Notes on Personal Agency

“Suffering is the experience of the impossibility to escape oneself–an inescapable passivity.”

Are you truly free? Are you aware of your actions, why you do them, and are you actively choosing them?

You must have self-awareness in order to be free. This freedom is a kind of maturation of selfhood, which in turn increases your responsibility.  I refer to selfhood because I define the self as being a reflecting, self-aware individual, who is not entirely defined by its past experiences and environment. The self is necessarily an effectless cause, such that the part of it that is a true self is not an effect and has the ability to cause with the force of will. He who is not self-aware at all has little responsibility. With true freedom comes great responsibility, but can we say that if you have the ability to choose otherwise, you are automatically free?

This self-awareness or knowledge of oneself is not a step toward freedom; it is a condition for freedom. It doesn’t “push” you towards freedom. Self-awareness is not an action in itself; it is a precursor. It participates, but it does not drive a person to act. So if it doesn’t, then what does?

But you can never exist independently of your own habits. They influence our judgment of them and any change we can will to take place must always define itself in relation to the habits from which it emerges.

So then, our freedom, if we are to achieve it, seems to be always bounded.

Let us examine the case the we have sufficient motivation to do otherwise. An agoraphobic person who cannot bring himself to leave his house finds his house has caught on fire. Driven by the instinctual motivation to survive, he finds sufficient motivation to leave his house. Some psychologists say that because this motivation that exists to do otherwise, this person is not entirely pathological. They think their is an openness to their psychology from which a will can be built open to act otherwise. I do not think this necessarily follows, as the ability to act otherwise is a result of a motivation that is just as unchosen as the compulsion in question.

So then, are we still always compelled but by other, conflicting motivations?

Freedom must be the ability to do otherwise and consciously deciding in a directed manner. If desire underlies all motivation, to what extent can we force ourselves desire otherwise?

I am inclined to think that a person is free insofar as they can act without motivation. So where exactly is the “opening” where free will exists if motivation is a requirement to change? That motivation comes from somewhere, unless it is a spontaneous impulse, but that isn’t a choice either. I can only conclude that it is necessary for us to create our own motivation, being born entirely of our own reasoning, and choosing values that guide us by careful, independent reflection.

The ability to interject requires a sense of empowerment in the individual, and this largely comes from the ability to reinterpret your own story and embrace and account for your own narrative. True freedom is only attainable if you are not compelled by anything that has not been chosen consciously. We all have the capability to be free, as human beings with minds capable of distancing ourselves from desire. I suppose then, in order to be free, we must create sufficient motivation to be free. I do think that such motivation can be born entirely out of the self. It is the self’s own drive to further manifest itself.



For Those Who are Lost in Life

The problem I have often found people to have is that they don’t know what their purpose in life should be or what their passion is. They are looking outside of themselves for something to be born in them that they believe is otherwise absent.

I think these people are asking the wrong questions. Each of us is already an individual. If you don’t already know who it is you are, then you haven’t exposed yourself enough to the world. But I think this is rarely the case. What are the things you are already drawn to, naturally? What are your preferences and desires? What qualities attract people to you? In what areas in life do you find yourself already excelling? And then once you can answer these questions, ask yourself, how can I be more of that?

If deep down you feel anxious or dissatisfied with your life, or even a vague melancholy that seems to follow you like a shadow, that you often distract yourself from until quiet moments where you find it there waiting for you, then this means something. It means there is something missing and that in order to be who you are, to express yourself more fully, then you must fill that space.

I suspect that many people, though they aren’t likely to admit it, know exactly who they are. Deep down, they know what it is they are drawn to and what areas in life they excel at naturally. I suspect that fundamentally, it’s not passion that these people lack, because a mind that feels anxious for deeper meaning is one that is already passionate. I suspect that these people are afraid. They lack the confidence to build their lives around who they really are. That requires a degree of boldness and comfort in yourself, to trust that your own self is a sufficient source of skill and meaning.

Don’t think that you should find a mold that suits you. We have only one life to live, so why not customize your life and your path to fit exactly who you are and who you feel compelled to become?

Don’t let an unwillingness to embrace yourself define you and your life. Trust that the answers are already within you and that you have a unique power that your mind is pressuring you to manifest, with all the signs it’s giving you.




On Rationality

When it comes to our behavior, we have a tendency to rationalize, finding order and justification for our actions. When we maintain a contradictory belief and behavior, often times we naturally change one or the other. We are driven to do so by our cognitive dissonance.

The same is often the case in rational thought alone. We adapt our reasoning to logically follow from certain axioms and assumptions of which need not accurately apply to the world. Believing that there is an inherent openness to all starting points in our reasoning is a deep skepticism. This could lead to a compulsive predilection for denying all claims, asserting that the stronger it is the stronger its unfoundedness must be.

