There’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately- the value of infrastructure. Normally I write intros to topics but today we’re just going to jump right in, let’s get it.
The more I think about it, the more I think infrastructure is vastly more important to change than any other combination of factors. Here’s an example-
Imagine three people in three different living situations. The first one lives in a densely populated city, works a low level job, and doesn’t make very much. The second lives in a suburb, works a mid level job, and lives comfortably. The third lives on a farm, doesn’t have a proper job beyond farming and raising livestock, and despite working hard, lives well.
The first person is surrounded by fast food restaurants and works so much that they don’t have time to cook very often, so they eat out a lot because it’s cheap. When they do make food at home, it’s often frozen stuff or other highly-processed food. The second person cooks at home a lot, and usually can afford high quality, fresh ingredients. The third grows and eats their own food, so everything is as good as one can reasonably get.
If the first person wants to change their lifestyle, they’re going to have to resist an enormous amount of temptation from friends, family, coworkers, advertisements (if you ever want to learn how many food ads there are, do an extended fast, you’ll be shocked), and even walking around in the city, they’re surrounded by sources of food. The second person would only have to make a few small adjustments to what they’re buying and cooking, and because they have the budget and the distance from the city, it would be significantly easier. The third person likely doesn’t have any reason to make a lifestyle change unless they suddenly dislike farming.
What’s my point here?
We like to chalk everyone’s lives up to willpower and self-determination (and this is coming from the guy with the site called MasterSelf, mind you), but an enormous amount of the way our lives go is actually the result of infrastructure and culture (which is like mental infrastructure). It doesn’t matter how smart you are, if you live in a dirt hut in a third world country, because the educational infrastructure that would take your potential and make it actualized doesn’t exist. It doesn’t matter if you’d be great at football if you’re living in a Siberian coal mine. It doesn’t matter if you’d contribute something of value to society if your culture teaches you that playing pro football is a useful way to spend your life.
Erwan LeCorre, founder of MovNat, said “A tiger is a powerful, graceful animal simply by doing what a tiger does. This practical, real world approach is what we have lost, and what natural movement can restore.” Tigers don’t work out in the gym, and they don’t go on treadmills, but they’re insanely fit. We, on the other hand, have destroyed our natural environment (re: infrastructure) and instead have tried to develop terrible methods of coping with it, like the Shake Weight.
This isn’t just about fitness, mind you. How many problems of the world are caused by infrastructure problems? Depression, social anxiety, purposelessness, mental illness, physical illness? I’d be willing to bet that fixing the infrastructure of society would solve these symptoms better than treating them like they’re the disease itself.
I, however, am not the kind of person to idly speculate, so what I’ve started doing is testing a variety of fixes to this- one of these is a dinner group I started with some friends when I moved back into Raleigh this summer. Why a dinner group?
One of the best ways to build relationships with people is with food- this is supported by the scientific literature, but you probably know that if you’ve ever had a great meal with friends. Here’s the abstract from a paper from the man who Dunbar’s number is named after himself, Robin Dunbar:
“Communal eating, whether in feasts or everyday meals with family or friends, is a human universal, yet it has attracted surprisingly little evolutionary attention. I use data from a UK national stratified survey to test the hypothesis that eating with others provides both social and individual benefits. I show that those who eat socially more often feel happier and are more satisfied with life, are more trusting of others, are more engaged with their local communities, and have more friends they can depend on for support. Evening meals that result in respondents feeling closer to those with whom they eat involve more people, more laughter and reminiscing, as well as alcohol. A path analysis suggests that the causal direction runs from eating together to bondedness rather than the other way around. I suggest that social eating may have evolved as a mechanism for facilitating social bonding.”
This is why I made the dinner club- to build social infrastructure and start testing how to fix the problems we have on the small scale. A long time ago, I used to sell hair straighteners at a mall kiosk, and most of the people I worked with were Israeli. Every Friday evening, we’d go to their place and have Shabbat dinner, which is A) the best food in the world, and more importantly, B) one of the coolest traditions I ever got to experience. This is something I tried to replicate with the dinner club, and it’s working pretty well. The next experiment will be to move it from eating out to cooking at someone’s house.
Another thing I’ve tried to implement is an office workout program- Victor Valentine (@dankprana) and I have started going to the gym and doing @AJA_Cortes’ Push/Pull/Legs workout as of this week, and that’s been a pretty fun experience (considering for most of the year I either ran or worked out alone). We’re trying to get our other coworkers involved now, too.
What’s the takeaway here?
Humans are social creatures, and we’re also creatures of our environment. I lived alone in the desert for a long time, and that’s one way to change things, because no one is around to influence you for better or worse. Now that I’m back in the world, though, I see how much of an impact the people I spend my time with have on me, and vice versa. I can’t just change myself, I have to build the social foundation- both the infrastructure of groups and events and the culture of people wanting to do these things in the first place. I firmly believe that if we’re going to make a difference, we have to start small and make sustainable changes.
With that said, try it out. Go start a dinner group with your friends, and see what comes out of it.
Change starts with you.