienic, and lifestyle advances we take for granted today.
Lex Fridman, I think, highlights the fact that even in the modern world, discipline, focus, and effort can return highly favorable results, even in young folks subject to an overwhelming ideological torrent that washes so many away into absurdity. I’m uncertain where Fridman, who is of Jewish descent, stands on the question of religion. But his approach reminds me of the philosophy of stoicism, which is making a comeback in its own right, as seen in the popularity of modern stoicism enthusiast Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way. (Note: I haven’t read the book, but it’s been on my radar for a while now as potentially worth a look.)
In sum, I am not going to pretend to have the answers to the questions today’s exercise presents. But I think that in examining them, we find a contrast worth considering. There is a deep and dangerous affliction on the West, and just looking at its progression over the past few years, we can see how quickly it is metastasizing. Big name comedians are now routinely pushing back on woke culture, recognizing that it heralds the death of humor, and of speech. In his brand new Netflix special — which I only knew existed because of the controversy it’s caused — Ricky Gervais hits the issue head on:
“Oh, women!” he starts. “Not all women, I mean the old-fashioned ones. The old-fashioned women, the ones with wombs. Those fucking dinosaurs. I love the new women. They’re great, aren’t they? The new ones we’ve been seeing lately. The ones with beards and cocks. They’re as good as gold, I love them. And now the old-fashioned ones say, ‘Oh, they want to use our toilets.’ ‘Why shouldn’t they use your toilets?’ ‘For ladies!’ ‘They are ladies — look at their pronouns! What about this person isn’t a lady?’ ‘Well, his penis.’ ‘Her penis, you fucking bigot!’ ‘What if he rapes me?’ ‘What if she rapes you, you fucking TERF whore?'”
TERF, or Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, has been associated with people who reject the notion that trans women are women.
A few minutes later, when discussing Kevin Hart removing himself from hosting the Oscars in 2018 for past homophobic tweets, Gervais continued joking about the trans community.
“You can’t predict what will be offensive in the future,” Gervais said. “You don’t know who the dominant mob will be. Like, the worst thing you can say today, get you cancelled on Twitter, death threats, the worst thing you can say today is, ‘Women don’t have penises,’ right? Now, no one saw that coming. You won’t find a ten-year-old tweet of someone saying, ‘Women don’t have penises.’ You know why? We didn’t think we fucking had to!”
We didn’t think we had to, but now we do. And we need to figure out a way to raise our children to be resilient to the mind viruses that are spreading like wildfire right now so we can put this embarrassing epoch of history in our past. With any luck, maybe we’ll even learn something from it so we don’t repeat it.
It can’t happen too soon.
Interesting. I had noticed that many of the skeptical atheist types are no longer targeting Christianity or other religions very much the way they were back around 2006. Instead, they are going after political correctness. Then I saw that Peter Boghossian is also one of these atheist thinkers, at least according to the Wikipedia entry on him. The reason for this it seems to me is that with the collapse of organized religion, religious fanaticism is no longer a threat to free thought. It can pretty much be ignored; it's like worrying about a coming ice age during a global warming crisis. However, political correctness has not collapsed, and indeed one cannot evade it no matter how secular one is. It's possible for a young person to go through life with no contact with organized religion or its rules. The same is not true of political correctness.
Another thought: toxic traditionalist subcultures are just another version of cancel culture. Therefore they are very much in harmony with the "spirit of the age". (A spirit that is profoundly depressing). It is actually difficult to imagine anything more "worldly", in spite of whatever they may claim about being different or separate. That leads one to the question of a spirituality that <i>doesn't</i> conform to worldly ways would really look like...
Lex Fridman is one of my favorite podcasters. Just watching him go through his daily routine leaves me feeling exhausted. I'm really struck Steve by your question whether the typical woke kid could cope if everything fell apart. Many young people I know seem to lack resilience, I don't get the sense they could face life in the raw. Their counterparts in Ukraine might as well be from a different planet.