As philosopher Pierre-Daniel Huet wrote, “let any one be convinced that man is an animal so formed by nature, that what appears to him to be true, is false; all you shall propose against this opinion will appear to him to be false or true; if false, he will justly reject it; if true, believing himself to be so made he will still be obliged to reject it as false. Thus it will be easy for him to subvert all reasons that can be objected against his opinion: and we cannot invent one, which will not fall under this general law, that what appears to a man to be of must truth, is most false.”

I do not think this approach would inherently lead to such a regression. I think it is possible for someone to accept assumptions as such and the possibility that one is wrong in whatever subject, be it what you should do in a given situation, politics, or the nature of the universe, and to consider some theories as being still superior to others in their measure of certainty. Yet we must still be skeptical of what it is that is influencing this judgment. Rationality can be preserved at the same time skepticism is maintained; it produces no dissonance.

You have to always acknowledge the assumptions you are making, as a matter of principle, or you are allowing yourself to be blinded. Holding steady to this principle, you will find uncertainty in most everything, and yet much clarity is still be had once the assumptions are accepted. You must have them if you are to have any ideas at all, and to accept them consciously allows for even greater clarity. Clarity is possible in the face of uncertainty. That we should be so certain when we are not even aware of or actively ignoring our assumptions is irrational. To be aware of all assumptions and biases all the time is impossible, but to at the least allow for their existence and search for them is critical if your highest aim is truth.

The Balance between Business and Braininess

I have two main passions in life, which I am pursuing seriously and not just as hobbies: business and academics. I am also quite interested in bettering my artistic skills. I am passionate about ballet, painting, and writing. I am not very ambitious though with art; it’s a private, personal journey. Perhaps one day I’ll pursue them more seriously, but right now I don’t have the time. As for business and academics, the two are very, very different activities. Business is real world, practical, and all about action. Academics is in the clouds, impractical, and all about contemplation. They occupy very different mental spaces, and the more I do each, the stronger my desire for the other becomes.

Business makes me feel strong, capable, and powerful. It makes me feel in control of my life and like I can at once create useful value in the world and freedom for myself. It’s fun, like a game. The object is to steadily increase cashflow andmath-manipulatives maintain the organization of the operation and the happiness of everyone involved. When I go to a new place now, I think about its potential, its economic activity, and the constraints on its improvement. I want to realize my own potential. I want to build an empire. There’s something about building something from scratch that brings me a very deep satisfaction.


Academics, on the other hand, makes me feel intrigued, genuine, and existentially fulfilled. The pursuit of intellectual clarity speaks more to my soul; it represents a more fundamental part of myself. Perhaps a better word than academics is intellectualism, because academics implies the involvement in an institution devoted to intellectualism, but an institution is unnecessary for the pursuit of knowledge, and in fact, in many ways, institutions are increasingly stifling for continued intellectual development for more reasons than one. But that is another article.

Without intellectualism, my devotion to business would leave me feeling empty. Without business, a full commitment to intellectualism would leave me feeling cut off from the world, indulging in a kind of narcissism, and would otherwise leave another part of my character unexpressed. And so I am left to attempt to balance the two, which as I said occupy very different states of mind. It is difficult to switch them on and off. If I indulge in my obsession over business, I will spend every moment counting numbers, planning aggressive tactics, and doing everything in my power to make shit happen. I forget about the truth in the world. The world that is sitting there indifferent to my blind participation in society. And when I obsess over ideas, I grow uninterested in petty real world details and I forget about what needs to get done.

Both engagements at once increase and decrease my incentives in the other. They increase it because they are like yin and yang; one makes up for what the other lacks. They decrease it because they are each mentally addicting in the sense that I forget the other state of mind exists when I am preoccupied with the one of them.

This is a conundrum. I fantasize about being in an office full of books and paint and chalkboard scribbles while somehow being available to oversee my businesses. I still don’t know how much this fantasy is actually possible. But for now I see no other possibility for myself other than to try to realize it.

It is fascinating in itself just how different these two careers are and how it could be possible to do both. There are no rules for our paths in life, only judgments, fears, and perceived limitations. It is my personal philosophy, perhaps naive, that if you desperately want two different things, if they are not morally conflicting, then you should find a way to have both. If in them there lies a contradiction, then you should ask yourself if there is a real contradiction there and not just an imagined one, because we only have one life to live and the fact that we can choose exactly how to live it is a beautiful thing. Our path in life should be a creative one, not one fashioned for us by society.






The Poor, Poor Rich

I have started to notice something while reading public discussions, Facebook comments, and other expressed sentiments, and that is that normal people tend to have a great deal of disdain for rich people. This is probably obvious to most. It’s common to hear people talk about ‘the rich stealing from the poor’, ‘exploitation’, and of course the catch-all Wall Street.

Business, perhaps surprisingly, is often times very fair. Every participant in a business relationship is accepting of their role. Unfairness does make its appearances, but very often it is the case that people take mutually beneficial actions. Profits are to be maximized, and so under that operating premise, labor, for example, tends to get displaced overseas where it is cheaper. Many say that these workers who make very little each day are being exploited, and yet they don’t know much about the conditions these workers live in and what they would otherwise be doing with their time. It is often the case that this new labor is a big step up for them, and the addition of jobs en masse provides a significant boost to their local economies.

Overseas workers are jumping at the opportunity to work for U.S. companies. Perhaps you should ask them whether they feel exploited. Personally, if I had the option of working as a farmer and working at a call center or factory for a U.S. company for relatively more money, it would be very obvious to me what the better option would be, and I would think it rather strange for you to call me exploited because of it.

What is it with this idea that the middle class has about the upper class, that they are mostly over-privileged, greedy, an unworthy of compassion if they are to ever suffer? This attitude speaks little of them and volumes to the person who is clearly resentful.

When Humans of New York posted a series on attendees of the Met Galla, there were popular “woe is me” comments disparaging the personal experiences of the rich, as if they have it made so well that they are unworthy of any further attention. Of course there was a backlash, “it’s Humans of New York, not Poor Humans of New York,” but none the less, the fact that this conversation arose at all was telling.

I always try to keep a distance from the conversations to understand the different perspectives, because I find it interesting that these perspectives exist at all, and I’m curious why they do.

The way that I see it is it’s ridiculous to consider rich people as being all of one type, sharing any qualities at all, other than happening to have much more money than they need to live on alone. They got this money for all different reasons. Some inherited it (within this camp there are plenty of assholes). Many earned it through deliberate and sustained hard work. Some choose to live simple lives despite their wealth, and some loose their minds and buy as much as they possibly can. They are all individuals, and everyone is different; everyone has a different story and a different character.

Somehow, when wealth is achieved, there is a piece of humanity that is lost in the wealthy individual through the eyes of the public. This lost piece of humanity seems to have been driven out of perspectives via nothing other than envy. It’s really rather sad.

Of course there is reason to resent those that flaunt their money and cry over losing a $60k diamond earring while wading in the water on the shore of a south Pacific island (of course I’m talking about Kim Kardashian). That is indeed absurd. But everyone suffers. Humanity isn’t lost to the wealthy internally, and humans are highly adaptable. Problems are always relative to ones own experiences.

Allowing oneself to respect the grievances and complaints of the wealthy, barring ridiculous reality TV fiascos, perhaps requires that one come to terms with the fact that you don’t have as much money as they do.

The thing is, the way to get rich if you aren’t already in this world, if we are to do so in a self-made and dignified manner (i.e. not marrying someone for their wealth or inheriting wealth), is to create value. If you aren’t making as much as your boss, it’s because your work isn’t as valuable to the company as his. Another way to think about it is successful entrepreneurs who turn billionaires tend to solve major problems, with solutions that are so big they continuously effect the lives of millions for generations. Steve Jobs solved the problem of the absence of personal-sized, straightforward to use computers, and because of that he changed the way we interact with the world. His solution was so fundamental that it led him to achieve a net worth of 19 billion.

Famous actors have one of the highest paid jobs in the country. They create a lot of value–people eat up everything they create, say, and endorse. They are famous for a reason. We make them famous, because we watch them, read about them, and talk about them. They affect our thoughts and our lives, and they are duly compensated. They also tend to work 15 hour days shooting films, flying all over the country doing interviews, and whatever else, barely any time at all for a social life. They live large but they pay the price, and part of that price is losing their anonymity, the sincerity of the people they attract, and the compassion of the many that envy their success.

Instead of complaining about the dastardly rich exploiting the poor, maybe look inside yourself, and see that you are free to create your own success, to create value, to solve problems, all the while retaining your right to the entirety of the human experience.




AirBNB: the Controversy

AirBNB launched in 2008, then called Airbed & Breakfast. Over the next two years, the company boomed, changing its name to AirBNB and reaching 1 million nights booked in 89 different countries by the spring of 2011.

AirBNB quickly became a well-known alternative to hotels. It is attractive due to its affordability, personalized home feel, kitchen space for cooking to further save money, and friendly hosts available to give information and tips about the city from a local’s perspective. A growing number of people choose AirBNB over hotels, and hotel lobbyists as a result began to battle against the current practices of short-term rental companies like AirBNB.


AirBNB remains largely unregulated, existing in a legal grey area. Normally it is considered OK if you are the owner or you have the owner’s permission as well as the permission of the other residents in the building. If you or a roommate are living at least part of the time in the apartment, then technically it is perfectly legal in the US to use the apartment additionally for AirBNB purposes, as was determined in the 2013 NYC court case against Nigel Warren, whose fine of $2,400 was eventually lifted, with the help of AirBNB, after proving that a roommate was there for part of the time.

The legal war continued for a year between AirBNB and NYC, but throughout that time AirBNB more than doubled its guests served, from 4 million to 9 million in only 8 months’ time. Eventually NYC gave over the information of its hosts who rent out multiple properties without its main occupant present, but given that they number in the tens of thousands, it is still a daunting task to enforce regulations even when they are established.

Cities across the country are grappling with these questions.

Like New York, Santa Monica banned short-term rental of entire homes when the host is not present and additionally imposes a 14-percent tax when a host rents out a room in his house.

Cities, one by one, are establishing their own rules. San Francisco residents are now permitted to rent out homes for a maximum of only 90 days a year. In Philadelphia, the maximum is 180 days and hosts must also pay an 8 1/2% hotel tax to the city.

In many markets, Airbnb and similar short-term online rental marketplaces are technically illegal, but lax enforcement of existing laws has allowed these entities to grow exponentially in size.

Their increasing popularity, together with unclear regulatory structures, has prompted many local governments to examine new ways to tax and regulate these companies.

Airbnb has led aggressive outreach programs in several cities, engaging local officials, agreeing to collect and pay some taxes, and pushing for favorable rewrites of local planning law.

Hosts are responsible for filing their own income tax as self-employed real estate business owners. AirBNB has begun including a hotel tax within their fees in many cities, and the number of cities included is growing. It is a relatively slow process, however, as AirBNB must work with each city individually. In fall of 2014, AirBNB began collecting a 12% occupancy tax from guests and hosts to pass along to the government of their behalf in Amsterdam, San Jose, Chicago, and Washington, D.C.

The main problem remains that most of the apartments are zoned as residential, and therefore to be perfectly legal, in additional to paying all taxes, hosts much check zoning laws and possibly be required to register the business and get the apartment approved for <30 nights occupancy use.

What makes this not very straightforward is that the majority of hosts let only one property–their own home. The number of hosts that have multiple for-profit properties listed on AirBNB is only about a maximum of 1 out of 10 in most cities. Therefore the law would be applied differently to different hosts on AirBNB, which makes regulating AirBNB as a whole unclear.

Vijay Dandapani chairs the New York City Hotel Association:

“We have a fire command system, security systems that give you protections from intruders, and so on. The moment you get into converting your house into a hotel, which is de facto what is being done nowadays, none of those protections are there.”

The question is: how much freedom do people deserve? These are properties either they own or another owns with whom they have a contract and consensual agreement with. We aren’t required to have such stringent standards for fire command and security systems in our own homes, even when sublet for at least 30 days, so why does it suddenly become an issue when renting for less than 30 days? I suppose the line must be drawn somewhere, but the line seems to be pushing its limits against personal freedom and our own responsibility for the consideration of our own personal safety.

This is a community issue. If the neighbors in the apartment building have no problem with the use of the apartment as a vacation home, then it’s really none of the state’s business what the apartment is being used for. I could be knitting 24/7 in my residence and selling my self-made scarves and sweaters to all the strangers kind enough to stop by–it would be absurd to prosecute me for refusing to declare this as a business.


This is where it becomes interesting, because the state doesn’t care much about 5 or 10 scarves being sold every once in a while under the table, but to sell 30/day every day, advertise, and put a sign up on my door saying “Welcome, come inside and buy my knitwear!” Suddenly there is pressure to pay income tax and it becomes a question whether I am illegally using a residential zone as a commercial one.

The shared economy has reintroduced power to the people and the community by introducing platforms that create free, largely unregulated markets. This is a good thing. There was a time with the government kept out of people’s business for the most part. The power and control of the government has continued to increase and the internet is making this a great deal easier for them. The idea that every bit of gain we make must be shared with the government is absurd in my opinion, but the government prefers to control and profit from all markets, always. Free markets are so natural–people are attracted to freedom and personal/mutual gain, which is why services such as AirBNB and Uber grow exponentially and very quickly overtake heavily regulated markets.

I have no qualms with the income tax, but I personally think the hotel and occupancy tax is unfounded. Again, you have to draw the line somewhere, but I favor privacy, personal freedom, and decisions based in the immediate community for such limited scale uses of property.

Even so, like many hosts, we simply wish to continue doing what we do; if we have to make less money by paying an assortment of taxes and fees, then so be it. But it will be great when the day comes when we hosts no longer have to feel like we might be doing something wrong when everyone directly involved is happy and we are contributing to the vitality of a booming free market.




Is Human Behavior Unchangeably Hardwired?

Instincts are so powerful that we lose ourselves in them–they compel us, control us, and drive our desires without the requirement for any modicum of conscious awareness. They make us feel most alive, most “right”; in many ways, they make up the foundations upon which our identities are built, the center to which our personalities are relative.

Instincts are coded in our genes; they originate from past behaviors that guaranteed the preservation of those genes by driving us to survive and procreate.

Behavior in practice has changed over time, insofar as genes have continued to evolve due to sexual selective pressures as well as the effects of changes in our cultures. Cultural evolution is very similar to genetic evolution, with its analogous ‘meme’ behavior, a term coined by Richard Dawkins, representing cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.

Research in the fields of genetics, neuropsychology, and paleobiology yields evidence that, despite drastic changes in our environments, cultures, technology, knowledge, and general realities, our deepest, instinctual genes have remained largely unchanged from the emergence of homo sapiens 200,000 years ago. People today still behave in ways that aided our survival during the Stone Age.

You can take the person out of the Stone Age, evolutionary psychologists contend, but you can’t take the Stone Age out of the person.[1]

Sexual selection is the only genetic selection left in the modern world, as selective pressures for survival are no longer relevant in our society. Intelligence, physical attractiveness, and economic advantage still effect our sexual choices, although in the first world it is a growing trend that the more educated people are having fewer children and the least educated are having more, but that is beside the point.

What culture and social conditioning tend to do is not change instincts and emotions, but redirect, suppress, channel, and otherwise control the expression of them.

A good example of this is found in human sexuality. Sex is one of the most deeply ingrained instincts we have, short of our basic instinct to stay alive. But the impact that culture and individual psychology have on sexuality is quite extensive. I am not speaking of sexual orientation, but the ways in which sexuality gets channeled, directed, and expressed.

One theory for sexual ‘deviancy’, or abnormal sexual preferences and fantasies is that instincts, as strong and powerful as they are, must be channeled and compartmentalized to preserve the integrity of one’s social conditioning as well as one’s own ego and personal identity. A team of researchers in Canada recently found that, interestingly, nearly half of people surveyed were found to have at least one type of sexual perversion. [2] Perversion may just be a way instincts get channeled and expressed in a way that can be compartmentalized as a ‘game’, where behavior is reserved for certain roles that are kept at a distance from the participants’ primary identities.

In short, it seems instincts, at the core, are impossible to change.

To continue on the example of sexuality, in the Victorian era, there was widespread sexual repression, which is what likely caused the boom in the “hysteria” diagnosis, which doctors treated with handjobs, leading them to invent the first vibrators to save their hands from fatigue. [3] 


[Cadence Theatre Company]


Japan is seeing an unprecedented decline in sexual activity, coined the “celibacy syndrome”. [4] It is an open question whether sexuality is getting channeled and expressed in other ways, in a Freudian sense within Japanese careers or online in Japan’s ever-growing online and virtual reality communities. And if it is not found elsewhere, it could manifest in the negative sense: as loneliness, despair, and feelings of alienation. However, if that is not the case, it is also possible that, after Japan’s economic and natural disaster history and its increasing urban development and cultural futurism, Japanese people could be seeing a decline in the sexual instinct itself.

Japanese people could be seeing a decline in the sexual instinct itself.





What is interesting to note is that we have already seen a drastic change in human behavior. It happened during the development of the first cities. For hundreds of thousands of years, humans engaged in incessant tribal warfare until the development of the first cities, which was necessary for the development of civilizations. Cities allowed for more specialized activities to develop, but they required strangers to get along. People had to learn to extend courtesy and empathy to people that weren’t a part of their inner circle; they had to project their group mentality onto a much larger circle, which required humans to suppress their hostile natures.


Artist’s impression of two tribes at war


It seems that humans can change their instincts. It takes a very, very long time, and it requires significant social and circumstantial pressures–significant enough to override the very behaviors that allowed us to stay alive until this point.

This is good news, because human nature is horrible in many ways. We still exhibit tribal mentalities to the extent that war and racism are still very much alive. It is the hope of many of us that future generations will live in a world one day without destructive hatred, inspired by instincts no longer appropriate to the world we live in.